Saturday 1 October 2016

Thousands of abandoned shops could be turned into homes

Published 19/07/2016 | 02:30

Councillor Duncan Smith, Housing Spokesperson Jan O’Sullivan, and Willie Penrose during the launch of Labour’s ‘Social and Affordable Housing Bill’ at the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Merrion Square, Dublin. The Bill seeks to tackle the serious shortage in supply of residential accommodation for sale or for rent at affordable prices, and to address the compelling need to ensure a stable and functioning market in such accommodation. Photo: Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney
Councillor Duncan Smith, Housing Spokesperson Jan O’Sullivan, and Willie Penrose during the launch of Labour’s ‘Social and Affordable Housing Bill’ at the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Merrion Square, Dublin. The Bill seeks to tackle the serious shortage in supply of residential accommodation for sale or for rent at affordable prices, and to address the compelling need to ensure a stable and functioning market in such accommodation. Photo: Collins Dublin, Gareth Chaney

Planning laws that restrict vacant retail units being turned into homes are to be loosened as part of the new Housing Action Plan.

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The plan, which will be launched today, will acknowledge that there are considerable "hurdles" to turning empty shops into residential units.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney's plan states that the Government will review the process which can result in landlords having to pay substantial amounts to ensure properties meet rigorous fire safety standards and are wheelchair accessible.

"The current system does not facilitate brining these properties into residential units so instead they simply lie idle," said a source.

"Even if you do make an effort you are met with major planning issues.

"The plan is to enable a change of use without having to go through the whole planning process."

There is no exact figure for how many retail units would be suitable for redevelopment but officials believe there are likely to be thousands.

Preliminary census figures released last week showed there are almost 260,000 vacant properties nationwide.

The problem of shops being abandoned in rural towns has already been cited as a major issue by Rural Development Minister Heather Humphreys.

However, it has been noted that many urban areas also have significant numbers of empty properties, such as Dun Laoghaire in south Dublin.

It is understood that the less restrictive rules being sought by Mr Coveney will apply to buildings that are totally unused and ones which may have a shop on the ground floor with empty rooms suitable for redevelopment upstairs.

The Housing Action Plan will also commit to dramatically speeding up house-building with Mr Coveney expected to set a target of 25,000 homes per year.

A special infrastructure fund will be set up to help fast-track the necessary roads and bridges, as well as bringing utilities such as water and power to new sites.

Read more: First-time buyers to benefit from 'generous' new mortgage grant

Fianna Fáil's housing spokesman Barry Cowen said they are "very anxious" that Mr Coveney explore the "off-balance sheet method" whereby money is sourced without affecting the national debt.

"That means that money can be allocated for massive investments in local authority housing, colleges and the private sector," he told the Irish Independent.

His party are also insistent on the Government a Housing Procurement Agency to help cut through the complexity of multiple agencies, draw down finance and ensure homes are built and targets are met.

The Irish Independent understands that this proposal has been adopted by the minister in the form of a new 'Special Delivery Unit' within the Department of Housing with special project managers to be appointed.

Help

Asked about the proposed 'Help-to-Buy' scheme which could see first-time buyers get generous grants from the State, Mr Cowen said: "We have to find ways of helping people adhere to the very strict rules put in place by the Central Bank but still be able to buy a house.

"I hope to see some weight given to rent already paid so that there can be a value attached to that."

Meanwhile the Labour Party wants to resurrect a four-decades old report in a bid to overcome the housing crisis.

Their housing spokeswoman Jan O'Sullivan said the Kenny report, which was first published in 1973, should now be adopted.

It proposed that local authorities be given the right to acquire undeveloped lands at existing use value plus 25pc by adopting Designated Area Schemes. The party launched a detailed piece of legislation yesterday which they called 'Unlocking The Door'.

Among the measures proposed were broadening the remit of Nama and to have the agency rebranded as the National Housing Development and Finance Agency.

Read more: Census shows 'we're not building anywhere near enough houses'

They are also to make a fresh attempt at linking rent increases to inflation.

This Consumer Price Index approach was tabled by former environment minister Alan Kelly ahead of the last budget but was rejected by Finance Minister Michael Noonan as unworkable.

Labour TD Willie Penrose said: "As far as we are concerned, the time for pious platitudes has come and gone.

"What we now need is action that will deliver housing for young families in communities around the country.

"The Bill that we are publishing today provides a blueprint for doing precisely that."

Irish Independent

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