Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2015: Second Stage

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

I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce Second Stage of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2015 to the Dáil. It was introduced in the Seanad last week, where general support was expressed for its main provisions and purpose. The primary background to the Bill is the Government's recently approved package of measures to deal with the problems being observed in the housing market. The housing package, entitled Stabilising Rents, Boosting Supply, which followed on from extensive engagement between the Minister for Finance and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, as well as officials from our respective Departments, encompasses a comprehensive range of measures to improve the operation of the private rental sector, tackle increasing homelessness and support increased housing supply.

The package's rent stability measures, which are primarily intended to give greater protection to tenants in the private rental sector, are being separately progressed in the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012. This follows on from the unprecedented €4 billion package for the provision of social housing in the period to 2020 that I announced this year. While the provision of new social housing and enhancements to the operation of the private rental sector are essential to help counteract homelessness and provide tenants with greater certainty in terms of security of tenure and the level of rents applied, boosting housing supply is also critical in addressing our overall housing problems. The housing supply shortage is unquestionably one of the most pressing and challenging priorities facing the Government, being particularly acute in Dublin with demand for housing well outstripping supply. This shortage has consequential knock-on effects for house prices and rents and impacts negatively on thousands of households throughout the country.

The housing package announced last month contains some important measures to help address the housing supply shortage problem, including the introduction of a targeted development contribution rebate scheme to support and make more economically viable the delivery of affordable starter homes in Dublin and Cork, which will need to be completed and sold in 2016 and 2017, and the provision of financial support by the Ireland Strategic Infrastructure Fund, ISIF, for the provision of housing-related enabling infrastructure in large-scale priority development areas. These measures follow on from previous actions, for example, a 26% reduction in development contributions in the Dublin area, legislative changes via the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act, which was enacted last July and allows for these development contribution reductions to be applied to certain unactivated planning permissions, reductions via the same Act in the Part V obligations on developers in respect of the provision of social and affordable housing, which are estimated to reduce housing costs by up to €10,000 per housing unit, and the suite of actions already being implemented under the Government's Construction 2020 strategy, which is aimed at restoring and increasing activity in the wider construction sector.

Two further elements of the housing package announced last month that are designed to increase housing supply require legislative underpinning and are incorporated in this Bill. These relate to ensuring that planning authorities do not seek requirements above the national standards set out in ministerial planning guidelines issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, for example, in respect of apartment standards, and streamlining the arrangements for the making of modifications to strategic development zone, SDZ, planning schemes.

The Bill contains seven sections that propose to amend sections 28 and 34 and Part IX of the 2000 Act. Section 1 provides for the necessary definitions. Sections 2 and 3 provide for amendments in connection with ministerial planning guidelines issued to planning authorities. Section 2 amends section 28 of the planning Act relating to the issuing of ministerial planning guidelines to planning authorities. Currently, section 28 provides that planning authorities shall have regard to ministerial guidelines in the performance of their planning functions, such as in the determination of planning applications and the adoption of development plans. The amendment to this section elaborates on that by introducing a new power whereby the Minister may, within the section 28 guidelines, expressly state specific national planning policy requirements to be applied by An Bord Pleanála or planning authorities, as appropriate, in the exercise of their functions. Therefore, the content of guidelines will distinguish between advisory or general commentary on the one hand and, on the other, specific requirements that must be mandatorily applied by planning authorities.

This amendment is a critical underpinning to revisions that will shortly issue to replace the 2007 apartment standard guidelines. Those revisions will contain specific new requirements in respect of minimum apartment sizes, the number of lifts per number of apartments, car parking provision, floor-to-ceiling heights, the provision of dual aspect apartments, storage provision and so on with a view to ensuring their consistent application. Such revised guidelines would represent a change in national planning policy that should, on foot of this amendment, be implemented by planning authorities in the determination of planning applications and the adoption of development plans.

The amendment will also enable future revisions to any other current guideline, for example, on development management and sustainable residential development, as well as to new planning guidelines that may be developed to ensure that they are expressed and applied in a clearer manner. This will improve consistency and certainty in the planning process generally by distinguishing in policy terms between matters to be determined locally and by national policy.

Section 3 further underpins this approach by addressing a number of supplementary amendments required to section 34 of the 2000 Act relating to the granting of planning permissions by planning authorities. The first amendment in this section will require planning authorities to consider expressly any specific national planning policy requirements arising from section 28 guidelines issued by the Minister in the determination of planning applications. To avoid doubt, the second amendment provides that, where such guidelines and the standards or provisions of a local development plan differ, the national planning policy as reflected in ministerial guidelines takes precedence. This amendment will, for example, obviate the need for and preclude the adoption by planning authorities of their own local standards, thereby preventing a multiplicity of approaches throughout the country, effectively requiring planning authorities to comply with the national guidelines issued by the Minister of the time.

The third amendment in section 3 is aimed at streamlining the assessment of applications seeking modifications to existing planning permissions in respect of multi-unit housing developments - primarily apartment block and duplex-type developments - on foot of the issuing of new or revised apartment standard guidelines by the Minister of the time. The amendment will restrict the assessment of any such planning application to the modifications proposed for the purpose of complying with any new guideline and so that the whole previously granted permission and the question of the suitability of the development for housing as already determined are not reopened.

In the case of internal changes only - regarding an apartment block, for instance - arising from new or revised apartment standard guidelines, and where there is no materially significant change to the external structure of the development, the amendment precludes the right of third party appeal.

Sections 4, 5 and 6 amend existing provisions of the Planning Act 2000 relating to strategic development zones, SDZs, or SDZ planning schemes. Section 4 amends section 169 of the Act of 2000 relating to the procedures to be followed in the adoption and approval of SDZ planning schemes. SDZs are set by Government order and designate areas that are considered to be of economic or social importance to the State.

Following designation, SDZ schemes setting out objectives for specified development in designated areas are drawn up by prescribed development agencies, which may include a local authority, in respect of the designated areas concerned and are subject to public consultation procedures before being submitted to the elected members of the relevant planning authority for adoption.

The experience has been that all SDZ planning schemes that have been approved by planning authorities to date have been appealed to An Bord Pleanála for final determination. Under the current section 169 provisions, An Bord Pleanála can make modifications to an SDZ scheme only where they are considered to be minor in nature and are, therefore, unlikely to have significant effects on the environment or on a European site designated under the habitats or birds directives. Where An Bord Pleanála considers that the scheme requires modification of a more material nature, it is effectively required to uphold the appeal and refuse the modification, requiring the recommencement of the overall SDZ planning scheme process under section 169 if the relevant planning authority or development agency wishes to pursue the scheme with the proposed modifications. Section 4, therefore, amends the current section 169 provisions to provide that An Bord Pleanála can, as before, approve an SDZ planning scheme with modifications of a minor nature. However, under the new section 4 provisions, An Bord Pleanála will now also be allowed to approve the SDZ planning scheme with a modification or modifications that would constitute a material change to the scheme provided that such modification or modifications would not constitute a change in the overall objectives of the scheme concerned.

These new arrangements would mean that where modifications of a material nature are considered necessary by An Bord Pleanála on appeal, the relevant planning authority or development agency responsible for bringing forward the scheme would not have to recommence the whole SDZ planning scheme process again. However, the proposed new procedures insert considerable checks and controls to ensure that where proposed modifications of a material nature to an SDZ planning scheme may have significant effects on the environment, An Bord Pleanála shall require the planning authority to undertake a strategic environmental assessment, as per the EU SEA directive, an appropriate assessment, as per the EU habitats directive, or both such assessments in regard to the proposed modifications; undertake full public consultation on the proposed changes, including the forwarding of the proposed changes to prescribed bodies, publishing notice of the proposed changes in local newspapers and putting them on public display for a minimum of four weeks; and, following the public consultation, prepare a detailed report for submission to An Bord Pleanála for its consideration.

Where An Bord Pleanála makes a determination to make a modification constituting a material change to an SDZ planning scheme, it shall approve the scheme with the modification and notify the relevant planning authority or development agency accordingly.

While these revised procedures for the modification of planning schemes will take some time, having regard to the built-in public display and public consultation timeframes, they will still save considerable time in the making of modifications deemed necessary by comparison with having to recommence the overall SDZ process again. This process can take up to two years under the current provisions based on previous SDZ planning schemes and can lead to significant delays in the progression of SDZs, with consequential delays in the provision of housing and other commercial development.

Section 5 inserts a new section 170A into the Planning Act to provide for a new more flexible process for the amendment of an already approved SDZ planning scheme. As indicated, this is not possible under the current SDZ provisions where any amendment to a scheme requires the commencement of the overall SDZ planning scheme process again.

The new provisions in section 5 will allow a planning authority, on its own behalf where it is promoting an SDZ scheme, or on behalf of a development agency promoting an SDZ planning scheme, to make an application to An Bord Pleanála for an amendment to a previously approved SDZ scheme that may be in the course of being developed. Such a request may be in respect of modifications that are minor in nature or, although material in nature, meet certain specified criteria and do not affect the overall objectives of the scheme. The new provisions would, in effect, allow for amendments to an already approved SDZ scheme, as determined by An Bord Pleanála, following procedures along the lines of those contained in section 4 above, involving the undertaking of a strategic environmental assessment, an appropriate assessment, or both, as required, along with mandatory public consultation, but that would take a considerably shorter time than the current procedures requiring the commencement of the overall SDZ process again.

Section 6 is consequential to sections 4 and 5 and proposes the replacement of the existing section 171 of the 2000 Act relating to the revocation and amendment of SDZ planning schemes by inserting a new section 171. The new procedures in respect of the modification of SDZ planning schemes are now provided for in sections 4 and 5, as already outlined. Consequently section 6, inserting a replacement section 171 in the 2000 Act, now provides only for the procedures relating to the revocation of SDZ planning schemes.

Section 7 contains standard provisions relating to the Short Title, construction and collective citation.

I believe Members will agree this Bill contains a number of fundamental and important revisions to the Planning and Development Act 2000, emanating from the Government's housing package, Stabilising Rents, Boosting Supply, which are necessary to support increased housing supply.

As I have outlined, the amendments to sections 28 and 34 of the planning Act strengthen the status of aspects of ministerial guidelines to planning authorities to ensure their consistent application, particularly in regard to the proposed issue of revised apartment standard guidelines throughout the country and will require local authorities to comply with the national guidelines. This new provision will particularly apply in the first instance to revised apartment standard guidelines, which I propose to issue shortly. Even allowing for some reductions in the minimum floor areas as are currently applied by some local authorities, the revised guidelines will still ensure minimum floor sizes will be among the most generous in Europe.

In addition, the amendments to the Part IX provisions in respect of SDZ planning schemes will streamline the process for making modifications to such planning schemes that are not yet approved and are going through the approval process, in addition to planning schemes which have already been approved, thereby bringing greater flexibility in regard to the modification of SDZ schemes than is possible at present.

SDZ planning schemes are, by their nature, large-scale projects whose proposed development works can take a number of years to complete. They also contain a significant number of residential units. The timely delivery of SDZs, in the Dublin area especially, is critical to underpinning future housing supply. These SDZ streamlining proposals will also complete action 24 of the Construction 2020 strategy, aimed at revitalising the construction sector and bringing on stream housing units at a faster rate than at present.

I intend to make a number of amendments to the published Bill on Committee Stage in the Dáil, which is scheduled for next week. The amendments proposed are primarily technical and are aimed at strengthening and clarifying the provisions in the Bill regarding both the ministerial guidelines and the SDZ planning schemes.

Accordingly, I commend the Bill to the House.

The main purpose of this Bill is to give a basis to one of the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal report, namely, that the Minister should have the power to prescribe expressly specific planning policy requirements to be applied by local authorities in their county development plans.

The Fianna Fáil Party welcomes this change to planning powers.

I will use this opportunity to briefly revisit some of the recommendations made by the Mahon tribunal on reform of the planning system.

On a point of order, the Deputy may be referring to the Bill scheduled for next week. The Bill before us relates to apartment guidelines.

The Bill covers a broad spectrum of issues, including apartment guidelines. Planning and development legislation offers ample opportunity to refer to the Mahon report and note the unfortunate fact that the Government has not seen fit to implement many of the recommendations emanating from the various tribunals. This Bill deals with but one such recommendation.

The Fianna Fáil Party is committed to drawing from the lessons of the Mahon tribunal and implementing its recommendations. Building on strong action while we were in power, it is vital that we continue to put in place the legal and institutional framework to prevent the venal corruption that the Mahon tribunal uncovered. We call on the Government to implement as many as possible of the recommendations made in light of the findings of the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals. It is unfortunate that, to date, it has failed to implement a number of these recommendations.

One of the Government's worst sins, as it were, has been its decision to abolish the national spatial strategy, which the Mahon tribunal recommended be placed on a statutory footing. Perhaps the single most important recommendation of the tribunal - the establishment of an independent planning regulator – has been set aside by the Government. The new planning regulator it established has an advisory role to the Minister and is not a check on ministerial power, as the Mahon tribunal called for.

The Mahon tribunal's recommendation that the National Transport Authority be appointed by an independent appointments board rather than directly by the Minister has also been set aside and ignored. The Government has perpetuated political cronyism, with only one in five of its appointments drawn from open public advertising. Greater transparency on councillors to amend developments acts has not been introduced.

The Fine Gael Party exhibited hypocrisy on the issue of corporate financing when the Taoiseach, as leader of his party, reinstated corporate donations, which had been banned in 1992 by his predecessor, the current Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan. It is a great pity that despite much talk of a democratic revolution by the Labour Party and Fine Gael, the Government has failed to implement most of the Mahon tribunal's recommendations.

I will now speak specifically on the main provisions of the Bill. I welcome the main provision and purpose of the Bill, namely, to introduce a new power whereby the Minister may expressly state specific planning policy requirements to be applied by planning authorities or An Bord Pleanála in the exercise of their functions. At present, under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act, local authorities shall have regard to ministerial guidelines in determining planning applications and drafting their development plans. It appears that future guidelines will be divided into the categories of advisory-optional and specific-mandatory, with the planning authorities required to apply those that fall into the latter category. The Bill is vague, however, and does not specify how the distinction between general and specific guidelines will be made in practice.

In effect, this means that county development plans will be subordinate to the national planning regulations issued by the Minister. The main benefit of these will be to ensure that planning and building standards will be applied more consistently across local authorities. For instance, the immediate implication of this legislation will be to ensure that guidelines on apartment standards, which contain specific new requirements on minimum apartment sizes, the ratio of lifts to apartments, car parking provision, floor-to-ceiling heights, the provision of dual aspect apartments, etc., will be included in county development plans. This will ensure their consistent application across the country.

Some matters need to be clarified in respect of how the Minister's new planning power will work. For instance, what will happen in cases where planning regulations and apartment standards issued by local authorities are stronger or more prescriptive than those set out in the Department's guidelines? Perhaps more important, how will disputes between local authorities and the Department be settled? Will the Department simply be able to dictate to local authorities the content of their development plans? It is important that an appeals mechanism is in place and open public consultation takes place on any apartment standards that are proposed in development plans.

It is important for local democracy and to maintain local flexibility in the planning system that the Minister will not be in a position to simply overrule local development plans. Flexibility in local planning standards across local authorities must be allowed and retained. Planning standards in dense urban areas should not necessarily be identical to those in place in suburban or rural areas. This is the purpose of planning being local.

While it is recognised that consistent planning guidelines at the upper end are important in the sense of absolute minimum construction and quality standards, it is essential that the new specific Department guidelines are not excessively prescriptive and provide considerable scope to local authorities in setting planning guidelines that best fit local circumstances and preferences.

Some questions also need to be answered regarding the scope of the Minister's new planning powers under the Bill. Specifically, what will happen in cases where planning regulations issued by local authorities are stronger and more prescriptive than the Department's guidelines? A case in point is the passive house building standards provided for in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council's development plan. It seems extraordinary that the Minister will be able to deny local authorities the right to include higher building standards in their planning regulations without proper consultation.

The Fianna Fáil Party welcomes the provisions on special development zones or SDZs. The relevant section introduces a minor amendment to the Planning and Development Act 2006, which provides for the making to An Bord Pleanála of applications for planning permission in respect of certain proposed developments of strategic importance to the State, and for certain other amendments to the Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2004. This Bill ensures that strategic issues will be rapidly dealt with outside the local authority structure.

Under the new section 4 provisions, An Bord Pleanála will also be allowed to approve a special development zone planning scheme that includes modifications which would constitute a material change to the scheme, provided the modifications do not constitute a change in the overall objectives of the scheme concerned. This was an anomaly in the special development zone planning process, which did not make sense to any of the stakeholders involved. The proposed change is, therefore, welcome and necessary and should assist in streamlining the special development zone planning process.

On the new apartment regulations, the amendment to section 28 will allow the Minister to set consistent guidelines across local authorities. The main motivation for the Minister giving himself this new power under the planning legislation is to implement national standards for apartment construction. This is to be welcomed in the main. New apartment regulations are required in certain parts of the country to better ensure that apartments are of high quality and are affordable and abundant. Some of the new apartment regulations introduced in recent years, especially those in Dublin city since 2008, have been misguided. The effect of the Dublin city regulations has been to make new apartments in the city centre unaffordable for everyone but the very wealthy. As a result, apartments are not being built in Dublin. The figures on construction speak for themselves. While there is significant scope for residential development in the city, new construction has been extremely limited, if not virtually non-existent.

Despite the serious supply problem and out-of-control rental market, figures indicate that house and apartment completions continue to stall in 2015. In the docklands area alone, there is development potential for more than 2,600 new housing units, yet residential development appears to be stalled, notwithstanding the attractiveness of the area. Completions for each of the four Dublin local authorities from January to March 2015 were very low and nowhere near what is required. Only 652 houses were completed in Dublin in the first quarter of the year, with only 182 of these units in the Dublin City Council area. Based on these levels, the greater Dublin area may have only 2,600 new houses completed this year. This compares with 2,591 in 2014, which means, remarkably, that there will be no increase in the rate of new housing construction in 2015. This comes at a time when we have an overall requirement for 20,000 residential units a year, with an immediate need this year for 6,000 units in Dublin alone.

We must ask the reason for the absence of new housing construction across the city, despite such significant unmet housing need and demand. The lack of supply in Dublin means that, despite rent increases of upwards of 11% in the capital this year, next year will be worse, with less than 30% of current demand for new homes being met in 2015. While the new apartment standards have not been published, it is understood that they will force Dublin City Council to revise its 2008 apartment standards, which prescribe that new apartments must be a minimum of 55 sq. m and a standard two-bedroom apartment must have two balconies, a lift and a basement car parking space. The regulations in Dublin have been cited as one reason for the lack of new residential construction in the capital since 2008.

Without doubt, many of the new apartment regulations in Dublin are misguided. It has been said that Dublin City Council's apartment guidelines are anti-poor because they increase the cost of apartments in the city centre.

By doing so, they make the cost of building apartments at the lower end of the market uneconomic, and, as a result, they are simply not being built. According to the economist Professor Ronan Lyons, the final price of building a new two-bedroom apartment in Dublin is currently €460,000, whereas it would be €345,000 if the standards that applied elsewhere in Ireland applied in central Dublin. This means the monthly rent required for a two-bedroom apartment in the city centre in order for the apartment to be feasible for investment, assuming a 6% yield, and thus for a developer to build, would be €2,750 per month. This level of rent is simply not affordable for any couple on a low or middle income.

The core goal of apartment standards and housing policy should be to ensure good quality accommodation is affordable and abundant. The Dublin City Council guidelines ensure neither is the case in the city at present. Of course, this does not mean Dublin needs to allow shoddy construction or miserable accommodation. We believe that new building and more effective regulations are required in Dublin. Costly and cumbersome regulation does not mean effective regulation. Apartment standards regulations need to be focused and sensible. They need to focus on construction standards that add value for tenants. In particular, higher standard regulations should focus on achieving high energy efficiency as well as community and quality of life standards, like green space regulations and build quality. These standards do the most to enhance quality of life and the value of a unit. We believe that new quality standards regulations should focus on energy efficiency and green space. It seems strange that despite the need for high energy efficiency and home heating standards on account of their proven ability to add value to an apartment for little cost, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, has expressly demanded local authorities, in particular, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Wexford, to delete all references to passive house building standards in their 2016-21 development plans. If they do not, he has threatened to issue a veto from the Department under section 31 of the Planning and Development Act 2000. This provision allows him to veto local development plans. The reason the Minister has given for deleting all reference to passive house standards in the development plan is that "such requirements are in excess of relevant national standards".

The Minister's argument against passive house standards is that traditional standards offer faster delivery and higher standards could impede new supply. Why is the Minister against higher energy efficiency standards for homes? It is extremely short-sighted of him to reject available passive house technology, which diminishes the need for fossil fuel, without even engaging in consultation with construction industry stakeholders. This is one reason to fear how the Minister's new planning powers might be used under such a Bill.

This is especially true in light of Ireland's failure to meet obligations under the EU effort sharing programme for dealing with climate change. This stance is being exposed at the Paris climate conference as we speak. Ireland has to meet the target whereby 12% of home heating comes from renewable sources by 2020 or face onerous and costly sanctions. However, there has been virtually no progress on meeting these targets since the Government came to power. It is extraordinary that the Department responsible for construction quality is objecting to higher standards, especially without any debate, consultation, study or pilot review.

There is ample evidence from Ireland and elsewhere, including the Brussels region, that passive houses do not slow down construction. Passive house construction is often quicker because of the thorough design process involved and because much of the building is prefabricated. There is also considerable evidence that passive house regulations are not necessarily more costly than constructing to the current building regulations, provided builders and tradespeople understand the passive standards. The regional government of Brussels has made the passive house standard mandatory for all buildings since January 2015. This is something Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is seeking as well. The move has not slowed down construction activity or made it more costly. Since January, over 1 million sq. m of passive house projects have been completed to date in Brussels. Many of these projects have cost less than conventional construction.

We need to know whether the new provision inserted into the Planning and Development Act will allow the Minister simply to rule out of order county development plans that are deemed in excess of national standards. It seems extraordinary that the Minister can deny local authorities the right to include higher building standards to form part of local planning regulations, apparently without any proper consultation with the sector or any members within that sector.

While we welcome this Bill and the new powers, numerous questions need to be clarified in respect of how these powers will be exercised, as I have outlined. It is essential that local development plans are allowed to be set by local authorities rather than simply dictated by the Minister. Flexibility in local planning has to be retained. I find it extraordinary that this is the case as we discuss the contents of this Bill and the powers under the Minister's remit.

Let us consider the many local development plans in the country and the efforts those involved have made to adjust the plans to take account of the increased scale, size, height and extent of wind energy turbines. Many of those involved have been waiting close on two years for national guidelines to be set by the Department and Minister responsible. Despite repeated calls from many local authorities engaged in the setting of local development plans for clarity, they have had to proceed without national guidelines in place. Given this scenario, applications are being made under guidelines that are in no way reflective of the height, scale or extent of such applications. Regardless, applications are being submitted under guidelines that have been outdated since 2006. There is a duty, onus and responsibility on the Government to publish and set appropriate guidelines rather than hide behind them, something the Government has done for the past two years.

We have had local and European elections that have deflected the publication and setting of the necessary guidelines. Now, we fear that because of the onset of a general election these guidelines will still not be put in place. I understand there are difficulties within Government, specifically within two Departments, in respect of agreeing the guidelines. Anyway, I implore the Minister of State and the Government to be fair and reasonable with the electorate and the people from those areas and regions where certain applications are more prolific. It is incumbent on the Government to put in place guidelines that reflect today's market and technology rather than relying on outdated guidelines which do no service to the public, in other words, to the people the Government supposedly serves.

I will only take approximately ten minutes. I wish to give notice of this to the Technical Group. The relevant Members are not here, but I do not want the Bill to collapse because they are not present. I offer apologies from Deputy Stanley to the Minister of State. He was unable to be in the House today to speak on behalf of Sinn Féin on this Bill. He asked me to step in at the last minute and that is why I am here.

I agree with much of what the Minister of State said in his opening remarks. While we have had differences of opinion many times in this Chamber and across the floor in the areas of housing and homelessness, I do not doubt the Minister of State's sincerity in trying to address this problem. We have differing priorities and ideas on how we should address these problems, particularly the problems of homelessness, the lack of provision of social housing and the over-dependency on the private market. We do not believe that it goes far enough, but anything that increases house building, helps to eradicate homelessness and regulates the private rental market to give rent certainty is welcome.

I understand completely what the Minister of State is trying to do by bringing forward national guidelines. There are two ways of looking at it. By having national guidelines there will no longer be an ad hoc approach throughout the State to the building of apartment blocks. Some will argue this is a good thing while others will argue that is not the way to go. That is because we cannot consider each county or location and decide that prescribed national guidelines must be implemented for all of them. There are different demands, densities and demographics in each area. This is why local development plans are important and have come into their own.

One of the few remaining powers that local authorities have is setting their own local development plans for five years.

We have already heard from the previous speaker, Deputy Cowen, that some local authorities have very high standards while those in others are not as high. Reference was made to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Dublin city councils. Deputy Cowen outlined some of the problems Dublin City Council has with the guidelines. They make the purchase of the apartments concerned extremely expensive. The apartments are designed not to attract the people who need them most. I do not know the breakdown of the housing list for Dublin City Council, but in Cork City Council 50% of those on housing waiting lists are single applicants who would be the type of people who, if they were to enter the property market, would consider apartments rather than three and four-bedroom houses. We need to build apartment blocks that are affordable and accessible to everyone, not just those on a particular pay scale.

The difficulty I have with ministerial guidelines taking precedence is that I do not know how it will work in practice, given that each area is different. In theory, it sounds great, but I do not know how we will implement it in practice. I also have some concerns about the guidelines. I understand, based on what we have heard, there will be smaller floor sizes, lower floor-to-ceiling heights and revised elevator and car parking sizes.

While there is no doubt that we have a housing crisis and we need to kick start the building of housing as quickly as possible, we need to ensure that the type and quality of housing that we will undertake as part of any build will be one that lasts long into the future. We have seen the mistakes of the past. Housing estates in my constituency have been knocked down because of poor planning, design and standards. I can understand national guidelines coming into play and the rationale behind that, but I do not know how it will work in practice.

I have some concerns that the Minister is moving to a position whereby he can override local development plans. I do not know whether that is the best road to go down. Elected representatives who represent those who elected them would have greater knowledge of local environments than a Minister. We have local development plans because they reflect local demographics, population, environment and the social and economic aspects of a particular city or a local authority.

The Minister has proposed an amendment whereby he will now have the power to override the local development plans of local authorities. I do not think any appeals process is built into that proposal and perhaps the Minister of State or his officials could clarify the position. If a Minister gives a local authority national guidelines and tells it that is what he or she wants it to implement, despite the proposals being contrary to the local development plan because of higher or lower standards, there does not seem to be any mechanism for local authorities to appeal such decisions, which is one of the flaws in the Bill.

We need to solve the problem and build houses and apartments, but we need to make sure they are of a high quality, and are affordable and accessible. One of the issues we have is that the Bill will give a lot of power to one individual, namely, the Minister of the day - it may not be the Minister, Deputy Kelly, after the next election. The Bill proposes to take from local authorities their ability to formulate local development plans and give it to a Minister who can then override local development plans.

As I said, we support any measures that will improve the housing situation. We have questions about the Bill but we will not oppose it on Second Stage because we feel that would not achieve anything. We want to submit numerous amendments on the areas about which we have concerns on Committee Stage. Just as I respect the sincerity of the Minister of State in trying to resolve this crisis, I hope he will respect that there are people on the opposite side of the Chamber who may have different views but whose sincerity in trying to resolve this issue is the same as his.

I hope on Committee Stage we can have a very robust and open debate on what we are proposing in terms of amendments, and can get away from the back-and-forth debate across the Chamber. Much good work on legislation is done on Committee Stage. Even though we have concerns about the Bill, and probably would not support it if it remained as it is, if we allow it to proceed to Committee Stage we will put forward amendments and have an open, frank and robust debate. It is to be hoped some of our concerns and amendments would be taken on board by the Minister of State. We will see where we stand after Committee Stage and will then make a decision on Report and Final Stages.

Deputies Clare Daly, Mick Wallace and Richard Boyd Barrett are sharing time.

I will probably be briefer than Deputies Wallace and Boyd Barrett. I want to discuss two main provisions in the Bill - that is all that is in it anyway. One of the provisions is clearly aimed at preventing local authorities from demanding of developers higher standards than those set out in the new national apartment planning guidelines. It is a monumental joke that we have not even seen these guidelines. We have no idea what they might be and we have to trust the Minister that they will be grand and everything will be great. One could not make this stuff up. Each Bill that has been tabled in the past few weeks has been worse than the one before.

Until now, local authorities were at liberty to set higher standards for minimum floor areas and other design criteria for apartments than those laid out in the 2007 Department guidelines. As we know, the 2007 guidelines increased the minimum sizes for one-bedroom apartments from the 1998 minimum of 38 sq. m to 45 sq. m. In a very positive development, Dublin City Council went one better and set the minimum floor size for one-bedroom apartments at 55 sq. m, which is 10 sq. m larger than the minimum set out in the national guidelines.

We are now being asked to remove that type of power from local authorities and force them to follow rules that the Minister makes up, which will apply nationally regardless of any context. It is disgraceful. We have to consider this in the context of the sustained pressure which Dublin City Council has been put under since it introduced new minimum standards.

A range of bodies have demanded that the standards be relaxed. We know that, to date, councillors have resisted that, and fair play to them. The Minister is now making sure that the democratic process and the will of councillors will not be upheld. Whose will is being upheld? We know that the Construction Industry Federation, Property Industry Ireland, IBEC and Mr. Brian Moran of Hines, a US investment company which is active in Dublin, have all pushed hard for Dublin City Council to relax its standards. This Bill will give them their wish, as the Minister wrests control over minimum standards from Dublin City Council, which, in fairness, has stuck to its guns.

Dublin already has plenty of small apartments - in fact, it has too many. It also has quite a large number of small houses and standard two-up and two-down houses.

These houses run between 45 sq. m and 60 sq. m. For single storey terraces, the size can be between 30 sq. m and 50 sq. m. Dublin is not short of small places for people to live. What research did the Minister of State do on housing stock in advance of the Bill being put forward? Did he count how many dwellings are already below 45 sq. m? Has a comprehensive survey been conducted of current housing stock to allow the Minister of State come to the conclusion that Dublin needs a relaxation of standards so smaller apartments can be built because we do not have enough of them? Do we have this information? I have not seen any evidence of it. It seems to be driven by the needs of vested interests rather than by building a city in which people might enjoy living. Perhaps I am completely wrong and the Minister of State will surprise us with these magnificent national guidelines which will be better than anything we have seen before, but even if this were the case, and I doubt it, it is absolutely unacceptable that we are discussing the Bill in the absence of this knowledge. It is just not good enough.

According to the Bills digest produced by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, the Government has taken on board the policy proposals contained in the Policy Options for Supporting the Provision of Housing at Affordable Prices report by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland. Included among these little nuggets is that individual local authorities should not be permitted to apply more demanding standards than the national standard. This has essentially been integrated unchanged into the legislation we have before us. This is not good enough.

Who wrote the report? It was commissioned by Mr. Anthony Foley of the DCU Business School on behalf of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland. What qualifications does this individual have to talk on housing? He is a senior lecturer at the DCU Business School and he is the head of economics, finance and entrepreneurship. His principal interests are European integration, industrial development, international trade, service exports, public expenditure, structure and trends, new ventures and entrepreneurship. Is he an expert on housing? I do not think so. His previous foray into advice to Governments and other policy makers was his paper on behalf of the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland which found, miraculously, that visiting pubs is a key attraction for tourists visiting Ireland. We have this expert in economics and entrepreneurship, who churns out papers on behalf of the drinks industry basically telling it what it wants to hear, offering policy proposals, which have basically been transcribed by the Government into this legislation, to allow developers to build smaller apartments regardless of whether we even need them because the Government does not have the evidence to state this.

The paper has headings such as interest rates and availability of finance in the chapter on future demand of housing, but absolutely no survey of, or figures on, how many 40 sq. m to 50 sq. m apartments actually exist in Dublin, how much need for larger apartments might exist, whether more one-bed apartments are necessary at all and whether there is any need for more studio apartments or anything like this. We actually do not have this information. Later in the report we see figures on housing commencements in the Dublin region by number of bedrooms per unit, but there is no analysis of whether the 647 three-bedroom houses that were started in Dublin last year were needed over and above two-bedroom houses. The report concedes that the question arises whether the overall Dublin mix of houses is appropriate, but why should we let our lack of knowledge stop us from bringing forward the Bill in the last week before the Christmas break?

The Minister of State said previously that his changes would reduce the cost of apartment building in Dublin by approximately €20,000 per unit, allegedly, but we all know the cost reductions will not be fully passed on to buyers or renters. It is not good enough. The legislation will not do anything to address the supply. The Government has the power, seemingly, to magically increase supply overnight without having to fling cash at developers, which seems to be its favourite thing.

According to the Department, the total number of new social houses in progress in the second quarter of 2015 was 324. All of the 324 units in progress were built by voluntary and co-operative housing organisations. This is a bit odd, because according to the document there is supposed to be capital funding for 2,386 social housing units. Why are these units not in progress? We know a grand total of 20 social housing units were completed by the second quarter of 2015, and this is without even looking at the question of NAMA into which I will not get. It is time we faced facts. There has been an absolutely shambolic approach to housing in the State, and to bring this legislation here at the eleventh hour is a step beyond disgraceful. It should be opposed.

I will not agree with everything the previous speaker said, although I often do.

I did not think the Deputy would.

People might say I am putting on my developer's hat but I would argue that I speak from experience, given that I am not a developer at present but God knows what day I might start again. However, I do agree with Deputy Clare Daly on several points. I am concerned because I am a little confused about what exactly will happen. From my understanding, the March 2007 recommendations that the city council came up with can now be ignored and we are back to the 2000 regulations. The Bill will give serious power to the Minister. Even if we had the best Minister on the planet looking after housing, who knows how long he or she would have the job? The next person might be a complete idiot, and how he or she exercises the power on getting the reins could be dangerous. We probably need to make it stronger and not leave things to the whim of any particular individual. This is a little scary. I also agree with Deputy Clare Daly that how the Government has dealt with housing challenges has been disappointing. I know it has not been easy, and the area is very complex with many different problems in the industry, but I do not see many of them being properly addressed in the long term. We have had a tendency to implement short-term strategies and a serious absence of long-term strategy, and this is not how we should approach the challenges we have in housing.

I have read the Bill, and the Minister of State mentioned the various issues that could be re-examined, such as the minimum size of apartments, the number of apartments per lift, car park provision, floor-to-ceiling heights and the amount of dual aspect. Will a certain amount of dual aspect in a development be requested? Is this correct? Or will the Government go a little lighter on the demands being made of a developer?

We can build really well and lighten some of the recommendations that were introduced in 2007. My experience of the industry is that building quality need not suffer. I believe in the idea of studio apartments. More and more couples are breaking up and more and more people live alone. Studio apartments make sense and they do not have to be massive. Apartments need to be a healthy size for families. In a two-bedroom apartment, there must be room for a desk in the second bedroom.

That is not my mobile phone.

It is Limerick calling. The Deputy left his hat behind.

It is not my phone.

If we want to build two-bedroom apartments and three-bedroom apartments in which families will be willing to live, we must change how we go about it. In the past, we did not build apartments that were fit for families. My company generally built apartments that were 15 sq. m to 20 sq. m larger than the norm but I still would not say they were fit for families. In Ireland, apartments are usually a stepping stone on the way to purchasing a house. By contrast, the apartments I have seen elsewhere in Europe really are suited to families. We will have to build more apartments than houses in the future because we cannot keep covering the country in concrete. Apartment blocks need to be higher, there must be more play areas and more communal space. The provisions in the Bill in this regard seem reasonable but they are very vague. It is not at all clear to what we are being asked to sign up.

Lifts are a huge expense for management companies. I had the misfortune to be the director of eight management companies and I could not wait to get rid of the lifts because the cost of their maintenance meant we could not possibly make ends meet. By European standards, we have tended to put in fewer apartments per lift. Provided people can stand over the number of apartments a lift can serve, I do not see a problem with reducing the number of lifts per number of apartments.

Car park provision is a hugely challenging issue. We must ask ourselves whether we wish to promote the use of more cars in city and town centres. There are already too many cars in Dublin city centre and the M50 has become a parking lot at peak times. I have no problem with the provisions reducing the number of car spaces a developer is obliged to provide with apartments. If we keep ignoring the increasing number of vehicles on Dublin's roads, I do not know how in God's name we will deal with it, because we have so many problems at the moment.

I would go to war on the issue of floor-to-ceiling heights. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the authorities in Turin, between 1945 and 1965 or 1970, built social housing with a floor-to-ceiling minimum of 10 ft., with some of the homes having a height of 11 ft. or 12 ft. They are fantastic living spaces. A floor-to-ceiling height of 8 ft., or 2.4 m, on the other hand, is simply not good enough for a living space. The big problem is the competing demands from the local authority and the financial institutions. Let us say we want to build units with a 2.7 m floor-to-ceiling measurement, so the height of the whole floor of the building is 3 m. If we did six floors, that would equate to 18 m, plus an extra metre for the ground floor, which makes 19 metres. The local authority would say we could have the 19 m, but it would want to know how many floors we were putting in. Ultimately, we would be pushed back to a ceiling height of 2.4 m for financial reasons. The bank would say we needed to squeeze in more units if it was to finance the project. There is pressure on one side from the financial institution to make the project stand up. I urge the Government not to allow apartments to be built with a ceiling height of less than 2.7 m. What I would say to the local authority is this: give those building the project their six floors, and let them go that bit extra. It is 300 mm per floor over six floors, which makes 1.8 m. Let them have the extra 1.8 m, and make it happen. The difference between 2.4 m and 2.7 m has a massive impact on the living space and the quality of life of people living there. What progress it would be for this country if we never again put in a ceiling at 2.4 m. It would be a breathtaking, historic change. It would be fantastic. We can make it happen. The developer and the bank can be kept happy by getting the local authority to accept that if we do not want to cover the country in concrete, we need to go a little higher with the buildings. It makes sense to take that approach.

It goes without saying that dual-aspect apartments are good. I do not know by how much the Government is planning to reduce the number of units that must have a dual aspect in each development. I do realise, however, that it is a very restrictive requirement to meet. I have in mind a site where we found it was almost impossible to give a dual aspect to more than about 60% of the units. In fact, if it had been a requirement for all of them to have it, we would not have been able to build the other 40%, in which case we would have ended up not doing the development at all because we would not have got finance for it. I realise that it is challenging.

An issue that has not been mentioned is the safety of balconies. I acknowledge that the weather is different on the Continent, but it is mild enough in Ireland for people to sit outside much of the time. Balconies can be sheltered somewhat by putting Perspex or proper glass around them, thereby providing a beautiful space to spend time in. It can be done without costing a fortune. It is really important to ensure that balconies are an adequate size. It does not involve a massive cost for the developer. We all know about the balcony that collapsed in Berkeley; I do not know how many people were standing on it at the time. It is easy to build a bad balcony but it is just as easy to build a good one. There is a style of doing a balcony which guarantees it will stay up and every builder knows how to do it. There is also, however, a cheaper way of doing it and it should no longer be allowed. The material used is a factor. For example, using mild steel in a balcony is looking for trouble. It is a bad example to use, but when I went out to look at Priory Hall, I was struck by the poor quality of the balconies. I am not afraid of much, but I was afraid to stand on the balconies there because they looked as though they were ready to fall down. The mild steel used in their construction was corroding. It had not even been galvanised properly. All steel of a mild nature which is structural must be properly galvanised. If at all possible, a balcony should be made of stainless steel.

I would like to hear more details from the Minister of State about what he is planning to do. Some aspects of the Bill are sensible and to be welcomed. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

We on this side of the House are too often obliged to voice our dissatisfaction with the guillotining of legislation and this Government's underhand parliamentary tactics in pushing through Bills in order to avoid debate or for some other political reason. What is being done in the case of this particular Bill is especially shameful because it is one of the most important legislative measures we have dealt with all year. For it to be pushed through at the last minute and the debate guillotined is outrageous. I may be wasting my voice and time here but I appeal to the media to take cognisance of the significance of the Bill. It might not be very sexy compared with the more sensationalist stuff the media likes to focus on but it is about something of great importance for people in this country, which is the provision of quality housing for those who desperately need it and dealing with associated planning issues. It also touches on a range of other issues which I will refer to presently. It is outrageous that the Bill is to be rammed through without proper consideration.

Of course, this fits into a pattern that is becoming increasingly apparent whereby this Government is seeking to exploit the housing crisis. There is no other way to describe it. It is doing so in order to unleash once again the evils of the Celtic tiger, evils which brought us Priory Hall, the pyrite scandal and unplanned and unregulated development, with all the terrible consequences of these things for the entire economy and for proper planning and development in the key area of housing.

This is about facilitating that. In this Bill, the Government is dancing to the tune of the Construction Industry Federation. There is no doubt about it. It is exploiting the justified demand to increase the supply of social and affordable housing and to deal with the housing and homelessness crisis, not as a means to deal with these problems but to let our developer friends off the hook again. These developers will not provide the social housing we need. They never have before and they will not do it in the future.

The Government talks about supply and says we have to increase supply and incentivise the private sector. That is what this Bill is about: incentivising the private sector, relaxing the planning regulations and so on, to encourage our old friends, the developers, to believe they can make money in the current situation because if we do that, we will deal with the housing crisis. I ask the Minister and anybody else looking at this debate whether increasing the supply, per se, provides social and affordable housing or deals with housing and homelessness problems. It does not at all and this seriously needs to be debated on a national level. We were building 70,000 to 90,000 houses a year, mostly in the private sector, before the crash, in the boom period. Did it improve the housing and homelessness situation? No. The problem got worse during that period. It got even worse after the crash, but it got worse consistently throughout the period of the Celtic tiger. The idea that we can solve the housing and homelessness crisis by upping the supply from the private sector is a total fallacy. It is an ideological fallacy that rationalises the greed and profit-seeking of the private developers, which is what the Government is doing.

It is an automatic impulse for the Government to imagine that in dealing with any problem, we have to facilitate our private developer friends. In doing that, we are now going to sacrifice proper planning and development and proper building standards. That is shameful, given the consequences this had in the past. We do not even fully know the consequences it had. We are going to find out in a few decades, but we have seen elements of it with Priory Hall, with pyrite and with God knows what else that was built during that period because of poor building standards and because the developers were let off the hook. Now the Minister wants the power to prevent local authorities from ensuring we have adequate standards at a local level if those standards go beyond the national standards. Shamefully, I believe the Minister has instructed Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council that some of the measures it agreed in the development plan in terms of ensuring good building standards have to be deleted from the plan. He is riding roughshod over democracy. Those proposals included that 50% of all non-residential development should have green roofs - a very sensible measure, given our aspirations on climate change and all the rest of it - and the passive housing requirement about proper insulation, which helps mitigate climate change, is much better for the health of the people living in these places and will save on heating and all that. Those provisions are almost certainly the ones the Minister has directed the council to delete. They are precisely the measures we need to have a good standard of housing, but instead he wants to delete them in order that developers can build cheap, poor quality stuff to make money out of it. That is what the Government is doing and it is shameful.

I can see what is going on here in that we will have the modular housing, from which some of our private developer friends could make money in the short term, and then, because we do not want to build actual physical, permanent council houses, our private developer friends, the vulture funds and so on will come in with the permanent stuff, which they will then lease to the Government for social housing at huge cost and make a killing off it. It is outrageous.

What should we be doing? The Minister of State will say we need the stuff fast. I will tell him how we will get it fast. It is very simple. Start with what I said earlier this morning: buy up the substantial stock of existing housing in Dublin and elsewhere for the people who need it on an emergency basis. That would be just as cheap but much more permanent and appropriate for the people who are in emergency situations. Provide the rent controls, not the flimsy rent certainty the Government was talking about, and increase rent allowance. Open the books of NAMA to see what it actually has rather than accepting whatever it throws at local authorities, which is undoubtedly mostly the crap stuff it thinks it cannot make money out of. We want to see what it actually has - land, property and so on - in order that we can give it over to those who need it.

How do we fast-track without overriding proper building and planning and development standards? We set up a State construction company in order that we take a year out of the construction process. The Government is saying it takes two years to build houses. One year of that is a result of the outsourcing of the design and construction to private developers through the tendering process. That is taking up a year. We have a breakdown from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. A year of this big delay the Government is talking about is because local authorities cannot do it themselves directly. If we did not have to tender out and if we had the teams, the architect, the construction workers, the equipment and so on in the local authorities, like we used to have, we could deliver the social housing in a year, and not modular homes but quality stuff. That is what we should do. NAMA could be the vehicle for it if its mandate were changed and if it were resourced to construct these houses directly. We could build on the land it has, finish the properties that are not ready, and we could do it much quicker without having to sacrifice building standards, proper planning and development, public consultation and local democracy, which is what this Bill is doing. It is outrageous.

I welcome the discussion and debate on this Bill. It is a very important issue because at the heart of this Bill is a fundamentally positive objective, namely, to allow for the fast-tracking of the introduction of modular housing in strategic development zones. I do not think anybody would object to the principle involved, but there are significant difficulties, some of which were mentioned by speakers opposite, and I would like to add my own tuppence worth to the debate. It is essential we get housing for as many people as possible as quickly as possible, given the severe crisis we are in and the state of the collapse of the building industry, which thankfully is now turning a corner and beginning to change. In my constituency, there have been many new starts and I welcome that.

There are issues with modular homes. Let us be very frank about it. They are low cost, they are efficiently built, they are transported by vehicle and they arrive on the spot very quickly. The size of them can vary, but generally they have to be smaller because the vehicle has to transport the prefabricated structure. Where are they going to be, how long will they last, who is going to live in them and for how long? In what sort of environment will they be placed? These are key issues that have to be determined. They are critical, but it is essential that construction goes ahead. I just want to point out some significant issues that need to be addressed.

If we look at the historical situation in housing, the biggest and most awful construction we ever had was out in Ballymun. That was built in a housing crisis. It was built to Deputy Wallace's specifications, the higher the better, and so it was. They put into it not people who did not have families, but people who had children.

The environment did not sustain family size or family life. One need only look at them on television as they were brought down, eventually, which was a good thing. They served a purpose but they did not serve it for long.

In my constituency, I can look at three types of fast-track housing. I am in public life a long time. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle probably beats me on length of service, and the Taoiseach does so by approximately a year. In the 1970s, when I was first elected, the first debate I went to in my local authority was on prefabricated housing. It was a wonderful idea by some brilliant designer who would build an estate where the dividing walls between the houses would be of concrete blocks but the front and back walls would be prefabricated, and that is what they did. They put the blocks up, they brought in the prefabricated structure and, lo and behold, after two or three years the houses were riddled with damp and with all sorts of problems. One could not put a bath into the bedrooms because they were too small. That did not work. We had other experiments, as I am sure others had all around the country.

We had a housing estate in which some bright spark - it may even have been the then Minister - decided we would build houses without chimneys because it was so cheap to use electricity and they would be built quicker. The houses went up with no chimneys and, lo and behold, with the oil crisis they had to retrofit chimneys to them taking up half of their living rooms, and we had another problem.

The other experiment was with so-called "Walt Disney" houses. These were thought up by a wonderful architect. There were maybe ten or 12 houses, not built in a straight road but at right angles to each other so that when one walked out of one's front door one looked straight in to the living room of the family right next door and somebody coming to visit did not know where a person's front door was. It was a catastrophe.

At the end of the day what works best is the standard traditional-type housing which is in the older estates generically. That works well because residents have privacy, they have good quality build, they have front and back gardens and they have a place at the back where they can bring in their bikes, cars or whatever. That is the ideal. That is what we want to see.

As no doubt the Minister of State intends, with the money in the Strategic Investment Fund which he mentioned and the special purpose vehicle, NAMA, we as a government ought to supply served sites, with water and sewerage, to builders who will commit to building affordable or social housing, in other words, providing them the land with no need for expenditure on their part on either water supply or sewerage and asking them to build houses at an acceptable price. Can we do that? Of course we can: why not? Gormanston is in my constituency. It was an Army camp and most of it is not active anymore. It is owned by the State - land cost is nil. It is in a sustainable location. It is beside a motorway and has a railway station. It has a lot going for it. If we use our heads and look at such sites around the country we can build the houses we want built at the price people can afford where there will not be the speculation there was in the building boom and we will not end up with the likes of Priory Hall, and we will have control of them.

There is a difference between the ministerial powers to direct a local authority and what I think should happen. In the absence of the recommendations by the tribunals, we do not have a regulator in place at present but the Government is committed to that happening. The powers the Minister is taking onto himself in this Bill must transfer to the regulator when he or she is in place. In other words, the politician is there for the policy and the regulator works out the details with the local authority. It is fine and proper for the Minister to sign up and say what should happen in planning policy and what the specification should be and for the regulator to ensure that happens. That would ensure there would be no political interference in any decision-making, which other Members may have raised here, and it would make a lot of sense.

It is high time we looked at empty houses in rural and mixed urban-rural constituencies. When I go around the constituency of Louth, I see dozens of houses that are empty. There are houses that were not finished, perhaps, during the Celtic tiger. There are houses that people have left because they lost their jobs and went abroad. There are houses that are empty for three or four years. If the Minister of State saw fit, he could instruct the local authorities to undertake an analysis of empty houses in their areas that may be in private ownership, in disputed ownership or merely lying idle and abandoned. There is a golden opportunity to get in and do something about it. That would reap a significant benefit. I estimate that in County Louth, including the south of the county, there are between 100 and 150 houses that could be occupied within a shorter period of time than one would think.

I would also like to think that we would have a new target in urban renewal and I hope the strategic development zone, SDZ, is where this is at. However, I have a problem with smaller apartments, especially if they are smaller because there is a profit incentive or motive. I have no difficulty if the apartments are constructed within an existing house, shop or whatever. If one looks at the 1911 census, one will see there were hundreds of people living in the centre of towns. There is nobody living there now and the reason is, obviously, they have gone out to housing. In the centre of a town one has services such as electricity, water and sewerage. One has buildings, whatever their purpose, constructed in whatever time they were. If one wants to encourage development, one should allow people to construct within existing buildings the apartments that are needed. Rather than define a small size, it should be purpose built to the existing size. I do not want any dumps or dives. I do not want to have to go down dark, dank and smelly stairs, as I have, to meet housing applicants in desperate places in which they ended up during the so-called "good times". We do not want to repeat that. I want to ensure that does not happen. That is a core value we should have as well.

The other issue I raise on the Bill, which is developed there, is about planning. When I leave here tonight, I will visit a place in County Meath to look at a drain. What the hell am I going looking at a drain for, at probably 7 p.m.? I am looking at a drain that is coming from a flood plain. The councillors in Meath some time ago decided to build houses on this flood plain and the planning permission was given against, I believe, the advice of the planners. Now that the builder has gone in there, the residents of the existing houses are concerned that the drain they are taking off this flood plain will flood them because it will be right beside their houses. That is a bit of a nightmare, if one happens to live there. It is a nightmare for planning generally. When one looks at Athlone and the appalling trouble on the Shannon, one asks why in the name of God do we allow building on flood plains. I have no problem with housing where there have been houses and people have lived traditionally in rural areas, but why do we allow planning on flood plains? It is a joke. There are housing estates I have visited in east Meath where in fairness to the OPW it has a strategy for dealing with it, but the people are concerned. It should not be happening. I ask the Minister to address that issue.

I also see other issues in planning. One of them is this cozying up to developers. The cozying up to developers is what destroyed this country during the recent boom. Developers ran the show. They designed houses which was fine, they designed estates which was fair enough, but then they designed access routes and every damn thing. In County Meath - this is something which is on the Minister's desk - one developer believed that he was encouraged to buy up land that would have a link to the motorway on which he would build a soccer stadium for a club and he proceeded on that process as he believed it to be, but another developer decided he would come in with his little local area plan and look for rezoning there.

When the detail came together, the planning permission went to the person who lived elsewhere and had produced his own development plan. At issue is the fundamental question of developer-led area action plans and planning. It is a very serious issue, which has been examined. It is with the Department and has been sitting there for four months. It has been going on for a while and has been examined previously by other investigators. Could we please have it in the public domain in order that we can know the outcome of the €100,000 we spent on it and on planning in Carlow, Dublin, Cork and Galway? The allegations should be addressed.

While we must be very careful what we do, we must build houses as quickly as possible. What I propose for places such as Gormanston makes the most sense. It is practical, it works and nobody can be caught out. The State owns the land, the services are provided by the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund and there is clarify about the cost before it starts.

On the modular homes issue, we have had many experiments and will have many housing crises. I want to be sure the families going into those modular homes will have as good a quality of life as anybody else and that the homes do not become places where nobody wants to go or which are put up for special letting. There are very serious issues about it. Will a person who takes such a home be able to get a transfer some years later? The Bill digest identifies a number of significant positives of modular homes. It identifies that the value of the homes decreases very significantly very quickly. The Government must address this and ensure it does not end up with something it regrets.

I welcome the Bill and the debate. I do not object in principle, given the crisis, to the powers that are changing and what the Minister is doing, and I have no doubt the Minister will act properly and appropriately. That said, I ask that he ensure the powers will transfer to the planning regulator, that he re-examine the issues I initially raised regarding county councils identifying empty homes in their areas, and most of all, that he look to see if we can fast-track hundreds of houses on State-owned land. Let us provide the infrastructure by special vehicle, fix the price of the houses and look after those who need them.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Sometimes, legislation goes through the House and the general perception is that it is very welcome and positive. Such legislation goes through the House relatively unnoticed but can come back to cause many difficulties. Profound changes can be put through of which people are not aware. The way the Bill is being quietly put through just before Christmas reminds me of the legislation on Irish Water two years ago. There are very few in the Chamber, nobody in the Press Gallery and probably nobody watching the debate. However, there is a measure in section 2 of the Bill which amends section 28 of the principal Act, as follows:

Section 28 of the Principal Act is amended by inserting the following after subsection (1B):

“(1C) Guidelines to which subsection (1) relates may contain specific planning policy requirements to be applied by planning authorities and the Board in the performance of their functions.”.

If I understand it correctly, the section empowers the Minister to issue directions to An Bord Pleanála as to what the planning policy should be. It is a reversion to the situation in which the Minister for local government was the final arbitrator in planning matters. While the motivation seems to be good, given that we want to get through various housing projects due to the housing shortage, there may be implications from the legislation which may come back to haunt the House. In his summation, maybe the Minister can give me some assurance that it is not the case.

In general, I am a strong supporter of political responsibility and I disagree with farming out the Government's responsibilities to State agencies and non-elected and, in many respects, unaccountable bodies such as An Bord Pleanála, Fáilte Ireland, the NRA or the HSE. I am not sure whether the HSE still exists. The board is gone. An Bord Pleanála is a very contentious body. When decisions go our way, we praise it and are delighted to have it, whereas when they do not go our way, we are suspicious and concerned about it. In my political dealings with An Bord Pleanála it has been contentious. Last week, I welcomed a decision it made to grant permission for an entrance for a secondary school construction in Bray which had been refused by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. In this case, I say "well done" to An Bord Pleanála.

An Bord Pleanála comprises nine members, eight of whom are appointed by the Minister following recommendations from four independent groupings, and the chairperson is appointed by the Government. I am conscious that we should not criticise organisations or groups that often do not represent themselves, and I will not name any individuals. I have not been able to find a forum in which I can articulate my concerns about An Bord Pleanála. I have had calls to meet representative bodies in my constituency who are concerned about serial objectors to one-off rural housing in parts of County Wicklow. They expressed serious concern that a number of people were submitting serial planning objections. We sent several deputations to the Minister at the time who gave an assurance that An Bord Pleanála was always constructed in a fair and equitable manner in order that people got fair play. To my surprise and that of others, one of the serial objectors was appointed to An Bord Pleanála. This does not instil public confidence in a body that is supposed to be independent. I am not questioning the individual integrity of any member of the board. While An Bord Pleanála must act in a fair and equitable manner, perception is also very important. How can I tell my community An Bord Pleanála is an independent body if a person who has been a serial objector against rural planning is a member of the board? It raises serious questions and perhaps the Minister would examine it.

Regarding housing and the Government's decision to ask NAMA to build 20,000 houses over the coming years, I assume NAMA will not build the houses itself but will disburse the money to various developers. I have contacted the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and everything seems to be okay. A number of developers may take an action against the decision to give NAMA this head start on others. Concern is expressed about NAMA and it is difficult to get to the bottom of it. Maybe in time we will find NAMA has done a wonderful job and everything is fine. In my limited dealings I have always found it to be very positive and progressive. I do not have access to any information other than that associated with my dealings with it.

A well-respected sports journalist, Colm O'Rourke, recently wrote an article in the Sunday Independent in which he questioned the ability of the political system to fight on behalf of communities that are looking for sporting facilities. Part of the remit of NAMA is to give consideration, if not necessarily preference, to local organisations or groups that are seeking to purchase land for community benefit. The most high-profile case in this regard was the attempt by the Dublin GAA county board to purchase the Spawell lands in south Dublin. I am given to understand that it basically came in at the asking price but was outbid by somebody else. That does not instil public confidence in the work of NAMA. I ask the Minister to ensure that NAMA's dealings should involve a fair hearing to those concerned, should be reflective of due diligence and should pay high regard to the organisation's remit to assist in the provision of facilities to communities.

I support any measure that would assist in meeting the demand for public and private housing and alleviating the general housing shortage. In my view, the main difficulty in the areas of housing and homelessness is the shortage of supply. For a number of years during the economic downturn, I advocated a policy of "workfare" rather than welfare. I said that a scheme equivalent to JobBridge should be pursued to allow unemployed architects and engineers, etc., to be seconded to local authorities. Many of them would have been quite happy to get involved in such a scheme if it enabled them to keep their skills up to date, to upskill if necessary and to participate in the planning of future housing and infrastructure projects. One of the difficulties now being experienced by many local authorities is that money has been allocated to them, but they do not have schemes prepared because the necessary staff or expertise has not been available to them. That should not be allowed to happen in the future. If this means hiring private groups to plan and organise for the local authority, so be it.

I think there are too many layers in the system. When we give money to local authorities, surely we should let them be responsible for spending it, for choosing the sites and for building the houses. In my own county of Wicklow, it was recommended that 30 new houses should be built in Dunlavin. One might think that was a good idea. However, there were two problems with it. First, there were just 20 people on the housing waiting list in the town. In other areas that did not have allocations, there were several hundred people on the waiting list. Second, the water supply in Dunlavin was not adequate. Indeed, a proposal to build a private development had been turned down a few months previously. This shows a lack of joined-up thinking. In smaller towns and villages, there is not a great inter-movement of population. Those who grow up in such areas generally like to remain in them. While it is fine to cater for large numbers in bigger towns with wider hinterlands, the social houses that are built in smaller areas that do not have such a critical mass should be just for people who are living in those areas.

I often think the Minister should take a proactive approach by bringing in the directors of service in the housing and planning sections of local authorities and asking them to take a correspondingly proactive approach to private development in particular. Perhaps the Minister has already done this. Those who are involved in the provision of private housing have told me they cannot get a return on their developments at the moment. By the time they purchase land, it is impossible for them to get a fair return or profit from the development of houses on that land. Those who already own land might be sitting on it and waiting for the price to increase, but that is not going to happen any time soon. Many small-time developers were severely burned during the good times after getting caught for planning and development fees of several hundred thousand euro as they prepared developments which ultimately came to naught. They are now left with the land and they are afraid to revisit the entire process. In many cases, they do not have the money. If they have the money to invest, they might be worried about getting burned again. In such circumstances, directors of planning in local authorities should be identifying these lands and sites, adopting a proactive approach with those who own them and trying to come to a mutual agreement on what would be an acceptable application at these locations. I know these matters cannot be prejudged, but I suggest that some kind of souped-up pre-planning meeting would encourage people to start building houses in locations where housing is needed.

The issue of homelessness is close to my heart. I had to agree with the Taoiseach a few weeks ago when he said that the provision of funding is not the actual problem with regard to homelessness. I have said on a number of occasions that funding is not the issue. If it is not the issue, however, what is the issue? In the late 1990s, some €14 million or €15 million was allocated each year to deal with the issue of homelessness. Over the following seven or eight years, the annual allocation increased to €65 million or €70 million but the situation did not seem to improve. When I speak about homelessness in this context, I am referring to rough sleepers. We need a dedicated multidisciplinary unit to deal with this problem. I would support the establishment of a pilot scheme in Dublin along the lines of that which operated in London. It is not simply a case of getting a house in a certain location and putting someone into it. We had started to move in this direction, albeit indirectly, when we provided the night bus that used to operate in Dublin. I am sure many Deputies have received correspondence from a former employee of Dublin City Council who operated this bus. I have had a long conversation with this individual. He told me that when they went around the city at night to pick people up, they know what was the most suitable hostel or other form of accommodation for him or her. The rough sleeper or homeless person was able to put a face on the social provider, and the social provider was able to put a face on the individual who needed assistance. That scheme was cut back due to a lack of resources but I suggest it could be revisited in the short term. We know that homelessness is an issue in Dublin but I met someone recently who told me it is an issue in Newbridge. I know it is no longer in Deputy Durkan's constituency-----

No. It used to be.

-----but he will be familiar with it. A couple of weeks ago, I met a local community group in Arklow that is dealing with the issue of homelessness in that town. There are ten or 12 rough sleepers there. In the past year or two, this problem has developed in many places where it was not an issue previously. We need a dedicated unit that can co-ordinate and regulate the various non-governmental organisations that are involved with this issue and place a requirement on the statutory bodies. In some cases, the statutory bodies have taken a back seat and basically handed responsibility to the non-governmental organisations. As a result, no one is really responsible.

I hear much talk about increasing the rent cap. I am not an advocate of such a measure simply because rents would increase accordingly. We are all aware of what is currently happening in practice. The rent is going up after the individual makes contact with the rents section, which makes an adjustment accordingly. Rent supplement levels have been increased on an individual case-by-case basis in order not to add to the number of people who are homeless. That policy is fine - I do not disagree with it - but the downside of it is that landlords are informing their tenants that they are going to increase rents and advising them to ask their local representatives to contact the rents section so the relevant rent supplement level can be increased. That is why I think the rent cap should not be increased. The manner in which landlords are proactively taking advantage of the Government's compassionate and humanitarian response is having a negative impact on everybody. Ultimately, we are going to be back to square one.

I read an article in the last week or so about the number of people who are turning down public sector housing. My understanding is that local authorities provide updated housing lists every three years after carrying out assessments. Perhaps that system has changed, although I do not think it has. It is very difficult for the Government to ascertain the correct number. I suggest that the assessment in question should be done after a 12-month period. One cannot deal with a problem if one does not know what are the statistics relating to it. If we start in the first year with a certain number of people on the housing list and we add 10% or 20% to the list each year, at the end of the third year the list will have increased by 60% or whatever, even though many of the people who were originally on it may be in a position to move off it. Another problem is that when some local authorities are making their assessments, they differentiate between housing need and housing desire. A few years ago, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government issued a directive that this distinction should be made but some local authorities are not complying with it. Housing need applies when there is a definite need for physical accommodation due to personal circumstances. There may be no room at home or no access to accommodation.

Housing desire applies when somebody has accommodation but does not like where it is or the people with whom they are living, so they want to move out. There is merit in both cases but housing need is much more important than housing desire. It is important in dealing with the problem to make that differentiation and it is not satisfactory for a local authority to completely exclude those with housing desire, as happens in some cases. Equally, it is not satisfactory that housing need and housing desire are pitched together in the one list. We need to break the list down into one for housing desire and one for housing need.

In my time in the Army, I spent many a night in modular homes and I have seen the current models, which are excellent. One could not argue about their comfort but I have a deep reservation about the concept of groups of modular homes in certain areas. I do not like using the term "ghetto" but I feel these homes will be looked at negatively where there are 20, 30 or 40 of them together. We will get people into them initially but they will be categorised as houses for the homeless and such estates will not be a positive environment. We could speed up the planning process under the legislation and if the Minister had a direct input into the provision of social housing I would agree with it, but I would not be a strong advocate of the modular home concept. Perhaps time will prove me wrong but I am not sure.

On the face of it the legislation is fine and nice to have but Deputy Alan Kelly is the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government today and there seems to be a conflict between him and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White, on wind turbines. What if the Minister, Deputy Alex White, ends up as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government? I do not mean to do him an injustice but he has a more positive view of wind turbines and he might decide to give a direction, based on his philosophy or policy, that An Bord Pleanála shall act on his advice to put wind turbines in a certain place. When wind turbine applications are turned down by An Bord Pleanála, people are quite happy to accept the decision but when they are granted, they are not so happy. I have grave reservations. I was initially an advocate of wind turbines but when I saw them going up in north Wexford, I saw the impact they had on communities. While we may welcome them in a certain climate and in a certain environment, when we reflect on such things and look at best international practice, we sometimes decide to go back to the drawing board and wind energy might be one of those cases. It goes back to the flaw in the section 2 amendment. People, including Members of this House, have no idea about what is actually happening but it is a very serious change of power and direction. There will probably be no vote on this legislation and it will go through anyway but this should not go unquestioned.

I understand Deputy Connaughton is sharing time with Deputies Michael Creed and Bernard Durkan. How does he wish to share it?

I will need five minutes.

Deputy Timmins asked about the role of An Bord Pleanála and I wish to ask the Minister a similar question about the time An Bord Pleanála takes to make decisions on certain matters of real importance. It is topical at the moment because south Galway has been badly flooded in the past couple of days and one area along the Dunkellin river, namely, Craughwell, is under water, something which happens on a yearly basis. The Dunkellin flood relief scheme has been proposed for many years and it was with the board for a decision. Last Saturday, as the rain was coming down and the place was beginning to flood, someone said: "The only good thing that can come out of this is that if anyone from the board is watching this, when they go to make their decision next Thursday, surely they will grant it." Lo and behold, today An Bord Pleanála put back its decision by two months. It is very hard to explain to anyone in that area how the board can justify putting that decision back. I am not saying there should be a "Yes" or "No" and I am not interfering in the planning process, but how do I explain to anybody that this is how it works? One could understand people being very cynical about this. For a week, one could not look anywhere on Facebook or in the paper without seeing a politician with a sandbag but this is where we are letting people down. We have a plan and another arm of the State, the OPW, has the money to spend on it, but the board is saying it is not ready yet and it will come back to people in a couple of months. I have been around long enough to know that in a couple of months somebody in the OPW might say that, although we have ring-fenced the money, Bandon in Cork or somewhere else needs it just as much. The money might not be ring-fenced any more.

I do not advocate getting involved in this but surely it is time for An Bord Pleanála to make a decision when it says it will make it. This is simply unacceptable. Who is to stop the board, in two months' time, putting it off for another two months, or another two? Is there anything we can do in this legislation next week, perhaps by an amendment, to require An Bord Pleanála to make a decision on the date it says it will make a decision? It is one thing for one's house or land to be destroyed by flooding but when we start attacking people's hope of there ever being a solution, we are going down a bad road. There are people in south Galway tonight who are losing hope that anything will ever be done for them. I am 33 years of age and people have been talking about draining the Dunkellin river for 30 years. People who might not be aware of that might say to me "It is only two months" but if someone tells the people in Craughwell tonight that it will be two months before a decision is made, they will get a very short hearing.

As surely as night follows day, these floods will start to abate but it is high time the board made a decision. If a person goes into Galway County Council with a housing application, he or she will get a due date for the decision. It will be to refuse, to approve or to request further information but at least one knows where one stands. On a day like today it is a disgrace that the board tells people in south Galway, who have put up with this for many years, that it will come back to them at the end of February with a decision. It may come back and turn it down but I hope it does not and we can go ahead with the work. The OPW had better hold on to that money. If the board grants the application on 26 February, it does not change anything as one still has to do the work, which will take time, but there is no hope from what happened with An Bord Pleanála today. Is there anything the Minister of State or the Minister, Deputy Kelly, can do with this legislation this week to require the board to give a decision on a due date? What it has done today is a national scandal and completely unacceptable. People are livid in south Galway because the drainage work on the Dunkellin river should already be commissioned and it is taking the board forever to make a decision. With all the bodies that are involved in this, it is heartbreaking. For the three houses near Craughwell village which have been flooded for four or five days now, this was the day we were to give them a bit of hope. The board was considering whether to say, "Yes, go ahead with that work", and at least the people could think something might be coming, but they were told to come back in two months' time. I wonder if members of An Bord Pleanála would be happy with this decision today if their houses were flooded. Is there anything we can do through this legislation? It is unacceptable that the board keeps putting back these dates. We are destroying people's lives by taking away their hope and it is simply unacceptable.

Do I have five minutes?

Fifteen minutes remain. It is entirely up to yourselves.

I am glad to have the opportunity for a quick few words on this subject. Many subjects have been covered in this debate on housing. It is an issue we have all watched grow, and not to our satisfaction, over the past 20 years and it is more than 20 years since a decision was made to shift sole responsibility for providing local authority housing away from local authorities and towards the private sector. It was construed at the time that the private sector would provide housing and the public would rely on renting accommodation in the future. They were, of course, wrong about that.

People said we would become like continental people and would no longer need to purchase our houses. They were wrong about that as well. If one seeks proof of that, it is a simple matter to compare the cost of rents and mortgages at any time. Even at present many people have mortgage repayments that are considerably less than the cost of renting. The logic behind that was wrong and I recall protesting loudly at the time, but it did not make a difference. There were those who thought they knew better. I do not know what they think now but they failed and, unfortunately, we have inherited a very sad legacy as a result of their ridiculous failure.

I am strongly supportive of a return to direct build by the local authorities as a first option. It is the only reliable way to ensure there is an adequate supply of houses for people who are not currently in a position, although they might be in the future, to build or buy their own houses. It will solve that problem for a start. There is another group of people. The irony is that 20 years ago many people could get a local authority loan if they were on a lower income than would give them an entitlement to get a loan from a building society. It was extremely satisfactory. That is gone now. It is impossible to qualify for such loans. I recall that during the boom I tried to encourage people to buy houses at that time, knowing what was coming down the tracks, but it was almost impossible to get anybody to qualify. On the one hand they were above the qualification limits in terms of income for a local authority house, but at the same time they were below the limit for qualification for a loan. Whoever thought up that must have been a genius. He or she must have gone home at night and thought: "Nobody can qualify for that, so we are dead safe and sound. Nothing is ever going to happen."

Next, we must recognise that we are in a housing emergency. Regardless of how the houses can be provided, they must be provided as a matter of urgency. I do not have the same reservations about modular housing that many others have expressed. It is as if we are reluctant to solve the problem. We must do whatever must be done to solve the problem. We cannot allow a situation in which people have no roof over their heads. That is what is facing many people at present. Reference has been made to the homelessness problem. In a housing scarcity the people who do not own a home are in the hands of somebody else, whoever that might be. They find themselves squeezed to such an extent that they become desperate. Many people at present have found themselves sleeping in cars and in various other places in order to accommodate themselves on a temporary basis. It is appalling. Incidentally, I am aware that several Members of this House dealt with homelessness during the boom. It existed then, so it had to get worse and it has got worse.

There has been much talk about flooding. It is correct to state that it affects housing and that we are experiencing climate change. There are 100-year event floods every five or seven years. However, we should not forget one thing which Deputy Fitzmaurice raised today and which has been raised by several other speakers in this debate. The rivers and waterways of the country cannot continue indefinitely without de-silting. That cannot happen and it will not work. Irrigation does not work that way. There is a requirement to have ongoing servicing of waterways. If that does not happen, there will be floods.

County Kildare had a sad problem with large-scale flooding in 2010, particularly in Sallins. I recall that the retort of the Minister with responsibility for the environment at the time was that it was not called The Waterways for nothing. That was the typical reaction of people who should know more than they profess to know. The reason it was called The Waterways was that it was next door to a facility owned by Waterways Ireland, the canal. The only thing that was wrong is that nobody had thought of the drainage during its construction. There was a 40 ft. drop or outfall, so the entire area flooded. That is the stupidity of things that can happen right in front of our noses. We should not have to deal with those things. There are certain rules and parameters that govern these matters and that should be sufficient.

I regularly hear that the number of people on the housing list is being updated and counted again. I am on the record of the House as objecting to that principle for the past 30 years, at least. If proper records are kept, there is no need to update them. One ticks people off as they get accommodation or move on. It is a simple way to do it. With modern computerisation it should be even more simple. It really irritates me when I hear that they must be checked again to see if the people are really in need of housing. We must cop on to ourselves. The fact is that if somebody has been waiting seven or eight years on a housing list but has received nothing and suddenly finds that the landlord wishes to move him or her out of the current house or that the landlord's house is being repossessed by a financial institution, it is poor comfort for me to say to that person: "Well, actually, we want to count you again, just to make sure you really are in need of housing."

Every year for the past 15 years I have been pointing out what was going to happen with regard to the housing crisis we have at present. I spoke to all of the voluntary agencies that were willing to listen and I tried to make my point. I am just one person but I am sure all other Members were doing the same. Why did nobody listen? I cannot understand why nobody listened to the fact that a housing crisis was coming down the track. Why was that? There was no competition in the marketplace and nobody was providing houses for a large sector of the population, who would be neglected. There was a pretence that they were going to be accommodated in a fluctuating market by the private sector when, at the same time, that private sector was subject to fluctuations in production. At this point, one cannot do justice to the subject but if the Minister and the officials wish to discuss it privately with me, I will be more than happy to do so.

I welcome the opportunity to make some brief remarks on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill. The Bill is being introduced primarily in the context of a housing crisis but it also deals with a range of issues that will reach into other areas covered by the planning system over time. Broadly, the provisions are welcome, although they require some further discussion in terms of their import and impact. I commend the Minister and his officials on the legislation.

I wish to deal with the provisions in section 2, in particular. These amend section 28 of the Planning and Development Act in respect of planning guidelines. I will discuss two aspects of that. One relates to planning guidelines for housing accommodation. What is being introduced here is specifically in the context of apartment size and so forth so we can move more quickly and cost efficiently to deal with that section of the housing market. As I have said previously in the House, the housing crisis is complex but part of the solution surely should be linking the significant number of vacant houses all over the country with the housing need that exists.

I recently attended meetings in my constituency at which the issues of the decline of rural villages and dereliction were raised. One of the problems is that housing standards in the 1900s, when the houses were built along the main streets in the towns and villages of provincial Ireland, were very different from the planning standards that would apply if one wished to build a house now. It should not be beyond our capacity, in the context of the planning guidelines, to enable local authorities to play a proactive role in bringing back into use the many houses that have been abandoned in our towns and villages. They are no longer lived in. They might well be commercial units that have closed and nobody resides over the shop now. There could be a little ingenuity and creativity on the part of architects and engineers and some waiving of planning guidelines, because we do not wish to have a situation where in order to facilitate people to return to live on the main streets of our towns and villages we must virtually demolish these houses and build them again to new standards.

There is ample evidence in our towns, cities and villages that artisan-type redesign of old buildings can result in very attractive accommodation. There is a cost-effective solution in that regard. Many of these properties can be acquired for relatively low prices and it should not be beyond our capacity to design an incentive package to enable local authorities and private citizens to get involved in this regard so these houses can be brought back into residential use.

Part of the contract in respect of making those towns and villages attractive must be the local authority looking at what will encourage people in terms of the provision of footpaths, public lighting and playgrounds. Rural Ireland is not unlike urban Ireland and, while it is not without its problems, it is not in a state of terminal decline as some opposite would have us believe. However, there is a problem of dereliction in towns and villages which should be addressed. It could give a lift to an entire community if a village or town was presented in an attractive way. It would be a significant morale boost to local rural economies and our towns and villages.

In his speech on planning guidelines, the Minister of State indicated:

The amendment to this section elaborates on that by introducing a new power whereby the Minister may, within the section 28 guidelines, expressly state specific national planning policy requirements to be applied by An Bord Pleanála or planning authorities, as appropriate, in the exercise of their functions.

The Minister of State went on to say that the amendment will also enable future revisions to any other current guidelines. In the context of "any other current guidelines", I refer to a specific issue with the current guidelines on wind energy and wind turbines in particular. This is an issue which exercises communities affected like no other issue of which I am aware. I will provide one instance that illustrates graphically the problem with the current guidelines. A permission was granted by Cork County Council for the erection of 15 or 16 turbines not far from where I live in Macroom - perhaps ten miles away or less - some years ago. The project was compliant with the guidelines that applied then. However, the developer has come back in, forgone the planning application and applied for an alternative approval for five turbines which are nearly double the size of those which were the subject of the previous guidelines. It may have been appropriate six or seven years ago to have a turbine height from base to tip of 120 m but there is now an application for a wind turbine that is 170 m tall. That is an entirely different scale of development. It shows how quickly the guidelines have become outdated.

I commend the Minister of State on engaging in a consultation process. However, we need to reach an end game on this very quickly and publish the guidelines. At least, draft guidelines should be published and submitted to the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht. The Minister of State needs to show people the colour of his money in respect of where we are going with the guidelines because rural communities deserve a fair crack of the whip. They are the people who live there and it is not fair that wind turbine technology has moved on very significantly and they are now double the height of what permission was being granted for ten years ago. Nevertheless, the guidelines have not moved at all. In terms of noise, flicker and distance from residential properties, the guidelines are significantly out of date. The consultation process and the level of engagement with it showed clearly the depth of feeling on the issue. It is time to publish and to let a new era begin.

In the broader context, everybody recognises that we need to decarbonise our energy and transport. We need to look at the mix of energy between wind, solar and biomass in the debate and I am sure that mix will form part of the energy policy announced by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White. The specifics of the guidelines on wind energy are significantly out of date and revised ones must be published at the earliest possible opportunity.

I thank all of the Deputies who have made valuable contributions irrespective of their viewpoints. Some we might agree with and some we do not, but we value them. The debate was a wide-ranging one covering planning issues relating specifically to the Bill and extending to housing-related matters, which the Bill is intended to address by increasing supply and addressing the viability of development and its capacity to meet demand. Many of the housing-related matters raised by Deputies were debated during the passage of the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2015 but I acknowledge the proposals and suggestions that were made.

I clarify for Deputy Cowen that the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal will be incorporated in a further planning Bill which will be published next week. That Bill will include provisions on the establishment of a planning regulator's office which was one of the main recommendations of Mahon. I am glad to report that the Bill will be published next week.

Deputy Clare Daly raised issues about having proper information and statistics with regard to policy. The good news is that the Government utilises research produced by the Housing Agency, which is independent. The statistics the agency has published in its comprehensive report on housing in Ireland, demographic needs and the types of housing required to respond to that need, are utilised in policy formation and the adoption of strategies in government. That is as it should be.

The Bill is all about construction viability while retaining minimum standards - which we acknowledge is very important - in order to increase appropriate supply in appropriate locations to meet the demand that is out there. Much criticism has been made of the Government. People are accusing it of reducing standards in terms of passive housing and in other areas. However, nothing is stopping builders or developers from developing passive house standards. It is about meeting the demand that is there. We feel there is no need to impose the highest standards across the board without any regard for cost and viability. I listened to Deputy Boyd Barrett and others saying, quite rightly, that we need to improve energy standards. While we are providing for a minimum standard which is a positive one, we cannot rule out affordable housing by imposing high standards. Deputy Boyd Barrett is calling for more affordable housing and we need to be very careful in taking account of the impact of imposing such standards. That is what we are doing in the legislation.

Deputy Mick Wallace raised a couple of very important points on apartment standards. Dublin City Council currently requires that 85% of apartments must be dual aspect. We propose that 50% of apartments will be dual aspect which we feel is more reasonable and which will have an impact on affordability. We are also allowing taller apartment buildings, which is also something for which Deputy Wallace called. Currently, Dublin City Council limits apartment buildings to five storeys. That is a limit on the footprint of a serviced site. We consider that there should be more flexibility to maximise the potential to deliver units on a particular footprint or site. The new guidelines will also permit halving the number of lifts required by Dublin City Council. Deputy Wallace was right to point out that there are cost implications of having more lifts in apartment blocks. There are installation costs and ongoing maintenance costs and these add to the unit cost of apartments. We are trying to address affordability and viability by halving the current lift requirements. That will make it more affordable to put up these buildings and make them more accessible to people, which is what we want to see.

Deputy Wallace also mentioned that 2.4 m is the normal ceiling height requirement in the building regulations. We are requiring a 2.7 m ceiling height for ground floor and all north-facing apartments which have less light. I think the Deputy will welcome that. It is a reasonable approach which takes account of the need for good standards while making units viable, affordable and, I reiterate, accessible. The new guidelines will also require larger balconies as suggested by Deputy Wallace, which is also to be welcomed.

Some Deputies raised the issue of building on flood plains. Under departmental guidelines, building on flood plains is prohibited and the Bill will prevent local authorities from ignoring those guidelines.

Deputies also raised the issue of An Bord Pleanála. Deputy Connaughton made a specific point regarding the Dunkellin flood relief scheme. Deputy Timmins also spoke on this issue. For the Deputies' information, an operational review of An Bord Pleanála is under way and is expected to report early in the new year. It is examining efficiencies, timelines and decisions. I have listened to Deputy Connaughton's concern, which he rightly raised. For his information, the location in question is in a special area of conservation, SAC, and environmental impact assessments of decisions are, therefore, required by EU law. However, a final decision on the scheme is imminent. I hope to see an outcome within the next month or so. I understand the Deputy's frustration, but An Bord Pleanála must respect the legal requirements. As the Deputy knows, an oral hearing process was completed last month.

Deputy Creed discussed the wind farm guidelines. The Government is working on those and hopes to publish them as soon as possible. We must take account of the White Paper on energy and of sustainable planning. Wind farm guidelines form an important component of our renewable energy strategy to reduce carbon emissions, but they are only one element of many that we need to develop and exploit. We will see further progress in that regard in the coming period.

The Bill proposes to issue revised apartment standard guidelines to replace the 2007 ones. The new guidelines will contain specific requirements in terms of minimum apartment sizes, the number of lifts per number of apartments, car parking provisions, floor-to-ceiling heights and the provision of dual aspect apartments, storage provision and so on with a view to ensuring their consistent application. It is estimated that the proposed revisions, which are being finalised and that all planning authorities will be obliged to apply upon enactment of the Bill, will deliver an average cost reduction of approximately €20,000 per apartment in Dublin city. This will be in addition to other cost reductions that already apply on foot of previous Government actions and interventions. This is being done to address the critical issues of viability, access and affordability.

I have noted the reservations expressed by some Deputies about reductions in apartment sizes. However, I will categorically state that these revisions will not become a race to the bottom in apartment standards. Even allowing for some reductions in the minimum floor area requirements that are currently applied by Dublin and Cork city councils, we will still have minimum floor areas that are the most generous in Europe.

The primary aim of the revised guidelines will be to promote sustainable urban housing by ensuring that the design and layout of new apartments will provide satisfactory accommodation for a variety of household types and sizes, including families with children, over the medium to long term. A further aim of the guidelines will be to make apartments more economically viable for developers to develop and more affordable for potential owner occupiers and renters.

The Bill is not about eroding the powers of elected local authority members in the adoption of local standards. Rather, it is primarily aimed at ensuring the adoption of a consistent approach by all local authorities to avoid a multiplicity of approaches being applied across the country, as that can be unsustainable and unaffordable.

The streamlining of the procedures for the modification of proposed and previously approved strategic development zone, SDZ, planning schemes, as outlined in sections 4 to 6, inclusive, are necessary in order to help bring on stream housing supply in such schemes more speedily, as any modification to a scheme can currently take up to two years to be approved, thereby bringing development to a halt. These provisions will allow local authorities or SDZ promoters the flexibility to facilitate increased housing supply within designated zones. This should be welcomed.

The Bill's measures are designed to ensure that any perceived barrier to housing supply from a planning perspective is addressed and the planning system is fit for purpose and increases housing construction activity, which we all want. Accordingly, I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to further engagement with Deputies as it progresses.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Next Wednesday.

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 16 December 2015.