When the government in 2021 brought in a tax on land that could have homes on it but doesn’t, it was supposed to go into effect in early 2024. 

This annual tax of 3 percent of the market value of the land is meant to push the landowners to build homes, or maybe sell the land to someone who’ll build them.

It’s “a key pillar of the Government’s response to address the urgent need to increase housing supply in suitable locations”, a Department of Finance spokesperson said by email on 17 October.

But farmers have pushed back against the measure, and developers have too – and there’s an election cycle beginning.  

In his budget statement on 10 October, Finance Minister Michael McGrath, the Fianna Fáil TD, announced that this Residential Zoned Land Tax (RZLT) would not go into effect in early 2024 as planned.

Instead, the date when affected landowners will have to start paying will be delayed for a  year, McGrath said. 

“It is important that affected landowners have sufficient opportunity to engage with the mapping process and that a fair and transparent process is applied when local authorities consider what land should be placed on the RZLT maps,” he said. 

Opposition TDs have been critical of the delay.  

Social Democrats TD and housing spokesperson Cian O’Callaghan said he doesn’t see any good reason for it. 

“You’ve got to question the government’s resolve,” O’Callaghan said. “They don’t seem to be showing much resolve.”

Jude Sherry, director of Cork design agency Anois, who has been campaigning against dereliction, said Friday that, “The delay, low tax and high exemptions shows again the government is not serious about tackling land hoarding and speculation.”

Opportunities to engage

The government, of course, knew when it was introducing the tax that landowners would push back against their property being hit with it. 

There is a whole process to allow for and consider those objections. 

First each local authority makes a draft map showing what properties they plan to make liable for the RZLT. 

Then they take submissions from affected landowners, who can argue their property shouldn’t be liable for the tax because, for example, it doesn’t have links to water or sewer or other services needed to build homes. 

Or they could ask the local authority to rezone their property so it’s no longer zoned for residential development but for, say, industrial use, or agricultural use.  

Then the local authority publishes a “supplemental map” including any changes. Landowners can appeal the inclusion of their property to An Bord Pleanála. 

There’ve been a raft of appeals to the national planning board, and it has passed down loads of decisions, mostly upholding local authorities’ rulings. 

In December, local authorities were due to publish their final RZLT maps. Landowners who were liable for the tax were due to start paying in May.  

“It is a rolling process, it’ll be done every year,” Dublin City Council planning officer Deirdre Scully told the council’s planning committee on 5 October. 

“There’s an ongoing piece of work for us, in that we go out and survey sites that are identified or that we know about just in our day-to-day duties to look at and research to see if they should be added,” she said. 

“And also checking sites that are currently on it, to see if their situation has changed, if they’ve gone to construction, which hopefully they have, which is what we’re all about here,” she said. 

The money goes to the Revenue, and not only private landowners, but also local councils are supposed to pay the RZLT if their properties are liable, Scully said.

Factory land

The case of Botany Weaving, off Cork Street in Dublin 8, offers an example of how this process works.

As the first annual cycle of this RZLT process played out, local councillors jumped to the company’s defence.

The company was founded in 1934, according to its website, and makes seat fabrics and carpets for airplanes. It has been “carrying out a manufacturing operation at this location and have done so for 88 years”, it says.

Botany Weaving. Credit: Sam Tranum

In making its 2009 Liberties Local Area Plan, Dublin City Council initiated a rezoning of the property to a residential designation, a council spokesperson said by email in July. That didn’t cause the company any problems until the government brought in the RZLT.

Then, all of a sudden Botany Weaving was facing a new bill of 3 percent annually of the value of its land, which local independent Councillor Vincent Jackson said at an area committee meeting in July would come to nearly €200,000 a year.

Botany Weaving put in a submission to Dublin City Council during its mapping process objecting to the application of the tax to its land. When that didn’t work, it appealed the issue to An Bord Pleanála, which upheld the council’s decision to apply the tax.

So local councillors agreed to push for the lands to be rezoned so they were no longer considered residential and Botany Weaving Mills wouldn’t be liable for the tax.  

It’d be a shame if Botany Weaving left the Liberties, Jackson said back in July. “These are the kinds of businesses we need in the city.”

Independent Councillor Sophie Nicoullaud, another councillor who supported the rezoning, said “The plan of the city is to create a 15-minute city and that’s why we need to keep all the employment as close as possible to the residents.”

At a meeting of the council’s planning committee on 5 October, planning officer Deirdre Scully, while presenting a report on the RZLT process, said Botany’s land would be rezoned.

“We’re now changing that to a mixed-use zoning, because it’s more appropriate for the type of use and the adjoining zonings,” Scully said.

Farmland

The process also played out in Fingal, where several farmers appealed the application of the RZLT to their lands, show An Bord Pleanála records accessed through Vizlegal.

A planning consultant appealed the application of the tax to seven bits of land in Rush belonging to the Flynn family. 

Among these, for example, was a 0.05ha site about 900 metres west of the town centre on the Whitestown Road. 

It was “part of the curtilage of a residential dwelling” but was “being used to grow crops of an arable nature”, the family’s submission says. 

This shouldn’t be included because the county development plan “supports the preservation and retention of Rush’s market gardening tradition” and anyway, “given the limited size of the lands, the provision of a residential dwelling may not be feasible”.

The submission made a pitch for why each of the Flynn family’s lands around Rush shouldn’t be subject to the RZLT, but the council wasn’t buying any of them. 

So the family appealed to An Bord Pleanála. But they had no luck there either. An inspector recommended the board uphold the council’s decision, and it did.

“The fact that the lands are in active and established agricultural use does not qualify for omitting the lands from the map,” the inspector’s report says. 

The government has known all along that farmers would not be exempt from paying this tax on land they were actively farming, if it was zoned residential. 

In November 2021, in discussion on the terms of the proposed RZLT, Sinn Féin TD and finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty asked then Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe about the ramifications of this policy.

Donohoe responded that, “One of the key reasons we need a run-in period for this is that a dezoning or rezoning process will be put in place by local authorities to allow, for example, a farmer actively farming land zoned for residential use to apply to change the zoning status of that land.”

The lobbying register shows that the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) has lobbied both Doherty and Donohoe, “To highlight FA’s position that land that is actively farmed by farm families as an integral part of their farm business should be excluded from the proposed RZLT.”

Giving it another year

Although local authorities and landowners have already been through this process of deciding which lands would be subject to the RZLT, the government has decided to give them more time. 

“The purpose of this deferral is to allow for the annual mapping cycle to complete and afford landowners another opportunity to make submissions if their land is included on the maps prepared by local authorities,” said the spokesperson for the Department of Finance. 

“The deferral will provide a further opportunity to landowners whose land will appear on a draft revised final map to be published on 1 February 2024 to request the rezoning of such land,” he said.

It’ll also give the government the chance to bring in its Finance (No.2) Bill 2023, which includes some amendments to the RZLT, the spokesperson said. 

For example, that bill “sets out the intention to exclude from the scope of RZLT land which, while zoned for residential purposes, is subject to land management objectives in the relevant local authority development plan or local area plan which have identified such land for phased, and not immediate, development”, the spokesperson said.  

This land could not be developed right now, even if the property owner wanted to, but they would still be penalised by the tax for not developing it, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in the Dáil back on 9 May. 

There’s also an issue of timing to be worked out, the Department of Finance spokesperson said. 

The local authorities are supposed to publish revised maps on 1 February each year, showing which lands are residentially zoned and serviced but don’t have homes on them and therefore would be liable to pay the RZLT, he said. 

But part of knowing if the lands are properly serviced is having a look at “capacity registers for water”, which Uisce Eireann (UE) provides to local authorities each June, months after the draft RZLT maps are already supposed to be done, he said.  

“Further consideration may be given to the timing of the publication of the UE capacity water updates and the publication of draft zoned land maps,” he said. 

The Department of Finance spokesperson did not reply directly to a query on whether the implementation of the tax was being delayed to bring in changes as a result of lobbying by the IFA and Ibec, the business lobby group that includes the trade association Property Industry Ireland. 

“Proposed amendments to RZLT legislation will apply to all landowners rather than any specific cohort of landowner,” he said.

Impacts of the delay

Sinn Féin TD and housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin said on the phone on 26 October that he was not surprised at all by the delay in the implementation of the RZLT, as “it’s how this government operates”.

“This is another example of the government announcing measures to tackle the housing crisis before they’ve been fully worked out – and then delaying implementation,” Ó Broin said.

Anyway, said O’Callaghan, the Social Democrats TD, “The delay might suit the government parties, with an election cycle beginning.”  

If the government follows through with the delayed schedule, the new tax wouldn’t go into effect until 1 February 2025. 

That’d be after the local and European elections planned for 2024, and perhaps even after a general election, which must be called by the spring of 2025 at latest.

And after that election, the currently governing parties might find they are no longer in the position to bring in this tax, which looks to be unpopular with some powerful groups, including farmers and property developers. 

Whatever the reason for the delay, it’s too bad it’s happened, said O’Callaghan. 

Implementing the RZLT should not only push owners of residentially zoned land to build much-needed homes on it, but also push owners of land that maybe should not be zoned residential to ask for it to be re-zoned to a more appropriate designation, O’Callaghan said. 

Those rezonings would be valuable because they’d let bodies like Uisce Eireann and the National Transport Authority, for example, focus on getting their services to areas where housing will actually be built – rather than worrying about lands where it won’t, he said. 

Not only that, but the RZLT should be a better tool than the vacant sites levy – which it is replacing – for councils, said Scully, the Dublin City Council planning officer. 

“One of the things that I suppose is different is that the vacant site levy had a minimum threshold [‘in excess of 0.05ha’] and this doesn’t, so from a land-activation point of view it’s a better tool, even on that simple level,” Scully said. 

“Because in a fine-grained urban environment, the smaller sites are just as equally blighting as some of the bigger ones, depending on the context,” she said.

Said O’Callaghan, the Social Democrats TD and housing spokesperson: “From a land management perspective, we need this [RZLT] in as soon as possible.”

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