Simon Coveney outlines plans for housing solution

A fast-track planning process for large developments and a special ‘use it or lose it’ infrastructure fund for local authorities are options being considered to help solve the housing crisis, Housing Minister Simon Coveney has said.

Unused land banks across Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Athlone, Co Westmeath, are also being targeted for development to help build thousands of mixed purpose housing units.

The emergency measures are outlined in an interview given by Mr Coveney to the Irish Examiner. Mr Coveney also, for the first time, signals that water charges may be suspended for longer than nine months and that “flexibility” on this has been sought from Brussels.

He also speaks candidly about his desire to reshape the public’s perception of Fine Gael.

The minister is betting his political career on solving the housing emergency and thinks he may just have “two or maybe three” years, the time he expects the minority government to last.

“I need to find ways of facilitating the building of significantly more houses than are being planned or delivered as soon as possible,” said Mr Coveney.

Simon Coveney

He is giving serious consideration as to whether planning for large developments could be fast-tracked by going straight to Bord Pleanála instead of through a local authority first.

More properties could be built if developers could move quicker and at a cheaper price.

“The question is, do we try to speed up the existing process or do we try to change the process and say ‘we do have a housing emergency in certain parts of the country, we should allow developments go straight to Bord Pleanála for consideration’.”

Large developments of 250 units plus could go through planning within just six months as opposed to years, he says. However, a “robust” public consultation process would still be obligatory.

Other options being worked on include a “significant” fund for local authorities to build bridges, roads, or facilities for utilities.

The ‘infrastructure fund’ would facilitate housing developments and therefore lower costs for developers.

“We will encourage local authorities to compete for that fund on the basis of a project by project approach. The best ideas get the money. It will be time- limited and use it or lose it.”

Special powers to buy up unused sites owned by semi-state companies, such as Irish Rail, are also under consideration.

Mr Coveney said there were unused sites in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Athlone where thousands of units could be built. One of the sites includes Irish Rail land at Horgan’s Quay in Cork.

Horgan’s Quay

“We need to be talking to state companies like Irish Rail with a view to ensuring that those landbanks are used where they are needed most, which is for housing, a combination of social housing and private housing.”

While a low-cost model would be preferable to buy up the lands, Irish Rail and others have an obligation to get commercial value for their assets. This would have to be overcome.

The minister has also signalled that the planned nine-month suspension of water charges could be for longer.

Speaking in the wake of Brussels last week saying Ireland would not be exempt from water charges, Mr Coveney said: “If Ireland decides to just abolish water charges in the Dáil, I think the commission will have a real problem with that.

“What I’m hoping, and I think will be the case, is that the commission will give us some flexibility in terms of the nine-month suspension, in order to allow Ireland go through the review process and the experts.”

While speculation continues over who might succeed Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader, Mr Coveney would not discuss the issue and said it was not on his mind. However, he said he wanted to change the image of Fine Gael, and that it was “unfair” the party was called arrogant or that it did not “care for the poor”.

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