Thursday, 19 February 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms Tuffy: I will not say much about this issue as it is self-explanatory. It is of particular interest to Deputies and Senators because we can no longer make comments about planning issues at council meetings. We are now charged a fee for submissions made in respect of planning applications.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Gallagher): I thank Senator Tuffy for raising this issue. In August 2000, the European Commission advised Ireland that it had received a complaint that a fee for the making of a submission on a planning application would restrict citizens' rights to participate in development consent procedures and was contrary to the public participation provisions of the environmental impact assessment directive and contrary to the spirit of the 1998 UNECE Aarhus Convention. In October 2001, the Commission issued a further letter, under Article 226 of the EU treaty, indicating that the environmental impact assessment directive makes no express provision for the payment of a participation fee and suggesting that the submission fee may act as a serious impediment to the expression of opinions and undermine the purpose of the directive. On 23 January 2003, the European Commission issued Ireland with a reasoned opinion to the effect that the €20 fee for the making of a submission on a planning application which requires environmental impact assessment is contrary to the public participation provisions of Directive 85/337/EEC on environmental impact assessment.
Ireland has responded to each letter, making a full defence to the matters raised by the Commission. Ireland contends that the participation fee in no way contravenes the terms of the directive. The imposition of a fee for the making of a submission or observation on a planning application must be set against the background of a very open and transparent planning system of which public participation is a key element. Ireland actively provides for third party participation at all stages of the planning process, which includes the development plan, planning application and planning appeal. We are one of the few member states to have a third party appeal system.
The Planning and Development Act 2000 made a number of important changes to primary legislation to confer greater rights on third parties. The long-standing right of public access to planning files free of charge has been continued and enhanced under the new Act. The primary purpose of the fee is to contribute towards the enhanced service — required under the Act and the 2001 regulations — to be provided by planning authorities to persons who make submissions. These statutes, for the first time ever, confer a statutory obligation on the planning authority to take full account of any objections or submissions. The claim that the introduction of the €20 fee will act as a disincentive to individuals and bodies with genuine concerns about a particular planning application was firmly rejected.
Article 6 of the environmental impact assessment directive, as amended, requires member states to ensure that any request for development consent and any information gathered pursuant to Article 5 — environmental impact statement — are made available to the public within a reasonable time to give the public concerned the opportunity to express an opinion before the development consent is granted. Article 6 also specifies that the detailed arrangements for such information and consultation are a matter for individual member states. It is our contention that Ireland is within its rights to exercise its discretion in this way. The fee of €20 will not deter any person or body who has genuine concerns about a planning application.
On 22 July 2003, the European Commission issued a press release in which it stated its intention to refer the case to the European Court of Justice. No official communication has been received from the Commission to date. There are no proposals to amend the relevant regulations, which reflect an approach recently endorsed by the Oireachtas in the context of the Planning and Development Act 2000.
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