Thursday, 22 February 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
22. Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for the Environment and Local Government his views on whether the wider use of private consultants by local authorities and An Bord Pleanála may give rise to conflicts of interest, having regard to the fact that many consultants will also be advising applicants for planning permissions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5140/01]
Minister for the Environment and Local Government (Mr. Dempsey): When engaging private consultants, it is a matter for planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála to put in place the necessary procedures to avoid conflicts of interests. Planning applications are processed by planning authorities in accordance with the provisions of the planning Acts and regulations. Under the planning Acts, planning control is an executive function of the planning authority vested in the manager. While this function can be delegated to senior officials of the authority in accordance with local government legislation, the actual making of a decision on a planning application cannot be delegated to a person who is not an official of the authority. The main use by local authorities of planning consultants has been for the preparation of development plans, local area action plans, integrated area plans etc.
With regard to An Bord Pleanála, section 11(5) of the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1983, provides that the board shall, subject to compliance with planning legislation, regulate its own procedure and business. Any decision to engage private planning consultants to assist in the discharge of its functions is a matter for the board. The current statutory provisions regarding declarations of interest, etc. apply to private consultants as well as to the board's own staff.
23. Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for the Environment and Local Government the steps which are being taken to address staff shortages in An Bord Pleanála and planning departments of local authorities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5141/01]
Minister for the Environment and Local Government (Mr. Dempsey): My Department has often written to planning authorities asking them to consider their staffing levels so that the planning system  does not cause bottlenecks in meeting demand, and delivers the best possible service. My Department approved requests from planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála to sanction additional professional planner posts. Some authorities have difficulties in filling additional posts.
The most recent survey by my Department of the larger local authority planning departments – county councils and county borough corporations – carried out on 31 January 2001, found that the overall number of serving staff, both administrative and professional, had increased to 1,090. This compares to a figure of 1,066 in October 2000, 994 in July 2000 and 895 in September 1999. In relation to professional planners, the January survey found that there were 394 authorised posts for professional planners, 66 of which were vacant at that time, i.e. the total number of serving professional planners was 328. This compares positively with the results of the October survey which reported 301 serving professional planners.
In July 2000, I approved an increase of 29 additional staff – nine professional planners and 20 administrative staff – which brought An Bord Pleanála's authorised staff complement to 134, excluding board members. Recruitment of these additional staff is ongoing.
In June 2000, I made the Local Government (Planning and Development) Regulations, 2000, which increased the size of exempted domestic extensions from 23 square metres to 40 square metres. This was designed to remove about 30% of planning applications for such extensions from the planning system in major urban areas, to allow planners to concentrate on more complex applications and forward planning issues.
I contacted my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, and the third level education sector to identify ways of producing more planners through the education system. From September 2000 new and expanded courses in University College Dublin and Dublin Institute of Technology Bolton Street will treble the output of graduate planners in two years time to approximately 75 planners graduating per annum. In the interim, to meet the short-term demand, the employment of planners from abroad on fixed term contracts is being pursued. In this regard, my Department and local authorities are participating in the FÁS Jobs Ireland Campaign.
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