Sunday 23 October 2016

Emergency powers will bypass planning to ease house crisis

Published 17/05/2016 | 02:30

Housing minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Housing minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Douglas O'Connor

Housing Minister Simon Coveney plans to introduce emergency legislation to enable city and county managers fast-track the planning process for social housing projects.

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In an interview with the Irish Independent, the minister said he was planning new rules to reduce the public consultation period from eight weeks to four, and to give managers the power to approve projects without the need to secure the support of councillors.

He also plans to deliver 1,000 modular homes - double the current target - as part of efforts to provide units as quickly as possible. He is also considering using State-owned lands, including sites owned by Irish Rail in Dublin and Cork, to deliver housing.

But he does not expect to see an increase in the number of homes being completed this year, despite delivery being well below the level needed to meet demand. Last year, just over 12,600 homes were completed across the country, far short of the 25,000 to 30,000 required.

"Last year the figure [for completions] was partly due to unfinished housing estates and apartment blocks being finished," he said. "Even to get to that figure for this year is going to be difficult. I think you'll see a lot of housing activity this year, but not necessarily in terms of completions."

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Coveney, pictured right, said tackling the housing and homelessness crisis was the "most important" challenge for the Government.

"It isn't acceptable that we don't have enough homes for the families which live in Ireland," he said. "Rental prices are increasing, and house prices are rising. There is a broken market where many people cannot find a house, and that's why we have nearly 1,000 families in emergency accommodation.

"Dublin City Council will spend around €46m on hotel rooms this year, and if that's not an example of a broken system, I don't know what is."

He said there was an emergency housing situation in Dublin, Cork and the other cities that needed an "appropriate sense of urgency".

Chief executives, or managers, of the 31 local authorities have been told to report back in 10 days with a strategy for the next six months on increasing output, including providing housing "using measures that normally wouldn't be used".

"That means using emergency powers to effectively bypass planning on publicly owned land, using rapid house building technology, using an infrastructure fund to open up sites, or [using] the State's land bank to get building under way," he said.

Social housing is delivered using the Part 8 planning process, which involves a public consultation period of eight weeks. While emergency powers exist to fast-track this process, the minister said some chiefs would be "uncomfortable" using them and so he was planning to introduce a statutory instrument to change the Part 8 process for a temporary period of up to two years. The public consultation period would be reduced to four weeks, after which the CEOs would make a decision. This would allow decisions to be made "in a shorter time without getting approval from councillors", he said.

"There is not the sense of urgency that is required to respond to this issue, with some exceptions. Some of the areas where we are proposing to put more social housing may be controversial politically and the council will refuse to go through unless all the issues are addressed.

"That process is appropriate in terms of normal house building and delivery, but we need a sharp injection of urgency to build new social housing quickly," said Mr Coveney. "We have a national emergency. I want a mix of private development with social housing so we're creating sustainable communities. My job is to remove the barriers which [are] slowing progress."

He also revealed:

  • The Government plans to deliver 1,000 modular or rapid build homes, up from the previous target of 500.
  • An infrastructure fund will be put in place to open up sites and provide roads, water, power or other services where needed.
  • State-owned land will also be used to get building under way. This includes sites owned by Irish Rail in Cork and Dublin and land owned by port authorities or other agencies. But a mechanism will have to be developed to give councils access to the land.

The minister also ruled out introducing rent controls until there was a "sufficient supply" of homes, saying that controls could affect construction.

He said that the NTMA or Ireland Strategic Investment Fund could provide lower-cost housing loans to local authorities to be repaid over a longer period of time, but this was "far from being a done deal".

Irish Independent

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