Thursday, 12 May 2005
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Kitt: I am delighted to welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, back to this House. We have resumed debate on the draft guidelines for planning authorities which were published in March 2004. The Minister has clearly explained that he favours these reasonable proposals on suitable sites for persons who are part of or contribute to rural communities. We all wish to accommodate these people. I was interested by a recent Teagasc survey carried out in County Galway which investigated issues in small rural areas, such as Glinsk in north Galway, Laurencetown in east Galway and Moyglass and Woodford in south Galway. Those surveyed expressed their wish to live in rural Ireland and the majority said they felt secure in rural areas.
In the Border, midlands and western region opportunities exist for increased housing development. The ideal situation would be for employment opportunities to accompany this development. The Minister referred to returning emigrants who might have the prospect of building a house. The necessity of commuting from much of rural Ireland to, for example, Galway city is a problem. Mr. Derek Davis recently spoke on the radio to welcome the rural housing guidelines and to remark on the sad films which recorded past scenes of emigration. The situation has improved in that people now travel by choice.
I was interested by the coverage of this matter by local newspapers in Galway. Early reactions to the Minister’s guidelines were positive. There were warnings against a planning free for all, with which all would agree. Galway County Council’s director of services said the council planned to carry out a review of the development plan and to comply with the Minister’s guidelines.
I do not accept the claim made in the Tuam Herald that planning permission would be more difficult to attain in Galway under the new guidelines. Galway councillors from every party have been proactive in discussing these issues. I met with them last Monday on the issue of planning. I was surprised to hear a report after the meeting that prior notice applications, which councillors formerly had the power to grant, would no longer be possible. I do not understand why this will be so. However, I also heard that every applicant to Galway County Council will be given a time extension in order to discuss planning applications further. This is a positive measure. Planning permission is granted at a high rate in County Galway but many applications are withdrawn at the last minute. People are told it is better to withdraw than be refused. The picture of the number of applications which are granted is therefore not complete.
I give due credit to Mr. Nick Killeen for his input on the matter of provision being made for situations in which there are specific health requirements. The Minister referred to design aspects, which are important. He gave the example of the unfair practice of banning brick in all cases. I do not see why certain types of windows are ruled out by planning authorities. I hope local authorities will investigate the issue of the 1.5 mile fringe around towns, which has caused difficulties in the past. Site distance appears a significant issue even on minor roads. Back lands could be nicely developed in towns, particularly where land is scarce.
The Minister noted the need to promote housing in smaller towns and rural villages. I have regularly raised this issue with local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. We need infrastructure in terms of water and sewerage schemes if cluster housing in towns or villages is to be developed. It is a good idea that contractors take responsibility for the installation of sewerage in a number of towns and villages. The Mutton Island scheme started off with €100 million. Sewerage schemes might be installed in most villages for €1.5 million to €2 million. Good value is to be obtained by developing a number of schemes simultaneously.
It is important to have a register of architects, particularly in light of recent discussions on “Prime Time” and “Morning Ireland”. The Minister referred to regional seminars on planning, but I hope he will go further than that. I ask him to set up a register for architects and planners because people who pay for housing design deserve better value for their money.
Mr. Norris: I am sorry that the debate must be brief, but I understand the Minister is under pressure. Some aspects of these guidelines are welcome, for example, the drawing of a distinction between urban and rural housing. The development needs of rural areas are based on the desire to sustain rural communities, which I understand completely. I also understand the desire to have one’s family close by and to develop on one’s own land.
I note that the guidelines set down certain restrictions such as the following: vehicle access should not endanger the public; waste water disposal systems must be adequate; siting and design must be taken into account; an integrated approach must be taken to the visual surroundings; and so on. However, in the context of the savage attacks on organisations like An Taisce, these guidelines sound like pious aspiration. I do not believe they will work or that they are intended to work. They are intended as a populist measure and will do damage to the country. This can be demonstrated by examining the facts.
One in four of the 290,000 housing units built since 1991 was an individual one-off house in a rural area, namely, a detached building with an individual septic tank. The counties with the highest percentages of such housing units are Galway, 63.1%, which is a very high figure; Monaghan, 54.1%; Roscommon, 52.5%; Cavan, 52.4%; and Leitrim, 52.3%. Such housing developments increase car use and car ownership. We already have car ownership levels that are far higher than in other countries.
The Irish Planning Institute has commented on current rural housing development and listed 16 concerns, of which I will mention but a few. The institute pointed to the potentially negative impact on important landscapes and rural amenities, although that is not likely to bother the Department that has given us the Tara motorway. Other concerns included the potential loss of distinctive rural conditions, cultural traditions and heritage in the built form and the detrimental impact of the proliferation of septic tanks. This latter point is a particularly important one to which I will return later. The institute went on to point out that one-off housing development leads to an almost exclusive reliance on the car for all journeys, ribbon development and dereliction in rural towns and villages.
It is clear that the rural housing guidelines have been produced without any assessment or consideration of the capacity of the Irish countryside to absorb this kind of housing development. One third of all applications for housing are for one-off houses in rural areas. This has increased from 17,572 in 2003 to 23,744 in 2004. We do not know what the figure will be for 2005, but we can presume it will be higher than last year.
There has been no examination or audit to determine what percentage of one-off houses constructed over the past decade have efficient waste water disposal systems, supplied and maintained in accordance with EU directive standards. Concern has been expressed that water treatment systems are installed in one-off houses and are not maintained. In some cases, the system installed by the builder is not a specified proprietary treatment system but an ordinary septic tank. The company that manufactures the proprietary treatment system becomes aware of a problem only when the customer complains about a fault. It sends an operative to carry out repairs and discovers that the wrong facility has been installed. We do not have an audit and we do not know what is going on in terms of waste water treatment. What we do know, however, is that we have extraordinarily polluted water tables.
The argument has been advanced that people should be allowed to build one-off houses in rural areas to sustain family links. While I can understand this argument from a human perspective, let us examine the facts. How many of these houses are actually built for family members? I draw the attention of the House to an article in The Irish Times of Wednesday, 15 December 2004.
The individual quoted in the article is not someone who can be dismissed as a crank, a do-gooder or a partisan member of An Taisce. Mr. Jim Harley is a senior planning official with Donegal County Council. He outlined 16 examples to councillors where planning permission was sought by local people who said the planned property was for their own use. However, the properties in question had never been owner-occupied and were put up for sale before building was completed. This is one instance of behaviour that is endemic throughout rural Ireland.
Members of this House have referred to this issue. They asked why farmers were not entitled to sell their sites, build houses and so on, in order to pay for their children to go to college. Let us be honest about it and not pretend that these houses are for families. They are built so that people can make money.
In another case, a letter was received from a local priest confirming that a planning application for three new homes was for three brothers, but all three houses are now for sale. The council dealt with these matters as bona fide applications and what else could it do? There was another case where an application was supported by a letter from a solicitor. One of the conditions of the planning permission was that the house would be for the owner’s use, but it was put on the market immediately. Mr. Harley said that such scenarios are making a mockery of the entire planning process. Councillor Francis Collins gave an example of somebody in Derry who made a successful planning application by using his driving licence as evidence of residence. The driving licence was from Donegal.
The article in The Irish Times was published before the guidelines from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government were released. Those guidelines are intended to ease restrictions in the planning process even further.
We must make progress but we should not fool ourselves. We must ensure we know about waste water disposal and have a complete audit. We need to ascertain the capacity of the countryside to absorb one-off housing developments. In those circumstances where families want to build in order to stay together, that is fine. However, people should not be allowed to engage in profiteering. We must keep a close eye on the situation because it is not right to destroy the tourist potential of the country in order to allow a few fat farmers to make money.
Ms White: I welcome the Minister and take the opportunity to accord him, his predecessor, Deputy Cullen, and the departmental officials due praise for publishing the sustainable rural housing guidelines. The guidelines contain a wide range of new measures for one-off rural housing. Subject to good planning practice, people with rural links will be favoured for planning, as well as any applicant seeking planning permission in an area that is suffering from population decline.
On Thursday last, I launched a book entitled Positive Planning for Rural Houses. I stated at the book launch that the sustainable rural housing guidelines are revolutionary, representing a major boost for the people and culture of rural Ireland and the countryside itself. The future of the Irish countryside is of great importance.
Systems are in place to ensure that planning meets recommendations concerning site selection, design, waste water disposal and road safety. The guidelines emphasise the key role good house siting and design can play in successfully integrating new development into the landscape. They also exhort local authorities to raise planning standards in a proactive manner.
Last week Clare County Council launched the Clare rural design and conservation awards scheme. The scheme comprises nine awards, including those for best urban house and best rural house. My point is that planning authorities, such as county councils, should have design competitions to raise housing design standards as well as ensuring the appropriateness of the setting which should blend in with the local environment.
Councillors should take a more active role in drawing up county development plans, instead of leaving it to planners. Local representatives are elected by the people to represent them concerning such planning issues, yet many councillors have admitted that they vote in favour of plans they had never seen. I would like to hear the Minister’s opinion on that point when he replies to the debate. Councillors must energise and educate themselves, study county development plans and be au fait with them so they can speak on behalf of their constituents.
Ms White: I know. I read the Minister’s speech. There is a perception that this concerns UK planning guidelines, but it is important to clear the air. Councillors and the general public should be made aware that UCD’s department of planning and environmental policy is sympathetic in this regard. They are not technical planners alone, but also have a sensitivity concerning the rural environment.
The sustainable rural housing guidelines are revolutionary. I do not agree with the pure attitudes expressed earlier by Senator Norris whose remarks were over the top. I support him on many issues but he has adopted a superior attitude to people living in rural areas.
We must have our own individual vision for the countryside when it comes to planning guidelines for the design of rural housing. We should not have to adopt planning design parameters from Europe, England or Wales. We did not have the Romans here and we do not have restricted planning guidelines. I was disappointed and surprised that Senator Norris adopted such a rigid attitude on this matter.
I praise the Irish Rural Dwellers Association for its proactive work in this area. It would be a good idea if a member of that association were appointed to An Bord Pleanála. It would be good for relations between activists and lay people who love the countryside and take these issues seriously. I congratulate the Minister who knows what he is talking about in this regard.
Mr. Feighan: I welcome the Minister to the House and I am glad he has been enlightened about rural housing by the previous speaker. Senator White raised a few serious issues but I wish to clarify one matter. While some Senators have displayed a superior attitude, Senator White may wish to clarify her remarks concerning county councillors.
Mr. Feighan: County councillors have worked with planners, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and county managers. In County Roscommon, they drew up a county development plan over two years. Councillors cannot be accused of not having participated in county development plans over the past five years. Neither can they be accused of having had no input. Councillors are elected by the people and I welcome their participation in county development plans. Senator White may not have meant to imply otherwise, but I wish to clarify that point for the record.
I am delighted by the new rural housing guidelines. In the past, many houses were closed up when people emigrated, so it is great to see people coming back to live in rural Ireland. I grew up over a shop and was not fully aware then how handy it was to have access to such facilities. When people move from urban to rural areas they often miss such facilities being close at hand. Planners sometimes regard a street as a place with footpaths and lights but in rural areas many farmers regard the road outside their farmhouses as a street.
While some guidelines are necessary, it is good to see that those pertaining to rural housing are being relaxed. Roscommon is a rural county where councillors have worked closely with planners, the county manager and the county engineer to draw up a sympathetic development plan for rural housing.
I do not intend this point to be taken as a serious criticism of the Minister, but the introduction of rural housing guidelines may undo some of the hard work we have done over the years in County Roscommon. In north Roscommon the Lough Key development plan was handled sensitively but it was very restrictive. We sought submissions over three years when planning to change that plan. It was the first time we had changed it in 20 years. County councillors worked to ensure that the baby was not thrown out with the bathwater. We did not try to loosen the conservation guidelines, but we did make the area more open to sustainable housing development, which is what we need. Nonetheless, I am concerned that the new housing guidelines may help counties such as Kildare, Meath and Wicklow — the Minister’s own constituency — where it is difficult to obtain planning. In counties such as Roscommon, Leitrim and Offaly, however, the guidelines may be more restrictive than elsewhere. I am somewhat concerned they might overrule our development plans.
We would all prefer if site distance were not an issue, but it is. People must comply with site distance regulations in the interests of road safety. In one area, people sought access to a national road from houses which were in a cul de sac. There were many serious accidents in that area because the residents were playing Russian roulette when leaving their homes. It was a numbers game and they were bound to be affected at some stage. I agree, therefore, with the planning authorities that site distance is a vital element in housing developments. It is in the interests of people living in such areas. Applicants should seek pre-planning meetings with planners in order to ease confusion and iron out difficulties.
I am disappointed it has taken so long to produce the new rural housing guidelines. I am not sure the phenomenal level of building in rural areas in the past five or six years is sustainable. My concern, therefore, is that the guidelines shut the door after the horse has bolted. Nevertheless, I welcome them and hope they will be put to good use.
Mr. Moylan: I welcome the Minister to the House and compliment him on the recent decisions he has taken as many people were waiting for them. Steps need to be taken to support the future development of rural communities. Many people believe houses should be built in back gardens or small areas in Dublin and larger towns. Farm families, on the other hand, many of whom have a large number of hectares of land, have been unable to build a farm for family members, including sons and daughters. Under the new guidelines, people who have roots in or links to rural areas will receive planning permission in certain areas. This will prevent an influx of people seeking to build holiday homes in many scenic areas without depriving local people of the opportunity to continue to live in their locality. An important aspect of the guidelines is that they facilitate people who have a commitment to their local area.
Each local authority currently has responsibility for defining those who are entitled to receive planning permission as part of rural communities. They include farmers, their sons and daughters, persons taking over the ownership or running of farms and those who have lived most of their lives in a particular rural area. The provision that people from rural areas and those who can make a commitment to the development of rural areas will be entitled to receive planning permission is a welcome development.
I hope new houses will continue to be designed and located to integrate well with their physical surroundings and will be compatible with the conservation of sensitive areas such as natural habitats. As the Minister indicated, special areas of conservation, special protected areas and natural heritage areas will not be allowed to be used as a reason for a blanket refusal of one-off housing applications. This is also welcome because some rural areas in which local people wish to build are covered under these categories.
The guidelines will help to revive areas and communities suffering persistent and substantial population decline. Everyone is in favour of preserving our ground water which is the envy of most countries and the guidelines will ensure steps are taken to protect our water and maintain the highest water standards. The Minister has taken a balanced approach to this issue in stipulating that every effort must be made to protect our underground water sources, on which people in rural areas depend.
Planning authorities must examine their development plans and policies so as to ensure they are in line with the new rural housing planning guidelines. Planners may argue it was easier to obtain planning permission prior to the changes but this is not the case as a glance at the figures on planning applications refusals in rural areas would show.
The purpose of planning should be to make the best use of available natural resources and guide us in making planning decisions as opposed to ruling out development with a view to creating a rural wilderness, an approach favoured by some planners. An Bord Pleanála rejected on appeal approximately three quarters of all planning applications approved by local authorities. When local authorities granted applications — we also had many difficulties in this respect — and third parties appealed An Bord Pleanála was found wanting in looking after the interests of rural areas.
The majority of rural dwellers are neither farmers nor directly depend on farmers. Although less than 8% of the population is engaged in farming, many people have ties to rural areas. The Minister, through his guidelines, will afford many of those who originally came from rural areas an opportunity to return to them.
Mr. Moylan: This would reduce the numbers seeking planning applications in rural areas and allow people to contribute to their communities at parish, village and town level by safeguarding the future of schools, and hurling, football and soccer teams. The Minister stated he will not insist that people move into social housing if local authorities continue to provide them only in larger towns. The onus is on us to ensure local councillors provide services in our towns and villages at an affordable price to facilitate those who have a right to build in rural areas in doing so. As one who has pushed for many years to get people to build houses in rural areas, I urge people not to rush out to try to buy sites in rural areas. If planners and public representatives ensure affordable sites are made available in towns and villages, people will not need to move to rural areas and problems such as the need for young families to acquire a second car will be avoided.
Senator Norris raised the issue of owner occupiers in rural areas. To ensure it will not be put on the market most local authorities impose a condition when granting a planning application that the house must be occupied for a period of three or five years. While it is possible that some houses are sold on, it is incorrect to claim this is the norm. In some cases people who build a house will have to sell it because they are required to move or change job but, in the main, their intention will have been to stay and make a contribution to the local area. If one or two people have to sell, that is fine.
I compliment the Minister on taking these issues on board. The ball is now in the court of the local authorities. Having been involved in drawing up several county development plans, I compliment councillors for doing an excellent job in this regard. Although they do their best, legislation has sometimes prevented them from enabling more people to build houses in rural areas. Following the Minister’s meetings with county managers, I hope they will instruct their directors of services to allow freedom to develop in rural areas.
Mr. J. Phelan: I welcome the Minister and the debate on the rural housing guidelines. While I share most of the sentiments expressed by Senators, I have serious reservations about Senator Norris’s comments. I am somewhat disappointed by the guidelines. Following their announcement, I contacted my local authority, Kilkenny County Council, of which I am a former member, and was informed by several staff in the planning department that the guidelines will not result in any significant changes in County Kilkenny with regard to rural planning. All of the proposals in the guidelines are already in the county development plan and, therefore, people in Kilkenny who are having difficulty securing planning permission are being given false hopes by the Minister. There are two areas where improvements have been made — returning emigrants and serious medical conditions — but these guidelines are not the panacea the Government presents them as. There is a long way to go to ensure that people who have a genuine affiliation with rural areas and who want to live in them are looked after.
Inconsistency in planning is the major bugbear I encounter as a politician. Looking at some of the buildings that get planning permission when others do not, it is hard to understand what is going on. I urge the Minister to use whatever influence he can to ensure planners in rural areas are consistent. Serious discrepancies exist between planners even within counties. I understand that when a county development plan is written, people interpret it differently but it is difficult to explain to people who have been refused planning permission that one planner reads the development plan in one way when a year earlier, another planner would have granted permission, or they would get permission if they were building the house in a different part of the county. That inconsistency infuriates people.
Senator Kitt mentioned issues planners have about the types of housing being built in rural areas. I have a case of a young family who secured permission to build in my parish in County Kilkenny and part of the permission was for the building of a house with a particular type of brick. They sought to have the house built with this brick but were told they could not have it on the house. Every other house in the vicinity that was built in the past five years has this brick on it. It is simply because the planner has changed and the new planner does not like brick. How do we explain to that couple that while their neighbours can build the houses they want, they must build a house to satisfy the planner that is at variance with the other houses in the area? That is an example of the inconsistency in the current planning process.
Another area of interest is population decline. County Kilkenny is perceived as being on the east coast and having done well in recent years. However, there are significant areas of rural County Kilkenny that have seen population decline between the last two censuses. Tullogher, Windgap, Galmoy and north Kilkenny outside Castlecomer have seen significant decline. Contrary to the prediction of Senator Norris and others of an explosion of rural housing, the population has decreased in many areas. I would encourage as many people as possible to ensure the schools stay open, the post offices are kept open and rural clubs and societies have a future because there are people living in their catchment areas.
I was disappointed with Senator Norris’s attitude. It reflects a certain outlook that exists mainly in Dublin where Dubliners feel they can go to rural areas on a Friday evening and look at the landscape, green fields and rolling hills and love it. They go back on a Sunday evening and that is it. There are people in rural area who must live there, make a living and support their families and they have legitimate issues with the planning authorities and process.
Senator Norris’s last comment about fat farmers selling sites was shocking. It was unworthy of him and he might reflect on what he said because it is far from the truth. I am the son of a farmer and many farmers I know would prefer not to sell a site. I have two brothers who are farmers and they would not dream of selling a site. They would not even sell a site to me if I wanted one. Some farmers find themselves in the position where they must sell a site to continue in agriculture. In certain circumstances, if a sustainable house is built, it is acceptable.
The other issue that crops up is that to build in a rural area, a person must be able to trace back five generations. I find it refreshing when new people come into rural areas. When a new family moves in it is a great thing and this barrier that has been erected that a person cannot build in a rural area unless he can trace back his family ancestry is wrong. New families are a breath of fresh air.
Senator Moylan was correct when he mentioned water. The problems with ground water are not a result of houses that will be built in rural areas from now on. All of those houses will have top quality water and sewerage treatment systems. The main problems lie with agriculture, which is being addressed in the nitrates directive, towns and villages that have either inadequate or no treatment system in place and older houses in rural areas that have faulty treatment systems. The new houses will not create problems for ground water because they have high-tech and up-to-date systems. I welcome the publication of the guidelines and I hope they lead to more consistency in the planning process.
As the Minister is aware, I have put forward a number of points on this matter that have been brought to my attention by councillors and members of the public. It was clear that there were concerns about the previous planning policy on rural housing. Action needed to be taken and I am glad to see the Minister and his Department have taken those views on board in the new guidelines.
Over 40% of people live in rural areas, a fact that has not been emphasised enough. For many years, these people have suffered discrimination as a result of planning policy. The policy clearly had a devastating effect on certain communities and in some cases planning bodies were not being reasonable on this issue. Everyone participating in this debate has heard of cases where the planners would not listen to reason.
These guidelines will protect rural communities, offering hope to those whose planning applications were blocked simply because the planning authorities did not like their applications or a catch-all policy was in operation that took little notice of individual cases. Despite the scaremongering, the guidelines will not lead to a repeat of ribbon development that had a damaging effect on parts of the countryside. Several years ago when travelling through the countryside, I saw some of these Southfork-type housing developments which were responsible for the emergence of this debate on these guidelines. They will ensure these types of blanket development will not recur. I never again want to see Southfork-type developments, no Member wants to see the environment destroyed by them and no county councillor, manager or planner wishes to become involved in them.
These guidelines will ensure that those people with ties to rural communities can continue to live in them. While the Government is committed to the policy of decentralisation, it does not simply apply to various gateways and hubtowns. Decentralisation needs to be examined from a more basic viewpoint. We want to see people continuing to live in the countryside, keeping our rich rural communities alive. We do not want to discourage them from doing so because they cannot get planning permission to build homes there. If that was the case, large tracts of the countryside might as well be designated as national parks to prevent anyone from living there. A thriving and friendly local community is as eye-catching and as important as any natural view. These are the communities upon which our country has been built and they are just as much a tourism attraction as various scenic sites. They must be cherished and, thankfully, these guidelines will help to achieve this.
I am pleased the provision regarding improvements to services for planning applications was introduced in the guidelines. To many people the planning process can seem a complete mystery, leaving them unsure of what is allowed and what is not. The number of planning applications that have been refused or dismissed due to simple errors would be reduced if there was more consultation between the planners and the public. I accept the Minister has encouraged local authorities to publish easy-to-read guidelines for planning.
Returning emigrants will be pleased with the guidelines. Many who spent their lives abroad have dreamed of returning to the areas in which they were raised. Blanket planning rules cannot be allowed to ruin that dream. There are also many planning cases involving health circumstances. I am glad this factor has been included in the final guidelines. How can any caring society force the disabled or ill to move away from relatives and friends who might care for them if they are prevented from building houses in their communities? Such prevention is not only wrong but verges on the idiotic. It can be argued that it discriminates against the disabled and those with serious illnesses.
As a former member of a local authority, I recall a case in the south Dublin area where a family with a disabled son wanted to sell a plot of land to a sibling so he could be close by. The parents were elderly and concerned how best they could cope with their son. Unsurprisingly, the sibling was refused planning permission. What was the sense of this decision? The area had no particular scenic attraction and was not in danger of being blighted by development. However, the planners did not listen. I hope these new guidelines will prevent such situations occurring again.
I welcome the Minister’s proposal for regional seminars to publicise and explain the guidelines. I accept that some county development plans will have to be redrafted. We must recognise the time local authority councillors put into preparing these plans. I have had the experience of spending hours on plans trying to achieve the right balance in our areas only to see the planners prevail on every occasion.
An Bord Pleanála has another agenda. I do not understand the board’s composition. Its regional planners often give positive opinions on planning applications only for the board to turn them down. I cannot understand how the process works. Will the Minister examine this issue?
Many fine geography graduates want to enrol for a masters degree in planning. However, they cannot get on the course because they are stopped by professionals in cahoots with the planners and local authorities. Will the Minister examine this? We need our planners to be empathetic to local needs but, as we have seen, they have their own ethos. In view of this I am concerned these guidelines will not be implemented.
Mr. Glynn: I commend the Minister’s guidelines on rural housing. It was an innovative move on his part and reflects the importance he attaches to rural housing and the conservation of rural communities. For the past 25 years I have grappled with this issue as a member of a local authority. I live in a town in a rural area and it has been frustrating to witness how people interpret the contribution made to county development plans by local authority members. All sides of the House will agree that every local authority member must tell local authority management and planners that they were elected to represent the ordinary Joe and Mary Citizen.
It is abhorrent that communities are dying. It is people who drive rural communities. Churches, post offices and schools are closing down in rural areas. Serious declines in populations have occurred in parts of County Westmeath, resulting in several GAA clubs having to amalgamate to put out a minor team. We can talk until the cows come home on this issue but a strong stance must be made by local authority councillors. They are the people on the frontline doing an excellent job for their people. As a former member of a local authority and a Member of the Oireachtas, I have had frustrating experiences with certain planners. At meetings, I have been so ignored as to have been made feel invisible. The Minister referred to courtesy and it is the case that many of these problems can be resolved by common sense and courtesy. Regrettably, in many cases those attributes are absent.
Another point raised ad nauseam is that one cannot build along a particular road because the surface is not good enough on a so-called bog road. The best people in this country were reared along country roads and bog roads. Not many of us came too far from the bog, given the natural features of our country. What is wrong with living in the country, or along a bog road?
Reference is regularly made to the great difficulties farmers currently encounter in getting assistance to run their farms. How can they get it? It is next to impossible even for a farmer’s son or daughter to get planning permission to build on the farmer’s land. Only last week I had two site visits. While the officials from Westmeath County Council were very helpful, in both cases the applications were refused even where a local need was clearly established. There is no logic to that.
The arrival of the new Minister, Deputy Roche, at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, is a breath of fresh air. He and his predecessors have said clearly that the planning permission area needs to be tackled. One can go to any part of Westmeath, Longford or any county and see the numbers of schools which have closed. There will never be rural development if there are no people, but how can there be people in an area if they cannot get planning permission to build their homes? The situation is ludicrous.
I agree with Senator Ormonde’s comments on An Bord Pleanála. It is the one body in this country which completely confuses me. I do not know what it is about. A local man in my home parish, a man advanced in years, bought a tract of land and someone in County Kildare, I think, objected to the man’s local authority granting him planning permission. An Bord Pleanála then overturned the permission. I do not understand that. There is no sense or logic involved.
Mr. Glynn: That is important. The Minister has a great interest in local authority members, as have Members of this House, for obvious reasons. The councillors of this country are the people who are driving development. They are helping developers and helping people trying to get their own houses. That is what rural development, sustainable development and growth are all about. I urge the Minister to keep up the good work. More power to his elbow.
Mr. Scanlon: I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about the sustainable rural housing guidelines for planning authorities put forward by the Minister, Deputy Roche, and I warmly welcome them. I have been calling for such guidelines for some time, from when I was a member of Sligo County Council and since my election to Seanad Éireann. Some of them will improve all aspects of the planning process, especially for members of the public who currently find it very confusing and full of red tape.
One of the continuous annoyances brought to my attention by constituents relates to pre-planning matters. Thankfully, the guidelines include a renewed and strengthened emphasis for improving the service from the planning authorities to applicants, with particular reference to improving the availability and responsiveness of pre-planning consultations. In fairness to the planners in County Sligo, they are quite good in that regard.
Another issue involves people making applications on behalf of the public. I am aware of two recent such applications where the person making them did the percolation test knowing that it had already failed. Despite this, the person made applications to the county council and charged the individual. Many people can ill afford €2,000 for such an application to be made, yet certain people submit them on their behalf knowing that they have to be refused.
The new guidelines will ensure that applicants and planning authorities can work together. This will allow for a much better situation for people applying to build. The local authorities will be able to examine the necessary planning criteria and then select the best available site for a house and the best design solution for a site. The type of consultation provided will save time and money and allow members of the public to work in conjunction with the local authority and the planning guidelines. This will work both ways, as members of the public who wish to build will be better able to understand the planning issues and regulations, while the planning officials will listen and respond to the concerns of the applicants.
I am pleased with the reference in the new guidelines to returning Irish emigrants, and the special emphasis the Minister has given to this area. These emigrants were born and lived for substantial parts of their lives in rural Ireland and left the country principally for reasons of work. It is my hope that the guidelines will ensure that emigrants who now wish to return to their home areas to reside near other family members, to work locally, to retire or to care for elderly members of their families, can do so.
I am also pleased that in drawing up the guidelines, the Minister took submissions from the relevant organisations who manage the development process in rural areas, such as planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála. I agree with the comments on the board made by previous speakers. I am aware of numerous applications where, sometimes for vexatious reasons, an objection has been made. That objection goes to An Bord Pleanála. One of its inspectors then investigates the application and the objection and sometimes finds in favour of granting the application. Nevertheless, a board which would probably not even be familiar with the rural town, never mind the area in which an application might have been granted, can overrule its own inspector’s advice and refuse the planning application. There is something badly wrong in such a situation and it needs to be addressed.
From letters in national newspapers one can see how certain people, mostly urban thinking people, feel about rural planning. There is no doubt that people in the countryside are protective of it, but it is important that people who want to can live where they were born, bred and reared, in their local areas where their families live. If we do not keep those people and allow them to build houses and live in their local areas, how can we sustain rural villages, local churches, schools or football teams? Thankfully, things are changing and because of good economic growth in this country, people can get jobs. They no longer have to go to England or America and can stay in their own communities. It is important that they are allowed to stay there and to build their homes.
I wish the Minister the best of luck. I compliment him and his officials for a job well done. I hope that the planners accept his proposals in the spirt he intends. It is all about interpretation, and the spirit in which the planners take on board the regulations.
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Roche): I thank all the Senators for contributing to what has been one of the fullest debates I have attended in this House. It was also thought-provoking because Senators understand the pulse of reality in rural Ireland, along with the wishes and concerns of councillors. Accordingly I considered it important that I sit through the debate and I am grateful that I could do so for most of it.
I will not have time to deal with all the issues but will deal with some of the key ones. Senators Bannon and O’Rourke made the point that many old buildings could be renovated and turned into homes or small-scale enterprises, such as the Gîtes de France holiday accommodation with which we are familiar. I accept that view. We can inject vibrant life into rural Ireland and reactivate beautiful, old vernacular architecture if we adopt a less prescriptive or ideological approach to planning. Work could be done in that respect.
Senator Bannon also spoke about the importance of pre-planning meetings. Many other speakers made the same point. Pre-planning meetings, courtesy, consideration and consistency are the issues that arose time and again during the debate. I have emphasised and will continue to emphasise those issues. Senator McCarthy warned of the dangers of being over-bureaucratic in our approach to planning while Senator O’Rourke spoke about the stress the planning system can put on people. That is a reality and I see it every week in my clinics. The stress and strain put on people by the planning system is outrageous. When it is accompanied by inconsistencies it is impossible to convince people that there is an even-handed planning system.
The same thoughts were evident in many of the contributions. The focus of the guidelines is to create more certainty about and to inject more balance and humanity into the planning system. The guidelines will also support Senator Moylan’s aspiration that we support and bolster rural communities. Indeed, that is the specific policy of this Government. The essence of a vibrant rural Ireland is a community of people. A Cabinet Minister with responsibility for rural Ireland has been appointed for the first time. This policy was also admirably outlined by Senator Ormonde.
Senators O’Rourke, McCarthy, Glynn and many others spoke about the need for good customer relations. They are absolutely correct. The only way the public service should operate is as a public service. On the first day I came into my Department I met with senior management. I wrote down four objectives and the first was better customer service. Senators on all sides of the House are aware that where there is good customer service there is good planning. Where there is bad customer service there is, inevitably, bad planning. This is a matter which my Department will focus on in the seminars it will hold throughout the country. It was also raised by Senators Bannon, Ormonde and many others. We will emphasise it in the planned meetings.
We will also emphasise the importance of pre-planning meetings. There is no sense in making it impossible for people to second guess what will happen and to produce the type of thing Senator Bannon showed me earlier. These concepts are plucked out of the air. There is no logic to it. Pre-planning meetings will help both sides, the planners and the applicants. I believe the seminars will have to emphasise the necessity of pre-planning, a more open approach and, above all, the dangers of an over-bureaucratic or prescriptive form of planning. The planning system must deal with the problems and issues that arise in the real world and in the real world people do not fit into nice, neat pigeonholes. There must be flexibility.
Senator Kitt referred to the Tuam Herald. I was a little mystified as the writer must not have been as familiar with the guidelines as he or she should have been before issuing an opinion. These guidelines will create more certainty and that will make planning easier. Senator Kitt also mentioned changes made in Galway. The guidelines are not an à la carte issue. They are statutory and I expect councils to observe them. Where they do not, I will deal with it.
Two other important issues dealing with the pre-planning process were mentioned. Senator Bradford, in a good contribution, spoke about the excellent work done in Cork where the council has provided advice on appropriate design. The Senator is correct that this type of proactive approach should be operated elsewhere. Senator White mentioned the design competition in County Clare. A number of counties are utilising design competitions and I welcome and support that approach.
A number of Senators mentioned the problem of poorly-constructed planning applications. Senator Scanlan referred to agents submitting no-hope applications, where there is no chance of success. He is correct.
Mr. Roche: This is improper and dishonest. In fact, Senator McCarthy made the same point when he spoke about the rogue agents who blame local council planners for the problems that arise from poorly or incompetently prepared planning applications. The unfortunate clients are, as Senator O’Rourke said, then advised to go to their local representative. These same people will then talk about corruption in the planning system. It is their approach which is corrupting the planning system and causing difficulties. Young people who can ill afford it are going through multiple planning applications because of this incompetence. My Department is examining ways of addressing the problem of people who have no planning skills and little training passing themselves off as planning consultants, planning specialists or even architects. That issue must be tackled.
Senators Glynn, Paddy Burke and others raised the issue of planning inconsistency. I agree that inconsistency in the planning system is a scourge. It erodes and destroys public confidence. With the guidelines in place there is no reason for the gross inconsistencies we have seen all too frequently in the past. There is a special responsibility on county managers in this regard. They are the chief planners in each planning area. There is no excuse for inconsistency between a planning application in one field and a planning application in the other.
I gave a speech in UCD recently on the inauguration of the new professor of planning programme. I held up a planning application which had been brought to my attention that morning by somebody from outside my constituency. In it a planner had stipulated that a wood frame building could not be built on one side of the road but on the other side of the road the same planner had given planning permission for five wood frame buildings. That is not only inconsistent but it is ultra vires. The planning system is blind as regards the choice between the different systems as long as they meet the requirements. That type of inconsistency brings the system into disrepute.
Senator Brennan mentioned the proposed national application form and made the valid point that local circumstances must be taken into account. The new form is in two parts and the second part will encompass the arrangements foreseen in the Senator’s contribution. A number of other Senators mentioned improved efficiency in customer service in the planning system in general. I am particularly anxious that there be more efficiency in planning.
The type of inefficiency public representatives see daily is unacceptable. One goes to the local authority only to be told that the file cannot be found or that documents are missing from the file. That is unacceptable in this day and age when an e-government system is being rolled out. The implementation of a full on-line e-planning system — some local authorities are excellent, others are mediocre and some are bad — will utilise modern technology to lift the burden, which undoubtedly exists, on planners and on applicants. E-planning will be helpful in creating a transparent system which everybody can accept.
Senator Ulick Burke referred to Deputy Cullen’s draft planning guidelines last year and questioned if they had any impact. Interestingly, Senator John Paul Phelan, who mentioned the inconsistency, referred to the views of a county council planner in Kilkenny which suggested that the guidelines did have an impact. I agree with Senator Ormonde that the previous Minister, Deputy Cullen, deserves great credit for introducing the first draft guidelines last year. It would be odd if a council such as Kilkenny County Council, which has adopted its development plan, did not incorporate the draft guidelines. I hope they are in the plans.
Senator Ulick Burke also referred to the slipshod work done by agents and I agree with him in that regard. Senator Ormonde referred to the needs of families with special health or disability requirements and the needs of emigrants. I am pleased to have been in position to include special assistance for families with disabilities. It would be the wish of every Senator who is in touch with reality that it should be done.
I also said in my opening remarks that I was pleased to do something for emigrants. People left this country in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when there were no jobs here. It was their remittances that kept this country going. We must open our arms and welcome them.
I was particularly struck by the tour de force contribution of Senator Ó Murchú. He posed an interesting rhetorical question to those who have been most trenchant in their objection to the guidelines. He asked whether many of the great houses which dot the countryside such as Powerscourt, Carton and Fota would have been given planning permission if existing planning arrangements were in force when they were built. How right he is.
Mr. Roche: It is extraordinary if one thinks about it. The very same people who are getting themselves into a lather of sweat about one-off guidelines and the concept of the hoi polloi living in rural Ireland are those who would want to protect the great houses. I want to protect the great houses. I have a good track record in that regard but I also want to give an even break to people who have come from, live in and who can contribute to rural areas.
I do not agree with my good friend, Senator Norris. Not for the first time we are on different sides of the argument. The idea that there is something wrong with counties like Roscommon, Monaghan, Donegal or Galway having a high proportion of one-off houses suggests the Senator should pay a few more trips to rural Ireland. The reality is that the proportion of one-off houses is closely related to the distribution of population. In my opening contribution I referred to an interesting study which showed that more one-off planning permissions were granted in the Six Counties than in England, Scotland and Wales together because that is the way we are; we are Irish and we do not, and cannot, all live in towns or cities.
Senator Norris also made the point that it was dreadful to build one-off houses because it requires people to drive cars. He is not the only person who has made that point. I had a go at the Green Party recently in this regard. People who live in towns also drive cars. Most people aspire to having a car and there is no crime in having one. In this city where public transport choices are available people still prefer to use cars.
Reference was made by Senator Norris to an article by a Donegal County Council planner. Those views are most interesting but I am not familiar with the article so I will not say too much about it. I have no doubt Senator Norris was absolutely punctilious and correct in the way he cited the reference but in other councils the difficulty to which he adverted has been resolved by providing residency requirements. Anybody who has been a councillor knows full well that one can put a residency requirement, which is a burden, in planning permissions. It is not for me to comment on the particular case as I have not read it.
Senator Feighan spoke of the superior attitude taken to councillors. He was most unfair to Senator White. We all accept that councillors do their best and work hard but we would equally accept that perfection is not always attained. He was concerned the guidelines might be abused in some planning departments. I can assure him the guidelines specifically recognise the different requirements of an area which has been depopulated, which is what he was talking about, and areas which are close to urban centres.
A number of Senators referred to An Bord Pleanála. We cannot adopt an à la carte approach to it. I have frequently been critical of the board but we cannot adopt the approach that when it makes a decision we like, it is great but when we do not like its decision, it is appalling. That is at the core of the current debate about the M3. Many of the people who would be writing to The Irish Times about me if I interfered with An Bord Pleanála, were in fact advising in the past 48 hours that that is exactly what I should do. I spoke recently to the chairperson of An Bord Pleanála. The board is making a great effort. It is aware that in the past decisions were made and processes were adopted but if one looks at its performance it is doing its best.
Senator White and another speaker suggested that the Irish Rural Dwellers Association should become a nominating body to An Bord Pleanála. I am sympathetic to that view. I told the association that if it makes a submission I would give serious consideration to it.
I reiterate the Government’s commitment to sustainable development in rural Ireland. The people of rural Ireland are its heart. If we drive the people out and put them all towns, high rise buildings and whatever, we will not do this country any service. The new guidelines reflect this and seek to promote the viability of rural communities. The guidelines bring greater clarity for planners and applicants alike. They should help to ensure that planning inconsistencies and rigidities in rural Ireland are eliminated.
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