Support for vacant property tax despite ‘murmurings’ on efficacy

Government figures, including Taoiseach, have queried the extent of vacancy in the State

A senior Fianna Fáil member of the Oireachtas Housing Committee has said he fully supports the introduction of a vacant property tax despite “murmurings” from within the Coalition Government about its efficacy as a measure.

Paul McAuliffe, the deputy chairman of the Committee, said that the Government last year committed itself to the tax and as far as he was concerned nothing has changed.

He was speaking at the launch on Tuesday of a comprehensive report by the committee on urban regeneration, which includes 39 recommendations, unanimously agreed by all its members.

A key recommendation is the introduction of a vacant property tax.

In recent weeks, Government figures, including the Taoiseach, have queried the the scale of vacancy issue in the State, suggesting saying that figures relied on by the committee and others were too high.

One figure contained in the report estimated there could be 137,000 vacant units in the State. However, committee members yesterday said they noted that estimate but did not rely on it.

Mr McAuliffe, when asked if he was at odds with his own Government, said the overall number of vacant units was not the key metric behind introducing such a tax, but the issue was to tackle empty properties in the heart of each community irrespective of numbers.

“There is a value to introducing it beyond just the supply,” he said.

“We signed off on the process in the Budget last year. If there was any departure from that, I would be very disappointed.

“Vacancy eats away at the centre of communities.”

Accurate data

In his introduction to the report, the committee chairman Stephen Matthews (Green Party) emphasised the need for having accurate data on which to base such findings. His views were echoed by other committee members.

Mr Matthews said that the figures curently cited ranged from 90,000 units to 180,000 and there was a need to be able to have more accurate data on which to base policy measures.

Mr Matthews, along with Social Democrats housing spokesman Cian O’Callaghan, cited studies from France and Vancouver which showed that introducing such a tax was in itself a very good instrument for collecting data on rates of vacancy.

The report itself, is based on four hearings organised by the committee and had drawn together a number of stark findings.

It noted the unsatisfactory collection of levies for vacant sites and derelict sites. Only €21,000 out of €21.5 million in vacant site levies owed to local authorities has been paid, which represents less than 1 percent of monies owed.

Derelict sites levies fare little better with only €378,763 of €5.45 million owed collected.

The high-profile repair and lease scheme also yielded very poor returns and the committee concluded that “it cannot be said to be a national success”.

Since 2017, only 267 units have been brought back into use under the scheme, with more than half of those (140) in one local authority area alone.

That area is Waterford which has been an exemplar through the use of a vacant homes team. Of the 31 local authorities, 23 have delivered five units or fewer with eight failed to deliver any.

Waterford Senator John Commins (Fine Gael) said that the local authority there had delivered predominantly two bed accommodation, which served the local need. He said the model used in Waterford should serve as an example for the rest of the State.

Property vacant

The Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin said that “wilfully leaving property vacant is akin to hoarding food during a famine”.

He said public policy should do everything to facilitate using all property and leaving property vacant in the depth of a housing crisis was wrong.

He said that the housing strategy could not depend on new housing alone as Ireland could not meet climate change targets for the sector if all the housing was new-build. He also said that even if 10,000 vacant homes were brought back into use, it would help reduce homelessness.

Mr O’Callaghan, like Mr Matthews, focused on data saying that what the Government was relying on – data from the Local Property Tax returns – was also not complete as there were 200,000 units for which there were no returns.

He said a vacant homes tax would “clear out some of the confusion” and give more reliable data on the extent of vacancy.

Senator Mary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fáil) said there was far too much vacancy and dereliction in Dublin. She was one of several speakers who took issue with Dublin City Council’s argument that vacant property rates were not as high as had been presented, saying there was ample evidence in her own constituency of Dublin Central.

“Things move at a glacial speed, I know that from bitter experience. There are properties that will take a decade to get them on the register.”

She said a Compulsory Purchase Order was the furthest thing from an easy solution and that some CPOs have taken over 10 years.

Francis Noel Duffy (Green Party) said that the report’s “endgame” was to bring people back into towns and villages. He said there was a doughnut phenomenon at present with a lot of people living outside their towns.

Senator Rebecca Moynihan of Labour also took issue with Dublin City Council’s argument there was “no low-hanging fruit”.

She said there was a corner site in her own constituency of Dublin South Central, which a developer had sat on for a number of years, without doing anything, and that had taken the council years to get into operation.