'We have to make it simpler to convert vacant properties to housing', committee hears  

'We have to make it simpler to convert vacant properties to housing', committee hears  

A more streamlined approval process is needed to address the cost, delays and uncertainty in converting vacant buildings into housing, an Oireachtas committee has heard. File picture: Larry Cummins.

A more streamlined approval process is needed to address the cost, delays and uncertainty in converting vacant buildings into housing, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

Architect Mel Reynolds told the Oireachtas joint committee on housing that the statutory hoops to jump through in bringing a vacant property back into housing stock are extensive, and are much lengthier than the process in the UK and Northern Ireland.

The committee held a meeting on Tuesday featuring academics, architects and department officials providing their views on the vacant site and property taxes, and departmental schemes Crói Cónaithe and Living Over the Shop.

It heard there could be in the region of 137,000 vacant dwellings in Ireland, with Dublin city alone having a potential land bank of 36,000 new homes between its two major canals.

Mr Reynolds said a streamlined approval process would not require primary legislation and help to reduce uncertainty in the process, which currently involves separately obtaining fire certs, disabled access certs and the “so-called ‘reinforced self-certification’” and failure to obtain one of these elements can disrupt a project at a late stage.

“The difficulty is for someone who owns a building in say, Youghal,” he said. “Not only do they have to do a change-of-use application, it triggers requirements for fire cert, disabled access cert.” 

He said this process can take up to six months, while the equivalent process in the UK can take up a fraction of the time.

“We have to make it simpler,” he said, and pointed to a proposal he and colleagues had made to Government in this regard in 2017. 

“The process we have outlined would not involve a diminution of these standards.” 

The committee heard that that proposal as it was made increased the risk to the State and to local authorities.

Risk to the State

Maria Graham, assistant secretary in the Department of Housing, said it was a “departmental view” that such a proposal would transfer risk to the State.

Social Democrat TD Cian O’Callaghan asked for the committee to be provided with further detail as to why this was the department’s view.

Separately, the committee heard Ireland’s towns had been “brutalised by car-focused designs”. 

Giulia Vallone, a senior architect with Cork County Council, pointed to the regeneration of Clonakilty as a community-focused project that could be replicated elsewhere and urged the use of dedicated urban architects in projects aimed at improving occupancy in town centres.

Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin asked department officials for more information on the Croí Cónaithe initiative, which was announced by Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien last month.

“It’s still completely unclear what Croí Cónaithe is,” he said, and asked if it would involve subsidies to developers, grant aid to buyers or give an equity stake.

Ms Graham said such issues were currently being ironed out, and the scheme would have two strands – cities and towns – which would aim to kickstart unactivated planning permissions across the State.

Meanwhile, TU Dublin lecturer Helen Murray O’Connor told the committee that it would be essential to collate better, more trustworthy data as part of efforts to tackle the issue of vacant homes.

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