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Legislation to provide for new fast-track planning procedures begins its passage through the Oireachtas

Published on Wednesday, 16 Nov 2016
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Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016

Minister Coveney’s Seanad Second Stage Speech

I move “That the Bill be now read a second time”.

Introduction and Overview
A Chathaoirleach, I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce the 2nd Stage of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016 to the Seanad and I wish to thank the members for facilitating the debate on this very important Bill.

As I think we can all agree, the current housing supply shortage situation is one of the most urgent and pressing challenges currently faced by the Government and the country, impacting on all forms of housing tenure – social, private and private rental.

This housing supply shortage has consequential knock-on impacts for house prices and rents, affecting thousands of individuals and households throughout the country who are in rented accommodation or who are trying to purchase homes, with knock on impacts on their cost of living and further impacts on wage increase demands. The housing shortage also impacts on our ability to attract inward investment for the purpose of expanding our economy, so overall it has very real and significant impacts for both society and our economy in general.

To put this in context, we are presently only building 12-13,000 new housing units per year when we should be building upwards of 25,000 units to meet the demand that prevails. It is not an overstatement to say that this level of under-supply is a crisis situation which, as I have stated, has significant impacts on people in all walks of life. Accordingly it is imperative that every possible effort is made to address it as urgently as we can to help to better control house price and rental cost increases.

The Government’s commitment to ending the housing shortage and tackling homelessness is clearly evidenced and underpinned in the Government’s Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness – Rebuilding Ireland, two pillars of which are about building more homes, making our permitting and approvals systems more efficient and improving the rental sector.

In this regard, the Action Plan includes a number of innovative legislative measures to rapidly increase housing supply and reinforce the rental sector.  The main purpose of the Bill which we are discussing today is to give early effect to and underpin these measures, which include:

  • the introduction of temporary fast-track planning arrangements in respect of large-scale housing developments;
  • streamlining the timelines for presenting and considering local authority own development proposals through the Part 8 processes, including social housing proposals;
  • providing for further limited extensions of duration of planning permissions for specified housing proposals,
  • introducing certain legislative amendments to enhance the functioning of the private rented sector, and
  • facilitating Higher Education Institutes to borrow monies from the Housing Finance Agency for the purposes of financing student accommodation provision.

The Bill also proposes to address a number of other urgent measures which are unrelated to Rebuilding Ireland and housing supply, namely:

  • the introduction of new Environmental Impact Assessment (or EIA) screening arrangements in respect of certain development works, including flood related works, and
  • enabling the transfer of monies from the Local Government Fund to the Exchequer in 2016, as envisaged in the recently published Estimates.  A legislative provision is required to allow this transfer arrangement each year.

Main provisions of the Bill

Moving on to the contents and structure of the Bill - the Bill contains 39 sections over 5 Parts, which I will now turn to in more detail.

Part 1 – Preliminary and General
Part 1of the Bill, covering sections 1 and 2, contains the normal standard provisions dealing with the title, collective citations, definitions and commencement.

Part 2 – Planning and Development
Part 2, which comprises 3 Chapters, relates to amendments to the Planning and Development Act 2000 and is a substantial element of the Bill.

Chapter 1 – Strategic Housing Developments
Chapter 1, covering sections 3 to 19, deals with Strategic Housing Developments and proposes the introduction, for a limited time-period, of new streamlined planning processes in respect of large-scale housing developments - comprising 100 housing units or more or 200 or more student accommodation bedspaces – allowing the making of planning applications for such developments directly to An Bord Pleanála.

The primary provisions are contained in sections 3 to 12, with the supporting provisions for this temporary measure contained in sections 13 to 19.  Rather than go through each section individually, I will instead outline the key elements of the provisions.

The new fast-track planning procedures will apply for an initial period of 3 years – until the end of 2019 – with the possibility to extend that period by a further 2 years to coincide with the timeframe of Rebuilding Ireland.

Under the new procedures, An Bord Pleanála will be required to complete pre-planning application consultations in relation to proposed developments with the concerned developers and the relevant local authority within a maximum period of 9 weeks.They will subsequently be required to make a final determination in respect of planning applications for concerned developments within 16 weeks of receipt of the planning application.

This will potentially result in planning decisions for concerned large developments within 25 weeks of commencement of the pre-application consultation, as against the current 2-stage planning process which can, in certain circumstances take up to 18-24 months from initial design stage to securing ultimate approval.

To ensure that the Board has capacity to manage the flow of proposals, a dedicated Strategic Housing Division will be established in the Board – with additional dedicated technical and administrative support resources – to conduct the pre-planning consultation arrangements and make determinations on planning applications in respect of such strategic housing developments.

I would also make the following points in relation to the proposed new fast-track planning procedures;

Firstly, the vast majority of large housing development proposals currently end up being appealed to An Bord Pleanala resulting, as I have indicated, in decision timelines of up to two years before the granting of final planning permission. This, in my view, is much too long in the current climate when large volumes of housing supply are urgently required to address the shortage situation.

Furthermore, planning applications to the Board in respect of these housing developments will be confined to lands which have already been zoned for residential purposes by the local elected members in the local development plan.

In addition, public participation will remain a fundamental part of the process. In this regard, my Department has obtained legal advice from the Attorney General that the proposed arrangements are fully compliant with the requirements of the Aarhus Convention, the EU Directive on public participation in environmental decision-making and the EIA Directive.

I should also mention in this context that the new direct application to An Bord Pleanala procedures in respect of large housing developments are not entirely new – they are modelled on the existing arrangements that have operated in Ireland in respect of strategic infrastructure developments since 2006 so they are well tested.

Ultimately, as I have indicated, the new streamlining procedures are intended to provide greater certainty for developers in terms of the timelines for decision making, while also facilitating the earlier provision of much needed housing supply and helping to address the current housing supply shortage situation.

Chapter 2 – Environmental Impact Assessment - screening
Chapter 2 of Part 2 of the Bill, covering sections 20 and 21, proposes to introduce new screening arrangements in relation to the conducting of environmental impact assessments (or EIAs) in respect of certain types of works, including emergency flood relief works – this with the aim of further streamlining the process for the undertaking of such types of works.

At present, significant delays can be encountered in the undertaking of flood related works having regard to the EIA requirements in the planning system. In this regard, flood related works have a relatively low threshold for EIA purposes and for planning permission purposes, with EIAs being required for most flood related works even though many of the proposed works do not have any environmental impacts.

The introduction of the new EIA screening arrangements will enable planning authorities to determine if an EIA is required in relation to specific proposed works, with the screening decision having to be made within a maximum of 4 weeks.

If EIA is “screened in”, a full EIA will be required in respect of the proposed works while planning permission will also be required.

However if EIA is “screened out” by virtue of no significant environmental impacts being anticipated arising from the undertaking of the proposed works, no EIA will be required while planning permission will also not be required if the proposed works are below the exempted development thresholds.

These new provisions should ultimately reduce the number of EIAs having to be undertaken in respect of flood works, thereby generally speeding up the process. 

Chapter 3 – Further Related Planning Amendments
Chapter 3, covering sections 22 and 23, relates to two further amendments to the Planning and Development Act.

Section 22 provides that a further extension of duration of permission may be granted by a planning authority in case of a housing development comprising 20 houses or more, where the authority considers that a further extension is necessary to enable the development to be completed.  This will remove the requirement to go through the planning process again and expedite the completion of the housing developments in question.

Section 23 relates to new streamlined procedures to be followed by local authorities, under section 179 of the Planning Act and Part 8 of the Planning Regulations under the Part 8 Process relating to the bringing forward of local authority own development proposals, including social housing, local roads, fire stations, libraries etc.

Most local authority own development proposals are generally approved by the elected members fairly quickly. However some delays can on occasion be encountered in relation to social housing projects arising from local opposition. Under the current provisions, no maximum timeframe is set for deciding on local authority own development proposals under the Part 8 process which is the major cause of the delays encountered.

Consequently the Bill proposes a number of amendments to the existing section 179 provisions, including the setting of a maximum timeframe of 20 weeks for the determination of local authority own development proposals by the elected members, thereby providing greater certainty in the progression of such development proposals, including the earlier delivery of social housing in particular.

Part 3 – Amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004
Part 3 of the Bill, covering sections 24 to 37 and the associated Schedule, relates to the rental sector and provides for amendments to the Residential Tenancies Acts.

I think we are all very aware that there are acute pressures in the rental market and we had a very useful and informative debate in this House last month on the pressures on rents in particular. These pressures are driven by a number of factors - by rising demand, by a lack of supply and by the high costs that indebted landlords face in servicing their loans. I believe the problems in the rental sector are one of the most significant issues facing us today and an absolute priority for this Government.

That being said, there is no doubt that the problems in the rental sector are part of a bigger problem; Ireland is in the midst of a housing crisis. And the problems caused by high rents reflect, and are reflected in, the other issues facing the housing market – not enough homes for first time buyers, increased demand for social housing and unacceptable levels of homelessness.While many factors contribute to these problems, the one factor common to all of them is the prolonged and chronic lack of supply of new houses.

The Bill implements the commitment in Pillar 4 of Rebuilding Ireland to bring forward legislation to amend the Residential Tenancies Acts for early enactment.

One of the most significant proposals to be introduced in the Bill is to be found in section 30. Section 30 provides that where a landlord proposes to sell 20 or more units within a single multi-unit development at the same time, the sale will be subject to the existing tenants remaining in situ. The purpose of this amendment is to prevent a future recurrence of situations where large numbers of residents in a single development have had their tenancies terminated simultaneously.

Section 31 further improves security of tenure for tenants by providing for the abolition of a landlord’s right, during the first 6 months of a further Part 4 tenancy, to terminate that tenancy for no stated ground. This is an important amendment and one that has been welcomed both by those working with tenants and those working to prevent homelessness.

Finally, sections 33 to 37 provide for a number of other early actions which will enhance the Residential Tenancies Board’s (RTB) enforcement and dispute resolution powers, including accelerated dispute resolution timeframes.

As committed to in Rebuilding Ireland, the provisions in the Bill will be supplemented by a new Rental Strategy, which I intend to launch next month with a view to delivering a mature and stable rental sector providing a true balance between the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. The provision in this Bill are a fundamental part of this process. 

Part 4 - Amendments to the Housing Finance Agency Act 1981
Moving on to Part 4 of the Bill, covering section 38, this gives effect to Action 4.9 of Rebuilding Ireland, to amend the Housing Finance Agency Acts to enable the Housing Finance Agency (HFA) to provide low-cost finance to Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) for the purpose of providing student accommodation.

In addition, and as a new initiative identified in Rebuilding Ireland, the Housing Agency is to be provided with capital funding, of €70 million, with the specific focus of acquiring properties from financial institutions for social housing nationally, thereby increasing social housing delivery.

As a support mechanism towards giving effect to Action 2.9 of Rebuilding Ireland, provision is being made for the Housing Finance Agency to lend to the Housing Agency for this purpose, subject to the obtaining of relevant Ministerial consents and compliance with prevailing fiscal rules.

Part 5 - Amendment of Local Government Act 1998
Part 5 of the Bill, comprising section 39, is aimed at enabling me, as Minister for the Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, to make the required payment, to a maximum amount of €420 million  from the Local Government Fund to the Exchequer, as envisaged in the Revised Estimates Volume, in 2016.

It is necessary to provide for the legislative underpinning of this proposed transfer of funding to the Exchequer by amending section 6 of the Local Government Act 1998.

Concluding remarks
To conclude a Chathaoirleach, I think you will agree that this Bill contains a number of fundamental and important legislative measures, emanating from the Government’s Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness – Rebuilding Ireland, and specifically the two pillars relating to building more homes, making our permitting and approvals systems more efficient and improving the private rental sector.  As I have already outlined, these are priority matters for Government and indeed for all of us.

I look forward to the contributions from Senators in discussing and debating this Bill today.

Accordingly a Chathaoirleach, I commend the Bill to the House.