I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, who has been in the House for quite a long time.
The Derelict and Vacant Sites Bill 2017 is designed to address the issue of empty, derelict and undeveloped land being held inactive and unused across the country, at a time of unprecedented crisis in the housing system. Developments in recent months such as the occupation of Apollo House, have shown us the strength of feeling on the idea of prime land and buildings sitting empty in areas of high demand. Public anger continues to rise in the face of land hoarding by vulture funds, leaving investment land undeveloped all over city centres, while new builds further expand the sprawl of cities and towns. At the same time, homelessness figures are rocketing up, with over 7,000 homeless for the first time in Ireland. The Government’s approach in the Rebuilding Ireland programme is to do what it can to incentivise supply, which is to be welcomed, such as the provision of new units and support schemes that make it more attractive to get stock into circulation, but it is also very problematic when it involves tax breaks that simply serve to raise prices, particularly in urban areas.
The Rebuilding Ireland programme has as its fifth pillar utilising existing stock. It states that there are 198,358 vacant properties around Ireland, yet we have 7,000 people without a home to call their own. Between July 2014 and December 2016, there was a 234% increase in child homelessness, according to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures. This is nothing less than a national crisis and scandal.
The situation is not normal. For once, expert advice seems to be united on this matter. We need stronger action to get derelict sites around our towns and cities back into use and for vacant land that is undeveloped to be put into action and developed in areas where strong demand is met by inadequate supply. Fr. Peter McVerry has stated the significant level of vacant properties in Ireland is a unique feature of the housing system. Simon Communities and DIT’s Dr. Lorcan Sirr have stated vacancy rates in Irish housing are about twice as high as should be expected. Yesterday, the Housing Agency, a Government body, released its National Statement of Housing Supply and Demand 2016 and Outlook for 2017-18, in which it affirmed that greater attention needs to be paid to the issue of vacant housing. The Simon Community and Focus Ireland, with other civil society groups, academic and housing agencies active in the area, have been in touch conveying the importance of stronger action.
Dereliction has other consequences beyond just homelessness. Unused buildings with wooden hoardings in their windows degrade urban spaces, damage the sense of community space and are simply an eyesore. They can become a focus for crime and drug use, and a source of environmental and even aesthetic degradation as they fall apart through lack of care. Senator Jennifer Murnane O’Connor raised the issue of illegal dumping and other aspects of dereliction when this matter was discussed at last week’s meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. These sites are a burden on our already overburdened local authorities, and they contribute nothing but a dark air of misery to the streets, roads and estates they occupy.
Vacant sites are a similar detriment to town life. Undeveloped land that is simply sat on, whether it be for understandable reasons, is not socially fair at a time when not enough areas are available for development in urban areas where there is strong demand. This, in turn, forces our already severely sprawling cities, in particular Dublin, to advance outwards into their greenbelts. This exacerbates the existing problems of dispersed communities, lack of public service provision in health, education and more and the attendant transport issues that are already causing such problems for the capital and other major towns.
A staggering 28,000 planning permissions in Dublin remain uncommenced, something of which the Minister is well aware. Across the country, the total number of vacant sites is almost 200,000, as mentioned previously. In some cases lands had the benefit of tax incentives, yet still have not been built upon. The Government’s existing plans are not adequate to deal with the scale of the problem. The previous Government took welcome measures in initiating the process of a register for vacant sites, to match the existing register of derelict sites. It also mandated the levying of a site tax from this register to come into operation in 2019. At 3%, the derelict and vacant sites taxes are too low to act as a true incentive. The vacant site tax will also only apply to areas larger than 0.05 ha, an area a little larger than a basketball court, and will exclude a large number of sites around the spaces where new development is most needed. The Bill which I have proposed with my colleagues in the Seanad Civil Engagement group aims to tackle these shortcomings. Our group has been working together since the beginning of the Twenty-fifth Seanad on the issue of fairness, provision and security in housing. In doing so, we have focused on being open to working with the Government, Opposition parties and other Independents in trying to get the best solution for these problems.
I am entering into today’s debate in the same spirit of openness and compromise. With that in mind, I commend the Minister and his office for being so open to consultation and debate on this Bill. I am relatively new to the Chamber and politics in general, but I appreciate and acknowledge the open manner in which his staff have worked with me on the Bill..
It is my belief the Minister is doing his best on the matter of tackling homelessness. While he and the Civil Engagement group and the Green Party may not always agree on the best way to proceed, I know that his conviction is sincere. It is my belief he has similar goals to those outlined in the Bill but is constrained by legal and departmental advice and party politics. I hope he might consider that the Bill is not huge and that the issues in it are not solely the property of me or anyone else. Whatever happens today, the pressures will remain to be dealt with by Fine Gael councillors, as well as those of Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, the Green Party, Independents and others.
The Bill is essentially an amendment to the current Government's plans and contains a number of small independent parts. It would remove the minimum site size from the current legislation, which would bring far more vacant sites under the scope of the legislation; increase the rates on vacant and derelict sites from 3% to 5% with increasing penalties for every subsequent year a site remains derelict or vacant after being designated as such; create a transparent process by which derelict sites are added to the register; ensure vulnerable people like those in respite houses or care homes are not affected by levies; move forward the implementation of vacant site levies by two years in order that they would apply from mid-2017 onwards; and ensure that businesses involved in dealing with land cannot avail of a 0% or low vacant site levy due to negative or low equity. The Bill also explicitly states that a derelict or vacant site can be compulsorily purchased by local authorities. We have included an amendment recommended by Focus Ireland that would stop people being evicted from a tenancy if their house is subject to an investment mortgage. This applies only in the case in which the property was bought solely as a non-primary private residence.
On the issue of a public register for derelict sites, greater transparency is needed to ensure that the current situation in which a property can have some paint applied to its window and no longer be considered derelict is amended. This is clearly a nonsense and makes a mockery of the current register. It has to be amended. On the matter of compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, of vacant land, just this week, even the UK Tory Government announced that it will allow local authorities to CPO land in order to tackle the huge problem of land banking. This is not a radical measure and is already partially in existence in current legislation.
Some have expressed concerns about empty family homes in rural areas. This Bill is carefully targeted, as are the Government plans, to apply these levies only in areas where demand for housing is high and where there is insufficient provision of social and affordable housing. We have no interest in taxing for the sake of taxes. We want useful land back in circulation. This is a common sense proposal, not an ideological one. Others have stressed the constitutional concerns and the challenges posed to the private property protections that so often interfere with attempts at action in this policy area. I understand these arguments and that they constrain any member of the Cabinet that is bound by them. I remind the House, however, that we were previously informed that any limiting of the rate of increase in rents would be unconstitutional, yet, as of December, we have such measures, as proposed by the Minister. Such reconsideration is welcome and I hope to add to the pressure for such a move on vacant and derelict sites by tabling this Bill.
The Minister cannot push the boundaries of the legal advice he is bound by and takes. I understand he is constrained by it. We can have these debates about the balance between the need to respect private property and the need to serve the public good, and we can do it in a transparent fashion. Considering the scale and severity of the challenge we face regarding housing in Ireland, if this Bill were to pass in its current or modified form and were to be challenged in the courts, so be it. That is what the courts are there to do, that is, protect the Constitution and set out the parameters of the law. It is our job to focus on doing what we can to improve the lives of all our citizens, particularly the more vulnerable.
There have been concerns expressed to me on the issue of the tenancy protections in this Bill, particularly from Fianna Fáil colleagues. I am grateful for their forthrightness on this issue and emphasise that no part of the Bill is entirely sacred. My colleagues and I in the Civil Engagement group remain open to co-operation and consensus building on the Bill, if only it would be allowed to proceed to Committee Stage, the most appropriate stage for legislation to be considered in depth.
In the meantime, this issue is not going away any time soon. Voting the Bill down would be to keep any such legislation off the agenda for a further six months. As some Senators already know, my office assistant is the great grandson of the great patriot and land agitator, Michael Davitt, Mr. Ed Davitt.