Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Housing Barry Cowen TD says a new Bill introduced by his party in the Dáil will help refurbish thousands of vacant units in older and commercial buildings in cities and town centres.

The ‘Vacant Housing Refurbishment Bill 2017’ establishes a special planning and building control approval process in each planning authority. This will enable the expedited refurbishment of upper floors of older and commercial structures for housing.

Deputy Cowen said, “It’s clear a new approach is needed to expand the supply of social, affordable and private housing as the targets simply will not be met at the current pace of progress. Refurbishment of vacant spaces in residential, as well as commercial properties and in older buildings, can provide the key to this.

“Yet, there is nothing in the Department strategy to deal with the very significant barriers that exist for Approved Housing Bodies, Local Authorities and private individuals to refurbish vacant properties in older buildings.

“As has been well documented, Census 2016 revealed that almost 260,000 homes – 15% of total housing stock – are vacant across the country. This is shamefully wasteful.

“There are thousands of square feet of liveable space in ‘above the shop’ units which, as anyone who walks around a city or town in Ireland can clearly see, exist in very large numbers.

“Dublin City Council recently estimated that there are 4,000 vacant spaces above commercial units in the city with potential for use as residential dwellings. With the right policy instrument in place this could translate into over 20,000 additional residential units in a short space of time.

“Building control and planning processes make spaces in older or commercial buildings virtually impossible to convert for residential use and have to be streamlined if we are to make a dent on reducing building vacancies and dereliction.

“Our Bill seeks to establish an expedited process for building control and planning administration in each local authority by,

(1) accelerating the supply of dwellings in existing buildings, where there are changes of use and / or limited building works to certain classes of development, and

(2) to ensure compliance with safety standards in existing multi-occupancy residential buildings, and

(3) to regularize existing unauthorized developments.

“The Bill expands a limited category of exempted development and amends building control administrative procedures while requiring direct inspection of the design plans before construction and on site by an independent ‘Authorised Person’, as defined by legislation.

“It is intended the ‘One-Stop-Shop’ approval system will reduce administrative delay, align existing administrative systems for planning and building control and ensure greater compliance in the conversion and refurbishment of existing structures in urban areas to residential use.

“The Bill also provides a mechanism to regularise existing unauthorized residential developments and bring them up to standard, particularly in the private rental sector, such as those that involve the sub-division of existing buildings and changes.”