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.