Thursday, 25 March 2010
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy David Stanton: I am pleased to be able to say a few words on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009. I welcome many of the measures proposed in the legislation. As the Minister stated, planning is about people. However, having read the Bill and listened to the contributions of other Deputies, I have a feeling that we are closing the door after the horse has bolted. The boom is over and building is at a standstill yet many of the provisions in the Bill appear to anticipate significantly more construction in the near future. I do not believe that will be the case. I cannot see it occurring, which is another issue.
It is a shame that much of this work was not put in place six or seven years ago before the boom started. Many of us are aware of situations where great numbers of houses were built but without infrastructure. This is something I have been saying for years because what happened has led to a very serious and dangerous situation. Housing estate after housing estate was built with very little community provision, sports fields, playing fields, youth centres or schools. In my own area, east Cork, a great deal of development was built along the much heralded and welcome Midleton railway line and ten years from now, if my figures are correct, approximately 2,000 extra second level school places will be required. Some land has been zoned for building schools but that kind of zoning is no good if the land is not purchased or acquired and planning put in place. That takes a long time and it might be a number of years before a school is in place.
In my part of the country, and I am sure it is the same in other places, the secondary schools are already full. I am sure the Minister of State realises a secondary school is not like a primary school. In a primary school another room can be added on, or, as the Government has been doing for years, portacabin can be added to portacabin. One can get away with that for only a certain period of time at second level because specialist rooms are needed. There is need for home economics rooms, engineering and building construction rooms and, in particular, science laboratories must be put in place. This is not happening throughout the country, especially in my area. I have seen the map the Department of Education and Skills produced and my area is one of the few marked in bright red.
On many occasion during many years in this House I have tried, through parliamentary questions and Adjournment debates and all kinds of other methods, to stimulate debate on how we might deal with this emerging crisis but I could not do it. I might as well be on the other side of the moon, talking to myself, because I get no reaction or response, no debate, nothing. Yet this crisis is brewing at present.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, to the House. I shall repeat for his ears, although I am sure he will spend some time reading the transcripts, that in my area within ten years we will need 2,000 extra second level school places. Due to the planning and zoning and everything else that has gone on and because there was a lack of any Government direction in this area we now have a situation where some land has been zoned for schools but nothing has been acquired or built and now the secondary schools are full.
What will I do next September, or later, when parents come to me and tell me their son or daughter cannot get into a secondary school anywhere? What would the Minister of State do? What can be done? All I can do is raise the issue, flag it and alert the Department of Education and Skills and the Ministers of the day to the problem.
I repeat, if the Minister of State is listening, that in my part of the country in east Cork we have a re-opened rail link. As a consequence much land was zoned in order to make the rail link viable and the people who built the houses had to pay a special levy to fund it. There are very many houses, but, as I said before the Minister of State arrived, there are no community centres, no sports or playing fields and no schools even though land is zoned for them.
The Government must look at all of this even though it is like closing the door after the horse has bolted. I cannot see any large, medium or even small-scale development happening in the future. We must look at what has happened in the past ten years and see how we can correct it. I note that the Minister spoke about correcting certain aspects but I do not see anything in the Bill that will help do that. He spoke about flooding but that refers to the future. How can we correct the mistakes that were made in the past? How can we acquire land to build schools and community centres and put in playing fields and youth centres? That is what we should do.
We should be building communities not merely housing estates. We must start looking at the thrust of this. How can we build communities? The Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, spoke at one stage about a housing Bill and at the time I made a similar speech to the one I am making now. It is an important matter.
I welcome what is stated in the Bill about flood assessment risks and guidelines. However, we may not need these for some time. There is a provision in the Bill about reviewing land that has been zoned already and there is the idea of de-zoning land. That is important. Linked to all of this is the fact that much of this land will probably end up with NAMA, with the State owning it. Is there any way by which local communities might benefit from the fields outside towns and villages which will never be built upon in our lifetimes? The State owns them but most of them will only grow weeds. There is an issue about noxious weeds and who is responsible for them because they, too, are illegal. Would it be possible in some shape or form for some of these fields to be used by local communities for recreational and amenity purposes, as local parks or something like that? That is something we might do to address some of the situations the Minister mentions in his Bill. He mentions sustainable, high-quality living communities. We do not have them and that is a goal we must achieve.
All land zoning will have to be the subject of public consultation at plan-making stage to ensure public confidence. Again, I agree with that. Two thirds of members’ votes will be required for further change in a draft development plan. That is a good idea.
There is an issue regarding the number of estates that exist. The Minister of State will probably have an interest in this matter, given his responsibilities. There are very many estates which are in a limbo situation. I am not sure what the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, plans to do about this because I do not see the matter addressed in his Bill. Perhaps it should be looked at. I am told there are approximately 400 estates to be taken in charge by Cork County Council alone. In many cases developers have sailed off into the sunset and their companies have gone wallop. Who is responsible for looking after these estates? It is very difficult to know. If there is a problem in an estate where the bond has been handed back but the council has not taken it in charge, where do residents get redress? There is a certain estate in a small town close to me, in Cloyne, where there have been major problems with sewage. The entire system just stopped working and redress was very difficult to get. The developer was not available and the local authority is stretched already. What do the residents do? What can the Government do to help them? What is contained in this Bill that might help in a situation like that, or that might seek to redress it, as was discussed earlier.
Recently there has been a debate about proposals to knock down houses that may never be lived in or those which cannot be sold. Some part of me feels there is something radically wrong with that, given that so many people are on housing waiting lists throughout the country. Many people are crying out for houses but cannot get them. It seems that NAMA will take over many of these so-called ghost estates, although not all of them. Some of these housing estates are finished, although others are not. Is there any way of giving such houses to people who need them right now?
Representatives of the Homeless Agency organised an awareness coffee morning in Leinster House today. It seems almost sinful to knock new houses that have been built to a high standard at a time when people are living in deplorable conditions. Is there any way of solving both of these problems in one go? We could use these houses to put a roof over the heads of people who have no houses, or are living in overcrowded conditions. That is a challenge for the Minister of State with responsibility for housing. A certain amount of imagination is needed if we are to deal with these issues.
I agree with the intention to introduce a statutory protection for whistleblowers in the local government system. We need to build on that approach. We really need to look at the general issue of whistleblowing. Having been a Member of this House for almost 13 years, I am aware that the Opposition has made many attempts over the years to introduce legislation to protect whistleblowers. The Government, and Fianna Fáil in particular, does not like that concept. It has voted such legislation down and knocked it at every possible opportunity. It is about time some light was shone on many areas of our society.
If I can wear another hat for a moment I would like to say that if this House were allowed to operate properly, many of the problems which are surfacing now, which will cost the taxpayer billions of euro, might not have developed in the first instance. If Members could work as we are supposed to, for example by inquiring and asking detailed questions at committee level, this House would work as it should. Ministers should be prepared to engage in proper debates with Deputies on all sides. The Executive should engage with the Parliament, rather than going into a bunker. I do not see anything wrong with allowing Government backbenchers to ask questions of Ministers. They should challenge Ministers and test their policy proposals. That is how we should operate in here.
It should be possible for this House to adjudicate on everything in the public sphere, including all the quangos that have been established by Fianna Fáil over the years in order to protect Ministers. When Ministers come in here, they often say they do not have responsibility for certain matters any more. They have given it to one quango or another. In such circumstances, how can we ascertain what Ministers are spending taxpayers’ money on? If we cannot get at them, how can we get information on the decisions they are making or tell whether such decisions are in the public interest? It cannot be done.
I suggest that the existence of so many unaccountable quangos is an affront to democracy. The sooner we rein them in, the better. I do not suggest that the staff of such bodies are doing anything wrong, as many of them work very hard. If every official in every organisation were accountable to the nth degree — if they knew they could be questioned — it would ensure they do their business properly. When representatives of the National Council for Special Education appeared before the Joint Committee on Education and Science recently, they were questioned intensely by Members from all sides. The same thing should happen in all cases. I welcome the protection being given to whistleblowers in this Bill.
I would like to speak about section 20 of the Bill, which is important. When the Minister, Deputy Gormley, introduced this Bill in the House, he said that the section “proposes an amendment to section 35 of the Act, which will allow a planning authority to refuse permission where the applicant has carried out a substantial unauthorised development, including a development with no permission, or has been convicted of an offence under the planning Acts, subject to certain conditions”. I understand that up to now, certain cowboy developers have been able to build housing estates, leave them half-finished, go into some form of liquidation and disappear into the sunset, thereby leaving owners and residents in the lurch. We have to ensure that does not happen again. If this measure can be retrospectively implemented, so much the better.
Section 20 is very important, as I have said. We have to ensure it provides for a means of chasing these guys and making them accountable. It is not right that people who spend hard-earned money — who have mortgaged their lives for 25 or 30 years — find their housing estates in a mess. We need to protect citizens from cowboys who may wish to ride off into the sunset. I urge the Minister to examine section 20 to ensure its provisions are very strong. I would like to know whether “the applicant” referred to in this section is always a person, or may sometimes be a company. Can a developer dissolve his company, set up a new company with a different name and continue to engage in the same business? That is what goes on. It is important that we use section 20 to chase down directors and owners who may wish to hide behind shell companies.
I wish to sum up my thoughts on this planning and development Bill. I have spoken about the need for local authorities to take estates in charge. Perhaps the Government should have a long look at that. Planning is about people. I welcome many of the provisions of the Bill, which is probably six, seven or eight years too late. I am concerned about the integration of schools with the planning process, which was mentioned by the Minister at the beginning of this debate. The huge problem across the country in that regard also relates to youth and community centres. The land that is to be taken over by NAMA should be used, rather than having weeds growing on it for God knows how long. The Government should ascertain whether the houses that have been proposed for possible demolition can be used for social housing in some shape or form. The actions of those who break the law, including the small number of cowboy developers, make people’s lives a misery. Some people who have put their heart and soul into the purchase of houses have been left in an awful situation. We should ensure that the legislation is sufficiently strong to deal with such cases. It is important that local authorities have the teeth and the resources to take action. I thank the Chair for giving me a chance to make a few remarks.
Deputy Michael D’Arcy: I am inclined to agree with my colleague, Deputy Stanton, who said that this Bill is probably too little, too late. The previous legislation provided for a “one size fits all” approach to planning. I wish to explain what I mean with reference to small towns like Wexford and Athlone and larger towns like Limerick. The people of those areas might not like to hear them referred to as towns, but they are not large urban areas. Two of them have populations of fewer than 50,000. Limerick has a little more than 50,000 inhabitants. Planning permission was granted for 13-storey buildings in each of those towns.
In the case of the only urban area on the island of Ireland, that is, Dublin city, An Bord Pleanála has stipulated in certain cases that buildings cannot have more than 13 storeys because that does not represent good, sustainable planning. Yet there are small towns with populations of less than 50,000 where such applications have been granted. It was this type of planning madness that led to the boom and subsequent bust in which we now find ourselves.
Another outlandish aspect of the planning process is high-density developments in small towns. I am referring here to towns with populations of less than 10,000 — in many cases, between 5,000 and 10,000 inhabitants. In recent years the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was moving towards high-density zoning, namely, three-storey housing and some apartment blocks in towns where there was ample land to allow for the development of properties with front and back gardens. There are estates in my own town of Gorey with 22 and 24 houses per acre and cattle grazing in the field next door. This was the type of madness that went on.
This Bill has significant relevance for local area plans. In Courtown, County Wexford, along with the local area plan there was a tax designation, and the appetite to build in the area was astonishing. There were fields that were zoned and fields that were designated by previous Governments. It did not make any difference whether there was a tax designation; developers were willing to forgo tax benefits and get to building. There are towns throughout the State with thousands of houses which were small villages only a few years ago. Courtown is one such, but it has no secondary school and there is no plan to provide one. We must bring something to those areas in which development was tax designated for specific purposes, whether some type of stimulus in regard to jobs or incentives for community amenities. In some cases, most of the population of these once small villages are originally from elsewhere and are commuting elsewhere to work. Some were effectively only sleeping in their new homes. Even worse, many such persons are now unemployed and cannot find work in the area in which they live.
I am concerned about the proposal in the Bill for a ten-year local area plan. In Gorey there has been significant focus on the 2002 local area plan. That plan was considered at some stage before the end of 2000 and into 2001 and published as the 2002 plan. Thus, it has in effect been a ten-year plan. The view at the time of its inception was to ensure there would be sufficient zoned land for the prosperous development that was coming down the line. The expectation was that nearly every county in the State would have a new town like Leixlip with a massive number of jobs and an associated requirement for housing. In the case of Gorey, however, it became clear within a short period that this was a mistaken view. By 2006, four years into what was supposed to be a five-year plan, we could see that the oversupply of zoned land had contributed to an overheated market. The area was fortunate that houses could not be built because sewerage services were not available. We should not have to rely on that type of luck. The new local area plan for Gorey is now at pre-draft stage. As I said, the attitude when we were moving upwards was to move to zone as much land as possible. Now that we are in the belly of the recession, we must be careful that we do not retract too much. There is no question that the problem of oversupply must be rectified, but we must be careful not to go too far in the other direction.
An issue of great relevance to this debate is the madness that is NAMA. Having pursued the matter vigorously with the Minister for Finance, he confirmed to me that nothing will be made available to local authorities or communities from NAMA unless the full market value is paid. That is the Minister’s view and his instruction, but it is not the correct policy. If there is a community benefit to be had we should ensure it is secured. As unusual aspect in all of this is that we have on the one hand, the Minister for Finance, who has established and instructed NAMA, and, on the other hand, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government instructing local authorities’ planning sections via departmental circulars that zoning must be scaled back. I agree with some of the measures introduced in this regard by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. However, NAMA is obliged to get the maximum value for the lands it holds on behalf of the State. Local authorities are caught in the middle of these conflicting departmental priorities.
Deputy Michael D’Arcy: I understand that. We have a situation where developers will be lobbying councillors, while planners, under instruction from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, will be seeking to dezone land, and NAMA will, as the Minister of State said, have the authority to make submissions at draft stage of local area plans. There is a conflict in all of this which leaves local authority members — which most Members were in a previous life — in a difficult position. There is no joined-up thinking on the matter. Councillors should not be left in the lurch, in a situation where no matter what they do it is wrong.
I have a particular concern about the pre-draft stage of the local area plan for Gorey, which includes an enormous swathe of land that is zoned for business and technology parks. There is no prospect of those 100 or 150 acres being taken up for the construction of business and technology parks. Moreover, while this land is close to the town centre, land zoned for residential purposes is situated outside the town. The land closest to the town centre should be for residential zoning and the business parks earmarked for further out. This is an issue I intend to pursue. If we have to dezone business and technology park land and change it to residential zoning and vice versa, that should be done.
I know there is a bone of contention with the Green Party on rural one-off planning, but I fully support it. I know many people who cannot get planning permission in the countryside in County Wexford, not because of the local authority, which is in favour of one-off planning in what is primarily a rural county, but because they cannot get discharge licences as there is no discharge into the groundwater and no lateral discharge into the streams. There are systems that work, and people from the countryside should be given the opportunity to live in the countryside on their family land if they so wish.
The original Bill on An Bord Pleanála was designed to ensure there was not a majority of professional planners. That legislation goes back to the 1970s, and the board was to be representative of society. That has been completely turned on its head and I am told every member of An Bord Pleanála is now a planner. I am not satisfied that this was the original thinking behind the establishment of the original board.
The lifespan of a local area plan at ten years is too long. Section 18 allows for the Minister to appoint an independent inspector to review the manager’s report on foot of consultations on the local area plan. I welcome this on the basis that the inspector is independent and that he or she is not under instruction from the Minister. The vital word in the section is “independent”.
Section 19 amends the principal Act in respect of passing a material contravention of a local area plan. I was involved in one material contravention in my time on a local authority in respect of a cinema on land that was zoned “BTP” and that was not compatible with the planning application. I had a bare knuckle fist fight with the planners to promote the planning application so that it could go before members of the local authority as a material contravention. The planners told me they would eat their hat before a cinema would be built on that site. I have a very large chocolate hat because the cinema is built and will be open before the end of June. It is important not to ignore the views and opinions of the local authority members.
I have concerns with sections 24 and 25 and the possibility of supplementary development contribution schemes. There is no money to do anything and we cannot ask developers to pony up extra money for the scheme to ensure they get through the planning process. There is no chance this can work at the moment.
I have established a jobs initiative in north Wexford. The highest rate of unemployment in Wexford is the north of the county at 14%. There are only five counties with more unemployed people than Wexford, namely, Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Donegal. There are almost 18,000 unemployed people in Wexford. There is now an 80% tax on any development land, which is defined as any portion of ground over two acres. This does not make any difference, as the mistakes have already happened. However, I am trying to create a jobs initiative and I have people who are looking at moving into certain areas of north Wexford, but the person who owns the land will not do anything when he or she has to pay an 80% tax to develop the land. That tax has meant it is now difficult to find land to be traded. I realise the sentiment attached to the idea when it was brought in, but it is too late. I do not think the tax will be removed, but the Government needs to be progressive and realise that if the development of certain portions of land will lead to jobs, then the 80% tax should not apply. It could be reduced to the original 40% capital gains tax rate, because 80% is now an impediment. It was meant to be an impediment to the crazy development that occurred in certain parts of the country, but it has become an impediment to jobs.
I was not involved in the 2002 local area plan for Gorey, in which I believe mistakes were made. However, I want to make sure that the 2010 local area plan is improved and that the Bill is improved for the majority of communities.
My understanding of planning has developed into three fundamental aspects, namely, precedence, consistency and transparency. This Bill rubbishes those three fundamental aspects. Planning permission for a one-off house was once dependent on site suitability. Unfortunately, it now depends on the suitability of the person. The only people applying for planning permissions at present are those who can get the funding to build houses, while the speculative element is gone from planning applications.
I know a gentleman near me who has been refused planning permission to build a house near the local GAA pitch. He gives four nights per week in the pitch training the under tens, the under 12s and the “B” team, while he plays with the “C” team. He was refused planning because he was from the next townland, one mile away. There was no problem with the design of the house or with the soil conditions. I spoke to the director of planning and to the county manager. The application has been resubmitted and we will go to An Bord Pleanála with it, because I imagine the council will refuse it again. This will go to the end of the line, because unfortunately An Bord Pleanála is the end of the line. Some say we can go for a judicial review, but the man that wants to build a four bedroom bungalow does not have the finances for such a move. He has been treated very unfairly in this case.
I have given just one example, but there are many more. I get very frustrated when talking about planning permission. I once put a motion before the local authority, when I was on the county council, seeking a list of agents and the number of applications they made on behalf of applicants, their success rate, how many were returned unaccepted, and how many were refused or granted. I sought a list system because there are some rogue agents out there dealing with planning permission whose qualifications are limited. Some of them are charging up to €3,500 or €4,000 to young applicants for houses. The ordinary lay person knows nothing about planning permission.
I wish to deal with the issue of transparency. Local authority planners are bosses within the planning system and applicants are begging. They are nearly made to feel that they must send a thank-you note to the planner when they receive planning permission. We have to get away from that.
On one occasion, a member of An Taisce asked me why I made so many representations on planning applications. They were insisting that there should be a code of conduct for councillors regarding submissions on planning applications. However, I questioned the code of conduct within An Taisce. Over the years, I have made many submissions on behalf of applicants for planning permission. I saw myself as a conduit between the planner and the applicant. We even had agents in County Kerry who, once the application went in for planning permission, wrote back to the applicant to tell them to get on to their local councillor or Deputy to follow this up. They were abdicating their responsibility, yet they were getting €3,500 or €4,000.
Some years ago, I also put a motion before the local authority proposing that serial objectors should have to pay €200, rather than €20, to object to a planning application. There are serial objectors in my area and I am sure every Member of this House knows such people in their own areas. I know of a serial objector who took €25,000 in cash to withdraw an objection to planning permission for two family members on a holding. A lot of these people are aligned and associated with An Taisce and the Green Party. It is ironic that a Green Minister is bringing this Bill before us because he is centralising power to himself. He is making the local authority’s role in planning permission irrelevant by centralising the whole system.
I firmly believe, however, that something needs to be done with serial objectors who have cashed in and made people’s lives a misery when they try to apply for planning permission. I was almost thrown out of the local authority once because I named a man who was a serial objector. I described him as a parasite, which is a person who thrives on and lives off another’s misery. The owners of a family holding were trying to get planning permission for their daughter, but on five occasions this man objected. The killing thing about it, however, is that the man lived 50 miles away. There was no reason in the world why the planning permission, if granted, would upset or interfere in any way with his quality of life. However, the objector had a personal gripe with the landowner and cost that man a fortune. The woman of the house actually had a breakdown because of it. That is why I called him a parasite.
In my area some years ago, an old hotel had gone to ruin and an application was made for a new hotel. A man from Canada objected to it, however, and stopped it from going ahead. It could only happen in this country. The council granted permission, yet this man from Canada objected. I do not know if he was ever in the area, but he paid €20 to stop the development of a hotel with a potential to create 80 to 100 jobs. The jobs would have been seasonal, but very welcome in that area nonetheless. That is fundamentally wrong. I hope the Minister will provide for a sense of fairness and transparency in the Bill.
Some of my colleagues referred earlier to An Bord Pleanála but my understanding is that not all the board’s members are planners. To the best of my knowledge, those who are — funnily enough — are urban planners. When a planning file is appealed to An Bord Pleanála, an inspector will come to inspect on behalf of the board and writes up recommendations. For instance, the inspector may write a recommendation to grant the relevant planning application. That recommendation goes before An Board Pleanála and those sitting around the table, who have not visited the site, will refuse the inspector’s report. How many times have Deputies seen that happen? Is that logical and does it make sense? I would like somebody to explain that to me.
Alternatively, an inspector may inspect a site and the planning file, and then recommend a refusal, yet the board will grant it. Some people say to me — but I would not be that narrow-minded — that maybe there are members of the board who are taking money. Perhaps there are members of An Bord Pleanála who are taking money, because they have never visited the site——
An Ceann Comhairle: I am sorry Deputy, but this is an important matter. It is quite inappropriate, particularly if there is not any evidence, to make what is a fairly serious allegation. It might be appropriate for the Deputy to take the opportunity to amend the terminology being used.
Deputy Tom Sheahan: I have said what I said and I stand by it. I want somebody to explain to me why, when a person inspects the planning file and the site, their recommendation is overturned by people who were not near the site.
For years the Irish Rural Dwellers’ Association has sought to have a representative on An Bord Pleanála, but why has this been blocked? Every time they tried, they have been blocked, so I would like that question to be answered.
Why are local authorities throughout the country currently de-zoning land? For example, a ten-acre field with cattle grazing on it may be zoned, but why is it now being dezoned? The Minister says too much land is zoned. What difference does that make to the land? Zoning does not guarantee planning permission; it never did. The Minister has now given an instruction that land is to be dezoned, although I have not seen any legislation. It is similar to the rural planning guidelines, which were never given a legislative basis but directed the development of the country over a number of years. Land that has been already zoned for development will be dezoned, but we will turn around in a number of years — nobody can guess the timeframe — and rezone the land again, except that this time the owners will be nailed for an 80% property tax or levy. That is immoral.
During the production of local area plans, I saw land being zoned even though its owners did not want it zoned. I went to the forward planning section of Kerry County Council on behalf of several people who had asked for their land to be removed from certain local area plans because they did not want it zoned. The staff asked me if I was for real, and I said “Yes.” I said there were several farmers who did not want their land ever to be built on because they wanted to pass it on to the next generation. The land was eventually removed from the local area plans.
With the way the Minister is going about it, we will find that after the dezoning of land has been completed, the staff of the local authorities will automatically begin to produce local area plans again. It is a futile exercise and the only reason for it is to nail landowners for the 80% windfall tax. I do not think this should be going ahead. I believe it is to be challenged in the courts, and rightly so. Members should not get me wrong; I am not trying to speak up for the developer that bought land at €500,000 or €600,000 per acre to develop. I am talking about the landowner whose land was zoned when it was still in his or her ownership.
EPA guidelines are produced nearly every year now, and they are being upgraded every year, to the extent that many of the planners and environmentalists in our local authorities are giving half their time to training courses. I am currently involved in a case in which the EPA, after three months, has not yet replied to a scientist who is working on behalf of an applicant for planning permission. I cannot understand why it has not replied in the space of three months.
The Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, who was here when I came in, is a man I hold in great esteem. I believe he is doing a good job. He is the one man who is trying to do something for the construction industry. The only show in town at present is the funding he has provided for local authorities for long-term lease arrangements — a scheme to which I give 100% support. The man must be commended on thinking outside the box and trying to get things moving.
This is a reaction to what has happened in the past decade. Why did we have a property bubble? Who created it and why did it spiral out of control? The 2006 census found that there were 215,000 unoccupied houses in the country, of which 51,000 were holiday homes, which meant that 165,000 houses were empty year-round. Government policy was to build 90,000 units per year. Will anybody be brought to book for this? That is the reason the whole country is in the doldrums — bad governance and bad decisions made by Government. It was the tent at the Galway races with the developers and the bankers. Government policy, with 215,000 unoccupied houses, was to build 90,000 units per year. At one stage we were told Ireland would have a population of 8 million by a certain year — although I cannot remember which year — so we had to keep building these houses, we had to keep zoning, and we had to keep developing.
There are 22 ghost estates in Kerry. I can safely say, hand on heart, that no member of the local authority is responsible for those 22 estates — or at least, no elected member. Planning is a function of the executive and those involved made executive decisions to grant planning permission for those estates, yet the person seeking planning permission for a one-off rural house receives a blank “No.” It is a shambles. I am afraid the Minister is attempting to centralise the whole planning function of the local authorities to his Department. It will be a sad day when that happens.
A superintendent of the Garda Síochána once told me that the majority of our social problems were in built-up housing estates where there were too many houses. This is also the fault of bad planning. He said people were being driven from rural areas to built-up urban areas and housing estates, which was causing many of these problems. This is an issue that needs to be addressed. I hope the Green Party and its members will not continue with this flawed idea. These estates are similar to reservations. They want to herd people into built-up areas, but they are creating ghettos.
An Ceann Comhairle: As the Deputy concludes, I must draw attention to the fact that he made an allegation against members of An Bord Pleanála. I do not know whether he has any evidence in this regard. I accept that he has not made a personal allegation against any individual member of the board. It is inappropriate to make such an allegation under the protection of the House unless the Deputy is in a position to substantiate it. While the remarks have been made, I ask the Deputy to reflect on this — if not now, perhaps later — and consider the implications.
It is often said that if the Dutch lived in Ireland they would feed the world, while if the Irish lived in the Netherlands they would drown. Anybody who visits the Netherlands cannot but be impressed by the manner in which the country is planned and developed. There is a strong sense of the common good in the way resources are dealt with and the country is developed. Here in Ireland we have made many mistakes, largely because of the historical abundance of our natural resources but, more importantly, because of an inability to say no. We have an inability to say something is inappropriate from a development point of view. The core principle in this legislation, as presented by the Minister, Deputy John Gormley, is one of centralisation of powers; in essence the transfer of power in determining appropriate planning to his office, the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
The cornerstone of how this legislation is to be used in future, as outlined when the Minister presented the Bill early last December, would seem to be that of the national spatial strategy along with regional planning guidelines. It is the Minister’s wish that local area plans, along with county development plans, should feed into those plans and strategies determined at a higher level. In section 5 of this Bill there is mention of evidence-based core strategies. Last December, the Minister stated: “A key element of the zoning reform is the introduction in section 5 of a requirement for an evidence-based core strategy in development plans, which will provide relevant information as to how the plan and the housing strategy are consistent with regional planning guidelines and the national spatial strategy.” These are worthy sentiments and in fairness to the Minister, Deputy Gormley, and the Green Party, they have been consistent on this issue over the years.
The Minister acknowledged the work done by local councillors on planning heretofore but one gets the sense with this legislation that the Minister’s true feelings for the county councillor are more along the lines of the “damning indictment” he spoke of. Having been a member of Clare County Council for eight years, this is of interest to me. It is quite easy to create the caricature of the buffoon councillor rezoning all before him or her. The reality of how our local public representatives carry out their duties in planning is often different.
One of the last projects relating to planning which I worked upon as a councillor in Clare was the Clarecastle rejuvenation plan. I take this opportunity to raise this very important matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Alexandra White, and the Minister, Deputy Gormley. Prior to the opening of the Ennis bypass, 25,000 vehicles a day passed through the village of Clarecastle. The decades of heavy traffic have taken its toll on the streetscape of my native village but the re-routing of traffic presents the village of Clarecastle with an opportunity to be rejuvenated. The Ennis bypass presents Clarecastle with an opportunity to finally take in a breath of fresh air after decades of being under attack from car, truck and bus.
As a councillor representing the Clarecastle area, I requested by means of a notice of motion that such a plan be drawn up. My request was granted and the county architect, Ms Ruth Hurley, together with the planning and road design teams of Clare County Council, produced the Clarecastle rejuvenation plan. This action plan for the village of Clarecastle provides a comprehensive assessment of the areas that need attention. Features include a redevelopment of the main street to include a new streetscape incorporating new lighting and paving, an upgrading of the various approach roads to the village, major improvement of the roads and footpaths and better use of public open space.
I have had meetings and various communications with different officials in Clare County Council relating to this vital plan. I have put down parliamentary questions to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, and the former Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív. I should mention Councillor Paul Murphy, who was co-opted to my seat on Clare County Council when I was elected to this Chamber and who was re-elected last June, as he is also pursuing this issue.
The Clarecastle rejuvenation plan has been incorporated within the Ennis and environs development plan. The community needs and demands implementation of the plan’s recommendations. On behalf of the people of Clarecastle, I ask that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government engage with Clare County Council to make this plan a reality as a matter of urgency. The Minister of State might relay this issue to the Minister and ask him to provide an update on the support he will give to the plan.
The Clarecastle rejuvenation plan is a good example of proper planning and how an area should be developed. However, there have been many cases of inappropriate zoning throughout the country over the past number of years. The chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Seán Fleming, might have got to the nub of this in his contribution when he spoke of “whose land this is” rather than “is the land suitable?”. He hit the nail on the head as the first question considered should be whether the zoning is appropriate.
The recent severe flooding that took place in my constituency of Clare and in particular the unprecedented flooding that was witnessed in Ennis should serve as a major wake-up call to the Government. Flood waters caused extensive damage to homes and businesses and some flood victims still have to move back into their homes. The risk of severe flooding recurring in Ennis must be addressed. We need a radical approach to flood relief and a flood prevention officer should be appointed in every county and given responsibility for a current and capital budget. That flood prevention officer should oversee a maintenance programme for rivers, drains and watercourses. The officer should report directly to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who must be identified as having ultimate responsibility for flood prevention.
All the indications are that the issue of flooding is only going to increase in importance in the decades ahead and we now have the problem of poor planning decisions over the past decade adding to the problem. It seems obvious that flood risk areas have not been protected. Natural flood plains throughout Ennis have been destroyed. For example, there is an area just outside Ennis in Skehanagh where land was zoned within the remit of the Ennis and environs development plan. It was deemed suitable for industrial and commercial development and land was sold there for €18 million. During the flooding the land was under six feet of water, meaning it was completely inappropriate for the land to be identified and zoned as such.
The backbone of the Ennis and environs development plan was put together by Colin Buchanan and Partners consultants on behalf of Clare County Council. It was outrageous for such consultants to identify those lands, which are liable to flooding and which were under six feet of water during the recent flooding.
Deputy Joe Carey: It was 2003. What went on in that instance was outrageous. Such land should never be built on and there should be protection to ensure this is so. It is obvious that flood-risk areas have not been protected and it is critical that the Ennis flood relief scheme be amended in order to address the major flooding problems which surfaced in areas of Ennis that had never flooded before.
The River Fergus drains half of County Clare. The sheer volume of water which travels through Ennis town cannot be contained in the narrow river channel. Consideration must, therefore, be given to the development of major attenuation ponds outside the town. Such man-made ponds would help control the flow of water through Ennis and prevent flooding. They could be used for aqua sports during the summer months or as reservoirs when water supplies are low.
I thank the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for providing the excellent debate pack relating to the Bill. However, there is one glaring omission from the Bill, namely, one further level from where much inappropriate planning emanates and one institution that, from time to time, does a great deal of damage to proper planning. I cannot find any references in the legislation to the actions of the Cabinet in respect of good, appropriate and sustainable development.
I refer to the Cabinet for a number of reasons. The national spatial strategy, which the Minister appears to regard as fundamentally important to his principles of good and sustainable planning, represents a missed opportunity. It is a document that is hopelessly diluted. In addition, it failed miserably in the context of the first test with which it was presented. The decentralisation plan, as presented by the Government, through the Minister for Finance in one of his budgets, took absolutely no account of the national spatial strategy which emerged just before it.
Another example of Government or Cabinet interference in the planning process relates to tax incentive-based development in respect of housing associated with tourism. For example, many houses were built in areas along the River Shannon, Ireland’s largest waterway, at a time when there was little expressed need for this type of development. Many of these houses are rarely occupied and their construction has effectively prevented the construction of more sustainable homes because the capacity for services such as sewerage and water has been reached. Those who live in Killaloe, County Clare, cannot obtain planning permission or tap into the existing sewerage system because there is no further capacity to be had. Many towns and villages along the Shannon have effectively been sterilised as a result of the actions of the Cabinet or the Government in general.
It will be interesting to discover whether the Minister will be able to deal with the problem of Cabinet interference for reasons of political expediency. He previously asserted that planning decisions at local level cannot fly in the face of wider regional and national interests, particularly those agreed and endorsed by the Government. What happens in that regard should be carefully monitored in the run-up to the next general election.
The thrust of the legislation, and its preoccupation with centralisation, is worrying. The centralised model of government it puts forward does not work. Our most recent administrative experiment with the transfer of responsibilities from the old regional health boards to the centralised HSE has not worked. Most of the remainder of the world abandoned politburo-style centralisation with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. However, we in Ireland tend to positively embrace the concept and occasionally polish it up — with a bit of PR spin — for reuse.
If the Minister really wants proper planning and development, then local people and those in leadership positions in their own communities — I do not necessarily refer to elected representatives in this regard — must be given a meaningful role. These people have a better knowledge than anyone else with regard to how their areas might be developed in the future. However, the Minister and the Government seem to have an absolute fear of allowing something of this nature to happen.
The legislation is seriously misguided in its obsession with centralisation and the vesting of powers in the individual. The fact that the Minister described these guidelines as a combination of both a top-down and a bottom-up approach shows just how ill-conceived and contradictory is the legislation actually.
Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: I agree with the key objective of the Bill, which is 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, and development and local area plans, in addition to introducing a requirement for an evidence based core strategy in development plans. These aims are extremely laudable and would be accepted by most Members.
Like most Members, I served on a local authority for a number of years. One of the most frustrating aspects of my work in that regard related to planning and the inconsistencies relating thereto, even between different areas within one’s own county. Whereas someone might be allowed to build a house on an elevated site in one part of the county, a person in another part of the county would not be allowed to do so. There are contradictions in this regard right across the country, be it in the west, the midlands or the east. Perhaps it might be possible to introduce national guidelines to promote consistency in respect of planning. It is frustrating for councillors to explain to people that what is acceptable in one part of the country might not be acceptable in another or that what is considered to be an elevated site in one area is not so considered in another. In many cases it comes down to individual planners, who have their own ideas regarding planning, making decisions.
It has been my experience that planners who graduated in the recent past and who have embarked upon masters courses at UCD or at Queen’s University in Belfast have a completely different vision than that of their predecessors in respect of the type of landscape they want to see develop in Ireland than do their predecessors. There is both a contradiction and a tension in this regard. It may already be the case but I suggest that on several occasions during the year planners and senior planning officers should be brought together in order that we might promote a consistency of approach throughout the country.
The main difficulty in Kerry at present, particularly in the north of the county, relates to water discharge and the process of percolation. The soil in north Kerry is particularly heavy or dense and, as a result, percolation is poor. In the past, it was possible to build houses in certain areas. These houses were built to different standards and septic tanks relating to them seemed to work. However, as a result of the introduction of the EPA guidelines and the new percolation tests — the so-called P and T tests — it is not possible to build houses in such areas.
A contradiction arises in respect of this matter. If someone wanted to build a factory or a unit in north Kerry in order to carry out a commercial activity, he or she could obtain a surface water discharge licence and remove water — once it has been properly treated, etc. — from the site and run it into a local land drain or whatever. However, it is not possible to obtain such a licence in respect of one’s home. That does not make sense. Perhaps the Minister might obtain clarification from his officials with regard to whether this position obtains throughout the country. Obviously, if that was allowed for a house it would get over the problem of percolation because people could take it to the nearest waterway and discharge it provided it was properly purified, and we know that is possible with modern technology. I would like clarification on this point.
An Bord Pleanála seems to be the overarching authority on planning. It is the ultimate decision maker. At times, it makes strange decisions but generally it is guided by county development plans, the national spatial strategy and area plans. I would not be totally critical of it because it has also made some very balanced decisions. However, there should be a more overarching authority that would specify more consistency in planning in the country, either besides An Bord Pleanála or through a change of role for that organisation. At present, An Bord Pleanála is the final arbiter and this can lead to problems in certain cases.
I will refer to some sections of the Bill, which I have examined. A large number of young couples in particular who received planning permission almost five years ago cannot go ahead and build their houses because of the economic climate. In some cases, the planning permission will be up quite shortly but they cannot obtain mortgages and may have lost their jobs in the meantime. They may have received planning permission under the previous regime in Kerry when the same emphasis was not on percolation. They may be in areas where they will not satisfy the percolation conditions. They have bought sites and are paying mortgages on those sites but have been unable to obtain a mortgage to build their houses. They may have young families and live in rented accommodation. Will the Minister clarify whether the Bill will enable them to get an extension to their planning permission?
At present, the duration of planning permission may be extended subject to certain conditions where substantial works have been carried out prior to the expiration of the original permission. The Bill provides for amending section 42 to allow, subject to certain conditions, for the possibility of an extension of permission for a period of up to five years, which I welcome, in circumstances where substantial works have not been carried out but where there are commercial, economic and technical considerations beyond the control of the applicant which substantially militated against either the commencement of development or the carrying out of substantial works. It is also intended that this new provision shall apply to applicants for extension of permission received after the commencement of the provision following the enactment of the Bill.
Will the Minister clarify whether the economic conditions cover people in the circumstances I described, namely, young couples who, through no fault of their own, lost their jobs and cannot get a mortgage and will lose planning permission having spent a large amount of money on acquiring a site and planning permission? It is very important to clarify this because the impression given was that it would be for large developments only. It is hoped that the Bill will pass through the Dáil over the coming month or two, depending on how speedily Committee Stage will be taken. It should be made retrospective to the time the Bill was introduced, in fairness to those whose planning permission will expire.
Section 24 provides for a wider definition of public infrastructure and facilities and I welcome this measure to reflect newer infrastructure requirements including, in particular, the provision of school sites. The wider definition allows for development contributions to be levied and used to fund such infrastructure as school sites, broadband provision and flood relief works. I welcome this but it should be further extended.
To give a practical example, recently a school in the village of Athea in west Limerick was extended. Part of the planning permission condition was that a pedestrian crossing should be provided. It was not provided because the school could not afford it. Limerick County Council now states that it is the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science. The Department states that it is the responsibility of either Limerick County Council or the Department of Transport and the Department of Transport states that Limerick County Council should provide for it through its discretionary funding. All of this is documented. Levies could be used for such work. The school is in the flood plain of the River Galey which has overflowed on a number of occasions. I could see the possibility of flood prevention work being carried out through this type of levy so I appreciate this provision. The definition of school sites could be amended to include pedestrian crossings relating to the school. A pedestrian crossing is critical for any school.
Section 35 refers to nature conservation sites. I have been asking the Minister about people seeking planning permission on a special area of conservation, SAC, and previous Ministers have also been pursued on this issue. This particularly relates to Inch strand in County Kerry, which has 1,200 acres of sand dunes. They are being damaged but nobody seems to have any responsibility for them. People use quad bikes on the sand dunes. There is also wind erosion. The dunes are being threatened but the only responsibility the Government has taken is to designate them an SAC but it then left them lie there. They are being farmed with various types of grass being transported into the sand spit, including weeds that would be alien to the sand dune formation, but no one seems to care.
The owners, who live in New York, are anxious to put a golf course in part of the sand spit. They are willing to also put in place conservation measures for the remainder. I have looked at the plans and I am as conscious as anyone about conservation, but I think it would enhance and protect the sand spit if it were conditional on a proper programme being put in place for preservation, the prevention of erosion and any further damage to the dune formation. Also, at present, cars park on the beach during the summer. The beach is littered and local people clean it up. No one else has or takes responsibility for it. Moreover, I understand that this law has been changed in Scotland for the benefit of Donald Trump in respect of dune formations which had been designated as special areas of conservation. While I am unsure of this, I have heard his name being used.
Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: Why can this not be done in Ireland? I have looked up old tourist guides to County Kerry. I have one dating from 1946, which was a time when good tourist guides to the county were produced, in which a nine-hole golf course on Inch strand is included. While a golf course had been located there previously and one can discern on the dunes the outline of former holes, the owners are unable to develop it. I consider this to be a step too far. Provided they go through a proper environmental impact assessment study and carry out proper procedures, can an opportunity be provided to these people to seriously consider such a possibility? The Minister should refer to this matter in his response because it constitutes an example of how planning can provide an economic advantage to a local area and the exact purpose of this Bill is to promote and support economic renewal. The area of Annascaul and west County Kerry as a whole have suffered serious underpopulation, underemployment and depopulation for a number of years and this project would provide it with a major boost. It also would make County Kerry a destination for links golf with facilities at Ballybunion, Barrow, Dooks, Waterville and Annascaul. Even though the Minister, as a member of the Green Party, is supposed to be protecting the environment, I see no reason he could not take an initiative on this issue. He should at least provide clarification in this regard.
Listowel has a particular problem regarding a flood plain that was purchased. The Minister announced he intended to draw up guidelines in this regard but in the meantime, his Department, which obviously went through the proper procedures, purchased a major site in Listowel for an enormous sum of money. Thereafter, after the purchase of the site by his Department, the Minister’s new guidelines came into effect. The Minister should clarify this point, as surely the officials in his Department who purchased the site should have known that he intended to issue the flood plain guidelines. What can now be done with this land? My understanding is that this land is frozen and cannot be built upon and the Minister might clarify this point. Certainly, the land simply is sitting there. Perhaps it could be used for recreational purposes or to provide people with garden allotments or some other use.
Deputy Joe Carey referred to a similar matter, but the case to which he referred differed because this site had not been purchased when the Minister announced his intention to introduce guidelines. As for one section of the Minister’s Department speaking to another, an explanation might be helpful in this regard. I do not suggest any impropriety took place and I do not begrudge the recipients whatever they received for it because the Department’s officials paid them the money.
I will conclude by reiterating that the Minister should revert to the issue of percolation. Is the availability of a surface water discharge licence accepted throughout the country? As it can be done from a commercial premises but not from a private house, there seems to be a major contradiction in this regard. Another important point is whether this should apply to every county. Moreover, in respect of special areas of conservation, where a strong economic argument exists surely then exceptions can be made to provide a boost to the local economy.
Deputy Joan Burton: I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on this important Bill. The Minister’s intentions are positive regarding the Bill, many aspects of which I welcome because much of my life in politics has been spent arguing against the odds for proper planning and development. On many occasions, except for fellow members of the Labour Party, there has been scant respect for the concept of sustainable planning and development. Planning in Ireland has been highly corrupted. I was elected to the old Dublin County Council in 1991 and was quite astonished by what I encountered there. At one stage, I was threatened with legal action by 42 members, comprising the entire Fianna Fáil membership and approximately three quarters of the Fine Gael membership of the council, because I suggested that what was happening with regard to planning was inappropriate.
I wish to refer first to the events of today and yesterday because what has happened regarding the Dublin Docklands Development Authority has a profound impact for both planning and business in Ireland. It is centrally related to the property bust, to the bursting of the bubble and to the misfortunes arising on foot of the collapse experienced by so many families which have lost employment, who have seen the value of their houses tumble and who are in negative equity. I refer in particular to young couples in their 30s and early 40s who bought at the height of the boom.
The Minister should note that what has emerged in respect of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority is farcical to a degree. A report has been commissioned by someone of the highest competence and integrity, Professor Niamh Brennan, who the Minister has appointed to chair the authority. However, it is absurd that two media outlets each appear to have either full possession of or sight of a full copy of the report. I am aware the Minister has informed the House that he awaits advice from the Attorney General in respect of publication. However, it is a farce for our democracy that media outlets can obtain a report of which Members do not have possession. Moreover, I understand that a Member of the House also may have possession of the report and also may intend to publish it. This further erodes the appearance of competence of public services and of ministerial office in Ireland. While I understand the Minister is required to get advice from the Attorney General, I strongly suggest this advice be speeded up to prevent his ministerial office from being completely eroded and claim jumped by the persistence of media people in acquiring reports and subsequently publishing selected sections therefrom.
Moreover, this report raises a major issue for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government just as it does for the Central Bank, the Financial Regulator and the Department of Finance. This is because banking, development and planning are inextricably linked in Ireland. Moreover, the light touch regulation that brought down our banking system also has been clearly evident in respect of both the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and the planning system. I do not know whether the report refers to a light touch regulatory approach taken by the Department as regards the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, DDDA, but my guess is that it must. I am referring to the period of the docklands development, particularly when the bubble started to grow.
When the rainbow coalition left office in 1997, the number of jobs was growing by approximately 1,000 per week and the country was starting to become prosperous. When a country starts to do well, there will be people who want to do much better than anyone else and people who become consumed by greed. This is a given in every country, but it is the job of public bodies, Departments, Ministers and the public service to regulate the situation and ensure that the sustainable long-term interests of their society are not destroyed. It seems to have been the case that the Financial Regulator was in awe of the major figures in Irish banking, including Anglo Irish Bank. Not only this, but the Minister must ask himself whether former Ministers and senior civil servants in his Department were in awe of the people who came to the board of the DDDA from Anglo Irish Bank because they seemed to have the Midas touch where money was concerned. Did the atmosphere in the Department prevent those people’s plans from being blocked or a note of caution being voiced about the sustainability of the amount of development to be undertaken in the timeframe concerned?
The idea of developing docklands is reflected around the world. Everywhere one goes there are waterfront developments. Traditionally, we turned our backs on rivers and waterfronts, particularly since the 1940s. The notion of developments facing the sea, rivers or estuaries is a fundamental product of 20th century architecture, involving insulation and the capacity of glass buildings. New types of development were seen on coastlines and rivers from the mid-20th century onwards where such work was impossible in the 19th century.
The Minister must ask himself about why he is unable to publish the docklands report. What does it have to say about his Department’s regulatory approach? Did it parallel the light touch regulation by the regulator, the Central Bank and the Department of Finance? We need to explore these matters.
I agree with the Minister concerning information on which he has spoken several times. We have been developing on flood plains and we have been developing excessively. While I was a member of Fingal County Council, I saw cluster developments in rural areas of France. To stop rural north County Dublin being overrun by one-off houses on every field and byroad, I proposed to the council that it examine the French and German pattern of cluster settlements. They would not need to be in villages, in that they could be on family farms. Three or four unit clusters could develop and only one common road entrance would be necessary.
Often, the discourse engaged in by people from rural Ireland who want to live within the environs of, for example, a family farm holding and do not want to live in the next village is problematic. In other countries, this desire is somewhat addressed by cluster developments and rural village developments.
Deputy Joan Burton: It is where we get the sráid baile from. As Deputy Deenihan indicated, we have a rich heritage of being able to address the issue of rural settlement and development in the homeplace. If one is from a farm, a nearby village is different. Fingal County Council tried to follow this route. I was one of those who proposed the notion, but people from all parties supported it.
We overzoned and overdeveloped without requisite infrastructure like water supplies and without necessary caution regarding flood plains. I have written many detailed submissions to action plans and local area proposals. I was discussing the issue of flood plains ten years ago. My uncles were involved in areas like Dunboyne, where cattle were up to their armpits, if cattle had armpits, in water.
Deputy Joan Burton: All of this local lore and knowledge needs to be reflected in consultation on local planning, as it allows for an holistic approach that reflects the best mix of professional advice, the value people attach to their localities and how they want to see those areas develop.
In the case of many development plans, a wealth of the planning applications and requests for zoning currently before councils relate to NAMA alone. The Minister and the Government have consistently stated that NAMA has nothing to do with developers, but with rescuing banks. The Minister knows this is not the case, since I know him to be an intelligent person. The Fingal development plan process is under way. Fingal is grotesquely overdeveloped. It has a considerable amount of zoned land available for housing units, particularly apartment blocks that no one now wants, and warehousing in the context of the airport. Fingal needs and will have an amount of development, but it will be nowhere near the level being sought by landowners in a bid to increase valuations in light of NAMA.
I am disappointed that the Green Party, which has good credentials and intentions where planning is concerned, seems to have absented itself from the Cabinet discussion on an ongoing abuse, namely, the facilitation of the upward movement of valuations for the NAMA process. I wish the Green Party would take an interest in the matter.
What will be the designated planning functions of the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cuffe? Some people state he will take over the planning side of the Department and that he will effectively be the Minister for planning. Will the Minister confirm whether this will be the case? Will the Minister of State have ministerial responsibility for the oversight of An Bord Pleanála and the other instruments of planning? If so, it is an important issue that deserves to be explained to the public.
My next question is on management companies and unfinished estates. At this very moment, people in every townland are in total misery because of the depredations of rogue developers who have built estates and are running management companies on their own or, for example, with their cousins or spouses. They are charging increasing management fees and are giving no service for them. They are fleecing people who are in negative equity and they are not subject to regulation. I know the Bill contains a clause which concentrates voting rights in management companies with owners as opposed to absentee landlords. However, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was to have regulated management companies but has not done so. Many individuals in my constituency are now paying more than €2,000 in management fees for apartments while the management fees for houses in traditional estates have galloped from approximately €250 per annum to between €450 and €700. These fees cover the cutting and trimming of shrubs and a few blades of grass in front of rows of houses in tight configurations. People are being robbed and fleeced. Can the Minister give some hope to the tens of thousands of people in managed apartments and estates who are facing serious financial difficulties? Will the Government and his Department continue to allow them to be ripped off? They need to be able to manage their own affairs.
What is the Minister’s view of local authorities taking charge of finished estates? Can people in a management company limit the company and have the local authority take the estate into charge? These are important issues, particularly for young families and retired people who are trading down. Both these categories of householders are largely living in managed estates. Local authorities are washing their hands of many of these developments, leaving people with vast difficulties. In some cases only a small percentage of the apartments in a block are occupied, leaving many vacant units. In a block of 20 apartments, four may be occupied by their owners, some may be empty, some retained by the builder with no one knowing what is happening to them and some may be rented to tenants. This is an impossible situation.
I ask the Minister to consider a difficulty which various commentators, such as Jack Fagan in The Irish Times, have written about. The Minister, the Green Party and the planners can tell us that people in Ireland want to live in eight, ten and 15 storey apartment blocks. Green Party planners are very good at doing this. I ask the Minister to consider areas such as Rathmines, Rathgar, parts of the Minister’s constituency, Shandon in Phibsborough or the streets of houses built by the Dublin Artisan Dwelling Company, which were planned and built in the 19th century. Because of the row terraced pattern of building the housing density of those developments is extremely high. Nevertheless these are one, two and three storey houses. Even the tallest Georgian houses are no more than four or five storeys high. They are human in dimension and scale. People have their own hall doors or a manageable situation. Green Party planners in various local authorities want to inflict ten, 12 or 18 storey blocks on people. People do not want them. Nevertheless, in all our towns and cities, planners tell people like me, when yet another planning application for an apartment block is lodged, that they have been given these directions by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
The newly appointed Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cuffe, is to look after planning. What will his delegated functions be? I welcome Deputy Cuffe’s involvement in planning. The Greens have contributed a lot to planning. I speak as one who has fought this fight for a long time.
People want houses, particularly in our suburbs, where they can bring up their families, where there is a small bit of green grass and where children can play football. We do not want our children imprisoned in a Green Party view of the future filled with tower blocks. We want sustainable houses with which children can identify. I see the Minister shaking his head. He must not have as much contact with green planners as I have in my travels around county councils.
In the past year 167,000 people lost their jobs. Of these, 66,000 are young people under 25 and two thirds of those are male. In Tralee, there are 6,000 unemployed, of whom 1,200 are under 25. Most of these are young men. If the Bill is to work it must promote sustainable development for communities. It must not be development led by Fianna Fáil for their friends in property development and Anglo Irish Bank. We must see an end to crony capitalism in the building industry. That, and the light touch regulation in the Minister’s and other Departments, is what has ruined us.
Deputy Terence Flanagan: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I welcome the introduction of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill. However, the Minister is locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. The Bill is 15 years too late and much damage has been done. I know that is not the Minister’s problem. It is a legacy issue.
Deputy Terence Flanagan: The problem is a legacy of the Fianna Fáil Government. Bad planning has scarred the country for the past ten years, with excessive rezoning of lands in many parts of the country. The evidence of this can be seen in towns and villages throughout rural Ireland.
The property bubble has burst with a bang. Most communities did not benefit from planning decisions. The real winners were the Government and developers, who used land speculation to enrich themselves and to fill their pockets. Much development was piecemeal and poorly put together with a lack of community facilities. Adamstown is an excellent example of good planning. However, it was built at the end of the Celtic tiger years and there is now a glut of unoccupied property there. This is disappointing.
Recent expert analysis in newspapers demonstrated how bad is the housing market. It is estimated that as many as 600 unfinished housing estates are scatted throughout the country, roughly equating to 300,000 empty properties. I know the Construction Industry Federation and academics in NUI Maynooth have differed as to the number of empty housing units in the country. There is certainly a large number of them, probably as many as 300,000. The vacant houses in these ghost estates are the legacy of Fianna Fáil and their bad planning policies.
What is the future for many of these empty and half-finished housing estates? In many cases the developer owes money and is not in a position to put things right. Bonds paid to local authorities were not sufficient. Who will pick up the tab and put things right for the home owners who live in these housing estates? Bonds were set at too low a level. A developer should never be allowed to half finish a housing estate and be given planning permission for a new one. It was not in a developer’s interest to complete the current project before moving on to the next one because there is more money to be made in the next project than in the current one. Does the Bill provide that housing estates must be brought to completion before a developer can move on to the next project? Such provision is necessary to ensure that what happened in the past cannot happen again. Apart from the legislation dealing with rogue developers who have not adhered to the conditions attaching to the previous planning permission granted, is there provision in the Bill requiring that developers fully complete their current developments before they will be granted planning permission for their next developments?
Professor Kitchen, the director of the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis, said that rural counties could be scarred for a decade. It could be even longer than that, depending on the future of ghost developments and whether a decision will be made to demolish some of these houses. It would be dreadful to have to do that but it might be a cheaper option in the long term as opposed to they being left empty, which leaves them open to vandalism, graffiti, young people hanging out in them and other problems. It would cost more long term to put right these housing estates as well as they being a scar on the countryside. The Minister might clarify that.
There is so much land rezoned in this country that it is estimated that in some areas there is land supply for housing for the next 30 years. That is incredible and it is an indictment of the Government and its policy that it allowed that to happen. Local authorities should refuse planning applications for housing in areas where there is an oversupply of housing. I do not mean to interfere in the housing market and the price of housing but we must be realistic and sensible about the future use of housing. We need to ensure the units that have been built are occupied before mass building takes place at any future date.
The Minister saw at first hand the result of the bad rezoning of land with the flooding of people’s apartments and houses that were built on flood plains and on which there were no proper drainage. Local authority councillors in all parties who allowed such rezoning to take place must accept responsibility, but the decisions were made principally by planners in planning departments. Those planners who allowed this happen need to be brought to account. We need to ensure proper drainage systems are put in place to ensure no more flooding of houses occurs, particularly in estates that were badly built during the boom years. I am glad the Bill provides that the objective of a development will include the carrying out of a flood risk assessment in areas where there is a risk of flooding. The Minister is to be commended in that regard.
The Fine Gael Party has an issue with the Minister seeking to centralise planning decisions and thereby taking many of those decisions out of the hands of local councillors. The Bill appears to support a system of planning based on the national spatial strategy, which was not voted on by any councillor or Deputy. The population targets in it are inaccurate and unrealistic. The Minister might comment on that.
The Bill gives the Minister enormous powers. Deputy Hogan mentioned that a future Minister for the Environment might not use those powers in the way they should be used and that could be potentially dangerous. Therefore, we need to ensure that the necessary checks and balances are put in place. Under the Bill, powers will be taken from councillors and given to Civil Servants and to the Minister in the Custom House. That is a concern. Who will police the Minister and his officials to ensure there will be no abuse of these new powers? The Minister will be micromanaging many decisions on the development plan, which means the process will not be as democratic as it should be.
An objective of the national spatial strategy appears to be to stop the growth of Dublin, which is probably the wrong way to proceed. Under that strategy more of the population is to be scattered throughout the country. That is not good from the point of view of CO2 emissions. I am not in favour of the high rise, high density apartment building such as 10, 15 or 20 storey apartment complexes which Dublin City Council is seeking to develop. That is not conducive to sustainable living for families because of the lack of green space. Irish people in general are not used to apartment living and it does not suit them. Many apartment complexes have been a failure. It is incredible that there is still no regulation of property management companies. The Minister of State has an interest in this area and he is doing his best to progress through the Seanad the Multi-Unit Developments Bill. Progress on that Bill has been long awaited and the sooner it is introduced in this House the better. We consistently hear of scary stories about apartment management companies, agents and the level of extortion currently taking place with the increase in management company fees. Very often the owners are not even directors of the management company. Therefore, they have no real control as to how the money is being spent within the apartment complex. We have seen inflated figures and some of the contractors that management companies use through agents are not doing the work they are contracted to do. The position will be clearer and there will be a direct line of accountability when property management companies become regulated. There is nobody to whom an apartment owner can turn if he or she has a problem with a management company. All an apartment owner can do is contact a series of agencies such as the National Consumer Agency and the Director of Corporate Enforcement. A regulator is in place and that office has been open in Meath for the past three to four years. The people there have done considerable preparatory work but they need real power and real action. The sooner the management company Bill is brought forward the better.
The local area plan threshold is being increased to 5,000 people, which ignores the needs of small communities throughout Ireland and prioritises development to urban centres. We have a concern about that. That is not fair to small communities throughout Ireland who should have available to them local area plans. I am pleased that regional authorities will get new powers under this Bill. It will increase their accountability and transparency and they will have to engage in more public consultation on decisions that are made within the regional authority area. That is to be welcomed. There is often talk of a disconnect among councillors, elected officials and ordinary citizens. If this measure encourages citizens to become more involved in the process and to have more of a say through consultation it is welcome.
I take this opportunity to raise the pyrite issue, which is caused when moisture and rain comes in contact with the infill material in homes. This is a major issue for some homeowners. It is bad enough that some homeowners are in negative equity without they having to cope with cracks appearing in walls and floors. They are not impressed by the failure of the Government to address or to take seriously this issue. A case involving the developer in question and the quarry which provided the material is before the courts. The position, I understand, is that the material provided was probably substandard. Furthermore, proper regulations were not in place and proper checks were not made at each stage of the building process to ensure the correct material was being used in house construction. This is an ongoing problem which needs to be addressed. Light touch regulation, which was the order of the day in the banking industry, continues to apply in the building industry.
Unfortunately, as many as 20,000 homeowners have been affected by the use of pyrite in the construction of their homes. Deputy McEntee and I recently highlighted that some of this material may also have found its way into certain infrastructure projects, including the M3 in County Meath and Dublin Port tunnel. Given the safety implications, a full audit of Bay Lane quarry and all other quarries is required to ascertain whether the infill material in question was used in infrastructure projects. If such material has been used, we would have a timebomb. We should nip in the bud the current concerns in that regard.
The Canadian Government opted to bail out homeowners whose homes were not built to a sufficient standard. Ultimately, the Government here may have to help homeowners who find themselves in a similar position because developers, some of whom are surviving on a day-to-day basis, do not have the money to do so. Moreover, insurers such as Premier Insurance and Home Bond may not have sufficient funds in their accounts to pick up the tab and rectify the problems in many homes. This is major issue which must be taken more seriously.
While we must await the outcome of the court proceedings, it is not sufficient for the Government to argue that the matter is one for homeowners and their insurance companies. The State also has a liability arising from the lax standards which were applied and the absence of proper building regulations. The Minister must ensure more inspectors are available to require that quality materials are used in the building of apartments and homes and homeowners have full comfort in that respect.
The Fine Gael Party welcomes the publication of this long overdue legislation. While it provides for some good powers, we are concerned that many decisions will be made centrally in the Customs House by unelected officials and further powers will be removed from local authorities. These are not necessarily positive developments. My party’s spokesperson on the environment, heritage and local government, Deputy Phil Hogan, has published a policy document, “New Politics”, which proposes to reform the political process and to place more power in the hands of local councillors. While we want decisions to be made responsibly, we do not want powers to revert to the Customs House.
Deputy Shane McEntee: I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill, to discuss what has happened in the past ten or 15 years and to try to take a positive view of what will happen in the next ten or 15 years.
I enjoyed meeting the Minister of State in recent days in my constituency of County Meath where house building has been a priority in recent years. When, after ten years of trying, I was finally nominated to contest an election to the Dáil I thought it would be easy to get elected. I started my campaign on St. Stephen’s Day when I visited Dunboyne, Dunshaughlin, Ratoath and Ashbourne with about 25 children to distribute leaflets. Every time I thought I had reached the end of a housing estate I found I had come upon the start of another. I realised also that only GAA people recognised me and I knew at once that I had a job to do.
I have been always pleased to see new housing. The building industry has a dirty name at present but it is fantastic that so many houses were built. Although some new houses may have problems, I hope those that have not been completed, whether in Longford, Roscommon, Nobber or elsewhere, will not be knocked. We fought for housing and population trends suggest this country will have 8 million people in 25 years. We should consolidate what we have and hold on to what has been built. Money invested in housing is always well spent.
Last weekend, I visited County Kerry, the only county I had not visited in the past five years. It is great to travel on good roads and much good work clearly has been done. Politicians have never had such responsibility for the housing sector because builders no longer have money. While most of those involved in the construction industry were good builders, some were caught out by purchasing lands and sites at excessive prices. Zoning was also excessive. This is a great time to consolidate.
We should have adopted the Australian approach whereby builders who build 500 houses, for example, are not allowed to hand over the keys until schools and infrastructure are in place. The Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, on his recent visit to County Meath, showed great interest in Dunboyne, Ratoath and Ashbourne. We must provide jobs in the countryside rather than in cities in order that people drive from urban centres to work rather than vice versa.
I will support any measure to secure houses or to provide infrastructure. It is a pity the banks are a dead duck and of no help to anyone. The longer we allow the current position to continue, the worse matters will become. Thousands of young people who are in a position to buy three or four bedroom houses for €150,000, €160,000 or €170,000, which is equivalent to approximately £130,000, cannot obtain the funds to do so. Given that the cost would be spread over 30 years, we must help young couples to buy homes, particularly when so many are lying idle. We should work together to address the problem.
Deputy Shane McEntee: There are many more important issues facing County Meath than banning stag hunting. If the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, has any influence, I ask him to ensure we are left alone because stag hunting is the only fun we have.
To return to the issue raised by Deputy Terence Flanagan, I was involved in resolving a similar problem in Kentstown, County Meath, where two houses basically exploded. The problems associated with pyrite here are much more progressive than in Canada. The houses to which I refer were built by cowboy builders only two or three years previously. As a result of damp in the sub-filling, the walls of one house split, while the floors of the second house exploded.
Last summer, I travelled to Dublin on many occasions to deal with Home Bond on behalf of the affected families. We secured an agreement under which the foundations of the two houses are to be dug out and renewed. Once this work is completed, a ten year guarantee will be provided. Unfortunately, according to figures provided by Home Bond, 20,000 houses in counties Meath, Dublin, Kildare and Offaly are affected by the problem. I am not a fool and I know Home Bond is not in a position to resolve the issue as it no longer has sufficient revenue and will not be able to replicate what has been done in the two houses in County Meath elsewhere.
When I raised this issue with the Minister three or four weeks ago he indicated that the matter was one for the builder, owner and Home Bond. Unfortunately, owners have been left on their own because their building insurance will not cover the problem on the basis that the word “pyrite” did not feature in the contract. Home Bond does not have sufficient funds to meet its obligations. They cannot do what they are supposed to do because the money is not there. I was dealing with a family in County Kildare, from an estate of eight houses. The people there have been left high and dry, one with a bill for more than €200,000. They have been offered a final settlement of €38,000 by Homebond, which I know to be as much as the company can give. This problem will not go away, as Deputy Terence Flanagan remarked, but will become a much bigger problem than any the State has had. It will be up to the Government of the day to fix it because nobody else is left, just as in Canada.
As Deputy Flanagan said, rightly, the substance has also got into the infrastructure. On 7 April, the NRA is to appear before the Joint Committee on Transport to answer questions. In all my dealings with homeowners, whether from County Kildare or from Dublin, one fact was reported to me — not through malice although I may have been somewhat foolish regarding some of the advice I got. However, I have taken it all on board. The M3 is a fantastic project but the NRA must let it be known whether this material is being used in its construction. If I were a betting man, I would say it is and if that is the case I will ask for every bit of it to be removed before the M3 is opened. In England, the M5 had to be closed down because it exploded. I do not want anybody to tell me this is not our responsibility because such an event would occur 30 or 40 years from now.
I will do anything at this stage and will be ruthless in order to help these homeowners. It is incredible to go into estates and see houses whose walls are cracking. One can fill and paint the walls and put wallpaper down again and return six months later to find them as bad again. I got a reply letter from the Minister of State on this matter. We are discussing pyrite and the situation has progressed since 2007. Homebond has acknowledged that 20,000 houses are affected.
This is an awful strain on a family, husband, wife and children, and I have seen these people. There was a case in Kingston and I do not know how the family got through it. The man and his wife were in their house only three months when the door could not be opened and the tiles and the walls split. There were cracks in the walls large enough to put a fist through. That house was bought with a mortgage of €485,000.
Deputy Shane McEntee: It is cruel but is happening all over. It is happening in the Minister of State’s county. These are fantastic families whom I never met before. This is happening in Deputy Flanagan’s constituency and he knew about the problem a long time ago. A court case is due but that is for another day.
I ask the Minister to get to the bottom of this. No insurance companies will cover builders’ insurance and most builders have gone, in any event. They are bankrupt and it cannot be helped. At this stage, the Government must set up a combined body of Deputies to sit down and look at the situation and see what is the best way forward because it will land on our doors, whether now or in two years’ time, no matter who is in Government. It is a very serious problem and I would not like to be living in one of those houses.
Homebond has done its best and many good builders have tried to do their best but, unfortunately, the material is being used still. People can make excuses for it but it is being used as we speak. The NRA is to come to the committee on 7 April and it will have some explaining to do to convince me that pyrite is not being used.
As Deputy Flanagan noted about other buildings across north county Dublin, the substance is present. The situation is the same as in Canada and England. We must protect these houses which can be fixed. I have seen two houses that will still have a ten-year guarantee when Homebond walks out. The problem can be fixed but the only way to do this is to take out the faulty material, the pyrite. People think the fault is in the concrete or the blocks but the pyrite is in the filling that goes into the floor. This filling comes from certain quarries that have a high content of sulphur. When it hits the atmosphere, or moist material, it starts to explode. It will increase its size by up to 100 times and when it gets to a certain stage, it brings everything else with it. When it explodes, the sulphur within starts eating the concrete and over a period of a year will bring the concrete to dust. Unless one has seen this with one’s own eyes, and read about it beforehand, one would not believe it.
I know the Minister of State has a fair amount on his plate but I ask him to listen to what Deputies from all these constituencies are saying. A person can have a lot of problems or be without a job but when he or she has no viable house after securing a €200,000 mortgage, it is terrible. One can go into such a house, sit down and look. It is a cruel house to go into but the people involved are great and the situation can be fixed. It is like everything else. I want to be positive in regard to these houses.
The Minister of State knows my constituency of Meath East. It was a funny spot for five or ten years and there were many planning decisions of which I would not be proud, but we have what we have and we must protect the houses. I ask the Minister of State not to allow anybody to knock down any half-built houses because we will need them in five or six years’ time.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, was not in the Chamber when I made my last point but I shall repeat it now. It has nothing to do with planning. I enjoyed the day the Minister came down.
Deputy Shane McEntee: It is the last time I shall mention it. There is a landfill down our way and we have an incinerator. The Minister knows I am very proud of the recycling plant he came to open. I know he is going to his conference and I do not say I am wasting my time but I ask him to please leave us alone with regard to the stag hunt. There are only a few of us left in that area and this is the only sport many of my friends have. I make no bones about that. They will tighten up; they will do whatever the Minister asks but I ask him to reconsider the entire matter and not bring trouble on everybody. We do not need to debate that matter in this House.
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Deputy John Gormley): I thank the Acting Chairman, the many Deputies who made contributions on Second Stage of this Bill and Members in general for their attendance over the course of the debate. I note the matters raised, both today and during previous debates on the Bill and I shall reflect on contributions of Deputies in progressing the Bill on Committee Stage.
At the outset, I shall comment, briefly, on one contribution made by the Acting Chairman’s colleague, Deputy Joan Burton. My Green Party colleagues soldiered with Deputy Burton in 1991 on Dublin County Council, at which time we had very similar views on planning. However, I am at a loss to know where she gets her information in respect of “Green Party planners”, as she calls them. She spoke about 18-storey tower blocks and more. I do not know where she gets her information but it is not based on any form of reality. Perhaps at some stage she might give us evidence of these so-called Green Party planners coming up with such ideas. There is a difference between high rise and high density, a matter she herself highlighted. I await her reply on that issue and would like to debate further with her but her information is totally inaccurate.
It remains my intention to have this Bill enacted at the earliest opportunity and I hope we can work constructively through any issues that were raised. As I stated, the principal driving force behind the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill is, and will continue to be, the need to strengthen the statutory provisions for the forward planning process. Planning is about people and a sound development plan is the key to ensuring good planning at local level. The more strategic approach to zoning and the accompanying checks and balances set out in this Bill will allow development to take place at the right time and in the right place. It will allow the State to plan for the provision of infrastructure with much greater certainty.
This is key to the economic renewal agenda. We must learn from, and not repeat, the mistakes of the past. Under this Bill all land zonings must be the subject of public consultation at the plan-making stage or in draft variation of a development plan. This is crucial from the point of view of ensuring public confidence in the zoning process.
I shall now refer to some of the matters raised by Deputies. Their contributions dealt with a wide range of issues and I shall endeavour to deal with as many of these as time permits. I shall deal first with the national spatial strategy. Although I welcome the positive comments made by Deputies in respect of the Bill, I note that Deputy Hogan, for example, and a number of his colleagues have reservations about the Bill especially with regard to the national spatial strategy and its significance to the planning system. There appears to be a perception that the national spatial strategy is all about gateway cities and hubs and that this fundamentally works against the growth and development of rural areas. I can appreciate the Deputies’ concern about this issue. However, I would like to knock that misconception on the head, once and for all. While I appreciate the Deputies’ concern about this issue, I would like to knock on the head once and for all that misconception. The national spatial strategy was designed as a 20-year strategic document. It has been endorsed by the Government. It is not just about developing the gateways and hubs to the detriment of all other areas. It is about maximising the potential of all urban and rural areas to benefit their inhabitants and the country as a whole. It is also about sustaining and supporting rural communities. The national spatial strategy includes key policies and principles to enable rural areas to develop in a sustainable and balanced way. Rather than dismiss the strategy, we should ask how we can deliver better and more consistently on its objectives.
Deputy Clune mentioned a report recently produced by the National Competitiveness Council, which reinforced the internationally accepted analysis that strong cities make strong regions. It is critical to have a vibrant, progressive and growing urban core if we are to support the economy of the wider region. In the absence of a strong regional and urban focus, surrounding rural areas will suffer lower economic activity and there will be less opportunity to develop sustainable rural initiatives. We cannot afford to let that happen as we try to get the nation back on its feet economically.
I do not suggest that growth cannot and should not happen in rural areas. This Bill intends to manage the significant pressures that have arisen in recent years Unplanned and dispersed commuter-driven development does not provide a sustainable basis for rural towns and villages, or create vibrant communities. The new regional planning guidelines are being updated at present. Like my Department’s updated outlook review of the national spatial strategy, the guidelines recognise the integral link between certain needs. We need to balance the need to develop large urban areas, which already have in place capacity and infrastructure, with the need to facilitate sustainable development in more rural areas.
The new regional planning guidelines will not say that growth should not happen outside gateways and hubs. They will assess and guide, on a regional and county-by-county basis, how we can best manage future growth within regions and across the country as a whole. I echo the sentiments of Deputies Bannon and Durkan and the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, who said that past planning mistakes, where large suburban-style estates were built on the fringes of small settlements and where long-distance commuting was facilitated, should not be allowed to happen again. We can all agree on that. We want to see more sustainable patterns of growth that will enhance rural communities and create successful and cohesive rural areas.
Before I finish talking about sustainable planning, I would like to speak about flood plains and related planning issues, which were raised during the debate by a number of speakers, including Deputies Tuffy and Ferris. I am determined to put an end to the type of needless suffering and hardship we witnessed last winter during the flooding crisis. This Bill will define what “flood risk management” means. I wish to ensure that detailed flood risk assessment is fully integrated into the planning process. The Bill amends the First Schedule to the Planning and Development Act 2000 to provide for the inclusion in development plans of an objective for flood risk assessments to be carried out as part of the control and regulation of development in areas that are at risk of flooding. This should ensure that flood risk assessment is fully integrated into the planning process, where appropriate. The proposed definitions of “flood risk management” and “flood risk assessment” will assist planning authorities in formulating their respective development plan objectives.
Deputy Michael P. Kitt queried whether development contributions could be spent on flood relief works. The Bill aims to reduce the impact of flooding nationwide, thereby giving planning authorities greater flexibility in distributing existing development contribution moneys. Planning authorities will be able to use some of the moneys, if necessary, on newer prioritised needs, such as flood relief works.
In tandem with the provisions of the Bill, and following a comprehensive public consultation process, the Department in association with the OPW published ministerial guidelines on the planning system and flood risk management on 30 November last. These guidelines will facilitate the provision of information to planning authorities and other stakeholders on the new mechanisms for incorporating flood risk assessment into the planning process. They explain in detail how to assess and manage flood risk at all stages of the process. They aim to ensure there is a more consistent, rigorous and systematic approach to the avoidance and minimisation of potential future flood risk. The new guidelines, which were prepared in response to the recommendations of the national flood policy review group, are aimed at ensuring that development which is vulnerable to flooding will be permitted by planning authorities in areas of high or moderate risk of flooding in exceptional circumstances only. Such a decision will have to be based on the clear and transparent criteria set out in the guidelines.
Furthermore, the guidelines contain a commitment to review the exempted development provisions in the current planning and development regulations, which allow for paving residential gardens, developing off-street parking and providing hard landscaping. The review will be conducted as part of the overall review of the regulations, which will follow the enactment of the Bill. It will examine ways of ensuring that future exemptions are applied only when such developments comply with sustainable drainage principles. Planning has a significant role to play with regard to flood risk management, particularly in ensuring that future development avoids or minimises future increases in flood risk. The planning process constitutes a parallel but interdependent process to that of flood risk management. We are delivering an holistic approach to the management of the water environment on a catchment basis through the preparation of river basin management plans.
As can be evidenced clearly by the widespread flooding suffered throughout the country last winter, the location, phasing and servicing of zoned lands have to be carefully considered in the context of our current economic and environmental circumstances. The Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, referred to the impact on local areas and businesses of development outside town centres. This Bill will require tighter management of land zoning and will ensure that the location and quantum of land that is zoned for development is in line with regional and local targets for growth over the period of the plan.
Deputies Hogan, Tuffy and Creighton spoke about the centralisation of the planning process. I hope I am not doing Deputy Terence Flanagan a disservice when I say he also proposed some form of centralisation. He said this is the way we are going, but I am afraid that is not how we see it. In fact, the exact opposite is our intention in this Bill, which provides ministerial guidance to be implemented to ensure development is sustainable, properly planned and tailored towards the needs of people. Under this legislation, when planning authorities are preparing and making draft development plans, they will have to demonstrate by means of statements how they will implemented. It will not suffice for the authorities to “have regard to”— that is a phrase that is often used — the policies and objectives of the Minister as set out in ministerial guidelines issued under section 28 of the Planning Acts.
The ministerial guidelines will have to be examined clearly and the authorities will have to take account of them. That is how it ought to be, if one wants to get consistency across the local authorities. Deputy Terence Flanagan’s colleague, Deputy Deenihan, made that point in his contribution. Equally, planning authorities must detail the reasons such policies and objectives are not implemented, as the case may be. This should help to ground national policy in the local context. It will help to minimise the number of instances in which the Minister is forced to intervene in the development plan process by using his or her powers of direction under section 31.
As I said to Deputy Terence Flanagan, the bad planning we have witnessed over such a long period is not over yet, unfortunately. I had to intervene in Dún Laoghaire when some of the Deputy’s colleagues behaved in a most misguided way. If he is interested in planning, I urge him to talk to his colleagues in Dún Laoghaire, not all of whom are behaving in a responsible manner.
Deputy Breen raised concerns about the timescale in which the public can make submissions on the draft ministerial directions to amend a development plan or local area plan. It must be borne in mind that such directions are quite specific about the aspects of the plan they propose to amend. There is no question of members of the public having to familiarise themselves with the detail of the total plan. They may choose to concentrate on the specific issue or issues set out in the draft direction.
Deputies Breen, Ferris and Fitzpatrick expressed concerns about the increased population threshold for mandatory preparation of local area plans. Under this Bill, the population threshold for the mandatory preparation of local area plans will increase from 2,000 to 5,000 people. The clear intention in the 2000 Act was that local area plans should be prepared for those areas requiring regeneration or likely to be subject to large-scale development. Some planning authorities are coming under significant resource pressure to prepare local area plans for relatively small areas which meet neither of these criteria but for which a local area plan is required due to the scale of its population. I intend to review on Committee Stage the proposal regarding the mandatory population threshold in respect of the preparation of a local area plan. While I note the concerns of several Deputies regarding urbanisation, I stress that it will continue to be the case that a local area plan may be prepared in respect of any area which a planning authority considers suitable, in particular those areas that require economic, physical and social renewal outside of areas where a local area plan is mandatorily required.
Deputies Mary Upton and Peter Kelly, among others, questioned the impact that reducing the quorum at meetings of the board of An Bord Pleanála would have on the planning process. The Bill proposes to allow the board to reduce the quorum from three to two members, on the recommendation of the chairperson that such a reduction is necessary to ensure the efficient discharge of the business of the board. This amendment, which has several built-in safeguards, aims to improve the throughput of An Bord Pleanála and to secure higher compliance rates with the statutory objection period of 18 weeks for appeals.
The taking in charge of estates was raised by several Deputies. To clarify, the provisions of the Bill do not distinguish between types of developments and therefore owners of properties and developments managed by management companies could avail of the provisions included in the legislation. Deputy Damien English raised the role of development contributions in planning and Deputy Olivia Mitchell expressed her dissatisfaction at allowing local authorities to impose levies so that schools are provided. As I stated earlier, the Bill contains measures to provide local authorities with greater flexibility to effect a wider distribution of development contribution numbers.
Deputy Mitchell referred to trees in residential areas. Statutory provisions governing roadside trees and vegetation are contained in section 70 of the Roads Act 1993. These provisions oblige landowners and occupiers of land to take all necessary care to ensure trees, shrubs, hedges and other vegetation on their land are not and cannot become a danger to road users. Deputy Upton voiced concerns in regard to the penalties for offences under the planning Acts. To clarify, the amendments in the Bill provide for increased fines in accordance with the limits set out by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel.
Deputy Michael D. Higgins spoke about the Aarhus Convention. I assure the Deputy that ratification of the convention in 2010 is a key priority for me and for my Department. I recently met with the Attorney General on the matter and we have agreed to ensure that the work needed to be carried out to enable the ratification to proceed is prioritised in my office.
The retention issue is very important for several reasons, not least that we must deal with infringement proceedings from the European Union. Deputy Costello also addressed this issue in his contribution. I propose, through this Bill, to remove the possibility of retention permission for unauthorised development that would otherwise be subject to environmental impact assessment other than in exceptional circumstances. There are no proposals to remove the retention provision in its entirety from the planning process as retention permission provides a mechanism for regularising development that is not contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of an area. An application for a retention permission is required to be assessed by a planning authority in the same way as any other application, that is, the authority is required to consider the proper planning and sustainable development of the area. This includes having regard to the provisions of the plan, any submissions or observations received and relevant ministerial or Government policies including any guidelines issued by my Department. Planning authorities are not precluded from taking a prosecution in respect of an unauthorised development where an application to retain unauthorised developments is made. It is my intention to take the opportunity to use the necessary regulations that will follow on from the enactment of this Bill to increase substantially the fees associated with ordinary applications for retention permission. That acts as a barrier to those who wish to take shortcuts through the planning system.
I am greatly encouraged by the generally supportive and constructive contributions of Members opposite. I very much look forward to dealing with the detail of the Bill on Committee Stage where there are several substantial amendments to be included. We can tease those out in detail on Committee and Report Stages. This is groundbreaking legislation that will ensure that bad planning will not raise its ugly head again.
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