Tuesday, 2 March 2010
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Lucinda Creighton: It is with reluctance that I feel obliged to begin on a slightly critical note, but I believe the legislation, especially in light of its source, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, is a sham. I do not wish to personalise this but the introduction of a Bill such as this is pathetic emanating from a Deputy who spent all of his time in opposition criticising and highlighting the democratic deficit, lamenting the progressive centralisation of power with Fianna Fáil Ministers and pleading for a meaningful devolved form of local government. It speaks volumes about the ineptitude of the Green Party in Government and its inability to influence any sort of meaningful change in terms of local government, in particular, planning.
The Bill flies in the face of subsidiarity. The word “subsidiarity” came up a lot in recent campaigns on European referenda. It does not mean much to people but it does mean a great deal in terms of its practical application. Subsidiarity is a commendable and worthwhile principle which we should apply to local government. It is about governing at the very lowest level closest to the people. Surely that is what local government should be about. Instead, what the Bill promotes is more of a top-down approach and even further centralisation of power in terms of planning than we have seen to date. As a former member of a local authority, I consider this lamentable.
The Bill essentially amounts to watering down the powers afforded to councillors in regard to planning. Local authority members throughout the State who are members of my party have condemned the legislation, and I am also aware of similar condemnation from councillors who are members of parties on the other side of the House. It has been met with general disdain from public representatives who see it for what it is, namely, a whitewash designed to limit further the already limited powers available to them.
Councillors have only one meaningful reserved function, that is, the creation and application of county and city development plans. That is their main function and this Bill proposes to alter it fundamentally. The requirement for a two thirds majority to pass a development plan or any alteration thereto flies in the face of the principle of subsidiarity. Last year’s local elections saw the establishment of Fine Gael-led power-sharing arrangements in the vast majority of local authorities throughout the State.
This leads one to question whether the motivation behind this new two thirds majority requirement is the discomfort of the parties in government that they no longer control local authorities. Are they trying to force a situation whereby Fine Gael councillors who have a direct mandate from the electorate will have to go on bended knee, begging for the imprimatur of Fianna Fáil councillors and other councillors to agree to development plans and variations thereto and other major planning decisions? This represents a serious abuse of the democratic system at local level and an abuse of the role of this House, being an attempt to gain political weight at local government level by parties that were defeated in last year’s local elections. The Government, particularly the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, must think twice about its motivation.
This Bill is another example of the continuing extension of ministerial powers. It is extraordinary that while the Government alludes to the need for local government reform that will make it more meaningful and will empower councillors to govern at local level, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government takes it upon himself to create vast new powers allowing him to direct local authorities in one direction or another. It may well be the case that the Minister considers himself the tsar of planning and that it is only his opinion that counts when it comes to good planning. I have news for him, however. He should bear in mind that he is not a member of a local authority; he does not have a mandate at local level to deal with planning matters and he ought to show a certain degree of deference and respect for those who have such a mandate.
Under this legislation, the Minister has bestowed upon himself the power to issue directions in regard to local area plans. It is a bizarre notion that he should issue directions and directives from his office in Dublin on how local area plans should operate in towns and villages throughout the State. That represents a complete diminution of the powers and responsibilities of local councillors to represent their local areas as best they can. What on earth qualifies the Minister to know more about a town in south Kerry or north-west Donegal than those who are elected directly to represent it? This extraordinary premise contradicts everything the Minister, Deputy Gormley, claimed to stand for before the last general election. It is a worrying trend.
The Minister also envisages in this legislation an enhanced role for regional authorities, which are entirely exempt from any requirements in regard to public consultation. Yet again, another layer of bureaucracy is being added that distances local representatives from their rightful functions. Regional authorities, which are not directly elected and have no particular role, will now be in a position to direct the policies of local authorities. I understand the Minister, in other proposed legislation, is planning to scrap the Dublin Regional Authority. However, for the purposes of argument, I will presume it continues to exist. Under this legislation, the Dublin Regional Authority will direct Dublin City Council as to the policies it ought to pursue in regard to the city development plan. This is a ridiculous and extraordinary proposal of the Minister, Deputy Gormley.
Similarly, an enhanced role is envisaged for the national spatial strategy. This was originally a good document which was entirely thrown out in the mad grab for seats and votes before the last general election, when the Government decided, under the direction and stewardship of the then Minister for Finance, Mr. Charlie McCreevy, to pursue a policy of decentralisation. The national spatial strategy was completely ignored when it came down to the brass tacks of securing votes for Fianna Fáil candidates in constituencies throughout the State. Nevertheless, the spatial strategy remains a useful document, albeit one that is now most likely out of date. This strategic policy was not laid before the Oireachtas and does not have a mandate from the national Parliament. To propose that it should supersede the views of directly elected local councillors and the authorities on which they sit flies in the face of any concept of democracy. I take great exception to that proposal. The national spatial strategy should be reviewed and updated. If it is to have a place in this legislation and if it is to function as a steward for local authorities, then it should, at the very least, be debated in this Chamber and receive a mandate from the House.
Another notable element of the legislation is a sense of what can only be described as skewed priorities on the part of the Minister and his officials. The mandatory objectives envisaged under the legislation include the promotion of sustainable settlement and transportation strategies. That is meritorious. However, it is bizarre that the list includes nothing about educational needs, community needs, school requirements and so on. This has been a deficiency of the planning system for far too long. In my constituency, a major development took place some years ago on the grounds of a former convent at Mount St. Anne’s in Milltown. This site formerly included a primary school which served the children of families in the area. What was allowed to happen under our wonderful planning system? It allowed for closure of the school, selling off and rezoning of the land and the development of multiple family-sized units on the land but with no school. There is no school for the children of that parish to attend and consequently the parents there are forced to try to get their children into schools in neighbouring parishes that already are oversubscribed and in which there are no places. Incidentally, according to the lists maintained by the Department of Education and Science of areas that are prioritised for school building, the area in question does not feature because it is located in Dublin 6, which is perceived to be wealthy. It therefore does not matter and does not qualify as a priority for the Department’s experts, which I consider to be most bizarre.
Another failing of this legislation relates to over-reliance on development levies. Theoretically, development levies are a reasonably good concept and all Members will be familiar with examples in which they have fed into the seriously depleted coffers of local authorities. However, in my experience in Dublin, there has been over-reliance on development levies in recent years. The local government fund has not increased in line with either inflation or with the Government commitments made on its initial introduction. Consequently, it has been depleted proportionately every year and local authorities’ reliance on development levies has increased. This has provided a great incentive for local authorities to build intensively and to grant planning permission for any application that comes before them. They are reliant on development levies for day-to-day activities at local authority level. I can understand the conflict that exists because they are completely incentivised to grant planning permission for any application that comes before them. This is damaging to the operation of local authorities. It skews their priorities and the manner in which they apply development plans. Moreover, it skews the manner in which they critically analyse and assess planning applications that come before them. Not only does this legislation do nothing to improve this state of affairs but it refers to supplementary development contributions, which will add a greater incentive to grant inappropriate planning permission. This issue must be considered and reviewed by the Minister, Deputy Gormley. I would be very surprised were he able to genuinely stand over this or if he could in good conscience consider this to be a suitable way to fund local government.
The issue of how local government is to be funded in the future, which is connected but not directly relevant to this Bill, must be examined. The expectation that central government should fund local government cannot continue as it is neither viable nor sustainable. Moreover, Members are aware that the Government does not ring-fence for local government what it should or what it has committed to do and as a result, local authorities nationwide are on the brink of bankruptcy. A meaningful way to fund local government must be found and it will involve the introduction of local taxes. I acknowledge this is not a politically popular thing to do or say. Moreover, I am unsure how many Members of this House would be sufficiently courageous to stand over such a proposal but I genuinely believe it is the only way. It is the only answer to servicing properly those needs that are met by the services provided by local government. It is the only fair and right way to fund the requisite services.
On cleaning up the planning process, earlier I alluded to the attempt to water down the role of councillors at a local level, planning being the only area in which they really have a role to play. It is important to note that by and large, 99.9% of councillors are good people who put their names on the ballot paper and put their heads above the parapet. They do so to try to serve their communities as best they can. I am not aware of any councillors with whom I ever served who were corrupt or who engaged in any form of corrupt behaviour. Dublin City Council never really had a reputation or much of an involvement in this regard as inappropriate rezoning pertained more to the county than to the city of Dublin. However, the spotlight now is on all public representatives and specifically on councillors in respect of planning, rezoning, corruption and so on. In the present climate, given all the tribunals and so on that have been held, it would be very difficult to abuse that system and anyone who might be so inclined probably would not get away with it. Consequently, most local authorities nationwide have responsible councillors who are doing their best to serve the people.
The apparent suspicion that exists in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in its relationship with such councillors must be reassessed. It is important that this relationship should be restored and improved because were the only solution to planning problems to be an attempt by that Department to take back more and more power for itself and to centralise matters even further, it would lead to a far more corrupt system than existed in the past. If one is serious about accountability and democracy, government must operate at the lowest possible level. One must trust councillors and allow them to run local authorities in the way they should be run. They are the people with the mandate.
If the Minister is serious about cleaning up planning, he should impose penalties on local authorities that breach development plans. This is a different point of view because in my experience, it is the planners and not the councillors who flout regulations and rules and nothing in this Bill attempts to address this point. My experience in my constituency was that councillors had their arms twisted behind their backs to try to force them to rezone a site in Ballsbridge with which some Members may be familiar. I am pleased and proud to state that I was one of those who led the charge against this because I did not believe it was appropriate. I had a mandate from the people and believed it was my duty to honour it. Consequently, the councillors refused to rezone the site and retained its residential zoning. However, although the planners then decided to ignore the development plan, there were no consequences for the planning officials in Dublin City Council who deliberately flouted the city development plan. This legislation should aim at and target the flagrant abuse by local authorities of development plans, planning regulations and guidelines. The Minister is misguided in that this legislation is directed at punishing councillors who have a mandate and who are accountable to the people. Instead, it should be directed at local authorities that try to ignore the democratically-elected councillors and try to ignore the development plans they have put in place.
Deputy John Cregan: I welcome the legislation and am glad to have the opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate. The predominant purpose of my contribution is to call on the Minister to consider amending the legislation. While I am open to correction, I understand the legislation includes a provision to allow a five-year extension to some planning permission that may run out of time. I greatly welcome this provision and perceive the logic and reason behind it. However, the legislation is lacking in that I understand this provision pertains to development per se as against one-off housing.
I call for consistency, and will revert to that later in my contribution, and for fairness. While I am open to correction, I understand that a developer or contractor will be allowed to extend planning permission beyond the five-year period for which it was granted because of the present economic climate and perhaps because the individual in question is unable to secure the requisite finance to put in place the development. However, a couple who obtained planning permission to build a one-off house, fell on difficult times and lost their jobs through no fault of theirs might have gone to a bank for a mortgage and been refused. To be consistent and in the interests of fairness, we should ensure that we follow through for those people to whom I referred. Is a small builder who has bought one or two sites in the countryside and built two or three houses catered for in the legislation? If so, I welcome the provision, as we would have consistency and fairness. If it is not the case, I ask that the matter be examined.
I represent rural County Limerick and much of my constituency work involves constituents approaching me for assistance with planning applications across a range of areas. When dealing with planning applications, I always call for consistency. I want to see consistency in the planning decisions that are being made daily in my county. If I sit down with a planner or director of services and he or she can justify the reason for refusing a planning application, I accept it. There are genuine reasons for refusals. What I cannot accept, however, is a lack of consistency. I do not mean a lack in one local authority area, but throughout the country.
Take the infamous section 47 that landowners are asked to sign as an example. Before entering the Chamber this evening, I spoke with two colleagues and told them that, in County Limerick, section 47 is for life, not only for the landowner who commits to not allowing further development, but for the next landowner and the landowner after that. I understand that in County Kerry across the border from my constituency, a section 47 is signed for a ten-year period. In County Clare, another adjoining county, a section 47 is signed for a five-year period. This is just one example of a large inconsistency between three counties in my immediate area.
For the benefit of members of the general public who may not understand what a section 47 is, it is where a landowner has been asked to sign off on his or her landholding and given a commitment in writing that he or she will not seek further planning permission for development. In some instances, this favours the landowner. In the absence of the agreement, he or she would not get any planning permission. However, there is a distinct lack of consistency and I question the legality of such a document. Would it stand up in a court of law? Asking anyone to sign off on a section 47 is a considerable undertaking.
I mentioned one-off housing in rural Ireland. There is a distinct train of thought, particularly in the Irish Planning Institute, that there should be fewer one-off houses. I am a strong advocate of rural housing and allowing rural people who need to live in rural areas — I qualify what I am saying — to build in those areas. This is important. Although the institute and others are trying to convince us to build in towns and villages, we have a problem, as towns and villages do not have sufficient infrastructure. I could cite several instances in my county in which applications were made to the Department over a number of years. These applications had been prioritised by the local authority and sent to the Department, which prioritised and approved by them. Since there was no work-to-rule or no go slow, I cannot understand why it would take five, seven or ten years for those projects to come to fruition. The upgrading of a sewage plant in a small town is an example. What are we doing? We can build a motorway or whatever we wish, but we cannot seem to get to grips with doing this. I am not referring to present incumbents, as this system has been in place for years.
If I table a parliamentary question about a particular sewerage scheme upgrade, the reply will tell me that the Department has reverted to the county council for more information. When I speak with the director of services, I am told that the council has reverted to the Department for more information. The matter is up and down the road every second day and we get nowhere. I cannot defend this situation because it is not on. In this day and age, it should not be the case. It is leaving me in a difficult situation.
In my home town of Drumcollogher, there is an embargo on houses being built because the sewerage system has reached its capacity. I accept this, as I do not want to promote pollution or cause people difficulties. However, I want to see progress in my town and progress and growth in the rest of the towns in County Limerick. We are being strangled in this regard because the infrastructure is not in place. Resources and money have been made available, but no progress has been made. I have a bee in my bonnet about this issue, which I take seriously. We are telling people that they cannot build one-off houses in rural Ireland because county development plans specify A, B and C and that we want them to come into towns and villages. However, those who want to build in towns and villages cannot do so. Obviously, we must solve this problem quickly. It is not rocket science. We should allow people to build.
I also wish to raise the issue of pre-planning meetings, an inclusion in our system that I welcome. In County Limerick, our pre-planning system is effective. The applicant can sit down rationally with the planner for the area, discuss the issues and get a note containing an accurate account of the meeting from the planner when leaving. This allows the applicant to know where he or she stands, whether he or she can apply for permission to build a type of house, whether permission will be given, the percolation situation and so on. This is reasonable and proper and prevents people from throwing away good money, as they can be advised. The pre-planning process is welcome and works well for us.
Planning can be subjective and design is a bugbear for many people who want to build houses. Not for one moment would I advocate the so-called build what you like where you like syndrome. This cannot happen and I do not agree with it. If two people are making a decision to build what will, in most cases, be their family home for the rest of their lives, we are quick in telling them that they cannot build a two-storey or dormer house somewhere.
Deputy John Cregan: I commend the planning authority in my county, which has set down design guidelines. It is important that there be design guidelines, but we need discretion. With the greatest of respect to planners, planning can be subjective. One sees planners coming and going and opinions changing. Irrespective of whether we like it, this is the way it works. What was the flavour of the month yesterday might not be the flavour of the month today.
Deputy Michael Fitzpatrick: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, which seeks to introduce a number of changes to planning and development. The key objectives of the Bill are to support economic renewal and promote sustainable development. It also aims to bring about a closer alignment between the national spatial strategy, regional planning guidelines, development plans and local area plans in addition to introducing a requirement for an evidence-based core strategy in development plans.
Ireland’s planning system was first introduced on 1 October 1964 when the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1963 came into effect. Since then, a large body of planning legislation and regulations have emerged, which is said to reflect “the expansion of the statutory development control system to meet the demands arising from economic growth, rising public concern in the area of environmental control, a desire on the part of the public for a statutory and independent planning appeals system, and a growing European dimension arising from our membership of the European Union”. Expansion of the planning code culminated in the Planning and Development Act 2000, which the Department describes as the starting point for the modern planning code.
In the regulatory impact analysis of the Bill, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government highlights a number of what it describes as qualitative improvements in the planning system in recent years. These include the consolidation and modernisation of the planning code under the Planning and Development Act 2000; the publication of the national spatial strategy in 2002 and the regional planning guidelines adopted in 2004; the enactment of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006, which provides a single, consent process for major private and public infrastructure projects; and the provision of comprehensive guidance to local authorities in regard to, inter alia, development plan preparation, the development management process, strategic environmental assessment, rural housing, retail planning, apartment design and space standards, the planning system and sustainable urban residential development. In brief, since the consolidation and modernisation of planning laws in 2000, there have been numerous amendments to the Planning and Development Act 2000.
The Planning and Development Act 2002 amended Part V of the 2000 Act in regard to social and affordable housing to provide more flexibility for the manner in which developers can comply with obligations under Part V of the Act. A number of miscellaneous amendments were made, for example in regard to local area plans, development plans and judicial review of compulsory purchase orders. The Housing Act 2004 provided for the opening up of the affordable housing market to financial institutions. The Planning and Development Act 2006 made substantial changes to the 2000 Act, most significantly in introducing a special application process for strategic infrastructure developments, whereby applications are made directly to An Bord Pleanála. Further amendments included modifications to the procedure for the refusal of planning permission for past failures to comply and changes to special judicial review proceedings to cover “any act done” by the planning authority or the board. Finally, Part V of the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 amended the 2000 Act to provide for consistency between the Dublin Transport Authority’s transport strategy and the plans and guidelines of planning authorities within the greater Dublin area. It set out a role for the Dublin Transport Authority in land use and planning in the greater Dublin area. The Public Transport Regulation Bill 2009 proposes to provide for a consultative role for the National Transport Authority in the preparation of regional planning guidelines, similar to that already provided for the Dublin Transport Authority. This is most welcome.
Local authorities and An Bord Pleanála are responsible for directly operating Ireland’s physical planning system. According to the Department, its primary role is “to provide the essential legislative framework and policy guidelines while seeking to minimise the regulatory burden and cost of the system”. Basing planning on population targets has the potential to disadvantage rural communities along with many smaller towns and villages. Parts of my constituency of North Kildare, along with north Offaly, were designated disadvantages under Offaly and Kildare Partnership. Sustaining these communities and encouraging people and business to the areas has been problematic. Besides, Kildare borders the BMW region and this puts my constituency at a disadvantage.
Using population targets will not get commercial or housing development in the smaller villages, due to the size of development that will be allowable under population targets. Small development will not be viable, as developers have to provide infrastructure, such as water, sewerage, footpaths and traffic calming for the entire village.
Residents in these areas need improved infrastructure and the only way this can be achieved is by the introduction of appropriate developments. I hear much talk about gateways and hubs and encouraging population growth in these towns. None of these towns are in Kildare. Apart from the large towns, minimum rural housing will be allowed and this will further disadvantage rural communities, particularly farm families and those involved in agriculture and rural enterprise along with new residents who would have a valuable contribution to make. I am thinking of teachers, gardaí and professional people, who would normally come to live in rural areas and provide services as well as becoming involved in the community.
There are villages in my constituency which are now classified as settlements. When that was done in the last development plan everyone believed they were being earmarked for development, whether housing, industry or whatever. With the new population growth idea however, this is not the case. People have bought land within these settlements. I am speaking about small developers, such as a local man who bought a small holding and then sought planning permission for it. He built a few houses but is now unable to sell them. He has gone broke and his company is in liquidation. We need to provide infrastructure. To do that, we must have developments big enough to provide it.
We will lose out on the community gain which came from these developments. They were providing the infrastructure needed. A rural village in County Kildare which did not have a water and sewerage plant got the opportunity under the plan to provide them. If the Minister’s new guidelines on population are enforced such places will not get water and sewerage treatment plants and neither will they have schools or anything else. This is a much bigger issue than is realised.
Planning must have a bottom-up approach together with a top-down approach. Officials prepare draft guidelines and plans and, in the case of local authorities, elected members adopt these plans. It is my view that public representatives should have independent technical and legal advice available to them in this work. For too long public representatives have been overwhelmed by official-speak along with an overwhelming amount of documentation and an inability to get officials to accept how these plans effect ordinary people, such as people wanting to relocate within their own county. Under the Kildare development plan a person can only receive one planning permission. If he or she wants to upsize or downsize, a second planning permission will not be given and the householder must go and live in a town or village. A person who wants to sell or relocate for family reasons may want an occupation clause lifted. This will not be done until the five year period has expired. Families who want to move from an urban to a rural area for family reasons or for work or business will not be allowed to do so. Take the example of a family who obtain a local authority house in a town and whose sons or daughters, when they need housing, go back to the family’s original home. They will not be given permission to build because they are now classified as urban dwellers. What is wrong with rural families moving from one county to another or building a home in their adopted county?
Local needs and local growth needs in county development plans should be flexible in these recessionary times and ensure good planning is adhered to. It is important that objectives for development plans should recognise existing settlement patterns and not be prescriptive or give rise to stringent requirements that effectively prevent investment in new development and businesses from operating once they have received the necessary permission.
Deputy Damien English: I am glad to have a chance to speak on the Bill. It is one of those funny Bills. It is called the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 and it is described as a Bill to support economic renewal and promote sustainable development. I cannot find that in the Bill and I do not know what it will do to support economic renewal. I have gone through the Bill and I have read the Minister’s speech but I am not convinced it does anything different from what is there at present, except to tighten up one or two things. There is nothing wrong with the Bill but it is not the be-all and end-all of economic renewal. I had hoped it would go into more detail in certain areas. Perhaps that will happen on Committee Stage. The Bill will not solve as many problems as it promises to do.
We will have a chance to add to the Bill and improve it. Having read the Minister’s speech, I know what he wants to do. It is a pity he, or someone like him, was not responsible for planning a number of years ago. This is a case of closing the stable door when the horse has bolted. Many of our current problems are the result of bad planning.
The Minister referred to his objective of carrying out flood risk assessment as part of the control and regulation of development in areas at risk of flooding. I understood that was already in place to ensure planners did not build on flood plains and on lands that flood. New legislation is not necessarily needed to prevent that. Planners and engineers in county councils need to listen to local people. In any case in which I have been involved where there was flooding following development, the potential for flooding was flagged and planners and engineers were told by local people who did not have degrees in planning but who knew the land would flood because they had seen it happen year in, year out. It is silly that we did not listen to them. There are numerous examples of that.
I was involved in a case in my area where a new county council graveyard was being provided. All the locals said the field flooded every year but nobody listened to them. The graveyard was built and it floods. We do not necessarily need new laws but common sense and instructions to planners to take on board people’s opinions, especially if there is proof of flooding, and not to put objections and submissions to one side because people might not have planning degrees. Very often people are not wrong and local information is required.
The Minister spoke about towns in the commuter belt suffering the most from the economic downturn. He was correct in what he said. Towns such as Navan, where I am from, Trim and Naas and other towns in the greater Dublin area — the Acting Chairman, Deputy O’Connor, might mention Tallaght — suffered badly in the Celtic tiger years from stupid planning and a lack of planning. Many of the development plans which caused the problems were from the 1990s — 1996, 1997 and 1998 — when field after field was zoned. Since then, development plans have been generally quite well done. I was involved in one in my town when I was a councillor — the 2003 development plan. Excellent planning was done on it but most of it has not come into force yet because development stopped.
The Minister spoke about trying to correct things in this Bill, which I believe have been corrected. The development plans in which I was involved in 2001, 2002 and 2003 all used local area plans, strategic development zones and so on for proper planning. There are some great plans in place which will come on stream in the future and which correct the balance in planning in regard development land for housing versus school sites, infrastructure and so on. Quite often that was missing. However, it is there now so I am not sure what new great things this Bill will do.
The Minister spoke about the scatterings of estates with no schools and so on. That is a major problem which must be addressed but it will need to be addressed through council funding and by putting in place infrastructure which is missing. A Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill or otherwise will not fix that, rather it will be money and proper targeted resources in those areas to correct bad planning decisions which were made by parties on all sides. Bad decisions need to be corrected but this Bill will not do that and the Minister should not necessarily speak about it. As I said, the plans are in place to fix it.
The Bill states that councillors and planners will have to provide evidence that they have had regard to national spatial guidelines, the greater Dublin region planning guidelines and so on. The national spatial strategy more or less skips the commuter belt zone and goes beyond it. It is a long time since I read it in 2003, 2002 or even before that when it was published. The reason I read it was that it barely mentioned my county of Meath or the counties around it which have suffered from bad planning and where the majority of houses were built. The spatial strategy directs funds and investment elsewhere. If we ever get the chance to debate that document, which must be seven or eight years old, we might be able to point that out and show where it is flawed and where it misses an opportunity to direct investment in infrastructure, industry and so on into areas which have suffered from all that housing.
In addition, we should use the outer ring of Dublin as a springboard to link it to rural areas. I refer to places beyond the M50, to Drogheda, Navan, Naas, Kilcock, Bray and so on. They could be the link with the areas beyond them such as Athlone, Roscommon, Kilkenny and so on. To skip those areas completely was wrong.
I am disappointed this Bill refers to the national spatial strategy as if it is the be-all and end-all. It is not because we have not discussed it. I rarely hear about it being used in policy formulation elsewhere. Perhaps this Bill is an attempt to try to have it used. The regional planning guidelines and the greater Dublin guidelines are spoken about a lot, they are issued a lot, they are updated and so on but the national spatial strategy is not. I am not convinced this Bill will do much because the document itself is flawed.
The Minister said only minor changes will be allowed after the public consultation. I am not happy with that. When preparing a development plan, politicians, including councillors and Deputies, assume members of the public know all about it, are fully tuned in, read every amendment and know what is happening in the fields behind their houses but they do not. It is usually many years before they discover what is going on. When something is being built, they realise they should have objected to it or amended the plan but they have missed that opportunity.
New ideas often come in during the process of a development plan which might be significant and encourage councillors to zone a different field or make a big decision. I know guidelines are set down for the different stages of a development plan, the consultation period and so on, but this Bill speaks about limiting it to minor amendments after the consultation stage. There is nothing wrong with returning the consultation stage for a third or fourth time if necessary with a major amendment. It is proper and good planning. It would give people a chance to change their opinion when new ideas come in.
The Bill should provide that if there are proposals to zone land in a certain area for industrial or commercial use, housing or whatever, we advertise it more publicly. A little note in a local or a national newspaper is not good enough to inform thousands of people in an area who might not read. If we are to zone land, a large sign should be put up in the same way as with a planning application in order that people’s attention is drawn to it and that they can have a real say in what happens in their community. That would be a useful amendment but it is not in the Bill.
The Minister said decisions by An Bord Pleanála in regard to routine cases will only require a quorum of two members instead of three. I am not convinced that will work and I have a problem with it. We need to look at An Bord Pleanála because it is not working fast enough for a modern society. Things have slowed down but decisions need to be made more quickly. During the boom times, a nine month plus timeframe was ridiculous. Many planners, engineers and architectures are unemployed so there is no reason An Bord Pleanála cannot increase its staff and make decisions more quickly based on the current rules. Having two members will not work because there will be logjams. The use of three members always worked.
I have an issue with An Bord Pleanála not listening to its inspectors who go out on site and do reports. There are many examples of where an inspector does a good report but it seems to be put to one side and the board makes its own decision. I question that. The more staff in An Bord Pleanála, the quicker the decisions. Less than two years ago, the Minister gave a commitment to the committee to increase the staff in An Bord Pleanála but I have not seen any changes.
I was involved in a case recently in Carton House. An Bord Pleanála made a decision to refuse a science park, or a smart park as it was called, based on current planning laws, and I am not saying it was wrong in what it did. That is something this country badly needs and it would support economic renewal. Planning was refused because the development was on a very important site, Carton House demesne, which has connections with this building.
When one walks the site, one realises An Bord Pleanála might have been wrong. Although the planning laws perhaps meant it had no choice but to refuse permission, common sense would suggest that this park would have blended in quite well and could have been facilitated. Will the Minister consider trying to strike a balance between the protection of heritage, the environment and so on and good economic planning in this Bill or in another one? We must move forward, create jobs and make some tough decisions. It might not be possible to have all the nice things and none of the not so nice things. Smart parks and science parks are the norm in other countries but not here. Common sense is needed and the manner in which the law is applied should be changed. Anyone who visited the site in question would realise that the decision was wrong. It may be necessary, therefore, to change planning legislation. The Minister should consider doing so in this Bill because if we are to create jobs and emerge from our serious economic difficulties, we must ensure decision making becomes more commercial.
It has been argued that, as a result of the Bill, improvements will be made to the effectiveness, efficiency and environmental sustainability of the planning code, including the facilitation of e-planning and so forth. How equipped is this country for environmental planning? I am not convinced we are up to speed in this area, which will become more important in future. I do not believe environmental and planning experts in local authorities and An Bord Pleanála have a sufficiently high level of training. Perhaps the Minister of State will correct me in that regard. The Bill affords us an opportunity to address the issue of training. Should different training be provided, for instance?
I am not convinced that environmental impact statements are of a sufficiently high quality. Perhaps new guidelines are needed for environmental impact statements. The economic slowdown provides an opportunity to fix these types of problems. Rather than introducing legislation which offers ideas, the Minister should legislate for solving problems.
The Bill refers to the provision and development of infrastructure. Many local authorities, particularly those located in the commuter belt and have suffered from bad planning, rely on developer driven projects for the provision of new infrastructure. To take my home town as an example — I am being parochial because Deputies’ expertise is in our respective local areas — people in Navan are relying on a developer to build a ring road for the town. Given that developments are not proceeding at a fast pace in the current climate, the inner relief road for Navan, which is separate from a proposed by-pass, will not be built. Other towns will experience similar problems.
The Government, using taxpayers’ money, should provide infrastructure before developments commence. Once a development has been completed, the developer should be charged the costs incurred in providing the infrastructure. Waiting on developers to build or phase in infrastructure will not work and does not constitute proper planning. If a developer decides not to develop his land, important infrastructure is not built. Proper planning requires that money is provided to develop badly needed infrastructure. This matter must be addressed.
The Bill refers to contribution levies. We heard that these levies will not hinder the establishment of new business and business people know what will costs they will incur before they start a development. On the contrary, these levies are anti-competitive and hinder business. They are wrong and amount to another high tax which people must pay in one lump sum at the start of a development. The development levy was introduced during the good times as a way of reducing Government funding to local authorities. I blame the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, for this clever ploy introduced to shove the costs of Government onto other people. At one time, more than 90% of the cost of infrastructure provided by county councils was met by national taxes. Nowadays, one is fortunate if the Government meets 60% of the costs and 40% are raised locally through contribution levies and other charges. The levies are wrong and are a sneaky way to do business because they mean the cost of infrastructure is not spread across the community through the tax system. This problem is preventing development in certain areas and will lead to job losses.
The legislation refers to taking account of an applicant’s previous history when he or she seeks approval for a new development. It also apparently gives stronger powers to a planning authority to refuse permission and refers to powers provided for under a previous planning Act. While I was pleased to learn of a case in County Wicklow in which a development was refused on the basis of the applicant’s history, I have not heard of many other cases of planning authorities refusing planning applications on these grounds.
I understand from reading the legislation that the planning authorities must take cases of this nature to the High Court. This means the implementation of a basic and simple provision of the planning legislation generates significant costs for the planning authority. If somebody abuses the planning system, for example, by not finishing an estate, he or she should not be given planning permission for other developments until the previous abuse has been rectified. This decision should be automatic, in other words, a black and white issue for the local authority, and should not require taking a case to court. Local authorities should have the power to refuse all planning applications from persons with a poor record. Too many developers have left estates unfinished or built bad developments before establishing a new company and being granted permission for further developments. Ending this practice will only be possible when it becomes easy for planning authorities to enforce these provisions and they must no longer incur the substantial costs associated with taking a case to court. Local authorities cannot afford to go before the courts.
The programme for Government includes a commitment to ensure citizens information services have the necessary resources to assist and inform members of the public about planning procedures. This is an admission that county councils are not informing people about the planning process. I have spoken on numerous occasions about the need to educate people about local government, national government and the European Union. The majority of people, including me, did not had an opportunity at school to study how the political system works at local, national and European level. I accept, however, that a good system has been introduced in the education system. Rather than providing resources to citizens information services to inform people about planning, we must establish a proper system for educating members of the public about rules and regulations, including in the planning area. The library services to which people turn for information at any rate should be given this task, particularly as most libraries are operated by local authorities. The Bill should address this issue.
The Minister indicated that the Department’s role is to lay down guidelines and monitor their enforcement. It is not efficient to have 88 planning authorities in a small country, nor is this number conducive to good decision making. While some town councils work well with county councils, there is a degree of overlap. When a development is covered by both a town and county council the issue becomes complicated. The Bill fails to address this matter.
We must strengthen the role of local authorities in providing sites for schools and other important infrastructure. The Department of Education and Science is supposed to find sites for second level schools, while local parishes and vocational educational committees are supposed to find sites for primary schools. Responsibility falls between two stools. The planning authority, in its development plan, marks school sites on its development plan but no one takes the bull by the horns and makes a commitment to deliver the site. This Bill provides an opportunity to clarify where responsibility for securing and making available sites for schools lies. This requires more than colouring in on a map the proposed location of a school site.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt: I welcome the Bill. It is regrettable that this common sense legislation was not introduced earlier given the damage that has been done as a result of poor planning. Good planning will provide great benefits for individuals and communities. High quality homes should be built in areas where industry is located and facilities such as shops, health care institutions, schools and public transport should be developed in rural areas.
I have always felt sorry for people who have to travel long journeys, whether commuting to work, students going to college or others visiting hospital. We see traffic congestion throughout the country and there is much debate about long commuting times to Dublin from all parts. It is often forgotten, however, that many of the longest delays occur in places such as Claregalway on the Tuam-Galway road, which affect those travelling from north Galway, south Mayo, west Roscommon and further north. There are serious delays in travel times in those areas which affect people commuting to work in Galway city every day. It is also an issue for students travelling at weekends, as well as business people and those attending hospitals in the region. It was therefore welcome news for me to hear the Minister for Transport talking about a new public-private partnership proposal for a motorway from Gort to Oranmore, bypassing Claregalway and on to Tuam, which it would also bypass. It is hoped that will start before the end of the year.
It is indicative of the large sums of money that have been spent on transport that we now have a motorway from Dublin to Galway, which was opened by the Minister in December, ahead of time and under budget. Last weekend in Ballinasloe, some constituents of mine were saying that they can now get to Galway in 30 minutes and Dublin in 90 minutes, which is of great benefit. The motorway network is of benefit to the whole country. The Galway-Dublin motorway will mean that development along that route will be greatly increased also.
In addition to road development, it is welcome to see that by the end of this month the Government will announce the commencement of train services from Limerick to Ennis and Athenry in County Galway. It may happen before Easter and I hope the Taoiseach and Minister for Transport will be in Galway to mark that special occasion.
The use of bus corridors along the Tuam-Galway road is very welcome. Bus Éireann and private bus operators have been calling for these corridors for some time and they are now a reality. Such corridors can deal with some of the transport issues facing Claregalway, but more public transport development is also needed along with new roads to deal with current traffic congestion.
Earlier, I referred to the legacy of rezoning and bad planning which fuelled the property bubble. For all the building that went on, however, we did not have the necessary infrastructure in place. Nor was there any co-ordinated infrastructural development in the west in particular. I often wonder if Departments or State agencies speak to each other, because when water and sewerage schemes are being developed no proper consideration is given to providing gas, Eircom, ESB or broadband services. One would imagine that such basic facilities could be provided in conjunction with a water and sewerage scheme. I had to lobby the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, very hard to get extra funding for high-quality broadband in Tuam in recent times. It took me 12 months to get those broadband services included with the sewerage facilities. Now that we have a good roads programme and more such development will be introduced, I hope we will see such co-ordination in future. Hopefully we will also see broadband being introduced in conjunction with new railway lines.
The Minister spoke about greed winning out over need when it came to planning, and that certainly has been the case. We have seen houses built on huge areas of rezoned land without proper amenities being provided. The Government has talked about introducing an 80% windfall tax on all rezoning decisions and hopefully that will be put in place. We should concentrate on building houses where they are really needed, such as in Galway city which has a big waiting list. Many young families are seeking housing there, so we need to get a good building programme going. I hope that will happen. In addition to the need for housing, figures show that schools, public transport and health facilities are also required. All those issues should be dealt with quickly.
It is often assumed that small provincial towns around Galway should act as dormitory areas. While I would not accept it, if that were to be the case we will see more people travelling to Galway city from rural areas, whether for work or other reasons. Retail businesses are important in a city like Galway. I hope the development plans currently in place will include more retail units in smaller towns. The development plans should include the provision of park and ride facilities there, as is the case with other cities.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement of his intention to publish a White Paper on local government. That document should provide for a transparent and coherent local government system. The Minister referred to statutory protection for whistle-blowers in the local government system, building on the approach introduced in many other areas of the public service, which I welcome. I am sure the Minister is aware of the frustration over planning delays, whether at local authority level or with An Bord Pleanála. Such delays should be improved upon. In recent years, we have seen a major increase in planning applications but things are not as busy now. It is hard to understand, however, why An Bord Pleanála is so slow in making decisions. Consistency in such decisions is required, together with consistent development plans, housing policy, regional planning guidelines and spatial strategy. The National Spatial Strategy designated gateways and hub towns, particularly on the west coast, and there was an expectation that decentralisation would follow from that, but disappointingly that was not the case. Nevertheless, I hope we can build on some of the successful decentralisation proposals we have had in the past. We should concentrate in particular on hub towns because they will find it harder to attract development compared to the gateways, which will develop anyway.
Section 23 provides for an extension of permission for a period of up to five years in circumstances where substantial work has not been carried out, but where there are commercial, economic or technical considerations beyond the control of the applicant that substantially militate against either the commencement of the development or the carrying out of substantial works. That is welcome because there are many reasons why a development could not take place within five years. The Minister has covered some of the issues, including the economic one, which was particularly pertinent when the recessionary downturn hit us. Other submissions related to the residential institution redress board and property that was not fully available, for example when building a school or a health centre. It is important to deal with this through an amendment to the Bill and I believe the Minister is considering the matter further.
Section 28 refers to An Bord Pleanála and the suggestion that the quorum for meetings be reduced from three members to two on the recommendation of the chairperson. This is something I would welcome. Planning has always been a difficult area. I was a member of Galway County Council for 17 years and I am aware there was criticism of councillors who raised section 4 motions. Many councillors felt there was no other option but to do that, because it was so difficult to get planning permission. This gave rise to certain suspicion when councillors from east Galway supported proposals in west Galway and vice versa. This area has been changed and section 4 motions are no longer used as frequently. People had to do it that way at the time in order to deal with the problem of planning permission, particularly in west Galway.
Some Deputies have referred to the issue of taking in charge of housing or residential estates by the planning authority. Section 20 deals with the issue of developers who do not finish off estates. It is very frustrating for residents of estates that are not properly completed. There are also issues with regard to apartments, such as the behaviour of tenants, taps left running, leaks in apartments and noise. I understand a Bill is to be introduced to deal with issue of noise. This is a serious problem, especially where alarms are not checked and that are left to disturb people’s sleep. Often alarms go off during the day also. I realise there are probably some legal problems in this regard, but I hope they will be addressed. Section 20 also examines the question of refusing planning permission where an applicant has carried out a substantial unauthorised development. There is also an issue of cost recovery. It is important we deal with this area, particularly with regard to cases decided by An Bord Pleanála under the strategic infrastructure development provisions. I hope there will be progress in this regard.
I am very glad to see a section in the Bill to provide for removing any legal impediments to e-planning. This has been promoted by local authorities and is an area where technology is helpful. We also save money and can get information more quickly. I understand from discussion with colleagues on Galway County Council that councillors and staff have attended numerous seminars to ensure they understand the technology and how to get the best results from it. I welcome that.
The Minister spoke recently about the amount of land that has been rezoned for development and he mentioned that we had so much land zoned now that we had enough to provide development land up to 2075. That is 65 years from now. County development plans deal with a certain number of years, but we have land rezoned for 65 years hence. One would wonder why this is the case. It is ridiculous to rezone land for six or seven decades into the future. I support the Minister in what he is doing to try and rationalise the planning system. If this type of rezoning continued, we would have serious problems. As it is, we have enough problems. I would have serious concerns that we have rezoned for the next 65 years. There was, of course, a property bubble and people lost the run of themselves.
The Minister spoke about community gain. This is particularly pertinent to County Galway because of the flooding situation. Deputy English also touched on this. If we have development levies — significant sums were collected in development levies when housing was at its peak — we would like to see some of the moneys from those levies spent on flood relief work. Flooding has been a particular problem in south Galway and Ballinasloe and I was very glad to see that Ballinasloe town and County Galway have been given priority with regard to flood relief and dealing with the causes of flooding. Unlike Deputy English, I am not clear as to what caused the flooding. However, I am convinced there was never enough maintenance on our rivers and lakes and drainage committees never got enough funding to deal with the obstacles in their way, although some simple steps could have been taken to deal with the threat of flooding. I would like to see some of the moneys from the levies spent on flood relief works.
Another important issue is planning for walking and cycling routes and for other such local facilities, even if these are only local routes to schools, shops and local facilities. The provision of open space within developments is also important. I was glad to see when we had sports capital grants, that many sports fields developed through these grants provided walking routes around their perimeters. It is important for such facilities to provide a walking area and these have been welcomed by the public throughout the country. I am glad these facilities have been provided in those areas where sports grants were made available.
The Minister also raised the question of derelict sites. There is a question of the use of levies to try and encourage owners to improve these sites. I have praised the Minister on the development of motorways. However, I have noticed significant numbers of vehicles being used on roadsides to display advertising. This is probably because the motorways have moved business away from some of the restaurants, filling stations etc. along the former routes. This is a problem. We should have rest areas and places to stop along our motorways, but no doubt that will happen in due course. We should not allow vehicles advertise along the side of motorways. I would like to see proper signage at cross roads for such advertisements. People should advertise their facilities properly and not distract motorists by using cars or other vehicles.
I welcome the Bill, but regret it was not introduced earlier. Much damage has been done through irresponsible planning. However, it is still not too late to change. If we follow the right policies, we will have good planning and development in the years ahead.
Deputy Joe Costello: I am delighted to have the opportunity of speaking on this legislation. A good point on which to start is the one on which Deputy Kitt finished: while I welcome this Bill, it is a pity we did not have it much earlier. It was during the boom years that we needed such legislation, to allow proper spatial planning and development and ensure the work that was required was done properly, avoiding the rampant development that took place in unrestrained fashion throughout the country. Over the last ten to 12 years, planning was in many ways a cowboy business. The situation was also quite bad in earlier years. An assistant county manager was convicted of corruption, a number of councillors were accused of taking bribes and a Minister had to resign. Inquiries into the planning process were set up and are still not complete with regard to areas in which serious abuses were identified.
I would like the Bill to go much further than it currently does. There are still serious problems with regard to zoning. The amount of rezoning that has taken place in the last number of years is incredible, as is the fact that windfall profits are still being made from rezoning. The Kenny report, which recommended that profits from rezoning should not be more than 25% of the market value, has not yet been properly implemented. Whenever there are vast sums of money to be made in any arena, the temptation is there to cut corners to ensure it can be made. Money was made hand over fist over the last couple of decades as development operated in a rather uncontrolled fashion.
In addition, spatial planning never effectively took place. Many of the flood plains of Ireland — not just around urban areas such as Dublin, as the Acting Chairman knows, but also in rural areas — have been built on. Development in Wicklow and Meath, on the borders of Dublin, has resulted in flooding of rivers such as the Dodder and the Tolka in the heart of the city. There are whole communities in my constituency whose members find it almost impossible to get insurance because sufficient steps were not taken to prevent flooding. In this decade alone we have had two serious floods in my own constituency which came about, we are told, because of building on the flood plains on the perimeter of the city. The same situation has arisen around the country, including in Carrick-on-Shannon, where many houses built on flood plains around the town were destroyed, and many other rural or semi-rural communities.
Extravagant building has taken place in areas where nobody is prepared to buy. Holiday homes built on the basis of tax incentives are now wanted by nobody. This is a result of the manner in which we conducted our business, not just in the planning process but also in setting Government policy. Anybody would know that one should not built on a flood plain. If one lives beside the Shannon, one does not build on an area that is lower down than the Shannon. Nobody is going to drain the Shannon in our lifetime; they never drained it in anybody else’s. Because of climate change, most rivers now have a tendency to flood at times. The “perfect storm” coincidence of a major rainstorm with a high tide was thought to happen only once in 100 or 200 years, but we cannot expect that any longer. These are issues that should be considered carefully.
Similarly to the development of holiday homes, we saw today in the newspapers the consequences of out-of-control hotel development. We now have many zombie hotels — hotels that are surplus to requirements — due to bad planning and lack of control.
There is also the issue of the planning process itself. Most people who seek planning permission complain that the process is far too cumbersome and weighted against the applicant, while those affected by planning applications believe the process is weighted in favour of developers. There is always tension because of this.
My own experience is that local authorities tend to be too generous in granting planning applications without sufficient scrutiny and, as a result, decisions are often left to An Bord Pleanála. The board is making more and more decisions because so many planning applications that were granted rather too easily by local authorities are appealed. That is the problem. If the planning departments of local authorities did their work in the first instance and imposed the necessary restrictions on planning permissions so that people affected by developments did not feel aggrieved, there would not be so many referrals to An Bord Pleanála, which would allow the planning process to move more quickly.
There should be a greater emphasis on rigorous examination of planning applications by local authorities in the first instance. I have found An Bord Pleanála to be rigorous in its work, and it listens carefully to submissions made whether in support of or against a development. However, about 40% of all major applications in Dublin now end up with An Bord Pleanála, which is not satisfactory.
A similar issue about which I have a bee in my bonnet is retention planning permission. This must be considered carefully. I remember tabling an amendment to the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2002, when Deputy Dempsey was the Minister in charge, to the effect that retention planning applications should not be allowed and that fresh applications must be submitted instead. If one built a house without applying for planning permission, as we saw recently in the case of a house built in a beauty spot in the Dublin mountains, it would have to be removed. In that case, as Members may have seen in the newspapers last week, the local authority directed that the entire structure be demolished and the beauty spot restored to its original condition. If we allow retention applications on a large scale, many people will simply get on with it and start work on their planned structures without waiting for proper permission, which is unsatisfactory.
To give an example from my own constituency, a large telecommunications mast was erected by a corporate entity, O2, just behind the houses in Claremont Court. Planning permission was obtained, but because nobody saw the application or knew about it, nobody objected to it. The period specified in the application was five years, but after this time had expired, the mast was not removed. The company then applied for retention planning permission. The local authority sought enforcement but because the retention application has not yet been decided upon, it is unlikely the case will ever appear in the courts. The problem is that the company was able to submit a retention planning application although it should have been a new application because the period of the previous planning permission had expired. This is not satisfactory and the problem is not addressed in the Bill.
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