Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Ceisteanna (37, 225)

Darragh O'Brien

Ceist:

37. Deputy Darragh O'Brien asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the amount and location of lands transferred to the Land Development Agency to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37699/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Darragh O'Brien

Ceist:

225. Deputy Darragh O'Brien asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the amount and location of lands that have been transferred to the Land Development Agency to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37686/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (12 contributions) (Ceist ar Housing)

At the outset I wish to correct the record of the House. Earlier on in my contribution when I was complaining about the grouping of questions, I mentioned that I had written to the Office of the Ceann Comhairle and had not received a response. On checking my records, I did receive a response and that response further clarified that the grouping of the questions is a matter for the Department and the Minister. I ask the Minister to speak with his team in the Department to ensure we do not have a situation where Priority Questions are grouped into the future. It is not helpful. I want to correct the record because I laid the blame at the Office of the Ceann Comhairle inadvertently and incorrectly.

I looked at this the last time because it was raised when there were grouped Priority Questions on a previous occasion. I checked with Department officials and I was told that the Ceann Comhairle had grouped them. I repeat that it is not in my interest to group Priority Questions either because I cannot get the answers out.

It is clear that it is a matter for the Minister's office to decide. Before we come to Question No. 38 from Deputy Connolly, which is grouped with Question No. 58 from Deputy Darragh O'Brien, I point out to Deputy Darragh O'Brien that he will have the advantage there.

I ask the Minister for an update on the great big idea of the Land Development Agency which was announced by the Government. What land has been transferred to the agency to date? Could the Minister provide an update on legislation surrounding this? The issue was raised in the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government just before the recess that the LDA is not set up on a legal footing yet.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 37 and 225 together. On establishment, the LDA had access to an initial tranche of eight sites that have near-term delivery potential for 3,000 new homes. The sites concerned are: the Central Mental Hospital site, Dundrum; Hampton, Balbriggan; Hacketstown, Skerries; Devoy Barracks, Naas; the former Meath Hospital, Dublin city centre; St. Kevin's Hospital, Cork; Columb Barracks, Mullingar; and Dyke Road, Galway.

The ownership of seven of the sites will not be formally transferred to the LDA until the Land Development Agency Bill is enacted, while the site in Galway is owned by Galway City Council and will be developed on a partnership basis. It is intended the Bill will be published and brought before the Oireachtas later this year. The Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, of which the Deputy is a member, will conduct pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill soon. The LDA is also working with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council on a delivery plan for a site at Shanganagh.

Notwithstanding that the legislation has not yet been finalised, the LDA is already working on the initial sites made available to it. While passing the LDA legislation is a priority, it does not prevent the agency from progressing these sites. In addition, because the sites are public lands rather than lands in private ownership, the issue of ownership and transfer is not an obstacle to early progress. The LDA is entering into pre-sale agreements with the landowners, as appropriate, to ensure that it has full access to the sites to carry out necessary pre-construction activities. Significant preparatory work is under way, with feasibility and planning work initiated and the first planning applications due to be submitted later this year. Construction activity is envisaged to commence on some sites by the middle of next year, subject to the granting of planning permissions, with the first homes due to be completed by the end of next year.

The Minister's response is a fantasy. He stated that no land has been transferred to the LDA and that it is not likely that anything will be transferred. He hopes the legislation will be enacted quickly but he should hurry up if that is what he wants this to happen. For example, at Castlelands in Balbriggan, the local authority is rushing through a master plan in advance of a potential transfer of the land to the LDA. The master plan was produced over and above the heads of the residents, with over-intensification of the site and inappropriate housing. It is being rushed because the local authority wants to get it done before the land is transferred to the LDA. If the LDA is to be the vehicle that will deliver housing on a mass scale, it is certainly a slow-moving one.

I read reports in the newspapers during the summer that some of the staff within the LDA stated that they would not be subject to the Regulation of Lobbying Act. Who are they to decide whether they will be subject to the Act? One would have thought that would be for the Oireachtas to decide by way of legislation. Is it the Minister's intention that the LDA will be subject to the Regulation of Lobbying Act? If not, I put him on notice that I will table amendments to the legislation when it is published to ensure that the agency will be subject to the Act.

This is great idea. What is proposed should have been done decades ago. If it had been, we would not have a housing crisis.

It remains an idea.

The LDA will exist for 15, 20 or 25 years and will provide hundreds of thousands of new homes. We did not waste time getting it established. I established it under the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act 1971 and made €20 million available to it. An interim board and chairperson have been appointed, we have just finished the competition for a CEO and we are hiring staff. As I noted earlier, given that public land is involved, is the transfer of land to the legal entity necessary? The agency is already examining sites and will soon submit planning applications. It has not needed to own the sites to do that. The Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum, for example, is in the process of being decanted but we will not wait for the site to be fully decanted before we examine what we want to do. We are already there looking at it. Once the site has been decanted by the Department of Health, we can move straight into construction. That is how the LDA is approaching the matter. This does not mean that the legislation is not a priority; of course it is. We want to get the full capitalisation into the LDA, provide as many of the powers in respect of compulsory purchase orders and so on, and address issues with lobbying, transparency and accountability to the Oireachtas. All such steps need to be taken, which is why the legislation is important and it is a priority to publish it this term. I want to get it enacted in the first half of next year and the €1.25 billion funding in licence.

As for the site at Balbriggan, if the Deputy wishes to ask about individual sites, tabling a question for written reply might be more helpful. Based on the plan I have to hand and the information I have from the agency, the number of units it hopes to provide is between 800 and 1,000, in a phased way. It is moving efficiently in respect of the plan for the site.

I look forward to the introduction of the legislation. It is important that the House and the members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government get to see the legislation in order that we might discover what powers the Minister intends to give to the agency and how it will operate. It is not appropriate that Deputies should read in newspapers the views of staff within the LDA on how they believe it will operate. If the agency is to be established properly under legislation, it will have to be done quickly. There are political cycles and different Governments may have different ideas about this very approach.

Is it the Minister's intention that the LDA will, under the legislation to be published, be subject to the Regulation of Lobbying Act? What is the current head count versus the optimal staffing level in the agency?

If the active land management functions of the LDA are to work, it has to have strong compulsory purchase order powers. According to a story in the newspapers in July, there was a view in the Department, on foot of advice from the Attorney General, that state aid rules would be breached. As a result, although we have only the heads of the Bill, the final version will contain greatly weakened powers in the context of compulsory purchase. I accept that the Minister cannot answer questions about the legal advice of the Attorney General, but will he tell us whether he has a concern about a breach of state aid rules? Does he plan to weaken the compulsory purchase powers originally envisaged under the heads of the Bill in order to avoid any conflict with EU law?

Let us be clear: the Oireachtas will, through the legislation I bring forward that will, I hope, gain majority support in the House, decide how the LDA operates. Deputy Ó Broin referred to an important issue in the context of the compulsory purchase powers of the agency. For the initial eight sites, arrangements have been reached with other Departments or State agencies. It is being done because we are trying to manage actively the land in the most efficient way for the Departments and agencies in question. It has not required any stick; it has been a carrot approach. Nevertheless, when we undertake site assembly in some parts of the country with some private landowners, the threat of CPO powers will be important. We are resolving those issues through bringing forward legislation and can then agree on how we want to take it forward. We will have to be mindful of issues such as state aid but we are being mindful.

The LDA has been established with a full interim board and the names of those on the board have been published. Mr. John Moran, the chairman, has spoken at length about what he hopes the LDA can achieve while keeping to the vision we have as a Government. It is important that when we bring the legislation through, we address every matter that has to be addressed and that we do so in a timely fashion. Deputy Darragh O'Brien mentioned a future Government and the composition and ideas it may have. I do not want to leave the matter to a future Government. Given that the LDA is up and running and working, has sites and wants to lodge planning applications, it is important we get it set up on its own two feet as quickly as possible. That is my ambition, as Minister, between now and the election in May 2020.