Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 2 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 3

Urban Regeneration Report: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann shall take note of the Report of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage entitled "Urban Regeneration", copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 24th May, 2022.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for sharing his time with me on this very important report. I thank the Oireachtas for granting us the opportunity to debate this report on urban regeneration, which was a collaborative cross-party report by all members of the Oireachtas housing committee.

We approached this review with an understanding and acknowledgement of the opportunity that vacant and derelict buildings across this country could provide in terms of housing. We met over four sessions, during which we brought in people with extensive experience. We heard expert advice from a range of participants and expert witnesses, including from researchers from the National Economic and Social Council, NESC; academics from University College Dublin, UCD, and Technological University Dublin; architects from UCD and practising architects; civil society groups and active transport groups; local government management personnel; and senior officials from Departments. A range of experts assisted us in looking at all the different facets of urban regeneration. We believe that vacant and derelict buildings across the country, in every town, village and city, can add to the housing supply which we so badly need. Many towns have kilometres of vacant second-storey and third-storey floors, which would be ideal as smaller homes and one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, for which we know there is a great demand.

Bringing old and empty buildings back to life would bring life and vibrancy back into our towns. It would bring footfall onto the streets. We have seen throughout Ireland, over the decades when building continuously sprawled out, that the attention was taken away from town centres. Our planning system was looking outwards the entire time. Development was spread over greenfield site after greenfield site, with three-bedroom semi-detached properties. It confined people to long commutes. It was unsustainable development by any definition.

If we want to stop the hollowing out of our towns, especially rural towns, it is my view and the view of the committee that we need to start looking inwards again. We need to consider how we regenerate and bring life back to our towns and bring footfall onto our streets. Doing this would keep local shops open. It would support local businesses. We have seen in recent years how local businesses have struggled. It would bring more customers back into towns. It would generate more business. When one shop opens, because of the increase in footfall, another shop opens. People see that businesses can succeed. It would bring that vibrancy back to our towns, the way they used to be. When one looks at old pictures of Irish towns from years ago, one sees that there was life and vitality in them.

We have seen from digitisation, working from home, and the rural broadband roll-out that it is possible for some workers to have the flexibility to live in rural and commuter towns. It reduces the commute into the city, which helps with climate action by reducing transport emissions. It reduces the time people are stuck in traffic. In my constituency, people can be stuck in long commutes along the N11 the whole time, which is a terrible waste of people's time in the morning. They should be able to work from home in rural towns and villages throughout Wicklow. Not only would it help the climate by reducing transport emissions, but also because there is an amount of embodied carbon in every one of those buildings throughout our towns and villages. That concrete has already been poured. Those buildings are in existence. If we could concentrate on refurbishing them and retaining that carbon rather than demolishing them or continuously building new properties and pouring new concrete, it would make perfect sense in terms of keeping that carbon locked in.

When the population of a town centre increases, it also makes the provision of services more viable. When there is dispersed settlement and towns have small populations, it is hard to provide public transport services. It is just not viable and it is hard to provide many of the other public services that go with it. When there are economies of scale and town population sizes are brought back to what they should be, it makes it more viable to provide bus services, community services and public services, such as libraries and entertainment - everything that goes with living in a town. It is not just about having a house. It is about actually living in the town. It is about community. It is about a breathing, living, happy place to be.

The type of work involved in refurbishing and renovating these buildings would suit smaller builders as well. Energy retrofits of all houses and commercial buildings will take place across the entire country. With the refurbishment of vacant buildings, it means that the work would exist locally or regionally. It would cut down on the need to travel for many people in construction. Not only would it support those local builders, but it would also support the local supply chain and the ancillary businesses that go with it.

Providing homes in our towns from the vacant and empty stock makes sense from a social, economic and environmental perspective. That is the very definition of sustainable development. Our committee deliberations recognised that it is not enough to fill an entire town with people. It is not enough to populate every second and third floor in every vacant building. It would create a very busy place but not necessarily a nice place to live. We recognise quite clearly that the population growth must be matched with other actions. In that way, the development of buildings or lands would encourage people to live in the town. It must be matched with nice public spaces to sit and meet and to enjoy the town for socialising.

We also need to concentrate on transport within towns. We must create safe pedestrian routes for people to walk, as well as safe cycling routes to school. Not so long ago, 20 or 30 years ago, many children cycled and walked to school. That number has completely flipped because we concentrated on car dominance and allocated so much of the space in our towns to driving through them. The objective in vehicle transport should be to allow people to get to the town but not necessarily give them the full dominance to go through the town. That should be reserved for people and children walking and cycling, for pedestrians around our town.

The report contains 39 recommendations and each one could help us to regenerate our towns and homes. I look forward to the opportunity to consider and discuss the report today. I wish to highlight a number of the recommendations. I know many people have had the chance to read the report.

It is not a very long report, only 30-odd pages, and it is very well put together. Some of the recommendations stand out as key. For example, recommendation No. 1 is that a "single national platform be created to integrate, compile and effectively organise existing and future data on vacancy and dereliction into a national data set, to be made to be made publicly accessible through the use of GIS and other spatial visualisation technologies."

Another recommendation is that the Department conduct an audit of all local authorities and other related agencies, including the GeoDirectory, to capture what data sets they have with regard to land management, vacancy, dereliction and housing more specifically. The committee made that recommendation because it became very clear during our meetings that there are data being collected by a whole series of agencies, civil society groups and Government agencies, but we do not pull them all together into one place. We need to pull those data together, which is what the committee recommended.

The committee suggested the Department agree with local authorities that a percentage of new and social affordable housing output should come from vacant and derelict properties. It is important that we set that target for our local authorities. That includes the repair and lease scheme, where we copy those local authorities that are successful and doing it well and try to replicate that through our other local authorities. The process is in place. We have to look at why some local authorities, such as Waterford City and County Council, Louth County Council and Limerick City and Council, are hitting good targets, while a number of other have not produced any additional housing through repair and lease. We need to concentrate on what works and fix those areas that are not working. When we know where the vacancy is, we have to look at how we will bring it back into use.

The committee recommends the establishment of a one-stop regulatory approvals process. We need to improve the regulatory process to make it simpler and easier for somebody to refurbish a house. We need to address the complexity of some building regulations and ensure standards are not reduced but the process is simplified. In addition, we want there to be robust oversight, certification and inspection of building works. There should be no self-certification. The report makes a number of other recommendations, which I look forward to discussing later. I thank members of the committee for their time in compiling this report.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this discussion and thank the committee Chair and members for their consideration of this very important report to inform Government policy.

The topic of urban regeneration is central to solving many of the challenges that face our country. Urban decay, retail vacancy and depopulation are unwelcome symptoms of the challenges we continue to face in our towns and cities. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, and I will continue to study the recommendations of this report and will comprehensively respond to them in the near future. The recommendations generally span many of the themes the Government is addressing. In that respect, and before I respond to the full report, I welcome this opportunity to advise Deputies on what the Government is doing and what can be done on these themes.

The Government launched the town centre first policy in February last. The policy is very much aimed at progressing the challenges in urban areas and towns around the country, in particular tackling the issues of vacancy, local transport, quality public spaces, housing and economic development that are very important in delivering regeneration in its broadest sense. The provisions of the town centre first policy are an important step forward in highlighting the importance of urban regeneration and the need to properly develop and invest in our urban areas. Town centre first provides a range of tangible staffing, funding and other resource supports to those seeking to progress and deliver regeneration initiatives. These measures are aimed at both local and national level to ensure co-ordination and delivery of the benefits to the citizen wherever they can be experienced. I note as well that town centre first is a collaborative, bottom-up approach aimed at animating communities towards heritage-led regeneration.

Addressing vacancy and maximising the use of existing housing stock is a primary objective of this Government, as demonstrated by one of our four pathways dedicated solely to this area in the new Housing for All strategy. Housing for All outlines a suite of measures aimed at addressing vacancy in a co-ordinated and robust manner. These include a local authority-led programme to help local authorities buy or compulsory purchase 2,500 vacant homes in their areas, which can be sold on the open market, ensuring these homes do not lie vacant; reform of the fair deal scheme to remove disincentives to selling or renting unused homes; and the Croí Cónaithe towns initiative, which will be delivered by local authorities for the provision of serviced sites for housing to attract people to build their own homes and to support the refurbishment of vacant properties, enabling people to live in small towns and villages in a sustainable way. These measures are added to the possible vacant property tax being considered by the Department of Finance, in addition to the residential zoned land tax, which was included in the Finance Act 2021 to incentivise the activation of residential development land, including vacant or idle mixed-use land in settlements, as a replacement for the vacant site levy.

In terms of vacancy and dereliction data measurement, which is outlined in the report, I appreciate the significance given by the committee’s recommendations to the accuracy and completeness of data on this important issue. The committee was briefed on the range of available national data sources and also some of the current limitations to this information. Data on vacancy emerging from Census 2022 will need to be carefully examined in this regard. However, there is no doubt a serious and widespread vacancy issue exists across the country and further investigation is required to better understand the nature and extent of the problem in order to most effectively deploy funding and resources to tackle it.

My Department is developing a survey methodology for locating vacant housing at local level, in conjunction with the Housing Agency, the Central Statistics Office, CSO, and the local government sector to more accurately determine the levels of vacancy. I note there are other methodologies out there, such as the collaborative town centre health check, which gets to the heart of some of the vacancy issues across the country.

While the committee’s recommendations on repair and leasing are being examined, it is important to point out that the existing scheme has already been augmented since that scheme was established. The 2022 allocation of €12 million for the repair and leasing scheme will support bringing more than 120 properties back into use and the ongoing work of the local authority vacant homes units. The repair and leasing scheme is a crucial initiative in tackling vacancy under Housing for All because in addition to providing social housing, it also has additional benefits in terms of regeneration, employment and investment in local areas. It assists private property owners, local authorities and approved housing bodies, AHBs, in utilising existing vacant housing unit stock throughout the country for social housing. The scheme provides upfront funding for any works necessary to bring properties up to the required standard and in return, the property owner agrees to lease the dwelling to the local authority to be used for social housing for a period of between five and 25 years.

Recent changes in the scheme to assist in delivery include the November 2020 increase in the maximum cost of repairs allowable under the scheme from €40,000 to €60,000, including VAT. Local authorities have reported increased interest in the scheme and it is expected that this will be seen in delivery of units in the coming years. Where a property owner is bringing more than one dwelling in a single development into the scheme, the funds available, for example, €60,000 including VAT per dwelling, may be apportioned between a number of dwellings once total funding for all dwellings does not exceed €60,000 per dwelling, subject to a maximum spending limit. Housing for All committed to supporting local authorities to drive an expanded uptake of the scheme.

Deputies will note that the primary objective of the vacant site levy is to act as a mechanism to incentivise the development of vacant and underutilised sites in urban areas for both the provision of housing and the development and renewal of land, thereby facilitating the most efficient use of such land and sites, enabling them to be brought into beneficial use, rather than allowing them to remain dormant and undeveloped.

The vacant site levy provisions under the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015 provide that the levy will apply to vacant sites exceeding 0.05 ha on residential or regeneration land, as designated in local development plans that meet the relevant criteria. The levy can be applied to vacant sites regardless of ownership, either public or private. In this context, local authorities and public bodies are liable for the charge if the criteria for a vacant site are met.

The Derelict Sites Act 1990 imposes a general duty on every owner and occupier of land to take all reasonable steps to ensure the land does not become or continue to be a derelict site. The Act also imposes a duty on local authorities to take all reasonable steps, including the exercise of appropriate statutory powers, to ensure any land within their functional area does not become or continue to be a derelict site. Again, noting the theme of enforcement in the recommendations, it is important to recognise that the Department intends to engage with local authorities in order to ensure more proactive and effective enforcement of the provisions of the legislation. At the moment, it is considered that the Act is not being implemented as effectively as it could be, nor is it achieving its full potential. The Department also intends to review the Act with a view to improving the effectiveness as it has been place since 1990.

On resourcing, the recommendations also refer to the importance of qualified and resourced departments and sections in our local authorities as well as within the Department to support urban regeneration objectives. I met recently with the Association of Architectural Conservation Officers. Again, we have a huge inconsistency across the country where many local authorities do not even have an architectural conservation officer, ACO, in place. The Department is committed to carrying out a review with the County and City Management Association, CCMA, to try to address those deficits. ACOs play a critical role in trying to unlock the potential of, in particular, heritage buildings across the country.

Recent resourcing initiatives to support objectives in addressing vacancy includes the local authorities’ vacant homes action plans, all of which have been developed to identify the scale of vacant homes in their administrative areas and to set ambitious but realistic targets of the number of vacant homes that can ultimately be brought back into use, whether for private sale or rent or for social housing purposes.

My Department is also ensuring each local authority is provided with a vacant homes officer operating on a full-time basis. This resource will create a central point of contact for those interested in bringing existing buildings into residential use and assisting owners in addressing regulatory requirements related to this process. This will work to identify and develop local initiatives to tackle vacancy in concert with the wider local authority and others.

The urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, was launched in 2018 to deliver more compact and sustainable development in support of the objectives of the national planning framework and the national development plan. The fund provides part-funding for projects that will enable a greater proportion of residential and mixed-use development to be delivered within the existing built-up footprints of our cities and large towns while also ensuring more parts of our urban areas can become attractive and vibrant places in which people choose to work and live.

The significant URDF pipeline of projects is focused on integrated strategic development areas, combining a number of elements and schemes that support wider climate action objectives and liveability factors within our cities and towns. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 constraints, restrictions and consequential economic impacts, the programme of URDF supported transformational regeneration and rejuvenation projects will take on an increased importance in its potential in the medium to longer term to provide a catalyst for economic and social renewal. While programmes such as the URDF and the sister rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF, operated by the Department of Rural and Community Development, are primarily intended to support wider town regeneration, these programmes also facilitate optimal use and reuse of existing properties and contribute to the creation of conditions conducive to housing developments in towns.

Combined, this investment is making a substantial difference to the liveability of these areas. Further calls for funding under the URDF will separately address the needs of cities and towns, and aligned with the approach under the RRDF, which deals with towns below a population of 10,000, specific criteria will be included to encourage the activation of vacant properties within the overall vision for towns and to bring stock back into productive use.

I look forward to the discourse and debate. This is an area of great importance for Government. We know that we have a great challenge ahead of us but the suite of Government policies and plans I have outlined go some way towards addressing these challenges. I welcome this report. The Minister of State, Deputy Burke, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and I will give it active consideration and will see how it dovetails with the projects and plans that are already in place.

Deputy Ó Broin is sharing time with Deputy Gould.

I thank the Chairman of our committee, Deputy Matthews, not only for chairing the sessions that led to this report but also because it was, in fact, his proposition to the committee to do a dedicated series of public hearings and to produce this report, not only because it is an important matter for him but also because he knew it was also an issue of significant concern to ourselves.

I also acknowledge that it was a very collegiate series of engagements where there was a great deal of cross-party and cross-Government and Opposition support for the recommendations that are in front of us here today. That speaks to the importance of this issue both as a constituency issue for many of us in our electoral areas in respect of the centrality of tackling vacancy to deal with the housing crisis and with the regeneration of our villages, towns and city centres, and crucially, as outlined by Deputy Matthews, in playing a very important part in addressing the carbon footprint of residential development, particularly in the context of the upcoming sectoral emissions targets that will apply as much to the embodied carbon of the built environment as anything else.

Before I comment on the report in front of us, it is important we reflect a little bit upon where we have come from in the past five years because the previous Government's housing plan, Rebuilding Ireland, had an entire section, one of its five pillars, dedicated to tackling the scourge of vacancy. Deputy Coveney, who was the then Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, went much further than that and produced an entire document and strategy with a very long list of proposals and measures to tackle the issue of vacancy. Yet here we are, five years on with a change of Government and all the targets that were in that section of Rebuilding Ireland, together with those in Deputy Coveney's vacant homes strategy, have been missed. The level of vacancy in our cities, towns and villages is the same as it was back in 2016, whether one looks at the census, GeoDirectory or any other measure. The three key funding streams that were introduced by the previous Government - repair and lease, buy and renew, and the rolling €80 million Housing Agency fund - all missed their targets by a colossal amount. We have had a tiny amount of vacancy brought back into use through those schemes, despite the very ambitious claims made by the Government at the time.

The reason I say this is not to dwell on the past, but if we want to ensure we do not repeat those mistakes, we have to understand what the problems were. Repair and lease was a very badly designed scheme. It did not address the varying costs of vacancy in different cities. It worked in Waterford because property prices were much lower and refurbishment levels were also lower but it was never a viable option in Dublin. Buy and renew was the same. It worked very successfully in Louth, albeit from a low base, but in the large urban centres of Cork, Dublin and elsewhere, again the allocations of funding were insufficient. The Housing Agency rolling fund of €80 million was too slow and bureaucratic and did not meet any of its targets.

Crucially, despite the fact the principles underlying all three schemes were positive, there was no stick to go with the carrot. Former Deputy Eoghan Murphy, as people will remember, when he was appointed as Minister by the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, was given three tasks, one of which was to explore the introduction of a vacant property tax. The Government commissioned an expensive consultant to produce a report for the Department of Finance. No housing policy expertise was brought to bear in that report, the report recommended not to proceed with the tax and the idea was quietly dropped. The lesson from that is that you cannot work with the carrot alone. There must be a penalty for people who wilfully sit on vacant properties. I have said over and over again that wilfully sitting on a vacant property for no good reason at the height of housing crisis is akin to hoarding food in a famine. It should not be allowed and there should be a heavy penalty. The sooner that happens, the better.

I have some concerns about the current Government’s housing plan and I hope the Government and the lead Minister reflects carefully on these cross-party recommendations because, notwithstanding the list of measures the Minister of State has just outlined, the actual target for returning vacant units back into active residential use in the Government’s housing plan are incredibly modest, especially when you think that the most reliable dataset that we have of the current level of vacancy, limited and all that it is, is GeoDirectory, which estimates there are approximately 90,000 vacant properties throughout the State. Yet, between Croí Cónaithe towns, the full details of which we still do not know, and the use of local authority compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, we might be looking at perhaps 5,000 units being brought back into active use from vacancy and dereliction from now until 2025, which is far too small a proportion.

It is deeply disappointing the Minister, Deputy O’Brien, is repeating the same misrepresentation of what are called voids as Eoghan Murphy did. There are virtually no voids left in the local authority housing stock. Anyone who knows their own local authority will know that. The so-called voids programme the Minister constantly refers to is actually a top-up fund for casual relets. When someone moves out of an existing council property, and because of the age of the property it costs more than the standard amount to refurbish, the Department provides an additional sum of money to ensure there is no delay in the casual reletting of that property. Presenting these properties as voids, however, is almost like saying mysteriously, every year, there are several thousand long-term vacant social housing units being brought back into stock. This is not true. The Minister, Deputy O’Brien, was as critical of Eoghan Murphy as I am of the Minister, Deputy O’Brien, now when Eoghan Murphy used this same misrepresentation. I urge the Minister to be more honest with people about that particular measure.

With respect to the recommendations here, I would like to pick out the few I believe are most important. The very fact there is a range of recommendations means there is equal weighting from committee members, but I would like to state the number of actions which are absolutely key. One of the things that worries me about the current Government’s housing plan, and indeed with the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan’s recitation of some of the measures, is that if there are too many measures, we do not focus on the very important ones and not as much gets done. If there are a smaller number of higher priority actions, a greater level of vacancy can be addressed.

The first issue is the data and, in fairness, both Deputy Matthews and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, mentioned this. We have to do what Scotland has done. We had very good testimony from expert academics from UCD as to the success of Scotland's methodology for counting vacancy, for separating out the different kinds of vacancy, and filtering that information down to the relevant local agency or authority so it knows not just the total number of vacant properties but also where they are, what they are and which ones can be actively brought into use.

That we are five or six years from Rebuilding Ireland and are still asking for that data is a shame. The Government should undertake the exercise as a matter of urgency. In her presentation to the committee, Ms Orla Murphy set out very clearly what it should look like. That is starting point number one.

Second, it makes no sense for the State to invest, albeit too modestly, in my view, in social and affordable housing and not have specific targets for the delivery of social and affordable housing from vacant and derelict stock. If we are going to deliver 9,000 or 10,000 social homes a year and 2,000 to 4,000 affordable homes as per the Government's housing plan, then a percentage should be from vacant sites. It would differ from local authority to local authority because of the nature of their stock but overall it should be 20% to 25% of all new public house building. Local authorities respond to strict targets and we have to integrate that into our public house building programme as a matter of urgency.

Third is the vacant property tax. There was a very interesting exchange during the launch of this report when the media picked up on what it believed was mixed messages from the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Taoiseach over whether we would see a vacant property tax in the budget in October. In fairness to Deputy McAuliffe, he reiterated his strong support for a vacant property tax. I do not doubt his sincerity at all. However, the great concern for many of us is that information put in the public domain from the Department of Finance suggests that Deputy McAuliffe's strong support for this very sensible idea is not necessarily shared with the same enthusiasm by the Minister for Finance or his officials. We will not know until budget day but I urge the Deputies opposite to use as much influence as they can to ensure that vital tool is in the toolkit come budget day in October. If we do not have a vacant property tax, without a stick to ensure that those who are wilfully sitting and, in many cases, speculatively on vacant properties for no good reason are punished for doing so, many of the other measures here will fall exactly the same way that the measures in the previous Government's plan, which is well-intentioned and successful at the edges but will not make a profound difference.

The housing crisis is getting worse. Homelessness has breached 10,000 adults and children officially according to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We could be looking at nearly 11,000 adults and children in emergency accommodation in a matter of months if the current rates continue to accelerate. In Dublin, there are approximately 1,000 homeless families but 20,000 vacant homes. You do not have to be a genius to do the maths. If we want to end homelessness, provide good-quality social and affordable housing, revitalise our city, town and village centres and tackle the pressing issue of zero-carbon built environments, this is the key. This is what we must do first. Let us all work together to make sure in the months and years ahead that the recommendations in the report are realised and that we dramatically reduce vacancy and give families and single people the homes they desperately need and rightly deserve.

I agree with my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin. I welcome the report. I thank the chair and the committee. Sometimes we disagree and argue but in putting this housing and urban regeneration report together, people worked well because we need to come up with solutions, which the report outlines. There was extensive consultation with various groups that dedicate their time and energy to tackling dereliction and improving our towns, villages and cities. I thank all those who engaged in the process. I pay particular thanks to Dr. Frank O'Connor and Ms Jude Sherry from Anois. Myself and Deputy Ó Broin were in Cork city recently where we did a dereliction tour. It is a horrible thing to say but that is what we did. It was unbelievably shocking and heartbreaking to see the amount of dereliction and vacancy in my own city. But when I come up to Dublin and I travel along, the quays the same dereliction exists. If you go anywhere in the west, whether the little villages or big cities, you will see it. Historic, cultural and significant buildings are being left to rot in the centre of cities and towns. That is why the recommendations in this report need to be acted on. It is astounding that the joint committee can put together a report like this when surely the Department and previous Ministers knew this and failed to act. In my own county, we could clear the housing crisis and end homelessness if we tackled dereliction and vacancy. Some 9,990 properties are vacant in Cork alone according to GeoDirectory. Let us imagine what we could do but the Government has to have the will. As Deputy Ó Broin said, there must be a carrot and a stick. It is 32 years since the derelict site register came in. At the time the Minister for housing, Deputy Padraig Flynn said that dereliction had, unfortunately, become a growing problem in many towns and cities in Ireland and it was also taking away the attractiveness for inhabitants, tourists and potential industries.

So where are we now? We are in the exact same position. There are sites on the derelict site register that have been there for 32 years. These are buildings that could be homes for families and could be used to house new businesses but instead they are left go to rack and ruin and the people who are hoarding these properties are let get away scot-free. We think that is fundamentally wrong.

However, no measure of dereliction in villages, towns or cities exists. We do not have the data, as this report recognises. At the end of 2020, according to the derelict sites register there were 1,548 derelict sites in the State. I believe there are that many in Cork city and county alone. That shows just how out-of-touch the register is. I ask that the Minister take on board the reports recommendations. He should use the considerable resources available to him to catalogue the data on vacant sites that we need. The Derelict Sites Act has failed. It has not tackled dereliction. In 1995, five years after the Act came in, the then Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, said it was vital because developers were giving the finger to the corporations, as they were then. What is the difference now? A collection rate of 7% of the derelict sites register was applied in 2020. That compares with a 89% collection of council rates. How can we collect 7% of one levy and 89% of another? This is a no-brainer. At the end of the month the updated derelict sites levy collection data will be available. We all know that this data will not be up to date and that it will not be properly enforced. There is more than €12 million in untapped revenue that local authorities could generate, which could help turn these vacant properties and sites into homes. A lot of work has gone into this report. It needs to be delivered on now.

The Deputy has also raised some very challenging questions for local authorities.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to the report of the joint committee on urban regeneration. I commend Deputy Matthews and his colleagues on the really important work the committee has done. I offer the Labour Party's support for its recommendations, which chime very much with calls made by our spokesperson on housing, Senator Moynihan. They are sensible recommendations. Everyone across the country acknowledges the need to regenerate urban centres by bringing derelict or vacant properties back into use including, and especially, for social and affordable housing. It is such a crucial point. The stark and dramatic figures on homelessness, with more than 10,000 people in emergency accommodation last week, nearly 3,000 of whom are children, illustrate the extent to which we need to ensure effective measures are put in place to bring vacant properties back into use. That is not the only way to tackle the homelessness and housing crises but it is a big part of it.

That is acknowledged in this important report. Indeed, it was acknowledged earlier this week by the Raise the Roof campaign relaunch. I was glad to attend that along with many other colleagues and to hear Peter McVerry say that supply is a considerable issue. It is the big issue to address the housing crisis but it is also about affordable supply. Looking at how we can bring vacant and derelict properties back into use is one way to tackle the supply issue. The recommendations on the vacant homes tax and on changing the derelict sites levy to a derelict sites tax are sensible and effective.

Alongside that, there are crucial recommendations on improving our data. As others have said, a considerable issue and obstacle to bringing derelict properties back into usage is the fact that we lack an online, publicly accessible and up-to-date register of properties at which we can look. In my own area of Dublin Bay South, a very high proportion of our households, 44%, are private rental accommodation. There is considerable housing need and significant issues about affordability of rents in this constituency and yet, I see vacant and derelict properties on every street down which I walk or cycle. They could be brought back into use through a combination of the carrot and big stick. We have all been talking about that and it is acknowledged in this report.

I will also refer to the role of local authorities. The report acknowledges that it is not just about bringing measures into place. It is also about ensuring effective enforcement. My Labour Party colleagues who work as city and county councillors regularly convey to me their frustration at the way at which they are stymied by bureaucratic obstacles that prevent quick conversion of vacant and derelict sites. Senator Moynihan made this point in committee.

While local authorities are often scapegoated, we need to ensure there is adequate resourcing in place. We have called for the establishment of dedicated teams in local authorities, tasked with identifying vacant and derelict sites and bringing them back to active use. We have submitted a number of questions to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and to local authorities, which tell us that many local authorities employ, at most, one full-time vacant sites officer. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has just referred to funding being made available to ensure there is better staffing in local authorities. However, current staffing levels are clearly not adequate even to ensure enforcement of existing measures on vacant and derelict sites.

In response to a freedom of information request submitted by Senator Moynihan, it was revealed that even where local authorities have, through their existing staffing resources, identified vacant or derelict sites, they are facing enormous challenges in enforcing taxes and fines against owners and do not have enough guidance in respect of how to approach this problem. The co-ordinated approach advocated by this report is very much welcome.

We have also proposed that the Government would provide local authorities with emergency compulsory purchase order powers. That would be the ultimate big-stick approach. Again, however, local authorities would have to be sufficiently resourced to be able to exercise those powers effectively.

Those are the stick side of the measures. However, there is also the carrot side, which is the encouragement and support of property owners who have allowed sites to fall into dereliction, to bring them back into use. In Amsterdam, there is an interesting example of a policy whereby landowners are required to register property and, if the property has fallen into vacancy, they are encouraged to bring it back into use. Authorities work with users to help them make use of spaces and ensure there is sufficient support to do so. The owners go to the local authorities to look for meanwhile use of their site and there is incentive for landowners to reduce costs. It is seen as a cost to leave a site vacant. That is where we need to get to. Through a combination of incentives and taxes, we need to get to a point where it is too costly for an owner to leave a site, home, house or apartment empty or derelict and where local authorities and the Government are incentivising bringing sites back into use.

Urban regeneration is not just about social and affordable housing, although that has to be a key focus. That is acknowledged in the report. Urban regeneration policies are also about ensuring vibrant, active and positive communities for us all. This goes beyond simply bringing vacant properties back into usage. It means ensuring maintenance of face-to-face services and community centres. I will host a public meeting in Rathmines next week because we have seen the closure of the citizens information centre there. Even in busy urban centres, we are seeing a closure of face-to-face settings and community amenities such as post offices.

It is even more the case in rural areas. I was in County Westmeath on Monday, in a wonderful community hall in Rochfortbridge. I heard about real concerns about rural degeneration there with the closure of post offices, banks, Garda stations and many of the other settings and community facilities where people would have had the face-to-face contact that is essential for a vibrant public realm and space.

The report acknowledges that this goes beyond housing. This is about creating better and more sustainable public spaces. Very welcome is the acknowledgement of the need to combine planning and urban regeneration policies with active transport and travel policies to plan for public transport, cycling and walking infrastructure to facilitate the development of meaningful and sustainable communities. I commend Deputy Matthews and those involved in this report. I hope the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is listening to this and that we will see these important recommendations swiftly brought into effect.

I like Deputy Bacik's phrase that this goes beyond housing, because too much of the debate on vacancy and dereliction focuses on our immediate need in terms of supply. I heard Deputy Gould suggest that we could tackle the entire housing crisis if we tackled dereliction alone. Of course we know that is not true. We need significant numbers of new builds and we need new supply. That is not to say we do not need to tackle dereliction but, like everything in the housing crisis, it will not be solved by one measure or a simplistic slogan.

There are many reasons for vacancy and dereliction, which can be divided into a number of different areas. The Drake Inn is a famous derelict site in Finglas. The old sack factory sits in Santry. Anybody who drives through Phibsborough will see the old mill. These are known sites which, in many cases, have been vacant or derelict for decades. In a similar way, we have some homes in housing estates that also have been unoccupied and derelict for decades. It is always for a multiple of reasons. It can often be due to a person's capacity or ability to tackle the problem. It may be the person's financial capacity or other challenges in his or her life. Alternatively, it may be because of complex legal titles on a large site or complex legal ownership issues.

In all of this, we have to adopt active land management. Local authorities need to roll up their sleeves, identify sites, owners and solutions and deliver results for their communities. Regardless of what we do in terms of legislation in this House, it will only be solved by our local authorities on the ground. Any of the big sites I talked about in the centre of our villages will increase supply but, more than that, they will tackle what is eating away at our villages and towns.

I welcomed Housing for All last year because specific and definite measures are now available, both to owners and local authorities, to tackle vacancy and dereliction. Let me take as an example the site I mentioned earlier of the old pub at the centre of Finglas village known as The Drake Inn. That site has been derelict for some time. Housing for All has a number of measures that allows its owner to activate the site. First, we have made changes in terms of planning, to make it easier for that person to build on the old pub on a small scale. Second, the Croí Cónaithe cities scheme will allow the owner of that property, in an open-book process, to apply for below-cost, owner-occupied apartments. We have talked a lot about apartments only being available to rent. Croí Cónaithe cities, which many Members have criticised in this House, prioritise owner-occupied, below-the-cost-of-construction homes. It is available for the owner or developer of that site to apply to the Croí Cónaithe scheme, with the Government subventing it in order to make it viable. It is not that we want to give developers €100,000. We want to make sure that those homes are built. At present, it is not viable to build on that empty site, which is why it has been empty for 30 years.

In terms of the capacity of a person, there may be issues going on in his or her life. The person may have other challenges and may not be able to develop the site. The local authority has to be able to step in.

We want to have an easier, more streamlined compulsory purchase process, because local authorities are too afraid to issue compulsory purchase orders, CPOs. Every Member of this House knows about a complicated site on which a council has spent too much money, yet that example is thrown at us repeatedly when we ask why councils will not develop other sites. We need a simplified process. In the context of Housing for All, I welcomed the Housing Agency providing a more streamlined pathway for CPOs and allowing local authorities to use CPO powers. The Housing Agency is meeting banks and An Post to talk about properties. We have tools that will help owners and developers, which I have outlined, and we also have tools to allow local authorities to develop.

There is no excuse for any local authority not to build public housing. There is so much money on the table. The Government has made all of the money that is needed available. There are many different options, including building cost-rental, affordable purchase or council housing. They can do that all on the sites I mentioned in our towns and villages that have been lying idle. They need to use CPOs and apply to the Department, but all the tools are available. One wonders what would happen if they spent a lot of money buying and developing a site and proved to be either below or above the viable cost. However, the cost of it lying idle is far greater to a community. Like a cancer, dereliction eats away at neighbouring buildings. We all know that; we do not need this report to tell us. The tools are there in Housing for All. Some have yet to be rolled out but, by and large, the financing and tools are all there for local authorities to avail of. I encourage them to avail of the tools. We should shame them if they do not do so.

I thank the committee Chair, Deputy Matthews, for initiating this report and for the skill with which he chaired meetings, with a large number of outside bodies coming in. The members of the committee tried to engage with them, and then there was the complex process of putting the report together. Deputies Gould and Ó Broin are correct that this was a very collegiate report. There is much that we can agree on. The issue of data is crucial. The Government stated last year that it was going to identify the data relating to this issue because people hold different views about how many vacant units there are. Even if there are only ten vacant units, I am of the view that a vacant homes tax is needed to deal with them. Of course, there are not ten; there are far more than that. There are anything between 90,000 and 134,000 homes that are vacant. The Government committed to collect the relevant data last year.

We need a vacant homes tax. I know it will not be a silver bullet. The Taoiseach recently stated that it might not result in the number of units people thought it might. As I said at the press conference about this report and as I informed the Taoiseach, we have to take the same approach to housing as we did to Covid. We need a whole-of-government response. A vacant home tax is one of those tools. It is only one, but it is important. I would be incredibly disappointed if this Government, having committed last year to putting in place a process for identifying the data, did not follow through and put in place a vacant homes tax. I say on the record of this House that if it is not included in the budget next year, Deputy Ó Broin will throw it back at me. I would welcome him doing so, because I am saying to my own Government that we need a vacant homes tax.

I welcome the report. I also welcome how it will address all of the issues to which I refer. I welcome the collegial way in which we put it together. Like so much of our housing policy, I look forward to it being implemented by fantastic local authority members across the country. We had a meeting of Fianna Fáil local authority members from the councils in Meath, Cavan, Kildare and several other counties recently. The issue of dereliction and vacancy was raised at that meeting. It is a challenge for local authorities and their members.

I thank Deputy McAuliffe for sharing time. I thank the members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, particularly the Chair, Deputy Matthews, for and commend them on their work. The 39 recommendations are interesting, to say the least. They cover quite a wide range of issues relating to urban regeneration, specifically dereliction and vacant properties. As my colleague, Deputy McAuliffe, rightly stated, we are all aware of derelict sites that have been plaguing areas across the country for many years. Many of us have been local authority members. The Derelict Sites Act is often mentioned in replies from local authorities as being the instrument they can use. There are alleged pitfalls after that. One local authority I would like to commend on the work it has done is Monaghan County Council. It has used the Derelict Sites Act several times in town centres to issue CPOs in respect of land, sites and buildings. This is not necessarily about housing specifically. It can be about land or buildings zoned for commercial use. It can also be about individual properties. It can be complex or there can be financial concerns or issues within families or various entities, but ultimately, the site being vacant or derelict causes a problem.

I agree with the committee's recommendation to establish a national register that is publicly available. We need to get to the bottom of it and to know how many sites there are. We need to segregate those that are derelict from those that are vacant. In Dún Laoghaire, there is a site that we have been in relentless contact with the local authority about. A colleague of mine on the council there, Justin Moylan, has taken up the mantle. Only after several representations about the matter did the council push the landowner to do something. It has plagued the locality for a long time.

CPOs are the last resort. It should be a matter of using the carrot and the stick and encouraging landowners to utilise sites to the best of their ability. Ultimately, if regeneration of a site is required, so be it. However, landowners must maintain their sites. The committee has done an exceptional job at coming up with these recommendations. I hope the Department will be able to take action in respect of many of them. Housing for All allows for that. I thank the committee again for its contribution.

I thank and commend the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for its work on this report. Regeneration is particularly important in the south inner city, in particular the constituency of Dublin Bay South. When we talk about regeneration and derelict sites, we have to consider that Dublin City Council has residents living in overcrowded conditions every day on what can only be described as derelict sites. The Government has given approval to stage 1 of the project relating to Pearse House. Pearse House will undergo redevelopment and regeneration. I was on Ross Road recently, not too far from here. I saw a plaque on the wall relating to a development that occurred around 2000. It was a quote that came from community consultation and stated that the renovation was completed in September 2000. If a place is not maintained, however, it will fall into disrepair, and over time, the people living there will become demoralised and the place will go back to the way it was before. That was on the wall of a regenerated development on Ross Road. It is ironic that it was erected by Dublin City Council, because it seems it does not listen to its own advice.

People are demoralised. Some are even broken. They are furious and they will not take this anymore. Expecting people to live in Pearse House, Canon Mooney Gardens or Leo Fitzgerald House is completely unacceptable. They are modern day tenements. People talk about the architecture of the buildings designed by Herbert Simms. There is no doubt that they are beautiful buildings, but they are not suitable for the families living in them. Certain individuals are more concerned about the architecture than other people's living conditions. Dublin City Council has neglected inner-city communities for too long. They will not take it anymore. When one walks around Rathmines, Pearse House, Mercer House and other flat complexes, one sees the neglect.

There are shocking conditions internally and externally. There is wiring, damp and rats. Illegal dumping is allowed to go unchallenged and unchecked. No families should be allowed to live in conditions Dublin City Council is overseeing. I was in Markievicz House, not too far from here, in the centre of Dublin city meeting residents with my colleague, Councillor Daniel Céitinn. One resident told us how faeces and urine were coming up through her sink so she had to go out and unblock the drain. As a result of her unblocking the drain it did not come up into her flat but it came out onto the public area. Urine and faeces were literally running along the footpath 20 ft. from a playground.

It is absolutely mad that Dublin City Council and the Government are not showing any sense of urgency around the regeneration of flat complexes. Canon Mooney Gardens in Ringsend was due for regeneration ten years ago but the Government and council ran out of money and it was dropped from the list for regeneration. Now they cannot get the regeneration and redevelopment they desperately need. They are just being fobbed off day in, day out with crumbs from the table, a flowerpot here and there, as if that is going to make any difference to the quality of their lives. It is completely mad. I was in a meeting with Dublin City Council and residents from St. Andrew's Court about four years ago. A design team has been appointed but it has not met with residents yet. I accept we have gone through Covid but the pace of redevelopment of St. Andrew's Court is glacial. Pearse House is supposed to be going through redevelopment. If I go down there and tell residents about the regeneration, half of them will not believe me and half will be extremely sceptical. They just do not believe it is going to happen. There is no real communication. Dublin City Council estate managers work with what they have and do a good job in what they have to work with. There is not enough resources being put in to communicate with residents, explaining the process and how they are going to see their community transformed. Residents in Pearse House and right across the inner city cannot be allowed live in these conditions any more. It just cannot be acceptable in 2022 to allow families be reared in overcrowded, dirty, unsafe conditions.

I welcome the report and commend my Green Party colleague, Deputy Matthews, who put extraordinary energy and passion into the report. He was ably assisted by his colleagues on the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I welcome the presence of the Minister of State to hear the debate. I recall a conversation with him about two years ago when we were in the programme for Government talks. He might recall that we had a row. We were trying to get the idea of town centres first into the programme for Government. We had a row about whether this was rural or urban regeneration. The truth is that both of us were wrong and both of us were right. Urban and rural regeneration are inexplicably linked. The urban-rural divide is an utterly unhelpful construct that has served neither urban nor rural Ireland. They need each other. We need strong, urban areas that serve our rural areas and vice versa.

Having said all that, we absolutely need to be sensible about how we manage our urban and rural areas. I want to talk about my home city of Limerick and tell a story of Limerick from the last 50 years. It is probably the story of many of our towns and cities. Limerick was a small, compact medieval and Georgian city. Then in the mid-20th century, with the advent of the motor car and the decisions around transport infrastructure and traffic management, we saw the suburbanisation of my home city. Large suburbs such as Castletroy and Annacotty, Dooradoyle, Raheen and Westbury were built at the very edge of the old, historic Limerick city, far enough out that people needed to drive in. They could not walk or cycle and certainly when we did not plan for walking and cycling infrastructure, it made that a difficult way to get back into the city. Uniquely in Limerick, or perhaps also arguable in Waterford - Deputy Ó Cathasaigh might agree - the local authority boundary issue contributed to the suburbanisation of the city.

This proliferation of development at the very edges of our rural areas correlates with the dereliction and decline of our urban areas. The point I am making is that urban sprawl and urban dereliction are two sides of the same coin. They go hand in hand. In Limerick, all is not lost. In parallel with suburbanisation and dereliction it was actively recognised and there were efforts over the last 40 or 50 years, despite the general tide of edge of city development, to stem that tide. I think my colleagues will agree that, despite the bad decisions that have been made, Limerick remains a beautiful city and I think we can improve on it.

The Minister of State came to Limerick last Friday. We in Limerick were very happy that he came. He walked around the city and learned about Limerick and its history. It was a fun day. We climbed the tower of St. Mary's Cathedral. It was the first time in my life I had ever been up there and it will probably be the last. They reserve that privilege for Ministers and their hangers on, as I was last Friday. The Minister of State listened to stakeholders, to An Taisce Limerick, the Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society and to Limerick Civic Trust.

I think we would be dishonest if we said we did not have concerns for Limerick. The challenges that Limerick city centre has are related to the decisions we have made, particularly around transport and traffic management. The dereliction and the treat to the historic medieval and Georgian fabric of Limerick city is linked to those decisions. It is also linked to the boundary issue, as I said, and to the priority the local authority gives to this built fabric. It is linked to the resources the local authority allocates and the approach of the architectural conservation officers, although we have an excellent architectural conservation officer in Limerick. This is connected to vacancy in our cities. Limerick is just like any other urban area in Ireland. We can see the same thing in Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Galway, any of the big towns or any of the villages. The story is not dissimilar.

I want to talk about the national planning framework. It is a really good step in the right direction. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, introduced the national planning framework in 2018. However, I think it misses a few tricks. It refers to compact growth, which is really important, but under the targets for compact growth 50% of the development is to be on greenfield sites. That is a real threat to our urban areas and what we could see if we do not refine and revise the national planning framework in the coming years. We could see further greenfield development, suburbanisation and therefore the decline of both rural and urban Ireland. That is not what any of us wants.

When we are talking about getting people back living in our villages, towns and cities, it is one thing to talk about the number of occupants per square kilometre. We have to talk beyond the numbers and talk about amenities and services and about what is there for the people who are going to live in the centres of our towns, cities and villages.

It is critical that everybody in this country would have access to nature, whether it is on their doorstep, very nearby or within walking or cycling distance. This is how we need to think about urban regeneration across Ireland.

Decisions we make on road space have a direct effect on the vitality of our urban centres. If the street outside your building is hostile, full of cars and noisy and has bad air quality and fast traffic that poses a risk to life and limb, why would you want to live there? Most people would not. What we see, therefore, is a vicious cycle whereby we make decisions that inevitably lead to a lowering of the attractiveness of buildings, including historic ones, in all our towns, villages and cities. We have to turn this around and make brave decisions on traffic management in every urban area because there is a direct correlation between urban decline and how we use space. We need to make it less hostile for people. We need to focus on landscaping and wide footpaths and enable people to walk and cycle around. We need safe, segregated cycle networks so everybody from the age of five and upwards can walk and cycle around his or her village, town or city.

There are several recommendations. Colleagues across the House have gone into the detail of the report. I welcome so much of it. With regard to the vacant homes tax, I certainly support and endorse Deputy McAuliffe's comments. The derelict sites legislation has been in place since 1990. It is really only recently that local authorities have started to take it seriously. My local authority, in Limerick, has done so. It is the leading local authority with respect to compulsorily purchasing homes across the city and county. It is having an effect on improving the vitality of our towns and villages and the city itself.

I welcome the recommendation that stresses the importance of interdisciplinary teams in our local authorities. These are critical if we are to make the right decisions.

An interesting recommendation, No. 3 on page 32, relates to how our use of space and decisions on traffic and transport can have a very serious impact on urban areas. It states: “That the Department engage with the Department of Transport to examine the feasibility of regulating advertisements in the private motor industry.” That is a very interesting recommendation and I certainly endorse it.

Many of those of us on this side of the House who are Green Party members were in Cloughjordan, County Tipperary, at the weekend. It was a fine day and I cycled up from Limerick city. I have been to Cloughjordan many times. It is a beautiful, old town — medieval in many ways — and it is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. It is where Town Centre First has been applied in the past decade or so. Some farsighted people decided that they should settle in the town and this has really led to its regeneration. It is a beautiful town, the exemplar that we should be following. It was an absolutely appropriate place for the Green Party to host its 40th birthday celebration last weekend. If we can apply the thinking that has been applied in Cloughjordan in the past ten or 15 years across all of urban and rural Ireland, we will create a better country.

I am sharing my time with Deputy Ó Cathasaigh. I congratulate my colleagues on their work at the housing committee on this report and their commitment to tackling the issue of vacancy. In particular, I thank my Green Party colleague and chairman of the committee, Deputy Matthews.

The discourse of the housing committee in this report has surfaced honest dialogue and debate and, thankfully, cross-party agreement. Our vacancy levels are incomprehensible, especially in a chronic housing crisis. It is time for a robust policy to be introduced and for a commitment by the Department to implement the 39 recommendations of the report. As Dr. Frank O'Connor said, and as quoted in the report: "The State is not upholding its side of this foundational social contract by allowing extreme levels of vacancy and dereliction to persist. This is a dereliction of duty."

The Green Party has long campaigned for robust policies on the issues associated with vacancy, most recently through the Town Centre First policy and its measures. I am very grateful to Miriam Delaney, Orla Murphy and Philip Crowe, among other academics. They have spent much of their academic careers studying and analysing our towns and villages, seeking solutions to the question of how to bring people back to the heart of these cultural centres. Town Centre First aims to streamline the process of refurbishing derelict properties, particularly those over shops and standalone vacant units, which have the potential to revive our towns and villages and attract employment while creating healthier and safer communities. The concepts of the 15-minute city and ten-minute town come to mind when thinking about the potential future of our urban communities.

The Green Party's Bill on vacancy, tabled by Deputy Matthews, has a strong proposal on how we should implement the vacant-site tax, which is based on the Vancouver model. In Vancouver, the tax gained $86.6 million in net revenue, which the authorities reinvested in affordable housing programmes in the city, seeing a 26% reduction in the number of vacant homes.

In the context of sustainability and reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the built heritage of our towns, cities and villages provides an opportunity to reuse our existing building stock, thereby reducing the amount of embodied carbon, and assist in meeting our climate change targets.

Our town centres, where one third of the Irish population live, have been carved out and hollowed. People do not live in them in the main. A new paradigm is required to bring communities back to our cultural quarters, where vacancy is utilised for living, working and social gatherings.

On foot of this report, I urge the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to make a commitment such that we will no longer be concerned about vacancy levels, ranked tenth highest in the world in terms of the proportion of homes that are vacant and looking at boarded-up homes in our urban centres. A robust vacancy tax will assist in alleviating the housing crisis by bringing more homes back into use.

The refurbishment of existing buildings in urban centres does not entail an easy or fast procurement process. The structures are complicated, sometimes with ancient histories that need to be carefully protected. However, I believe our towns and villages deserve investment and, dare I say, tender loving care, which will only benefit all our society, visitors and future generations.

I thank Deputy Duffy for agreeing to share time with me.

I will start with a nod to Waterford because it is mentioned throughout the report. The report is excellent and should be important if its recommendations are implemented. I hope it will become important.

Waterford is rightly mentioned in that it has led the way under the repair-and-lease scheme. This features mainly in our urban centres, precisely to whose heart there is a need to bring people. Waterford has also led the way with high-quality public-realm projects. It has invested heavily in these in Waterford city and Dungarvan and Tramore town centres. I must give the nod to the integrated homelessness service on Parnell Street, Waterford, which has helped to mitigate at least some of the issues related to homelessness. These issues are being experienced across the country.

I agree with Deputy Leddin that there is a false dichotomy between urban and rural. Waterford provides us with a microcosm of the whole country. We have Ireland's oldest urban centre in Waterford city.

We also have settlements such as Tramore and Dungarvan, which are greater than 10,000 and are mid-sized towns, and then smaller communities such as Cappoquin, Lismore and Ballymacarbry. All of these urban centres stand to be improved and to benefit from serious investment and a serious tackling of vacancy and dereliction.

I will be slightly partisan and I hope I will be forgiven for it. Notwithstanding the presence of the Ceann Comhairle and Deputy Ó Broin, we see the Green Party over-represented in the Chamber this evening. There is a sense that the Green Party is talking to itself a little bit here.

We are listening intently.

Funnily enough, this is what it sounds like when the Green Party talk among themselves. We bring a different lens to issues of this kind. We have made a significant contribution in this Government to reimagining how we approach the issue of housing. We take an ecological approach or a systems-based approach where we see these things as they knit themselves together. I hope we are bringing an element of policy coherence when we discuss housing. It is not just housing alone, and it is also the Town Centre First policy, the Our Rural Future policy, Connecting Ireland, where we begin to bring public transport between those communities, and the active travel funding that helps people to move around those urban centres. All of those knit together.

Homes are a physical expression of our social fabric and they are a relatively permanent expression of that. The decisions that we make in our built environment have long-lasting consequences. In the past few decades, we have allowed ourselves to become atomised. I have to wonder if that is an expression of the economic system and the extreme individualism that we see in neocapitalism. As Deputy McAuliffe said, not all housing is created equal. Dispersed housing patterns result in fragmented communities and that locks in transport emissions. It is very interesting that there is a specific chapter in this report on transport-oriented development, which is very progressive. Dispersed housing patterns undermine local services such as public transport and the face-to-face interaction that Deputy Bacik mentioned, such as in the local shop, the local school and the local pub. It makes services such as utilities, wastewater and local road infrastructure so much more challenging to provide. It pressurises our land use patterns and makes it difficult for us to improve forestry, agriculture and renewables. It makes all of those decisions so much more difficult to implement.

The opposite is also true. Good quality urban regeneration is going to do the opposite. It is going to knit communities together, sustain the local shop, the local school, the local pub and so on, and make it hugely easier for the Government to provide high-quality public services and high-quality public transport, for example.

In addition, dealing with vacancy and dereliction can address all of these issues but also take account in a meaningful way of embodied energy, embodied carbon and the embodied heritage skills and materials that are often built into these properties. Deputy Duffy referred to that and I know the Minister of State is very strong on the idea of heritage skills being used to regenerate our vacant and derelict properties.

Deputy Ó Broin referenced the idea of both stick and carrot. I broadly agree with that in respect of taxation, although we would be at variance in our approach to local property tax. The Deputy is dead set against it but I have a concern that we do not do a good job in this country of taxing wealth.

If we leave property out of that equation, it leaves a huge lacuna. Nonetheless, I am not convinced that the local property tax as currently constituted does all of the jobs that we need it to do. The taxes that are proposed in this report - the derelict sites tax and the vacant properties tax - are perhaps supplemental but I am not sure it is the direction we should actually be going. We have long been arguing for a site valuation tax, which would be a much more complete and powerful tool in taxing wealth, but also for activating sites and properties in our urban centres. A site valuation tax acknowledges that proportion of a site’s value that actually derives from the State's investment in the services that surround that property, and it is definitely a direction in which we would like to go.

Every one of us is looking for the same thing. We are looking for thriving cities and towns that are sustainable in terms of population, sustainable in terms of social interactions and social life and, most importantly from my perspective, sustainable in terms of community. We want measures that can tackle the homelessness and the housing crises that are affecting our communities. Within this very insightful report, we have a lot of recommendations that can put us on a pathway to deliver on these related goals if we take it seriously by targeting urban renewal. I agree with Deputy Gould that any report is only as good as its implementation but I have heard no voice pulling against this report in the Chamber this evening. Let us drive on. There are excellent recommendations here. Let us put them in place and let us make sure this is not a report that sits on a shelf gathering dust.

I thank all Members for their contributions and, equally, I am grateful for the contribution made by the committee members, which was very collaborative. There was a lot of support for the measures we have recommended. We have heard so much talk about dereliction and vacancy but without the figures, we do not know how much of it exists. The figure ranges from 180,000 down to 90,000 units. We have many people out there gathering data for the census, the CSO and the local authorities. The Heritage Council has brilliantly interacted with the committee and described the collaborative town centre health check proposals that it is going through. It is critical that we pull all of that information together now that we have it.

The old saying is that if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it. That exists with vacancy and derelict homes. We strongly recommend improved data collection. We strongly recommend a dedicated unit within the Department to pull all of this together and to manage it. There are people working on it in the Department but I do not believe there is a dedicated unit working on it. That would be one of the strong recommendations that we make and that I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to bring back to discuss with the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and the other Minister of State, Deputy Burke. Local authorities should also ensure they have vacant homes officers. I know the funding has been put in place so it is important we ensure the chief executives staff the local authorities with those vacant homes officers.

The assessments carried out by Dublin City Council are striking. We think there is a figure of, say, 137,000 units. The council did an assessment and it came back with a figure of 213 units. When it went through them, it then whittled it down to just 16 long-term vacant units. When we compare that to the CSO figure of 30,000 vacant units, it shows there is massive disparity and there is a lot of confusion. Another report was carried out by University College Cork that suggested that if we addressed all of the upper-floor vacancies in towns and villages, we could increase the population by 280% within our town centres. While that is probably too much to increase the population by, it demonstrates the potential. Moreover, Dublin City Council planners estimated there is enough space between the canals in Dublin to accommodate 4,000 apartments. It is critical that we pull all of this together so we know what we are going to do with it. It is important that we copy the repair and lease scheme that is working in the good councils.

Deputy Eoin Ó Broin referred to why it worked in Waterford, which was because the building costs are slightly lower there and Dublin is more expensive, but that is always going to be the case in a capital city where there is always that demand. That is not the reason in other local authorities. Some local authorities are just not paying any attention to it. We need to generate public interest in it as well. We need to advertise it, incentivise it and go out there and look for the properties, as other Deputies have mentioned. I believe that would work.

On the Croí Cónaithe fund and the CPO of the 2,600 units that are in Housing for All, I believe that will have a snowball effect. I believe that as more and more come on stream, businesses will open successfully, footfall increases and other businesses open. When we add all of the supports that are out there and the Housing for All incentives, and people start to see it as a vibrant possibility to live in the town centre, it will have a snowball effect. I believe this will become apparent.

I agree with Deputy Ó Broin that we need to target social and affordable units for vacancies and to set those targets. On the vacant homes tax, I have never heard every party agree that we should implement a tax.

It is important we do it. There need to be reasonable exemptions to it. A vacant holiday home is a reasonable exemption. A home where somebody is in long-term care or a vacant primary residence of a person working abroad are reasonable exemptions. A building going through substantial renovation work that is vacant for a period of time is reasonable. In the Vancouver model, 26% of vacant houses were brought back into stock. Even if we took the lowest figure of vacancy we have and brought 26% of that back into stock, that would be a substantial contribution to our housing stock.

Deputy Gould mentioned heritage buildings. This is a fantastic opportunity. Heritage buildings of architectural beauty are falling into disrepair. This is an opportunity not just to have people living in those buildings but to bring life back to the buildings. There is nothing worse than seeing an architectural gem just rotting away, damp and falling apart. By bringing life into it you bring life back into that building.

Deputy Bacik mentioned the regulatory process. I recently introduced a Private Members' Bill that suggests we streamline that process to make it simpler to refurbish and reuse buildings. It is a deterrent at the moment. We need to bring in a regulatory process that encourages people to develop, refurbish and reuse and does not stymie development by being so cumbersome and onerous that someone attempting to do it is so unsure they are going to get through the process, it is not worth it. Deputy Bacik also mentioned the post offices. I am delighted that this week the Government announced a long-term multi-annual support package for our post offices to ensure they remain vibrant and offer that central focal point for our town centres. These are places that people revolve around. We cannot afford to lose them from our streets. We cannot afford to lose our local shops. Bringing life and living back in supports the post office and the local shops.

Deputy McAuliffe is quite right. This is not a simple process. If it was that simple we would have done it years ago. There are many reasons houses and buildings are vacant. There is no single, simple solution that fits all. We need to apply a bit of stick as well. The dereliction tax and the vacancy tax are how we should do that. We introduce it, we announce that we are going to do it, and we give people time to move, sell, restore, refurbish or whatever they need to do. That is the way we will approach it.

Deputy Leddin is quite correct. We lost the focus on our towns. Our planning policy got into a car about 30 or 40 years ago, drove to the suburbs and just kept driving. We need to turn that policy around and bring it back into the town centres. County architects have always been on my wish list for employees we would have at local authority level. Our local authorities have come in for a bit of a hammering during this debate, with criticism that they are not doing enough. Our local authorities do a huge amount of work. We need to make sure they are resourced to do the work we want them to do, including this extra work, and acknowledge the good work they are doing in terms of planning and the pressure they are under.

Deputy Duffy is an experienced architect. He knows it is not a simple process to refurbish a second and third floor. We need to do it and provide that housing. There is a collective and collaborative will in the House to do it. Many of these recommendations will fit very closely with Government policies such as town centres first, Our Rural Future and Housing for All. As others have said, it is time to implement and take action on it.

I thank all contributors to the debate. It has been hugely useful from our perspective and I will give a commitment on behalf of the Minister, Deputy O’Brien, and Minister of State, Deputy Burke, that we will take on board the recommendations and work with the committee. We will work across the Houses of the Oireachtas to try to implement them. As I said, there is a significant crossover between what Government is doing. It may not always be perfect but we learn as we go along with much of our work.

Listening to the contributions, there were a couple of things that have not been referenced. We are not alone in grappling with this issue. It is a global problem. In Europe it is a huge problem because we are seeing huge parts of northern Italy and parts of Germany with significant depopulation of urban centres where the replacement rate of population is not happening. It is causing cities to go into further decline. We have a lot to learn from our European neighbours. We should reach out and do that. I was involved in European projects in the past around urban development and we have an awful lot to learn from other European experiences about how they do urban regeneration, in particular heritage-led regeneration. That is key to this.

The animation and activation of communities to be involved and be active participants in this needs to be central to it. We are all discussing largely what the Government is doing but local authorities are central to this. As outlined in the report, it is critically important that local authorities have the adequate suite of skills and resources to lead on this, be it architectural conservation officers and architects across a number of disciplines. Public participation and people’s involvement in having a say in how their urban centres evolve and develop is also important, as are the champions of our town centres, our independent retailers and those who are brave enough to take a decision to live in town centres and espouse how valuable it can be. That is really important.

Something that has not been referenced is our new national policy on architecture. It has to be architect led and architecture led. This document is another one of a guiding suite of documents the Government has produced that interlock all the objectives we are trying to achieve. The role of architecture in place-making, public participation and leading out quality urban spaces simply cannot be underestimated. It is vitally important.

A book that inspired me, with which Deputy Ó Broin may be familiar, is Paddy Shaffrey’s The Irish Town: an Approach to Survival. This, to me, was the Bible for urban regeneration. It was written in 1975. It could very easily be the town centres first policy. In it, Paddy Shaffrey outlines the manner and the way in which we need to look towards our built heritage as a way of engaging communities to be part of the story of the future of our towns. I urge Members, although there are probably not many copies available, to look at this phenomenal publication. It is visionary, given that it was written in 1975. It offers the opportunity to look back on what our towns were like in the past. They were stunning places and unique in the European context. That is what we need to look towards into the future.

I welcome this report and the interaction of the Members, which as Deputy Ó Broin said was a very collegiate and valuable piece of work that the Government will adhere to and take seriously. I thank everyone for this debate. It has been really useful.

Question put and agreed to.
Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 6.38 p.m. go dtí 2 p.m., Dé Máirt, an 14 Meitheamh 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 6.38 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 14 June 2022.