Cllr Paddy McDonald (SF).

We cannot allow public lands fall into the hands of developers - Cllr

Cavan County Council members voiced their opposition to a proposal to take oversight of the sale of local authority lands out of the hands of elected members. The discussion on the changes proposed in a Bill going through the Dáil at present were in response to a motion put forward by Sinn Féin's Paddy McDonald.

Cllr McDonald's motion said proposed changes to the Land Development Agency should not allow local authority lands fall into the hands of private developers.

A government Bill passing through the Dáil will allow councils to transfer State lands to the Land Development Agency (LDA) without a vote from councillors. The LDA was established as a State agency in 2018 to build 150,000 new homes over the next 20 years, as part Project Ireland 2040. It is a commercial body created to co-ordinate land within State control “for more optimal uses” with “a focus on the provision of housing”.

In his address to the chamber Cllr McDonald said: “The Land Development Agency as proposed cannot solve the housing crisis. Its proposed legal structure, its land use plan and its financing model will result in an unstrategic use of a key public assets, namely public land.”

The Sinn Féin representative expressed his concern about the proposed changes to allow for public land transfer to the quango: “The LDA as proposed is NAMA Mark II, but with more powers, a bigger mandate and control over a more significant budget, which will leave taxpayer on the hook.”

Cllr McDonald told councillors that Sinn Féin’s view is that the best way to deliver social homes for purchase at prices that working families can afford is through the delivery of public homes on public land by Cavan County Council or approved housing bodies and community housing trusts.

Cllr McDonald said his party does not support the Land Development Agency having a direct involvement in planning or delivering housing, whether public or private: “Our proposal would be to split the LDA into two functions, one dealing with land management and the other, located in the City and County Managers Association, which assists local authorities to deliver their regional five-year public housing plans.”

He said the reason for his motion was simple: “We cannot simply allow public lands fall into the hands of large profit-making developers.”

Supporting the motion Cllr Clifford Kelly (FF) said he did not agree with the agency. He said local authorities are mandated to provide social and affordable housing: “We should fight hard, as they are doing in every other local authority. The only problem I have with this motion relates to private housing bodies. Tenants of PHBs cannot purchase their homes in the same way that local authority tenants can.”

Cllr John Paul Feeley asked for clarification on the motion: “Is the proposal that we oppose the draft legislation in its entirety or a particular section of the agency?”

The Blacklion based councillor said he agreed that he bulk of social housing should be provided by local authorities.

Cllr Shane P O'Reilly said there were parts of the LDA that could help address the housing crisis, but said taking council lands would be a further denigration of local democracy: “There is an element of turkeys voting for Christmas in this bill. It will further diminish the powers that local councillors have.”

Cllr Madeleine Argue asked the Sinn Fein representative if there was a conflict between his party's national policy on the development of housing estates and the proposed motion. Cathaoirleach Sarah O'Reilly requested clarification on whether the motion was a total opposition to the Land Development Agency Bill or just parts of it.

Cllr McDonald said he was not opposed to the agency but the handing over of council land that would be developed by private entities. “I am not opposed to the Land Development Agency working with county councils to build social housing,” he clarified.

Director of Services Eoin Doyle explained the the work of the agency is just one of a number of initiatives the government is employing to deal with the housing crisis: “Really their role is to deal with the strategic management of the lands that are in the ownership of the State. They are looking to bring together land banks that are in the ownership of local authorities and other State agencies and are currently not being used to their maxim.”

Mr Doyle said there were quite a few different nuances as to how the programme would work and that they would be assessed over time to see if they yielded the best benefit to the taxpayer. He said it may well be the case that local authorities would be delivering components of affordable housing as part of the overall model employed.

The Director of Service recommended that councillors look at the plan with an open mind. He said the section dealing with the councillors oversight in the disposal of lands might be something “that the members might want to reflect on”.

Cllr McDonald thanked the Director of Services and stated that the specific part of the Bill he wanted his motion to reflect opposition to was the section on the disposal of lands outlined by Mr Doyle.

Cathaoirleach O'Reilly asked Cllr McDonald if he would consider re submitting the motion for the May meeting and provide clarity on what aspect of the bill the councillor is objecting to.

Cllr McDonald said his submitted motion was unequivocal: “The councils need to keep control of their own land to build social housing for the people of the county and not sell it to the LDA. Simple as that.”

Councillor TP O'Reilly said the Land Development Agency Bill being considered would have little effect in Cavan as he felt it was in response to land banks held in Dublin by urban local authorities and State agencies.

Cllr Feeley suggested that the local authority should request that the oversight for councils that currently exists to approve the sale of council property on a case by case basis is retained and said: “We are not opposing the Land Development Agency as such.”

Cllr Argue wanted to ensure that there was still a quorum at the Zoom meeting before any such motion was adopted.

Councillors unanimously agreed to the motion as put forward with the amendment. Cllr McDonald thanked the members for their support.