Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: In recent weeks, householders in two areas of the Dublin city north fringe have become deeply upset by a series of illegal occupations of development lands and new roads in this major new urban district. On a three hectare site owned by Dublin City Council and a smaller area owned by BP Excavations at Newtown, Dublin 17, an illegal occupation began about three weeks ago and formerly empty fields are now occupied by mobile homes and other vehicles. The road through these lands is the entry and exit for Newtown Court, a very successful National Association of Building Co-operatives, NABCO, voluntary housing development of over 200 rental and mortgage-paying householders. The area is also immediately adjacent to the 200-plus households of the Snowdrop estate of Darndale-Belcamp parish. Householders have grave concerns on environmental, health and planning grounds at the failure of the authorities to immediately secure the vacant lands at Newtown and their earlier failure to prepare and implement an area action plan as repeatedly requested by me for this land.
Discussions have taken place between Dublin City Council area management, the Garda Síochána, local residents and representatives of the illegal occupiers in recent weeks. I am informed that Dublin City Council is preparing to take a legal injunction to request the ending of the illegal occupation. I am also informed that most of the illegal occupiers formerly lived in Dublin City Council tenancies and that repeated offers of council housing were made when this group allegedly illegally occupied the St. Laurence development lands at Santry, Dublin 9. Dublin City Council’s legal costs in earlier lengthy actions at Santry exceeded €90,000 and a further €80,000 was spent on preparing and restoring homes for the illegal occupiers in an agreed location at the N32. Legal action to end the Santry illegal occupation was drawn out for over two years because of infirmities in existing law.
In late September a second illegal occupation took place on the Northern Parkway, a key new arterial road of the major north fringe development at Clongriffin, Dublin 13. From discussions with DCC area management and the Garda Síochána, I understand that the vehicles which illegally occupied the Northern Parkway re-located from Newry, County Down. In the past five years local residents in Marrsfield, Clongriffin and Belmayne have worked hard with local representatives, Dublin City Council, Fingal County Council, the Garda Síochána, developers, health and education authorities and other stakeholders to try to provide all the necessary, new services and complete this vast new urban district. Many residents, often with large mortgages and in negative equity, are now desperately worried that the masterplan for the region is falling apart and that the derelict and vacant lands in the area will fall into dereliction or this type of illegal occupation. That is why I have repeatedly asked for SDZ status for the north fringe. I am informed that Mr. Gerry Gannon, the lead local developer, is now also seeking a legal injunction on this matter.
Let me state very clearly that Coolock and Dublin north east generally is the home of several hundred settled Traveller families and the whole community is very proud of the integration and solidarity between all our communities over the past 30 years. In their inputs into area development plans local community leaders have agreed to the planning and construction of secure, modern homes for Traveller families. Ironically, a number of Traveller homes were planned for an overall masterplan for the Newtown area which, regrettably, Dublin City Council never prepared. However, all our communities have no time for illegal occupations which are harmful to the sustainable planning of these north fringe areas and to our very good community relations.
I ask three things of the Minister. First, he should empower Dublin City Council to end quickly the illegal occupations concerned, given that several offers of housing were already made to families with local connections. Will he now take whatever emergency legislative steps are necessary to empower local authorities such as Dublin City Council and Fingal to protect development lands which have been left unused by the property bubble and banking disaster? Clearly, local authorities like Dublin City Council and Fingal, and new national authorities such as NAMA and the HSC, must have the power to end immediately any illegal use of public lands, whether under a reformed section 24 of the Housing Act, under the planning Acts or any new legislation. Long drawn out court proceedings must be avoided.
Second, once again I appeal to him and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to put the north fringe forum on a statutory basis to empower stakeholders, including NAMA, the HSC and surviving developers, to lay out a clear programme to repair fully and complete the north fringe urban district. This might include, for example, using some of these lands as sports fields and community facilities until major development resumes.
Third, will the Minister co-ordinate Dublin City Council, the NRA and other agencies to enable the Newtown Court estate to have an entry-exit onto the N32 at Newtown-Clare Hall as well as the current access onto Belcamp Lane?
Minister Áine Brady: I am replying to this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, who welcomes the opportunity to outline the law on illegal occupation.
The current law is, in the Minister’s view, very comprehensive and he has not been made aware of any shortcoming requiring attention. Part IIA of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 was inserted by section 24 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002. The provisions of section 19C(1) of Part 2A prohibit any person, without the consent of the owner of the land, from entering or occupying the land or bringing any object onto such land where it is likely to damage the land substantially or prejudicially affect any amenity to do with the land; to prevent anyone entitled to use the land or any amenity associated with it from making reasonable use of the land or the amenity; to otherwise render the land or the lawful use of the land or amenity unsanitary or unsafe; or to substantially interfere with the land or amenity or the lawful use of the land or amenity.
A garda may arrest, without warrant, a person committing an offence under 19C(1). The law also provides for a member of the Garda Síochána, who has reason to believe that a person is committing an offence under this section, to demand of the person his or her name and address and to direct that person to leave the land and to remove any object from the land which is owned or under the control of that person. It is an offence for a person to fail to co-operate with the Garda.
A person who is found guilty of illegal occupation or any other offence under Part IIA of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 shall be liable, on summary conviction, to a maximum fine of €4,000 or a sentence of up to one month in prison or both. The Garda may also remove any objects from the land where the owner has refused a Garda direction to do so. Such objects may be returned to the owner following a written declaration by the owner. The Garda Commissioner has discretion to require the owner to pay for any costs reasonably incurred on removing and storing the object. The Commissioner will be entitled to sell or dispose of such objects if not claimed and removed. The net proceeds of the sale, less the cost of removal, storage and sale, may be returned to the owner.
The implementation and enforcement of Part 2A of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 is a matter for the Garda and the courts. Matters relating to local authority housing and the offering of accommodation are the specific remit of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
On the specific issue of development lands, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has stated that it is primarily the responsibility of developers and the owners of unfinished developments to ensure that their sites are completed satisfactorily and that unfinished and unoccupied parts of the developments are adequately secured from unauthorised access. Construction sites are hazardous locations that, if left unprotected by proper security and perimeter fencing arrangements, can pose hazards to the public.
The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will shortly publish a consultation draft of best practice guidance on managing unfinished housing development sites. This will clearly set out the roles and responsibilities of developers and local authorities in this regard.