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Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 30 September 2004

Thursday, 30 September 2004

Ceisteanna (7, 8)

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Ceist:

7 Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he will report on progress in the implementation of the recommendations of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, in particular, with regard to the ninth progress report on private property; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21565/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Eamon Gilmore

Ceist:

9 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the progress made to date with regard to his Department’s consideration of the report of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution on property rights; his views on the findings of the committee that legislation can be introduced to cap the price of building land without the requirement for a constitutional amendment; if he intends to introduce legislation to give effect to this recommendation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22559/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (21 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 9 together.

I refer to the reply to Question No. 5 of today in which I indicated that my Department will consider together the ninth progress report of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, the report on ownership and control of building land from Goodbody Economic Consultants, and the forthcoming report of the National Economic and Social Council on housing and land policy, with a view to proposing policies which can be implemented quickly and would deliver an increased supply of affordable housing.

The All-Party Committee on the Constitution concluded that, having regard to modern case law, it is likely that the central recommendation of the 1973 Kenny report — that land required for development by local authorities should be compulsory acquired at existing use value plus 25% — would not be found to be unconstitutional. Based on this assessment, the committee recommended that this designated area scheme should be re-examined with a view to its implementation, following such modifications as are necessary or desirable in the light of later experience.

The committee also identified a number of different mechanisms that could be considered as an alternative to the designated area approach to recover betterment, including development levies, planning gain and new taxation initiatives. It has also been suggested that, notwithstanding its view on the constitutionality of the Kenny proposals, change along the lines recommended in 1996 by the Constitution Review Group — that existing constitutional provisions concerning property rights would be replaced by a single new provision — may be desirable. That will require constitutional change.

Overall, these recommendations raise complex legal, financial and practical issues which merit and are receiving careful consideration by my Department. In particular, the designated area scheme proposal would have significant implications for the role of public authorities and the operation of the building and, especially, the housing markets. In this regard, the All-Party Committee on the Constitution explicitly acknowledged that even if the constitutional issue was settled, practical concerns about the proposed scheme would require rigorous analysis.

Meanwhile, the operation and future potential of Part V of the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 2000 as a mechanism for the provision of social and affordable housing should be emphasised. As a public representative, I have indicated concerns about the slow pace at which it has moved but it is now making progress. Following its amendment in December 2002, activity under Part V has increased significantly. More than 300 social and affordable housing units were acquired through Part V agreements in the first six months of 2004, and it is anticipated that some 500 units will be provided over the full year. This compares with delivery of only 46 affordable units in 2002 and 163 social and affordable units in 2003. I accept that those are low rates of completion, but everyone who has experience in this area knows that planning permissions that are already in operation were not covered by any element of retrospection. More than 2,400 social and affordable units are under construction or proposed on foot of Part V agreements, and significantly increased output under Part V is expected to continue over 2005. Like many public representatives, I have spoken to the planning authorities in my own area and urged more delivery under the Part V process which is a good system but has still not been fully tested.

I join with my colleagues in congratulating the Minister — comhghairdeas dó — and I hope we enjoy a better relationship with him than with his predecessor.

This report was handed over in April but its substance has existed for more than 30 years, since the report of Judge Kenny in 1973 identified exactly the same solutions. I agree with the Minister that the constitutional view of the committee, albeit based on the advice of senior counsel, has not been tested. Part V, however, has been tested in the Supreme Court and that has addressed much of the constitutional issue. To implement this report, therefore, the Government, specifically the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, must deliver on this issue.

The problems that pertained in the early 1970s in housing have multiplied several fold in recent years. Successive Governments since the report was published have done nothing, although the crisis was not as serious then as it has become in recent years. Will the Minister indicate when the report of the committee will be dealt with? Is there a timeframe? Is the Department actively examining it? The Taoiseach welcomed the report when it was published.

I am discouraged by the Minister's comments on Part V that he hopes it will remedy all the problems in housing. That part of the Planning and Development Act was gutted by his predecessor, leaving it worthless. It is no longer an option for local authorities.

There is no magic bullet solution to this and we must be honest about that. If there were, some Minister would have solved the problem at some point over the years. Deputy Morgan is right that there is a pressing need. One of the by-products of extraordinary economic success has been that although we have produced record numbers of houses, these difficulties still continue to exist.

The Kenny report has been debated over a long period. The contention that the constitutional issue has melted away is questionable. It would be subject to further test. I have already outlined the process I have envisaged, with the reports from Goodbody Economic Consultants and the NESC being published at the same time. I hope that will be done as quickly as possible.

Does the Minister have a date for that?

I will not venture to give a date 23 hours after my appointment but I will try to ensure there is no undue delay.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Minister has been in office less than 24 hours, this is an area about which he should have a view and he should share that with the House. Does he agree with the Taoiseach's contention when he decided to refer the issue of private building land to the all-party committee that the cost of building land is at the heart of high house prices and must be addressed? Does he accept that the Taoiseach referred the issue to the all-party committee to establish if there was a constitutional impediment to dealing with this through legislation? Will the Minister bring legislation before the House to deal with the high cost of building land, which now contributes 45% to the price of the average new house in Dublin?

I seldom disagree with anything the Taoiseach says, particularly not on my first day in office.

The Minister is still in the comfort zone.

There is a self-evident relationship between the problems of the supply of building land, the cost of building land and the thorny issues of zoning and services. It is not a simple issue. Notwithstanding the basic conclusion of the all-party committee on the constitutionality of the designated area scheme and the Kenny report of 1973, it is only one of a range of possible measures that might be undertaken. The committee itself identified various possible alternatives to designated area schemes recommended by the Kenny report and touched on issues such as development levies, planning gain — which issue I have mentioned on more than one occasion — and taxation incentives.

It is anticipated that the forthcoming NESC report on housing and land policy will identify further possible measures to promote better affordability. All of these possible options will then have to be carefully operated. Given the constituency I represent, which is next door to Deputy Gilmore's, I am acutely aware just how pressing this issue is for many of our constituents and am anxious to see progress made as rapidly as possible. I anticipate the NESC report with interest and we will see where we can go from there. I do not want to see any undue delay.

One of the mysteries of my political life over the past 23 years has been why the provisions of the Kenny report have not been implemented and why we still have archaic rules regarding ground rents. The answer is that vested interests have stifled Governments into inaction on both issues.

The Minister referred to wishing that Ministers had the answers. However, it is more important that Ministers have the political will to deal with these issues and take on vested interests to resolve them. The first test would be to deal with the question of the ownership of land. I am heartened by the Minister's commitment to publish the Goodbody report since his colleague, Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, as late as last July refused to publish it and effectively suppressed its findings.

The Deputy must not make a statement.

Will the Minister deal with the report as quickly as possible and publish it rather than waiting until NESC decides to publish its findings? As quickly as possible after that, the Minister should use his political power and will to deal with the proposals contained in the three reports.

The Deputy is misrepresenting what my colleague and I said. I said the Goodbody report would be published with the NESC report. In regard to the Kenny report, the Deputy and I know that successive Administrations have not been unwilling to deal with the issue, rather there has been a constitutional process which might have proved difficult.

The builders tested Part V. The Minister should allow the constitutionality to be tested.

That is correct. We have already dealt with Part V. I hope we will see rapid progress but I do not know when to expect the NESC report. However, the Deputy can take it that there will be no undue delay in publishing it when it becomes available.

Gabhaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire san bhfreagracht nua atá aige. Tá cuma an-chompórdach air sa suíochán mór ach gan bheith ró-chompórdach, mar is eol dó.

Does the Minister have any basis for stating that the findings of the all-party committee on private property are not fact? He stated that it was a contention that it was not unconstitutional to put the recommendations of the Kenny report into effect. Does he have any basis for that assertion given that I was on the committee at the time when we had the advice of senior counsel and highly respected public servants like T.K. Whitaker and others? To suggest that they were stating anything other than fact would be quite shocking.

The Deputy must be brief since we have exceeded the time for the question.

When the Minister states that further analysis is needed, is that analysis under way and will he inform the House of its results? Will he take a similar approach and take a risk, as was the case in respect of legislation for people with disabilities who came before the courts to test the merits of their case? Why not allow the vested interests — the owners of the large banks of land — take the Government to court if they so wish, but let us not wait around and be afraid to act.

I am doing my best to observe the protocol of a Minister's first day in office and avoid acrimony with him at this early stage. However, I am disappointed with his reliance on Department-speak in response to a very direct question from me to which I expected a direct answer. Does the Minister intend to do anything to cap the price of building land, given that he has available to him a report of an all-party committee on the Constitution?

Does the Minister agree that we are fortunate his portfolio is the environment and not foreign affairs? If 31 years cannot solve what he describes as this complex issue, it just as well he is not with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, at his meeting this afternoon.

Would that things were that simple. Almost all the political parties in this House have at some time been in power in the past 31 years and have been fully aware of the Kenny report and the difficulties. It is perhaps easier to prescribe how that can be dealt with from the Opposition benches than it is from Government's. It is not Department-speak. Rather, we are in a process and the reports will be published and a review will take place at that stage. As I stated, I will do my best to expedite the publication of those reports and the follow-up action which comes from them.

However, it is untrue to suggest that political parties in this House have been unwilling. The Supreme Court's judgment on Part V stated that it found it constitutional on the basis that it was proportionate and non-discriminatory. However, when one examines the language in the Kenny report, it does not have the same degree of certainty. It is not intended to in any way be discourteous to the people who worked on the committee. However, the committee's recommendation is a contention which has not been through any process. We will soon have the NESC report and, as soon as we do, it will be published and we will take the follow-up action.

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