Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government - VFM No. 41 - Planning Appeals.

Ms M. Moylan (Assistant Secretary, Planning and Heritage Division, Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government), Mr. J. O'Connor (Chairperson, An Bord Pleanála), and Mr. M. Smith (National Chairman, An Taisce), called and examined.

We are dealing with submissions from An Bord Pleanála and An Taisce. I welcome the witnesses to the meeting during which they and members should ensure all mobile telephones are switched off.

The attention of members and witnesses is drawn to the fact that, as and from 2 August 1998, section 10 of the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Act 1997 grants certain rights to persons identified in the course of the committee's proceedings. These rights include the right to give evidence; the right to produce or send documents to the committee; the right to appear before the committee, either in person or through a representative; the right to make a written and oral submission; the right to request the committee to direct the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents, and the right to cross-examine witnesses. For most persons, these rights may be exercised only with the consent of the committee. Persons invited to appear before the committee are made aware of these rights and any person identified in the course of proceedings who is not present may have to be made aware of them and provided with a transcript of the relevant part of the committee's proceedings if the committee considers it appropriate in the interests of justice.

Notwithstanding this provision in legislation, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. They are also reminded of the provision in Standing Order 156, that the committee should refrain from inquiring into the policy or policies of the Government or a Minister of the Government, or the merits or objectives of such policy or policies.

I welcome the delegations and ask Mr. John O'Connor, chairman of An Bord Pleanála, to introduce his officials.

Thank you, Chairman. I am accompanied by Mr. Brian Hunt, deputy chairperson, and Mr. Paul Mullally, chief officer.

Will the assistant secretary of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government please introduce her officials?

Thank you, Chairman. I am accompanied by Mr. Kevin Ring, principal officer, planning policy section, and Mr. John Martin, principal planning adviser.

Will Mr. Michael Smith, chairman of An Taisce, please introduce his officials?

Thank you, Chairman. I am accompanied by Mr. Ian Lumley, national heritage officer.

Will Mr. Ivan Grimes, assistant principal, Department of Finance, please introduce his officials?

Mr. Ivan Grimes

Thank you, Chairman. I am accompanied by Mr. Paddy Howard, principal officer, OMT division.

I ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to introduce the report, VFM No. 41 - Planning Appeals.

Mr. John Purcell

Thank you, Chairman. The report before the committee records the results of an examination carried out by my staff into the management of the planning appeals system by An Bord Pleanála and the measures in place to evaluate its effectiveness. I remind members that the previous Committee of Public Accounts touched on some aspects of the system covered by the report when it examined the board's accounts at its meeting on 11 December 2001 when representatives of An Taisce were also in attendance. As the report was published last July, some matters have since moved on as I am sure will emerge in the course of the examination this morning.

The report established that approximately 7% of all planning decisions were appealed each year and that there was a greater tendency to challenge refusals, with 29% of all applications refused by the planning authorities coming before the board. Only 4% of planning decisions are appealed when granted.

As a result of the strong growth in the volume of planning decisions, the board experienced a doubling of the number of appeals received between 1994 and 2000 and found it difficult to keep abreast of the increasing workload. This is reflected in the number of cases in hand at the end of 2000 - 2,460 as against 640 at the end of 1994. High staff turnover and the scarcity of suitably qualified professional staff contributed significantly to increased backlogs and delays in processing cases.

There also appeared to be a reduction in the number of cases being processed by the board's inspectors. The board has put this down to the fact that the more straightforward cases are generally dealt with by consultant planners who, incidentally, are now involved in almost half of the appeals processed, while those handled by in-house professional staff tend to be more complex and time consuming. I understand that over the last year or so there has been a reduction in the number of appeals and that this has enabled the board to improve its performance relative to time targets and the backlog.

Of the appeals finalised in 2000, the year on which the report concentrates, over 27% of planning permissions were reversed outright, while a further 31% had the conditions attaching to permission varied. This means that in 42% of cases the original planning decision was upheld in its entirety.

Some planning authorities were considerably above or below the national norms, and while factors such as property values and urbanisation would be expected to have an impact, the report suggests it might be useful to determine the reasons for high overturn rates in certain planning authorities when these factors are discounted. This could help the board to contribute to adjustments in learning on the part of the planning authorities by isolating the main causes of overturns of original decisions and relaying the trends and patterns to the authorities.

The report also concludes that the Department could do more with the information provided for it to inform policy decisions and management of the planning process generally. It suggests that divergences between the board's inspectors' recommendations and board decisions, which occur in approximately 10% of cases, should be analysed with a view to providing feedback for the inspectors and also to promote consistency within the board.

In summary, the board can be considered to be doing a good job. Its integrity, vital to a successful planning appeals system, is seen to be above reproach. Its procedures are regarded as being fair and impartial and its professionalism is widely respected. However, as the report suggests, there is still some work to be done in improving the timeliness of decisions, securing efficiency gains and contributing to better management of the planning process generally.

Before asking Mr. O'Connor to make his opening statement, I welcome members of the parliamentary delegation from Bosnia Herzegovina who are visiting Ireland on a two week information gathering mission on parliamentary procedures. The committee extends its best wishes to the delegation. I hope its members are enjoying their visit to Ireland. I now call Mr. O'Connor.

Thank you, Chairman. In our appearance before the previous Committee of Public Accounts we provided detailed information on the trends affecting the work of the board. For the benefit of members, I have circulated some details updating these trends, on developments since then and in response to the Comptroller and Auditor General's VFM report.

I will begin with the workload of the board to bring the committee up to date with what is happening. In 2001 the intake of appeals peaked at 5,422, the highest on record. Last year the number fell by 15% to 4,562, but this year the trend has increased, with the result that there will be probably an increase. It is difficult to estimate its size in percentage terms.

The output of the board has been increasing. Up to 2002, notwithstanding the continued increase, it was still trailing the intake. However, there was a big change in 2002 as a result of the various measures the board took to try to deal with the backlog that had built up. In 2001 output increased by 5.5% but was still behind the intake. In 2002 the output of cases determined by the board increased to almost 5,900, by far the highest number recorded since its establishment. Together with the drop in the intake, this resulted in a complete turnaround in trends over previous years. Therefore, the number of cases in hand in the board decreased very significantly in 2002. As a result, there has been a considerable improvement in terms of performance vis-à-vis time objectives which I am glad to say has continued into 2003. There are detailed figures before the committee which show that last month we were determining almost 80% of cases within the statutory objective period. The average time to dispose of cases was 15.8 weeks. As members will know, the statutory objective period is 18 weeks. Our strategic target is to meet this target in 90% of cases. We are continuing our efforts in this regard.

As I said in my last appearance before the committee, the board has taken every conceivable measure to find ways to deal with the backlog of cases and our efforts have been successful. One of the additional measures we have taken has been to widen further the pool of planners available for recruitment by the board by allowing them to be headquartered outside Dublin. Another change made since previous discussions has been the assumption by the board of functions relating to the approval of infrastructural projects. This has become a significant feature of its work as major public infrastructural projects being carried out by local authorities on a public private partnership basis must be approved by the board under the EIS or the compulsory purchase order procedure.

Generally, the board is satisfied that it has carried out its new functions effectively and efficiently. There is no backlog of cases in these areas. In fact, there are only four major road schemes in hand, though five are referred to here, which may come as a surprise given the reports which appear in the media from time to time.

I assure the committee that the board attaches considerable importance to infrastructural projects and that there is a separate system for dealing with them. They are not caught up in the day-to-day appeal work handled under separate structures. Within the planning appeal structure we have a system to prioritise major infrastructural projects such as large housing schemes, energy and water projects, waste developments and major employment generating projects. Naturally, as such cases involve larger projects, they are more complex, difficult and time consuming. We have a special system to track them to ensure they are dealt with as quickly as possible. We have a dedicated team of inspectors to deal with larger housing schemes to ensure there are no bottlenecks. We have improved our performance generally in regard to these priority projects and are certainly not complacent. There is room for further improvement. We are engaged in the examination of further measures which can be taken to ensure larger cases are processed in the shortest possible time.

The Planning and Development Act 2000 effected major changes to the planning system. The most important relating to appeals is the requirement that persons wishing to make third party appeals must have made a submission to the planning authority during the currency of the planning application at local stage to establish a right of appeal. It is a little too early to say what the effect of these changes will be but the figures we have indicate they have reduced the number of third party appeals. To a greater extent, they have invalidated many of the appeals we receive as third party appellants have not made submissions to the planning authority.

At our last meeting with the Committee of Public Accounts we indicated that the board was carrying out a major review of its structures and organisation to ensure we put in place procedures which would enable us to discharge our functions as efficiently as possible. A draft report was submitted to us by independent consultants which recommended radical changes to the structures and procedures of the board. It has been the subject of observations by management and staff and we hope to finalise it soon. If the committee is wondering why it has taken so long, the answer is that we have taken a conscious decision that our priority has to be to deal with the backlog and get arrears and delays under control. We hope to finalise the future structure of the board later this year.

The VFM report drew attention to many qualitative issues about the analysis of decisions. Since its submission, the board and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government have established a joint working group to consider the issues raised, many of which have a wider impact on the planning system than on the board. Two of the report's conclusions related to the rate of planning authority decisions reversed by the board. The board has published a table outlining, in relation to each local authority, the rate at which its decisions are appealed and the rate at which those decisions are reversed. Such tables will continue to be published which should aid analysis of the performance of individual local authorities.

The VFM report also referred to the need for a system to assess the quality of board decisions and the need for an analysis of the reasons board decisions did not, at times, accord with an inspector's recommendations. The board has been very conscious of the need for quality in its decisions. I thank the Comptroller and Auditor General for his comments on the professionalism with which we carry out our duties. The board has been conscious that its decisions must stand up to scrutiny from any quarter. We have many procedures in place to ensure we give decisions of the best possible quality, some of which I have listed in the briefing material. We regard consistency as integral to quality.

In practically all cases the board can avail of a professional planning report before it makes its decision. It has 12 members and normally operates on the basis that the statutory quota for a meeting is three members. Most decisions are made at meetings attended by three members who work according to a rotation system. Strong contacts are maintained by board members. Issues of general application which arise from time to time are discussed regularly among all board members and cases of particular significance due to size or the issues involved are referred to larger or full board meetings.

To assist in the better analysis of appeal outcomes, the board has been undertaking a number of detailed studies of three prominent categories. We decided initially to examine wind farms, telecommunications masts and one-off rural houses which are the subject of a substantial number of appeals. We hope to publish the results of these studies in our 2002 annual report. In the meantime some preliminary results in relation to two matters are available and can be communicated to the committee.

In the case of telecommunications masts, third party appeals against planning authority decisions have only a 10% success rate, well below the average, while first party appeals against planning authority decisions to refuse have a 44% success rate. The pattern is somewhat different in the case of wind farms in respect of which 25% of first party appeals against refusals were successful. Only 33% of third party appeals were successful.

In relation to overturning an inspector's recommendation, the traditional pattern continues to be maintained with a success rate of around 10%. We agree with the Comptroller and Auditor General that the matter may merit more detailed examination. The three studies we are undertaking will cover issues such as this. We will continue to analyse the inspectors' reasons. Each inspector gets a copy of the board's decision and its reason for overturning the report. There is nothing secret about it; it is in the file where the applicants or appellants can read it. In fact, with cases being decided under the 2000 Act, the reason the board disagreed with the inspector in the granting or refusal of permission is given in the board order.

On the wider issue of the quality of board decisions, in principle, the board would have no difficulty with, and would welcome, any assessment of the quality of its decisions. We believe it will stand up to scrutiny from any source. However, we must be careful that such a system does not lead to the reopening of decided cases, uncertainty about the finality of board determinations or involve undue diversion of the board's scarce resources.

Planning authority decisions can be measured by reference to the outcome of appeals - one yardstick for measuring the quality of local authority decisions. Unfortunately, since the board is the final arbiter, there is no similar ready yardstick available to it. It is difficult, therefore, to devise a system of quality assessment of its decisions, just as it would be difficult to devise a system of quality assessment of court decisions. While it is a difficult issue, we should not give up on it. There are possible approaches. The joint working group between the Department and the board is looking at this in considerable detail and we are looking forward to the recommendations it might make in this regard.

The final issue, mentioned by the Comptroller and Auditor General, is the number of reports being produced by board inspectors, in respect of which there has been a downward trend in recent years. To be fair, it is wrong to view this too simplistically because a number of factors bear heavily on it, one of which is the increased scale and complexity of the work. There is no doubt that the number of large and contentious developments coming before the board has increased substantially. A number of housing schemes are before it. They do not involve hundreds of houses, which would have been regarded as a large scheme a few years ago, but thousands. There are waste projects, which are difficult, and many quarry projects. There are also wind farm projects. These developments require a large input from inspectors which is bound to affect the number of reports an inspector can carry out over a given period.

Another fact mentioned by the Comptroller and Auditor General was that a large number, almost 50%, of the simpler cases in 2002 - the number has changed this year - were carried out by outside consultants, not the board's inspectorate. The ongoing problem of a high turnover of inspectors, unfortunately, tends to affect productivity. A final factor which should be mentioned, although it should not be overplayed, is that new legislation also has some effect on the output of inspectors while they get up to speed with it.

For the past year or so we have had in place a system of close monitoring of inspectors' work performance and reporting carried out by the planning officer and deputy planning officers. We are hoping this can ensure we get the maximum output from inspectors. We are also looking at other measures such as a greater degree of standardisation of reports, how to streamline oral hearings and so forth, which would also contribute to better output from inspectors.

That summarises the position. I hope I did not exceed my time.

Thank you. Does Ms Moylan wish to make a brief opening statement?

Thank you, Chairman. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government welcomes the report on the value for money examination of the planning appeals system. As the report notes, the Department's role is to ensure the necessary legislation and planning policy guidelines are in place to deliver an effective and efficient planning system. It is important that it is capable of delivering the scale of development envisaged in the national spatial strategy over the next two decades while protecting our natural and built heritage.

The planning system is directly operated by the planning authorities and the board. In recent years the emphasis in the Department has been on developing a modern, comprehensive legislative code to underpin the system. This was achieved with the passage of the Planning and Development Act 2000 and the making of comprehensive consolidated regulations in 2001 which regulations came into force in March last year.

In tandem with the development of the code, the Department has also assigned significant resources to the finalisation of the national spatial strategy which was published late last year. The strategy sets out a blueprint for the development of the country and the achievement of more balanced regional development. Importantly, it provides a clear context for local authority development plans. In recent years the Department has been more proactively engaged in producing policy guidelines. This year it will amend a number of guidelines, for example, on wind farms, and issue new guidelines on the drawing up of development plans, probably the keystone to a proper planning system. It will also issue guidelines on rural housing.

With these measures in place, the priority for the Department is to put procedures in place for the ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the performance of planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála. In this context, the Department welcomes the detailed analysis and recommendations in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report as a significant input to this work. In its general conclusions on the effectiveness of the planning system, the report notes that a low level, 3%, of planning decisions are overturned or varied as a result of the appeal process. It goes on to state that this gives reasonable assurance that planning authority decision-making is generally effective in striking a consistent balance between the interests of developers and other interests.

The report notes, however, that there is a considerable variation between individual planning authorities in the rate of overturn of decisions on appeal and suggests that identifying and investigating such variations would point to areas where action could be taken by the board and/or the Department to ensure greater consistency in planning authority decision-making. Some of the issues raised in the report are matters for consideration by the Department, others are matters for the board and some are for joint consideration. To ensure a co-ordinated approach, we have established a joint working group to develop measures to deal with the issues highlighted in the report. We expect good outcomes from this. We also have structures in place for ongoing liaison with local authorities through the City and County Managers Association.

I will briefly summarise the main issues with which we are dealing. The key to proper analysis of trends and their underlying causes is the compilation of relevant data. The Department is reviewing its current collection of statistics to be in a better position to carry out the type of analyses suggested in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. We are linking this review to work on e-planning. The new planning information systems being introduced among planning authorities in co-operation with the local government computer services board will enable more, if not all, the necessary statistics to be captured automatically during the processing of applications and appeals. We are reviewing how the board analyses appeal data such as by category of development. This will enable us to analyse better the trends and see what measures should be taken. The board is addressing internal quality control issues, which the Department welcomes, including the increased importance being given to inspectorate training, reviews of inspectors' reports and so forth.

With regard to the performance of the board, the main cause of complaint in recent years has been the time to reach decisions. This has been a matter of concern to the Department and the board has been given significant additional staff and financial resources to tackle the issue. In fact, there has been an increase of more than 50 in the number of staff since 1997, bringing the board's complement to 138. In addition, over the same period the number of board members has doubled from six to 12. As the Chairman said, the board has advised the Department that the backlog of appeals has been eliminated. With the elimination of the backlog, the Department will work with the board to ensure it can achieve its strategic target of giving decisions within 18 weeks.

Mr. Smith

It is a pleasure to be here. I hope we can eliminate some of the misconceptions about An Taisce and persuade the committee that we contribute to quality of life and the economy and have a positive vision for its development in a balanced and sustainable way. We also hope to persuade it that the planning system represents good value for money.

An Taisce is Ireland's oldest and largest wide-ranging environmental organisation. We are a charity founded in 1948 by, among others, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh and Seán MacBride. We have three roles: property ownership, project management and monitoring of planning and other applications that affect the environment. We are the national trust for Ireland, which means that we own 16 properties in trust for the people, which include, for example, 6,500 acres in County Donegal, Kanturk Castle and the Boyne Canal, all of which we run without core Government support and the Europe-wide regime of tax concessions for donors of properties to national trusts.

We also run projects in partnership with local government, businesses and various European agencies. For example, we run the entire national blue flag beach monitoring scheme, the national green schools campaign which operates in almost 50% of schools, the national spring clean campaign, in which over 200,000 people have taken part in the last month, the Irish Business Against Litter all-Ireland litter league campaign, the white flag for leisure facilities programme and other programmes, all for a paltry budget of around £350,000 in 2001.

As regards our planning and environmental functions, An Taisce has an operating budget for all its planning and environmental monitoring functions of around €160,000 annually which it uses in pursuit of the prescribed role that the Government gave us. It tries to ensure Government and EU environmental policies are implemented in a country where the Government seems reluctant to implement them in many cases. It wins or achieves a satisfactory result in about 90% of its appeals with An Bord Pleanála, precisely because it usually follows Government policy. It is An Bord Pleanála's function also to follow Government policy.

An Taisce writes several thousand submissions annually in the planning process but it is important to emphasise that we do not make decisions. We are a statutory consultee only. We appeal a small number of schemes annually - about 300 in 2002 - a pertinent statistic. Anyone lodging a planning application has about a one in 250 chance of having that scheme appealed by An Taisce to An Bord Pleanála.

We welcome the report from the Comptroller and Auditor General and endorse its general conclusions regarding the effectiveness of An Bord Pleanála, at least in so far as we deal with it. We also endorse the need for monitoring of planning decisions quality, the main point we have to make about the report. We also note that the report, and the press release which accompanied it, stated that decision-making by certain planning authorities merited deeper examination. It is a pity that it was not extended to address the quality of planning decisions and the fact that the general public was not consulted about its feelings on the issue.

The report notes that An Bord Pleanála does not report to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on matters which come to its attention relating to the quality of planning authority decisions. It suggests, creditably, that this deficit should be redressed. An Taisce believes this must be done single-mindedly and systematically, addressing all factors, including the impact of Government policy and precise recommendations. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should address issues of quality in planning decisions by talking to all stakeholders, especially focus groups of the general public. An Taisce believes that if we are serious about promoting quality of life, then quality, not just quantity, of development must be assessed and the general public, not just developers and Government, should be involved in the debate.

The report highlights again that most appeals are taken by the developer or landowner, not by third parties such as environmentalists and so on. For example, the national average rate of appeal of refusals is 29%. The national average rate of appeal of permissions by third parties such as environmentalists and so on is only 4.4%, of which only 5% are confirmed on appeal. In other words, third party appeals vary or overturn the decision in 95% of cases. In other words, An Bord Pleanála agrees that the appeal was to some extent worthwhile in these cases.

Overall, we consider that the report is a small but significant step towards professionalising the assessment of planning in a rapidly changing Ireland, where planning, for good or ill, determines a great deal about quality of life.

I have one brief question on the board's use of planning consultants. What percentage of appeals were processed by consultants in 2001 and 2002?

In 2002 the number peaked at just under 50%. Generally, smaller cases were handled by what we would call fee-per-case inspectors, professional planners to whom we paid a fee to make a report on a case for decision by the board. We had another category of consultant for larger cases - private consultancy firms which we engaged on a contract basis - but their activities were much more limited in terms of numbers.

In 2002 the figure approached 50% in respect of the total number of reports produced by consultants but that was an exceptional year. In 2003, with the backlog cleared, the situation has changed. We have finished with private consultancy firms and the degree of reliance on fee-per-case inspectors has been considerably reduced.

What was the average fee paid to fee-per-case consultants in 2001 and 2002?

The fee-per-case is about €416. That is the going rate.

How much did the board pay to consultants in total for this service in 2001 and 2002?

Perhaps I can come back to that question when I ascertain whether I have the information.

On the employment of so many fee-per-case planning consultants, does the board investigate potential conflicts of interest before it assigns a particular case?

No, the board has a very strict code of conduct. Everybody involved in an appeal, including staff, consultants and members, must observe a statutory code of conduct. In every case, an outside consultant must make a specific declaration on file that there is no conflict of interest. Obviously, this is a matter about which we are very concerned because if there was a sniff of a suggestion that outside consultants were in some way compromised or had a conflict of interest, it would be very damaging to the integrity of the board and its procedures. Mercifully, I can say that so far nobody has made any such allegation about the consultants we have employed.

Do you have a figure yet for the total amount paid to consultants?

The total amount paid to all consultants - it includes a small amount paid to management consultants - was €2.4 million in 2002. We paid €1.6 million in 2001. I am told the figure for 2002 is provisional pending audit.

We are talking about a figure of €4 million over two years.

I join the Comptroller and Auditor General in complimenting Mr. O'Connor and An Bord Pleanála, particularly on their integrity which has never been questioned. I will have questions about timescales and so on.

Mr. O'Connor, the Comptroller and Auditor General and Ms Moylan referred to the need for consistency in planning decisions across local authorities and the board. It seems the making of planning decisions is an inexact science. Would Mr. O'Connor agree with this? Some of the decisions made at local level seem to be very subjective, made perhaps at the whim of a planner. I could cite many examples but will not delay the meeting.

The other factor that comes into play locally is what I would call architectural features - the tone of the brick and the amount of glazing used, which I would have thought would be outside the remit of a planner. Taken with the 10% conflict rate between the board's inspectors, to whom I will return, and the board, does Mr. O'Connor believe there is a difficulty in terms of planning being an exact science?

Planning is not an exact science, as is recognised by everybody, but we have to make it as close to an objective exercise as we can. That is the reason the basic tool by which we judge planning applications is the development plan. We also have to take account of national policies and several other factors. What might appear to somebody to be inconsistent decisions between two counties may be due to different policy approaches in regard to development objectives in their respective plans. That could be the reason. The subjectivity and interpretation of development plans are difficult issues because many of the objectives written into them are not crystal clear, as no doubt the Deputy will appreciate.

That is the reason it is so necessary to have a central appeal board and an appeal mechanism was part of the planning process from the start. We try to be as consistent as possible but any analysis will show that the board gives greater weight to national policies, as distinct from local authorities which focus on local conditions. There is an obligation under planning legislation which has been strengthened with the new Act to bring into the picture national policies which can give rise to many inconsistencies where local authorities differ on how far they should go with national policies.

The Deputy mentioned architectural features. I agree that planners cannot design good architecture, the best they can do is prevent bad architecture but its quality does relate to the quality of the urban environment being created. We have all seen houses in rural areas that do not fit in. While this is not the primary function of planning, it is taken into account. Land use is the primary function.

On the question of differences in decisions between the inspectors and the board, from memory, about 10% were reversed.

Are inspectors qualified town planners?

They are all professionally qualified town planners. That is a requirement. Even the consultants we bring in have to be professionally qualified. Inspectors have to have a minimum of four years relevant experience in planning control.

Is this a matter of serious concern to the board? I am trying to think as a member of the public. If someone makes a recommendation for or against and this is reversed by the board, is there any pattern in respect of the rate of change of 10%? I know the board has looked closely at this matter.

I have mentioned the three studies we are doing. This is one of the issues at which we will be looking, whether the board is more inclined to grant than refuse. I suspect - this is only my view - that it is more inclined to grant where refusal is recommended by the inspector in the case of large developments.

I welcome the comment from the board that the backlog has been cleared. It is still a matter of concern, however, that the time-frame for planning decisions is a minimum of three months. I note that a number of local authorities failed to get to the board quickly enough with appeals. The board then takes 12 weeks. How does this measure in comparison with our competitors in the European Union?

We keep in touch with our counterparts, particularly on these islands. The continental European planning system is different and does not bear direct comparison. There are separate appeal systems in England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland but in general the timescales here compare favourably with those in those countries.

There were allegations that we had lost projects. For example, Belgium was competing with us at one stage because it could offer flat land and so on but many pointed to the planning delays. A group, of which I was a member, travelled to Taiwan where a project can be up and running in three or four weeks. I am not saying we should bring our standards down but it did frighten them when we told them how long it could take here.

It would be very difficult to have public participation in the planning process with those timescales. That is the problem. If we wanted to go for that system, it would take a policy decision but it could not be done in that timescale if we were to allow for full participation. I am as conscious as anybody else of delays and believe planning delayed is planning devalued. Since I became a member of the board, our primary objective, ahead of everything else, has been to try to eliminate delays in order that if there is an appeal, there will be some degree of certainty about when there will be an outcome. That is important and we are striving to achieve this. We are now at the figure of 80% in respect of the timescale people might legitimately expect. I hope we can improve on this as time passes.

Have any steps been taken to tackle the inconsistencies and variations as between the local authorities, the Department and the board? I appreciate that most of the planners have probably gone to the same school and been taught by the same individuals but is there any attempt to get them together? You mentioned a variety of programmes but are you trying to make direct contact with planners?

No. We see our job as being to present information to the public. Every local authority can read the tables we produce - there is a large gap between the rates at which decisions are reversed. Some local authorities have a relatively low overturn rate while others have a high overturn rate of around 60%. It is up to the planners, management and councillors in the authorities concerned to look at and compare how they feature in the table and ask themselves some questions. Beyond this it is probably a matter for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to consider the matter in terms of the broader educational process in regard to planning.

You have mentioned wind farms, telecommunications masts and one-off rural housing, which I will not address. In regard to the first two, what criteria are used? While I appreciate the distinction you make between local and national development plans, many years ago in Cork City Council we decided we would not have another O'Connell Street and that we would not have take-away outlets on Patrick Street but the decisions in the first three appeals referred to the board were reversed. We have advanced significantly since. In the context of wind farms and telecommunications masts, about which there may be international concerns and differing opinions, what criteria does the board use in the decision-making process?

There are national ministerial guidelines on planning policy on both telecommunications masts and wind farms. The board has regard to these policies in all its decisions. They guide matters. Where a development plan has an objective that flies in the face of national policies on sustainable energy and so on, the board gives precedence to the latter. It is taken into account by the board in balancing environmental costs against gains when it comes to wind farms. Our need for national telecommunications infrastructure must be balanced against local costs.

You mention there is a high turnover of inspectors. Perhaps a figure of seven of 135 was not too many to lose but——

I am only talking about the last few months. We have a very high turnover, which is one of the problems.

Why is that so? Is it a matter of poor pay or of having to travel around the country? Are there specific reasons? I assume the job is very interesting.

Generally, the public service is finding it difficult to retain professionals, especially in recent years with the economic boom and the opportunities available outside. That is the main reason. There is also a question of terms and conditions in the board vis-à-vis local authorities. Staff of the board tell us that they compare unfavourably. I will not comment on this but the view has been expressed.

Before I ask the chairman of An Taisce, perhaps I might ask you this. An Taisce is one of the prescribed bodies for commenting. How many such bodies are there?

They are set out in regulations. I do not know the exact figure but there is quite a number. Perhaps my colleagues in the Department would have a copy.

An Taisce is the only non-governmental body which is prescribed. The others are the heritage service of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for national monuments legislation, the Central Fisheries Board for certain types of development and the National Roads Authority for development affecting primary roads. Essentially, it is development agencies which have an interest in this type of development. I believe there are about 20.

I presume they all pursue their own objections in the same manner as An Taisce. There is disquiet about any group having a second bite at the cherry, being involved in decision-making, making observations and then coming back and having another go. However, that is obviously a policy issue. Perhaps I will ask Mr. Smith one or two questions, after which I will leave lovely Leitrim and hand over to other members who might be better located. However, we received documentation from County Leitrim.

Perhaps I might come in here. I have to leave at 12.30 p.m.

I was about to ask Mr. Smith one or two questions. I am trying to get a grip on An Taisce which has done great work but seems to have been running into deep water in recent years. How does one go about joining? Can I, as an ordinary Joe Soap, perhaps a manual worker, join my local branch?

Mr. Smith

Yes, membership is open to the general public. We operate in 23 local associations around the country and have about 5,000 members. We are open to all. We had one incident, to which I am sure you will refer, where people linked to a developer who focused on single housing in the countryside attempted to join the organisation in the last six months. We turned down about three or four potential members on the basis that we understood their interest in joining the organisation was to subvert its goals and principles.

I understand that but as a Joe Soap——

Mr. Smith

It is totally open.

What happens if a member of An Taisce wishes to object to an issue and has no background knowledge of it but an interest? Do I have to go through the organisation formally or, having joined An Taisce, can I object to anything I wish in the name of the organisation? Is there a vetting process?

Mr. Smith

As I say, we have a system of local associations which have annual general meetings to elect a planning officer and a planning committee. If you wished to operate at a local level, you would have to go through those structures. Over the last year An Taisce has lodged around 3,500 submissions on planning matters to local authorities, of which probably 3,000 came from head office in Dublin.

My concern is that we happened to be unlucky to be one out of 250 at the School of Music in Cork. We happen to be on the Government side. The media, the Chamber of Commerce, business people, the public and cultural representatives were all for it but An Taisce was against it. Perhaps there was a very positive reason for being against it but it appears in that case - I am not going on a countrywide trawl - An Taisce was out of step with everyone else in Cork city, and probably the county too. I am concerned about the level of expertise one needs to become an objector.

Mr. Smith

That application was handled by head office. As chairman of the organisation, most of my time, as you might imagine, is devoted to administrative matters. I certainly would not have a handle on every application but I think——

Sorry, this is not a €100 million project or a one-off house.

Mr. Smith

Perhaps I might refer the question to my colleague, Mr. Lumley, who is in a position to answer it.

Mr. Ian Lumley

An Taisce fully supported the maintenance and expansion of the School of Music on the site. The issue was the treatment of the original building which incorporated sculptural panels by Séamus Murphy, the well-known Cork sculptor, and was one of the major buildings, not just in Cork but in Ireland, of the mid-20th century when very little was built. The concern raised in the appeal was that there had been insufficient assessment of maintaining and incorporating the existing building and the expanded new development on the site. An Bord Pleanála varied the grounds of the original permission to require additional features to be incorporated into the new development. It is a regret that, for reasons quite separate to the planning appeal, there have been funding difficulties which have stopped the project proceeding. An Taisce very much hopes the funding can be secured to allow it to proceed in time for Cork's reign as city of culture.

The problem is that the delay factor put it into the EUROSTAT net where it would not otherwise have been. That started in December 2002. It would certainly have been well under way had that objection not been made. I would like to know An Taisce's methodology, the method of objecting and who may object. I certainly believe that, while they are not serial objectors, a few people seem to be more active in objecting than in promoting issues. We need a balance. We must develop our city. We certainly do not wish to be stopped by reasons which I will not call frivolous but which might be dealt with otherwise than through objecting to the whole process.

I cannot discuss the merits of the case but it was decided at a time when we were not deciding many cases within four months. However, the board made a decision on it within four months because of the importance we attached to the project. That is all I have to say in that regard.

Unfortunately, it put us into the EUROSTAT net. We had inquired about six schools built under the PPP process. When that inquiry had been made, it unfortunately brought the School of Music into the time-frame. There is concern. I will leave the County Leitrim document to members nearer to that county. It would be a pity if people were badmouthing the organisation because of some change in policy.

I have to leave. I had made a commitment before I knew that the Deputy would be missing. I have many questions to ask, including on the County Leitrim matter. I will try to return after 1.30 p.m.

On the structural reform of the board, has the independent review of its organisation and staffing been completed?

We have a draft report which makes some significant recommendations. The consultants are updating it as the board is in the process of changing, as the committee will have gathered from my earlier comments. When they have considered the feedback from managers and staff, they should be in a position to finalise it.

Does the board fully accept the findings?

I cannot say that yet because I must wait and see what the findings are. There is a draft report which contains many positives but I do not want to commit myself now as these will be the subject of negotiations with staff and so forth. There is much that will be helpful in the report.

Will the board outline the measures it has taken to improve the quality of evaluation of performance?

Jointly with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government we have set up a working group to look at the matter. It is not easy to come up with a simple system to assess the quality of the board's decisions. Performance in administration is easier to assess, an issue about which we will talk. The other issue is the quality of decisions - are they sound and do they stand up to scrutiny? That is a difficult issue. We have a joint working group involving senior officials in the board and the Department which is looking at yardsticks to measure the quality of decisions.

What has the board contributed to the adjustment in learning by the planning authorities since the publication of the report?

We do not see it as our job to contribute to the education of planning authorities. We are an independent part of the planning system. We get files from a planning authority and if it wishes to make an observation on an appeal, we have to take it into account. Once an appeal is decided we do not go back to the authority and tell it it was wrong in certain places. It can look at the file and take whatever it wants from it. In terms of wider action regarding local authorities using the analysis of decisions of the board, that would be a matter more for the Department than the board.

Has it proceeded to isolate the main reasons for overturning original decisions, relaying the trends to local authorities, as proposed in the report?

No, not yet. I mentioned three reports. We have covered three areas as we thought they would be relevant. We will communicate the outcomes to the Department, and the patterns will become clear.

I know this is aspirational but what time-frame is involved?

We took the conscious decision that these issues would have to take second place to the need to cut down delays. There is no point in redirecting a listing ship. We want it on an even keel before addressing longer-term policy issues. Now that we are on an even keel we will address them.

On structural reform, what procedures has the Department put in place to monitor and evaluate the performance of planning authorities and the board?

The Department relies on the statistics collected from local authorities and the board. We get statistics from the board on a quarterly basis which allow us to assess its performance. While the statistics are correct and give information on the time taken on appeals and so on, they are not sufficient for us to make observations on the quality of decisions. That is part of the work with which the joint committee is dealing.

For the first time, this year we received information from the board on variations in performance among local authorities. This information means that when planning inspectors visit local authorities, they raise with them the reasons they perform differently from other authorities.

We also need the information on which the board is working in the three studies to undertake a detailed analysis of the underlying trends: is it wind farms in one county and rural housing in another that is at issue? We need this detailed information before we can make assessments.

Also, we have formed a planning committee with city and county managers which is chaired by a county manager and also involves local authority planning directors. Through this group and in frequent meetings with all directors, we are progressing on ways by which they can advance the quality of the decisions they make.

In July we will issue draft guidelines on drafting and preparing development plans, as if one gets the development plan right, there is a good chance one will get planning decisions right. Developers and applicants will be aware of the types of developments permitted and the general policies of local authorities. There will, therefore, be a greater level of transparency.

It will be later in the year before we issue draft guidelines but we have started work on consulting the planning professions and others on planning control guidance on dealing with planning applications. It is a two stage process involving the development plan and then actual decisions. It will take us a while to get there. We need better statistics.

This can be a reflection on planning staff and county managers, that they may not be qualified to make appropriate decisions on planning applications. When there is no cohesion in councils, the timescale for the review being embarked upon is critical. It is important to have compatibility between councils.

I agree. It is work we are advancing but we need better information from the board and local authorities. While waiting for it, we are having major discussions on quality, the issues that determine good quality planning decisions, in order to reach a general consensus. When we get the statistics——

I am disappointed as there is huge investment in local authorities. Planning departments are well staffed. I am amazed that information is not a matter of fact given the economies of scale. It is not that massive.

An Bord Pleanála has been trying to make decisions within two months but the regulations brought forward during March last year introduced major changes for local authorities. They have now bedded down but in order to get better statistics we are working with the local government computer services board to have information automatically presented in order that there will be no additional jobs to be done to put the information together.

Regarding the quality of statistics and how they relate to the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, the last statistics given to me indicate that no more than one in eight planning decisions made at local level is subsequently appealed. I do not know if——

It is about 8% which has stayed fairly constant.

The figure is one in 12. The report does not give us much statistical information which would inform us about the quality of decision-making. For instance, the Irish Planning Institute states there is a wide variation in the number of planning officials in each area to review applications. This has implications for the quality of decisions made at local level and the applications subsequently referred to An Bord Pleanála. Is there any attempt by the Department or the board to make linkages to ensure consistency among planning departments?

I wish to ask about the number of decisions reversed as opposed to recommendations made by local planning officials, not by the city or county manager. What impact does this have on appeals to An Bord Pleanála? What are the cost implications for each local authority? This is part of the climate in which we deal with planning.

In regard to An Bord Pleanála, there is a similar process whereby planning officials make recommendations and the board, in its wisdom and given the factors by which it is bound, decides to go against them. How many such decisions are made? What impact does this have on the process? Are there cost implications?

Having listened to Mr. O'Connor's earlier replies about being bound by Government policy in making decisions, what does the board do when there are conflicting Government policies? I realise it is very much constrained in terms of pure planning - for instance, the issues of health and the environment are excluded from its decision making process. Many of the applications before it can be justified in building and construction terms but there might be a national policy on protecting health or maintaining the environment of an area where a particular development has been proposed. Is any attempt made to juggle these conflicting policies where and when they arise?

The variation in the overturn rate in local authorities of between 12% and 56% is phenomenal. What are the factors behind this? Are they the one I have outlined, that is, lack of consistency among planning staff, the lack of a set policy on what decisions are made and how they are made? Can the committee see the variations? I would like to know which local authorities have found their decisions have been overturned, the extent to which they are being overturned and the reason.

The number of staff available in planning authorities is not really a matter for the board but at board level one can see that sometimes local authorities are under severe pressure in making decisions on planning applications before the statutory deadline. The planners probably believe they could do with more time to decide a case but deadlines are a fact of life. The same is true of the board when it tries to make decisions within the deadlines. At times it can affect their quality.

As regards the reversal of planning authority decisions, under the new Act, if a manager overturns a planner's recommendation, he or she must give the reason for doing so. Anyone affected should be able to see from the file the reason there was a reversal. The planning system should be quite open and above board since implementation of the 2000 Act. If this occurs, it should be clear what is happening to planning applications. If people wish to appeal, they may use, as they frequently do, what was said at local level.

Is it done on a national or local basis?

It certainly would not be a matter for us but for each local authority to do its own analysis or figures and so on. Since implementation of the 2000 Act, the structures are in place to enable this to be done. There is a requirement to do certain things if this happens.

In regard to the overturn rate in the board as opposed to local authorities, we have already discussed this matter at some length with other members. The rate is quite significant but due to different interpretations of national policy, whether on sustainable development or wind farms. Telecommunications matters are a case in point where there can be a considerable divergence of policy locally. That is the first place at which I would look in analysing the reason there is a higher rate of overturn in some authorities as opposed to others.

The Deputy mentioned the question of conflicting Government policies. There can be conflict between different parts of Government policy. There can also be conflict between Government, local and regional policies. The board must ask itself what is right in terms of proper planning and the sustainable development of an area. As I said, the decision-making of the board centres on balancing all these considerations, including local, national and environmental considerations versus the cost in environmental terms, which must be weighed. The board will then make a decision. That is the reason it is so difficult for it to make a decision in some cases in which it is not easy to make the right decision. In his or her report the inspector tries to bring together all of the issues to be taken into account and weighed and then put them before the board which will make its decision. If it differs from the inspector, it must say why it is doing so.

I have another question specific to An Bord Pleanála. I refer to the overturn rate within its system of inspector reports——

We debated that matter at length earlier. The overturn rate has been around 10%, that is, where the board overturns a recommendation to grant or refuse. It would make other changes relating to conditions and so forth, about which we are not talking.

I think most of my other questions were for the Department.

The annual statistics published by the Department list the number of planning and administrative staff employed in planning departments of local authorities. The number of planners has increased quite considerably over the past decade, particularly over the past five years. The Department has emphasised that managers should make sure planning departments are well staffed in order that they can deliver good quality decisions in a timely manner.

In the past three or four years we have negotiated with the planning school in UCD to increase its output of planners. The number has been doubled. This September for the first time 50 people will graduate. New planning courses were also set up in Dublin Institute of Technology, Kevin Street. While a postgraduate course is offered at UCD, people will be able to obtain a primary degree in planning from Kevin Street. I think the first group graduated recently. We are working with the local authorities, the universities and the professional bodies to ensure more planners will be available. We were involved in assisting local authorities in recruiting planners from abroad to bring staffing levels up when there was a shortage.

What about the collection of statistics on the overturning of decisions at local authority level by city and county managers?

Under the 2000 Act, the provisions of which came into force in 2001, where a manager overturns the decision of a planner, he or she must explain his or her decision on file. As this provision has only applied for the past year, we have not collected any statistics. As I said, we are reviewing the statistics to ensure we get the necessary information to allow us to evaluate the quality of decisions. A balance needs to be struck. While we must make sure we collect the right data, we must also ensure we do not collect too much. It is difficult to strike the right balance. We are working on the matter and hope we can complete the process within a matter of months.

Mr. Purcell

To elaborate slightly and refer to a point made by Deputy Boyle and Mr. Smith, we received co-operation from a number of local authorities. As the committee will be aware, local authorities are outside my remit but to get a feel for what was happening at local level, we requested the co-operation of five local authorities. In respect of Ms Moylan's point on managerial overturns, we established that there were no readily accessible data in any of the five at the time. We also tried to establish the reasons for the level of overturns in particular authorities. However, it was inconclusive and very difficult to determine a trend. That is the reason the report seems to fall a little short in that regard. One needs to dig deep to do the kind of work being done by An Bord Pleanála and the Department within this new group. I am grateful to see it being done.

There seems to be a mystery regarding An Bord Pleanála's decisions whether appeals are oral. Is there a cost implication in the decision-making process in deciding whether to have an oral hearing?

Under the legislation, it is entirely at the discretion of the board. Those who are party to an appeal are entitled to request an oral hearing. If they make the request and pay a fee, a decision must be made by the board on whether to hold a hearing. There is a definitive process for deciding. The board can, on its own accord, decide to have a hearing if it believes it is merited.

In recent years oral hearings comprised less than 2% - probably 1% to 2% - of decisions. The board only makes decisions in this respect when it believes it is necessary to understand the issues concerning the appeal or assist the debate. If it is considered that written submissions will not give the full picture, oral hearings are used. In large, contentious projects with wider implications the board would be disposed to granting them. As a general rule, it does not grant them in small cases.

To be clear about the role of An Taisce as a prescribed body, it is a voluntary organisation which depends on subscriptions and donations.

Mr. Smith

We have 13 employees, of whom three or four are in our planning and environmental section. However, much activity is carried out by volunteers. For example, the members of the management board and council of An Taisce and I are volunteers.

Do the costs of planning applications, at whatever level, have to be met from An Taisce's own resources?

How much did the board pay in legal costs in 2000, 2001 and 2002?

I will come back to you on that if you do not mind.

Will the board indicate how many High Court actions it was involved in in 2001, 2002 and 2003?

All I can say is that there is an increasing tendency towards litigation regarding board decisions. The percentage is still very small.

Why does the board pay its own legal costs, even in cases where costs have been awarded to it by the High Court?

Where the board is entitled to costs, it does its very best to recover them. However, it is not always possible to do so. Sometimes the courts are not sympathetic to the board when it pursues them. They have been known to take the view that a case in the public interest should be paid for from the public purse. Legal fees paid by the board amounted to €716,000 in 2002 and €635,000 in 2001.

What was the total cost being pursued by the board on 31 March 2003?

On 1 January 2002 outstanding fees awarded to us amounted to €362,000.

What does the board pay in legal fees?

I outlined to you the legal fees for 2001 and 2002.

How many High Court actions were there?

The number of court actions is listed in our annual report. I will obtain the information for the committee.

Is there any justification for the board having its own legal department to cut down on fees?

It is probably a matter for consideration but, as of now, the volume of work has not been sufficient to justify it. We should consider it given the trend pertaining to legal fees.

In 2001, 33 cases were instituted against the board. Those involved have to apply for leave for judicial review. Even when they are given leave, many do not end up being tried substantively.

Thank you.

Mr. O'Connor stated the figures regarding outside consultants for 2001 and 2002 were €1.6 million and €2.4 million, respectively. Did he say he did not anticipate any fees for 2003?

There will be some but the reliance on outside consultants for this year will be considerably less than in 2002, a peak year. In 2002 we tried to deal with the backlog and did so successfully.

Can you estimate the cost?

One of my officials states we recover fees from local authority budgets for local authority infrastructural projects.

That is an interesting point. It is of great concern to me because the local authorities are relying increasingly on outside consultants to deal with important planning matters within their administrative areas. In 2001 and 2002 the board had to resort to this to a considerable extent. Do you share my concern that vital expertise is in danger of being lost within the cohort of the public service? Should the policy of the board and even the local authorities not be to maintain, reinvigorate and, in some cases, reacquire this expertise rather than employ private consultants?

Yes, I agree with the Deputy in general. The board should have a cohort of professional planners to match its anticipated workload. However, in 2002 and 2001 a backlog was building up. It was certainly not possible to recruit permanent staff to work on it, even if there were no other constraints. We had to decide whether we should rely on outside consultants. We had to do this, otherwise we would be in a much more serious position with regard to arrears and backlogs and the board would be subject to ongoing severe and justifiable criticism. If everything was progressing evenly, one should have the in-house resources to deal with it. To deal with ups and downs in the system one has to have flexibility to rely on outside consultants. All those on whom we rely are professionally qualified and subject to a vetting and training procedure before being taken on by us.

Nevertheless, the figures for 2001 and 2002 were probably no more exceptional.

They were. We were in a position where we had a backlog of cases and increasing delays. We made a conscious decision to tackle them.

Is it not because the board had not provided in advance a sufficient cohort within its own ranks that the backlog built up?

I suppose there is some validity in that point. The backlog built up quickly during the years of the Celtic tiger when there was a huge increase in the number of planning applications, planning developments and so on. This rapid increase hit the board in a relatively short time.

In recent years, because of Government policies, there have been severe restrictions on the rights of the public with regard to the appeals process which have made it more difficult for it, as well as the issue of fees. Has this had a noticeable effect on the volume of material coming from the public with regard to observations or objections?

I mentioned that.

Unfortunately, we are torn between the Chamber and the committee. I apologise.

I said important changes were introduced in the 2000 Act whereby a person had to have made a submission at planning authority stage before he or she could have a right to appeal, as a third party, if he or she did not like the decision that had emerged. While it has not greatly affected the volume of appeals, it has slightly changed the mix in that we have a slightly smaller proportion of third party appeals. A higher proportion of third party appeals are now invalidated because people are not able to show, in accordance with the regulations, that they made a submission. That is where it has made a difference. The trend is evening out a little as people are beginning to realise that if they want to make an appeal, they must make a submission. Initially there was a big hiatus in relation to this issue but now more people are aware of it and it will become less of a factor as time passes.

Did you refer to the issue of fees and the fact that the European Union had stated one of the fee categories was not——

That is a matter for legislators, not the board.

Can the board not implement it immediately?

We have to implement whatever is included in legislation.

My last question is for both Mr. O'Connor and Mr. Smith of An Taisce. The issue of rural development, homes in the countryside etc. is controversial. An Taisce has a role, so also may the board. How can a balance be achieved between the undoubted need for new homes in rural areas and the need to prevent a situation where there is a house sticking up out of every field, which clearly is unsustainable? The pattern of land ownership is against us but the clustering of new homes around existing settlements in towns and villages seems to be one of the solutions. However, the fact that small patches of land are owned by people who are anxious to give a son or daughter a site militates against this idea. Some new thinking, therefore, is needed. Have both organisations turned their minds to this idea in a more proactive way?

This category of development represents a significant part of the board's workload in terms of appeals relating to one-off rural houses. We are carrying out a detailed study of the patterns within it. It is not a matter for the board to make policy. It is an interpreter rather than a maker of policy. Whether it is policy at national level or the policy laid out in the development plan, it is the board's job - difficult as it is - to try to achieve a balance. The national spatial strategy is the latest Government policy document to which the board will have to have regard in deliberating on these cases as well as local development plans. That is all I will say about the matter which I accept is quite controversial. The board has to do its best in each individual appeal and interpret it in the context of national policy and the local development plan.

Before Mr. Smith replies, some individuals and groups have made blanket allegations against An Taisce, for example, in the case of County Leitrim, that it is opposed to all progress. Perhaps Mr. Smith would like to strike a balance.

Mr. Smith

The primary goal for An Taisce and the national spatial strategy is to achieve balanced regional development. More than any other responsible body, we are promoting a shift in development away from the greater Dublin area. An Taisce's policy is that we would like to see no more than 25% to 30% of development taking place in the greater Dublin area with between 70% and 75% taking place in rural Ireland, primarily in the so-called gateway centres but also in towns and villages. An Taisce considers itself pro-rural development. We would like to see the focus shift from the development of the greater Dublin area.

I was involved in litigation in which the County Meath development plan was challenged. It proposed to provide for a far greater population than that envisaged in Government policy, through the strategic planning guidelines. We consider it important that the strategic planning guidelines for the greater Dublin area should be implemented. If so, it would result in a greater population in rural Ireland, particularly in gateway centres and towns and villages.

Specifically, we would like to see a regime of tax incentives for sensitive mixed-use development in villages rather than add-on housing estates. We would also like to see far greater use being made of compulsory purchase orders for appropriate sites in towns and villages. Beyond this, as one might expect from an environmental organisation, we are very concerned about self-sufficiency.

We would like to see more people living on the land if engaged in economic activity associated with the land. We are in favour of housing for farmers as well as agri-tourism, forestry, aquaculture and so on. We would like to see more investment by Government in imaginative mechanisms for promoting sustainable living on the land, including organic farming, eco-tourism and so on.

With regard to County Leitrim, as with all other counties, outside the greater Dublin area we would like to see more development but we would prefer if it did not take place as one-off housing in the countryside which we consider creates problems across the range - economic, environmental and social. We consider ourselves manifestly pro-rural development.

There was reference to high staff turnover. Are there regulations in place to prevent former public service employees being employed in the private sector, for example, those who leave the inspectorate?

No, there are regulations for those coming in from outside for whom we have strict rules in terms of how they handle cases they dealt with outside. So far as I am aware, once they leave the board it is not possible for us to regulate what they do.

Is the high turnover of inspectors continuing?

Unfortunately, it is. That has been the pattern. Perhaps with different labour market conditions it will stabilise. It has been one of the most difficult problems with which the board has had to cope.

Let me ask the same question regarding local authority planners who have a huge input into the development plan. While it may be adopted by members of the council, it is the planning department which puts it together. Some of the planners involved then go into private practice immediately. Are there any restrictions on such moves or likely conflicts of interest in that regard?

No, there are no specific rules governing that matter. When employees leave a local authority, we do not have any control as to where they work thereafter.

It appears that in almost all of the high profile cases presented the same names come up, all of whom are former town planners or chief planning officers. There are also some ex-board members practising. There is, therefore, potential for conflict, particularly when they practise in the same locality. We discussed this matter at finance and planning meetings in regard to the right of State personnel to take up office immediately afterwards. Perhaps An Bord Pleanála should look at it also. I have another question which I will put later.

Mr. Purcell

I am aware of the draft code of conduct for civil servants which provides for such situations and which has been discussed with staff union interests since it was issued last year. I am not sure when it will become final or how we will deal with the issue ultimately. The fact that such situations arise is an issue uppermost in the minds of administrators.

The Comptroller and Auditor General mentioned the code for the Civil Service. A similar code of practice is being developed for local authority members and officials. However, it is still under discussion and has not been finalised. It will be on parallel lines to the Civil Service code.

A code would probably be more important in the planning rather than any other public service area. Obviously, it should lay down the criteria and guidelines that should apply for the next five years. There should also be national involvement. I do not say people would design a plan to suit themselves but there is obvious conflict.

I have one other question. Section 4 motions and material contraventions were lumped together in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. There has been a huge increase in the number of material contravention motions nationally. I have been a member of Cork City Council for 29 years and throughout that experience I can recall only two section 4 motions, although there may have been a third. However, the material contraventions all emanated from the executive. Is that the pattern throughout the country? Section 4 motions were bad for public representatives and anybody involved with them was considered bad. However, they are lumped with material contraventions which I have found invariably emanate from the executive.

I honestly do not know. As only a small number of such decisions are appealed, I would not like to make a comment. Perhaps the Department would have figures for the number of material contraventions.

We do. The statistics available to us show that the numbers of both section 4 motions and material contraventions are decreasing in recent years.

The number of material contraventions went up to 156.

In 1999. In 2001 it was down to 108. It seems to have peaked in 1999. The number of section 4 motions seems to have peaked in 2000.

Was that related to the expiration of a said five year development plan? Do they coincide? I only know about what happens in my own council but there has been criticism of public representatives in bringing forward section 4 motions. However, invariably when a material contravention is proposed, it is adopted. I cannot recall any being rejected. This might need some analysis as the two were lumped together.

The Deputy is correct. There are differences between section 4 motions and material contraventions but we tend to put them together. Material contraventions frequently arise because over its six year lifespan a development plan may not be sufficiently up to date to deal with a particular development proposal which both the elected members and the administrative and professional staff of the authority believe is a good one. It is usually in such cases that material contraventions arise.

Does the board have the exclusive power, under the Planning and Development Act 2000, to direct the payment of compensation where an appeal or referral was made with the intention of delaying the development or securing monetary gain?

We have not yet had occasion to use that power.

How many compulsory purchase orders were confirmed by the board in the years 2001, 2002 and 2003?

I will come back to you on that question.

How many third party appeals were lodged in those years?

The number of compulsory acquisition orders disposed of in the year 2000-01 was 73.

What was the situation on third party appeals? How many were lodged?

We have the figures for the numbers disposed of. Perhaps I could get back to you on the numbers lodged.

I want to return to the issue of conflicts of interest. In regard to the degree of outsourcing of inspectors, is there any code that would prevent a conflict or is it the practice whereby within a short time the same people can make presentations or do work on behalf of applicants for other planning appeals being looked at by the board?

Is the Deputy talking about those who leave the board?

I am talking about the people the board hires on a per case fee basis.

No, they can have nothing to do with anything related to it. They must make a written signed declaration that they have had no involvement with anything that could be perceived as a conflict of interest. We have quite a few of these but have never had an allegation of impropriety or conflict of interest. We are at pains to ensure it does not happen.

Would it be possible for a person hired as an inspector on a per case fee basis in the next case to represent an applicant?

He or she could but not the same person.

Are there potential conflicts which should be examined?

Each one of them has to make a declaration on each case that there is no conflict.

That is specific to the case. I am talking about the procedure where one is subsequently involved with the board.

Does the Deputy have something in mind?

No, it is that I sense potential for conflict and wonder if the board is concerned about it.

We are. I have stressed the importance we attach to ensuring there is no conflict, or perception of conflict. That is the reason we are at pains to ensure those involved make declarations. While people may see things in a certain way, we believe that if anything like that arises, we will be able to deal with it.

Why does An Bord Pleanála follow An Taisce's arguments in 90% of cases regarding third party appeals?

I cannot relate to a particular appellant.

What about a particular county?

I could not say. Presumably, An Taisce appeals what it considers very bad decisions. If one goes through a large number of decisions, it should be possible to pick out the bad ones in respect of which one is likely to be successful on appeal. An Taisce has people who know the planning system well and tend to appeals cases likely to be successful.

Are there many applications to An Bord Pleanála?

It makes no difference to the board which decides on the basis of the issues brought forward, whether by An Taisce or any other party. All parties get the same consideration based only on the issues.

However, the wording would be a copy of the refusal. An Taisce's objection would be comparable to that of An Bord Pleanála.

I would not read too much into that. When An Taisce makes an appeal, it often uses previously used board wordings and so forth.

Do you have the figures regarding third party appeals?

In 2001, of the formally decided cases, 45%, or some 1,740, were third party appeals.

The committee has correspondence on file with regard to the difficulties in County Leitrim, of which An Bord Pleanála may be aware. As the Oireachtas Member for Sligo-Leitrim, I would be concerned at the level of difficulty people seem to have in the context of one-off developments, and the fact that the situation in County Leitrim has been accelerated by a rural tax based scheme to encourage development in a county that needs massive development.

Mr. Smith

I will refer this issue to Mr. Lumley. Nonetheless, one of the reasons that has dictated that An Taisce take a large number of appeals for County Leitrim, as with other counties where it has a particular focus, is that there is a tendency for the manager to overturn planners' advice. This is probably reflected in the board's decisions, in that only 2% of appeals in County Leitrim and 1% in County Sligo regarding grants of permissions are not successful. There is a very high success rate for appeals in those counties, reflecting the fact that the board is animated by the perspective of planners who so often have decisions overturned. Mr. Lumley has some specific comments to make about County Leitrim.

Mr. Lumley

I confirm that the last published An Bord Pleanála figures showed the highest rate of overturn of local authority decisions in County Leitrim compared to other local authority areas. This is not accounted for simply by An Taisce appeals but by other third parties who have appealed decisions in the county and had them overturned.

There is a statistical analysis, covering the past three years, of the 22 appeals taken by An Taisce in regard to cases in County Leitrim which have been decided to date by An Bord Pleanála. Some 20 of those cases resulted in the original planning authority decision being overturned. Of the other two, which were granted, one concerned a mast which was approved and the other a large and complex development in Lough Rynn. That decision was varied with a requirement for elements of the scheme to be subject to a further application.

What was striking about the appeals taken by An Taisce in County Leitrim was that the majority were cases where the professional planning officer's recommendations had been overturned, as is the legal entitlement of the management of Leitrim County Council. The particular concern of An Taisce with regard to County Leitrim was that development in the county and the other rural renewal scheme counties - Cavan, north Roscommon and parts of Sligo and Longford - was subject to very generous tax relief subsidies through the rural renewal system.

The upper River Shannon scheme.

Mr. Lumley

It was considered desirable by An Taisce that this tax relief subsidy should ensure development of the highest quality was achieved and that it should be tied in with the principles of the sustainable development strategy programme of 1997 which set out a presumption against urban generated rural housing, and laid down particular principles for sustainable tourism.

Considering the total number of planning applications in County Leitrim, the small number appealed by An Taisce is striking. While the focus of criticism of An Taisce from some development sources in County Leitrim has tended to hone in on these cases, the overwhelming majority of housing and holiday developments in the county town of Carrick-on-Shannon and other towns such as Manorhamilton, Drumshanbo, Leitrim village and Ballinamore, were not subject to objection by An Taisce. Its main concern in regard to development of Carrick-on-Shannon was development in flood plain areas, a particular concern in the area.

Of the large number of decisions made by Leitrim County Council and the number that could potentially be appealed by An Taisce, only a very small percentage were appealed by it. Such appeals were generally concerned with areas of outstanding natural beauty, high amenity areas identified in the council's development plan or areas of natural heritage significance - in many cases not just national but European significance or sites protected under the EU directives governing birds and habitats which were already designated as special areas of conservation or which had species which would warrant such a designation. This is reflected in the number of appeals in the Lough Allen area, for example, in regard to holiday house and jetty development on the shoreline of the lake.

As in all cases, we took a strategic approach that the focus of development should be on existing serviced developments. There are many developments around Drumshanbo at the southern end of the lake which we were happy to welcome because they were developing tourist infrastructure. However, other developments were in areas with poor soil conditions of very scenic character and, more importantly, which had important birds, plants or other species identified under the European habitats directive. Very serious concerns were identified for the development of these sites.

For example, on the north-western shore of Lough Allen, a development in Kilgarrif, near Ballinagleragh, of ten dwelling houses with an entrance and a jetty was recommended for refusal by the Leitrim County Council planning department. However, permission was granted on the basis of a management order. In view of this conflict, An Taisce referred the case to An Bord Pleanála and I visited the site. An Bord Pleanála's eventual decision was that it was an inappropriate development because of the location in a remote, elevated, scenic rural area of high amenity and the risk of pollution. It is striking that its decision ruled that there was an adverse impact on species listed in the EU habitats and birds directives.

This raises serious concerns about the quality of the planning decisions made by Leitrim County Council. An Taisce is exercising its public interest role in monitoring planning systematically on a county and national basis. The useful role which it is able to bring to bear is in identifying more problematic categories of planning applications or areas where applications are particularly sensitive and need proper assessment, and to refer such cases to An Bord Pleanála, as it has in regard to comparable matters. This is reflected in the high rate of overturn of local authority decisions in such cases.

An Taisce welcomes the fact that major parts of County Leitrim and surrounding counties have been designated by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuiv, as a green box area for sustainable and eco-tourism. The accompanying guidelines will provide better guidance for applicants, landowners and local authorities in bringing forward more sustainable housing and tourism development proposals in these areas and avoid the types of problems highlighted. This applies to decisions by An Bord Pleanála in County Leitrim and other counties included in the rural renewal tax areas, particularly the north-western part of County Cavan.

Has An Taisce ever withdrawn an objection?

Mr. Lumley

That would be rare. In most cases, where a planning appeal is withdrawn, the withdrawal is made by the applicants, perhaps because they are concerned that they are likely to be refused.

Has An Taisce ever withdrawn an objection?

Mr. Lumley

In the rare cases where it withdraws an appeal, it is based on information brought to our attention on circumstances not obvious on examination of the original planning application file and which were not fully taken on board by us in assessing the making of an appeal. In such circumstances, we review the matter.

I frequently advise those lodging planning applications that applicants often do themselves a disservice in the quality of information and drawings they supply with their applications or in their justification of their proposal. This is often the case with one-off housing planning applications. However, many local authorities now have a test requirement. Cork County Council, in particular, has a good model which other local authorities could follow. The system is useful to everyone since the applicant is being asked for detailed information to justify his or her planning application, which is in his or her own interest. This is the main reason for lodging the application. However, the system is also good for environmental groups and other third parties assessing the application because they can see the reason for the application being lodged. For example, it may refer to a family land holding where the applicant needs to care for an elderly parent. Unfortunately, the quality of information lodged by applicants and accepted by other local authorities is extremely poor. It would be a major improvement in the planning system if applicants supplied better information and local authorities were to insist on this at application stage.

The issue of membership was referred to. What mechanism does An Taisce have for screening membership, given that membership applications have been returned?

Mr. Smith

First, I emphasise Mr. Lumley's point by drawing attention to the fact that a high percentage of the appeals An Taisce takes are upheld by An Bord Pleanála on grounds of either public health or safety. We take a great deal of consolation from this.

Like any other membership organisation, An Taisce genuinely encourages membership. We have active membership drives across the country but have to be a little careful. We delegate to local associations, some of which make significant numbers of submissions on particular planning applications. A number of our associations have been taken over by people whose interests have not been the environment. For example, the Wicklow association was taken over by people whose speciality was illegal dumping while our west Cork association was taken over by our friends in the development fraternity. We have to be careful of this because we have certain legal obligations. An Taisce is a prescribed body under the planning Acts. Therefore, we must have some control over those who write planning submissions on our behalf on An Taisce headed notepaper. Of An Taisce's 5,000 members, an infinitesimally small number have been subject to adverse scrutiny by the organisation. We are in the business of attracting rather than deterring members.

From what region of the country does the main bulk of An Taisce's membership come? Is it representative nationwide? Is the membership list published?

Mr. Smith

Like all membership organisations, we are subject to the Data Protection Act. Therefore, we cannot publish lists of our members. The names of protagonists on our committees are available on our website or if anyone writes to the organisation. There is nothing secret or covert about An Taisce. Rather, the organisation is a model of transparency.

Is a membership list available?

Mr. Smith

We cannot give lists of members because the Data Protection Act does not allow it. However, the lists of officers at national and local level are readily available.

Does An Taisce work to educate members in heritage and so on? I am not concerned about anyone taking over the organisation. The witnesses referred to two examples in counties Cork and Wicklow, neither of which I am aware of. I am concerned about those who decide to join An Taisce with no qualifications but a great feeling for the preservation of old buildings and who begin to take a great interest in every issue. What is the methodology in An Taisce? Can such a person lodge continuous appeals or does the organisation run courses to educate them? What happens after they become members?

Mr. Smith

Most submissions are written from head office. The fact that a person is a member of An Taisce or a local committee does not give him or her the right to write a planning submission. Planning submissions at local level, if going through a local association, must go through the local planning officer. Most of those involved have received some degree of training. We are running workshops.

Are you telling me that if I was a member of An Taisce, I could not use the fact of my membership in an individual submission?

Mr. Smith

The Deputy could do so but not on An Taisce notepaper. There is control over who——

I could use the title of member of An Taisce openly, which would give me some credence.

Mr. Smith

No more so than anyone who writes a letter to the newspaper, saying he or she is a member of Fianna Fáil. While we cannot stop members from doing this, we can stop them writing official An Taisce letters unless they——

Being a member of Fianna Fáil will not stop major developments. Let us not get frivolous about this. Being a member of Fianna Fáil and writing such a letter will not stop a €100 million development. I understand An Taisce is trying to recruit members. You mentioned local planning committees. There may be such a committee, for example, in the Cork branch. Would such a branch have expertise in planning? What is the general composition of such branches? I am not trying to be smart or clever in asking such a question. I am asking for information.

Mr. Smith

I am not trying to be frivolous. If one is not the designated person at local level to write a planning application, one cannot use An Taisce notepaper and cannot benefit from the privileges afforded to An Taisce by dint of being a prescribed body. One does not get a discounted fee and so on. There is no question of people writing unauthorised submissions on behalf of An Taisce. There is tight quality control and we run training workshops for those who will be writing submissions on our behalf. Appeals go through the national office. We scrutinise them, even if they emanate from a local association.

With regard to the overturning of decisions, there is an adverse perception of An Taisce in County Leitrim. Although my main responsibility rests with County Sligo, I will focus on County Leitrim. There have been well attended public meetings on this issue. For a body hoping to create a positive image, there is huge misunderstanding of An Taisce. Mr. Lumley has referred to the actual numbers and developments in County Leitrim and the fact that planners have granted permission. However, the development of the county is critical. An Taisce refers to main towns and villages, where unfortunately people cannot buy sites at the moment. It is regrettable that the sons and daughters of people living in rural areas cannot build homes there.

Mr. Smith

I accept much of what you said. An Taisce's premise is that everyone who needs a house has a right to one. We do not, as some commentators have said, launch blanket objections. Only one in every 250 applications lodged finishes up the subject of an An Taisce appeal. We are in favour of the development of County Leitrim. However, we want a shift in development from the hinterland of Dublin - counties Meath, Wicklow and Kildare - to rural Ireland. We are well disposed towards the development of County Leitrim but would like to see it in nucleated settlements rather than one-off developments in the countryside.

Mr. Lumley

Let me clarify some further points with regard to County Leitrim. In an analysis of the limited number of 20 cases which An Taisce appealed to An Bord Pleanála - the original decision was overturned - in the overwhelming majority permission was refused on a number of grounds as being prejudicial to public health because the original adjudication of the adequacy of the site and the soil conditions for a sceptic tank or puraflo system was not adequately carried out, either by the applicant or the local authority. Typical terms in the Lough Allen area would be a statement in a final ruling by An Bord Pleanála that soil conditions and proximity to the lake render the proposal prejudicial to public health.

It is a very serious matter that so many decisions granted by local authorities are prejudicial to public health on sewerage grounds or, in other counties, public safety on traffic grounds. For instance, the number of local authorities not complying with National Roads Authority policy on restricting development on national primary and secondary roads is causing tangible traffic safety difficulties and directly linked to accidents and fatalities. An Taisce is fulfilling a public interest and public service role in highlighting these cases, not only in County Leitrim but also in other local authority areas.

The same applies to County Mayo. I understand some members of the committee do not represent that county and would not be familiar with it through their background. Similar figures apply to it. In all the appeals taken by An Taisce in the county - an even smaller percentage than those taken in County Leitrim - all the decisions by An Bord Pleanála ruled that the developments were prejudicial to public safety or public health.

There is a clear failure in the planning process in accommodating so many of these proposals at application stage. They will create a tangible and quantifiable environmental cost in terms of contaminated fresh water, fisheries, groundwater, drinking water and the cost of increased accident rates and fatalities that will result from the facilitation of unsafe developments or developments on national roads - a problem in counties Mayo, Donegal, Kerry and Limerick.

Given the national spatial strategy, there is a massive conflict of interest in that the Department appoints county managers and pays county planners. We are all concerned with public health implications. The spatial development of the west is way behind schedule. We do not need a massive logjam, although it would be justifiable if there was a public health concern. Perhaps Ms Moylan will comment on this. The majority of those involved in development will be willing to take advice from architects, planners and vested interests but there should be much greater transparency in An Taisce's dealings with the Department and county planners. Perhaps Ms Moylan will also comment on this aspect. According to a recent article, some developments attract a number of objections.

This is a very difficult area and many decisions are difficult in terms of balancing development needs. Where there is a demand for housing for locals - the only land they own - great difficulties can arise in particular areas. Our view is that planning decisions should be of as high a quality as possible. We have set out general policy in relation to various types of development in guidelines for the guidance of local authority planners and managers. The national spatial strategy has set out some general guidance in relation to rural housing, on which we will be expanding later this year in draft guidelines. We will consult all affected interests.

Would you not consider the possibility of including An Taisce and An Bord Pleanála with the planners in a partnership on the way forward rather than have different regulations for each county? While I respect An Taisce for the job it is doing, it would be preferable if all parties involved sang from the same hymn sheet. There should be agreement on guidelines as it is regrettable that there should be a conflict of opinion on what should be done. I have the highest regard for Mr. Lumley and the work done by An Taisce.

We go to great efforts when drawing up national guidelines, which are important for advising local authorities, applicants and An Taisce. We consult all relevant interests, including county managers, the planning institutes and the public, to try to reach a consensus on the appropriate standards and quality. We will increase our efforts in this regard in respect of other guidelines to the extent that we can.

It is a loss that public information seminars are not held in counties Sligo and Mayo that would include all those concerned with the national built heritage. They could provide an open session and invite developers to participate. They could let people know what the various parties considered to be the way forward. Mr. Smith said people were unaware and did not make detailed submissions but there is a lack of information at their disposal. Such an approach would be of help, for example, to those who wish to build a house in a sensitive area. They would know they would be wasting their time which could save them the expense of employing the services of architects and skilled planners.

I agree that much of this is down to having very good development plans. The 2000 Act requires local authorities when drafting a development plan to become involved in much greater public consultation in order that they can take on board the views of the various interests. The development plan should set out clear policies in order that if people apply for planning permission, they should not be taken unaware by decisions of the local authority. There should be clarity and transparency about this aspect.

It is regrettable that a conflict of interest should involve planners employed by the State in local authorities, especially when they are deemed capable of doing the job. If there was co-operation and agreement, it would eliminate much overturning of decisions.

Mr. Smith

We appeal one in 250 submissions lodged countrywide. I do not think anybody would say that fewer than that number of developments applied for across the country are unsatisfactory. Therefore, we consider we exercise our prescribed role on a very conservative, cautious and reasonable basis.

I accept that we have been subject to adverse publicity but the prime reason for that is it has been estimated that €8.1 billion in capital gains windfalls will accrue if we continue at the current rate of one-off house developments. There is a strong vested interest antagonistic to our remit, which we consider to be driven by the public interest.

Please elaborate on your point regarding a windfall of €8.1 billion.

Mr. Smith

A capital gains windfall will accrue to landowners if over the next ten years we continue to approve one-off housing developments in the countryside at a rate of 36%.

If one looks at planning applications, the scale of the acceleration in terms of developments has been considerably reduced. I question your assertion regarding a capital gains windfall.

Mr. Smith

There was record breaking housing construction last year, which seems likely to continue. We are animated about this issue because there are 1.2 million houses and it is proposed that 500,000 new houses will be built over the next ten years. It is crucial that we get this right. We do not consider enough research is being done on the long-term implications of one-off housing construction in the countryside. They do not build this way across Europe where less than 1% of housing is built one-off in the countryside and which has far lower patterns of growth. We believe we are creating a dangerous legacy for the future, including a dangerous social legacy, if we build in this way, which is abnormal in European or international terms.

It was said there seemed to be a conflict with the political system. We are very keen to work in partnership. Many of our projects such as the green school and blue flag programmes are centred on partnership with local authorities. There is no conflict between us and the political system which works for us to the extent that when we appeal, we have a 90% success rate. We take the stance one would expect in that we support the stance of local authority planners for the most part. When we appeal, An Bord Pleanála reinforces the stance we take for the most part. It is not because the appeal is made by An Taisce; it is not random, it is because our approach is animated by sustainability and balancing social, economic and environmental concerns. One can predict the stance An Tasice will take on any development as ours is not an ad hoc or random approach. We assess projects systematically in terms of sustainability. While there is no conflict between us and the political system, I accept that in many cases we differ in perspective from county managers and often elected representatives who are clearly subject to aggressive lobbying by landowners who stand to benefit from the €8.1 billion windfall over the next ten years.

We would love to go to County Leitrim in partnership with local politicians but our primary concern is that the county does not seem to be aware that the greatest threat to it is posed by the growth of the greater Dublin area. County Leitrim and others in rural Ireland will continue to decline due to the Government's unwillingness to enforce its spatial strategy and strategic planning guidelines. There does not seem to be a will to curtail the continuing sprawl of Dublin into its hinterland. The real future for rural Ireland involves channelling that growth outside the greater Dublin area. I ask Deputies and others in rural constituencies to adopt a much stronger stance on this issue. The reality is that the greater Dublin area continues to burgeon while rural Ireland declines. There is a win-win option available. Unlike the greater Dublin area, rural Ireland requires growth. It is important that teeth are given to the guidelines which are supposed to represent Government policy. We are witnessing the sprawl of the greater Dublin area and the decline of rural Ireland.

Your suggestion sounds very practical to me. While I have seldom had conflict or contact with An Tasice, I have been concerned over the last two or three years. People I have known have worked on many projects such as the one involving the old waterworks on the Lee Road. There seems to be conflict but I do not know if it is the result of change of personnel or approach within An Taisce over the last two or three years. I do not come into contact with it much, though the matter of the School of Music upset me very much, as did one or two other projects in Cork city. The Chairman seems to be taking the correct approach by suggesting that if there are difficulties in County Leitrim or County Mayo, people should sit down together as An Bord Pleanála is doing with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The difficulty may be the overruling of local planners by the county manager.

Certainly, An Taisce is being brought into serious disrepute for many who have no great interest in this area. To start throwing comments about a windfall and pressure from landowners on politicians is not relevant and the argument should not be used. We are talking in most instances about one-off housing. An Taisce seems to be beginning to advise the Government on how it should run the country in a range of issues. Mr. Smith referred to Government unwillingness to do various things. If An Taisce is placing itself at that level to advise Government, we will really have a difficulty. My humble advice to it is that in hot spots like County Leitrim and County Mayo, to avoid wasting funding, it should get together with local planners, developers and the chambers of commerce to work together. Whether it knows it, as many people are concerned it is involved in a stand off. I can sit back in the Cork scene and look upwards.

I have often driven through County Leitrim and can say the place is denuded. Whether Mr. Smith likes it, we worry about our own. There are 136,000 people living in Cork city and we worry about maintaining the population but having driven through some places, if I was in Mr. Smith's position, I would be out with a large flag welcoming people in. I would ask how I could help people on the environmental side. There is a difficulty in the west which the Government has tried to address. If Mr. Smith disagrees with the Government's policy, we are really in trouble. The Chairman is quite right in the advice he gives as we are looking for value for money in everything we do, great or small. An Taisce should sit down with the various groups to try to put something together in the hot spots. It can do what it likes in the rest of the areas.

I am concerned. I wish to see anyone even partially funded from public funds doing very well. There is a great need for An Taisce. While its role is defined, it must move in tandem with the general public. If one finds one is in conflict with 90% of the public, it is time to look at oneself. My advice is to follow the advice of the Chairman and work with people, whatever the difficulties are.

Mr. Purcell

I return briefly to support a related point the Chairman made. It relates to the requirement for information. If people are better informed, they are less inclined to waste their money making planning applications which are clearly inappropriate. The manner in which that information is disseminated is very important. In the report we point to a development in Meath County Council which involved holding pre-application clinics. I do not know to what extent that measure has been developed since the report was published but the intention was that a local authority official could use information and communications technology to access the history of a site. He or she could then indicate to an individual in the case of one-off housing, for example, the likelihood or otherwise of an application's success. If the individual has this information, he or she knows exactly where he or she stands. We looked at this from an auditor's point of view with a value for money mandate and judged that it would cut down on wasted time and effort and appeals to An Bord Pleanála.

I thank Mr. Purcell for his comments which sum the matter up to an extent. The more information an applicant has on the table, the better. It is important that An Taisce and all others involved in the planning process work to further the interests of wildlife and nature but it must be remembered that there are only 27,000 people living in County Leitrim. There are 56,000 living in Country Sligo. There has been huge development in the regions and towns but development and enterprise can be encouraged in the context of correct planning which would complement rather than endanger the region for future generations. That is the role of everybody involved in developing his or her investment in an area which needs it. Does Mr. O'Connor wish to comment?

No, we have run over all aspects of the matter. I do not need to say more at this stage.

Does Deputy McCormack have any questions?

The questions which were on my mind may have been dealt with in my absence. A colleague requested that I ask a few questions but if the witnesses tell me they have been dealt with, I will look up their answers in the record.

It was mentioned that decisions in 27% of all cases appealed were reversed. What percentage are reversed in relation to appeals by applicants and third parties?

Appeals by applicants are against refusal.

Decisions are reversed in between 15% and 20% of cases. The figure varies from year to year but is around that level. Appeals by third parties result in refusal in 46% of cases.

Is that 46% of 27%?

It is 46% of third party appeals.

Therefore, there are three times more reversals in appeals by third parties as against appeals by applicants?

Yes. However, there is a big difference. In the case of an appeal against a refusal, one is starting off with a refusal.

From the point of view of the applicant, it is starting as an appeal.

There are three times more reversals in third party appeals than there are reversals of planning permission refused to applicants.

My next question was asked but not answered to my satisfaction. How is it that when the board sends an inspector to inspect a site, it does not accept his or her decision in 10% of cases?

Yes, we discussed this. This happens in about 10% of cases. If it was policy and provided for in the legislation that the inspector made the decision, as happens in England, that would be the case. However, the board, not the inspector, is responsible for the decision and has to weigh up everything, including the inspector's report and other presentations and submissions, and come to a decision. Inevitably, there will be some cases where it will not agree with the inspector.

Membership of the board was recently increased from six to 12. For what period of time is the board appointed?

The chairperson is appointed for a seven year period. All other board members are generally appointed for a five year period of office.

Are they appointed by the Minister?

They are. The chairperson is appointed by the Government under a statutory procedure. The other members are appointed by the Minister. He or she selects the appointees from the nominees put forward by nominating bodies as set down in the legislation.

The board carried out a study of once-off rural housing. Was it ever published?

No, it is not yet completed. However, it is well advanced and we will publish it in the next annual report. We selected three categories of appeal which we believed merited a detailed examination - telecommunications masts, wind farms and one-off housing in rural areas. We have preliminary reports from two of the studies but do not yet have results on one-off housing. They will be available shortly and will be published.

I read in one of the paragraphs that the board would like an assessment of the quality of its decisions to be carried out, provided it did not lead to reopening decided cases. The most aggrieved persons are those with decided cases. What recourse is open to a person to assess the quality of a decision of the board if one cannot deal with a decided case?

We are talking about the general quality issue, not the merits of an individual case, which is quite different from general qualitative criteria. I do not believe this was intended by the Comptroller and Auditor General to be in any way a second guessing of the board's decision, which under the law is the final decision on the planning merits.

Is there no redress for a decided case? There is no assessment of the quality of a decision in a decided case, irrespective of what evidence is produced to me or any other public representative. There is no way I can ask the board to assess the quality of that decision.

For a start, the board's file is available. All submissions, reports and so forth are taken into account by the board and it should be clear from its decision and the file why it reached it. In many cases it is open to people to go back and deal with the refusal issues, as happens in a number of cases. People reading the file can decide how they want to respond to the decision. In some cases it may not be possible but in a number of others it can be done. A refusal of planning permission in many cases is not a death sentence but lays down directions for those affected.

What about cases where applicants sometimes allege that decisions were based on false information supplied to the board? I can quote a few planning numbers, if the Chairman permits, in which that was alleged.

We do not discuss individual decisions. That is not the procedure.

I respect that. It is not possible, therefore, for me to assess the quality of the decision. Somebody from Dowra, County Leitrim, the small village on the Cavan-Leitrim border and an area with a low population, came to me - I will not mention any numbers - about planning permission being refused for two private houses within the village boundary. How can I make an assessment on behalf of a person who makes representations to me and says decisions were arrived at as a result of false information being supplied to the appeals board? I cannot assess it or have the quality of that decision assessed.

Mr. Purcell

If one associates proper and good procedures with the likelihood of getting the right result and the quality of the decision, there is another arena in which this can be decided. If an individual believes proper procedures have not been followed by the board, he or she can go to the High Court to which people have gone.

Of course but how does the couple in County Leitrim go to the High Court when they have already spent so much money on a fruitless application granted by Leitrim County Council which was then refused by the appeals board? Neither I nor anybody else has the opportunity to assess the decision, even if the couple alleges that it was made on false information. That is the allegation. I would like to be able to investigate it and report back to the person who contacted me but cannot do so.

If there is false information and a person can stand up different information, there is nothing to stop him or her reapplying and reappealing. If the board did not get the right end of the stick, the person can come back to it on appeal and it will look at the new situation as presented. That does happen.

That is fine but it is not the reality for a young couple who are getting married and have a site for a house. To say they can apply and appeal again to the appeals board where they can allude to the alleged false information is ridiculous. It costs up to €1,000 to make a planning application in rural areas, apart altogether from the delay and the cost of building the house. The couple in question emigrated in frustration and are now happily housed in London. That is no good to the people of Dowra. It is ridiculous to say they could appeal again. That is what the planning authority tells people after making alleged bad decisions or where there was an error. It tells them to apply again. It is €2,000 down the drain every time one makes a planning application. There is also the delay and frustration. However, I will not pursue the matter further.

Can Mr. Smith say if An Taisce is transparent and accountable?

Mr. Smith


Is it subject to freedom of information requests?

Mr. Smith

It is not a public or semi-State body. As it is a charity, it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

It is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr. Smith

Any more than a political party would be.

I am simply asking if An Taisce is subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr. Smith


The comparison to a political party is not being made in the appropriate location. You say you are not political but twice this morning I have heard comparisons made between An Taisce and a political party. We are not in the same league. We are elected to office.

Mr. Smith

We are a charity.

I do not want to hear any further reference to a political party. That happened with Fianna Fáil and now it has happened with Fine Gael. If you want the Fine Gael membership in County Sligo, I can give you every name.

Mr. Smith

As I said, I can provide it for An Taisce in a similar situation.

Members too?

Mr. Smith

Not the membership. I believe you are being——

If you are making comparisons with political parties, I can give you the names of the officers and members.

Mr. Smith

I believe you would be in breach of the Data Protection Act 1988 if you provided lists of your members for outside parties, which is the reason we do not provide them.

I do not know whether An Taisce is a charity but some would certainly say it was not very charitable. Again, I am only relaying what has been reported to me in my capacity as a public representative. Is An Taisce ever selective in its appeals? You say it made over 3,000 appeals in the past year. Is it ever selective in the appeals its makes in planning matters?

Mr. Smith

We appealed the decisions on 300 schemes in the last year. I will call upon Mr. Lumley who deals with the matter on a day-to-day basis to talk about the selectivity of approach.

Mr. Lumley

By definition, with any process where An Taisce or other prescribed bodies are analysing all of the potential applications they can within the time period, selectivity is required because of resource and time constraints. It is obvious that An Taisce would put particular emphasis on those applications that would affect its prescribed remit, amenity areas, sites of archaeological heritage, nature conservation or water quality. In addition, we have a general concern for proper planning and development, compliance with the national spatial strategy, strategic planning guidelines, proper, balanced regional development and the meeting of national and local objectives. All of our submissions are made on the basis of European directives, national policy and relevant local authority development planning considerations.

In coming to appeal stage, there are dramatic differences between different counties. This is quite surprising and has been highlighted in the An Bord Pleanála figures. Different counties seem to have different levels of expertise of professional planners. In some counties there are very detailed planner reports on individual planning applications, while in others such as County Mayo, one might just get hand-written memos which in some cases are not even legible. In others there are very detailed assessments of the sewerage impact of even a one-off house. County Monaghan would be a good example where the county engineer has set down very good environmental standards. However, adjoining counties like County Cavan reflect quite different standards.

To start with, on a national basis, we would focus on particular amenity sites and some counties more than others where it was obvious that the quality of appraisal of planning decisions was poorer. This would be reflected in the submissions and arguments we would make.

I am not much clearer than when I started. I will be a little more specific. There are local authority areas where An Taisce objects to all motions passed by way of section 4 and others where it does not do this. Do do agree that this is selective?

Mr. Lumley

I am glad the Deputy put that question because it raises the very serious issue of differences in the levels of information available between various local authorities. Some local authorities are complying very efficiently and effectively with the Planning and Development Act 2000 and the 2000 regulations. Unfortunately, however - this should be of very serious concern to the committee because of the knock-on consequences - others are not. They are not publishing lists of applications on time or making files properly available. They are disenfranchising members of the public and prescribed bodies in making representations. When submissions are made, they do not send letters of acknowledgement.

There are major problems in counties Meath and Westmeath, in particular, with regard to the failure to notify parties who have made submissions of planning permission decisions, thereby disenfranchising and depriving them of their right to appeal. There are elementary problems arising from local authorities not sending receipts or letters of acknowledgement of planning submissions. This is happening in some counties but not in others. Part of the reason, therefore, for the variation between different counties is that in certain counties there are elementary and fundamental issues to do with the failure to comply with key provisions of the Act and regulations. This has a knock-on effect in disenfranchising and preventing concerned members of the public and prescribed bodies such as An Taisce from appealing.

In County Meath, for instance, lists are systematically late. In County Cork they are late to such an extent that by the time one gets them the appeal period has passed. Other counties are halfway towards this stage. There is irregular implementation of the Act and regulations in a wide number of counties and in a large number a very serious degree of maladminisatration which is having a knock-on effect in the participation of the public and prescribed bodies in the planning system. This could ultimately lead to enormous legal challenges and the potential invalidation of large numbers of planning applications in the counties concerned, particularly planning applications involving environmental impact statements where European Union regulations would also be involved.

These concerns do not come within the remit of the Committee of Public Accounts. They are quite serious allegations on which I would be very anxious to get a reaction from the Department. There is unrest throughout the country about planning applications and the allegation Mr. Lumley has just made about non-conformity with procedures and the legality of planning decisions in certain counties is very serious.

It appears from that statement that the deciding factor in An Taisce's decisions on whether to appeal is the efficiency of the planning authorities in various areas. If that is a factor, it should be addressed somewhere outside this committee. I do not know what the position is in terms of An Taisce appealing decisions on the basis of the alleged efficiency or otherwise of the planning authority in an area but the matter should be taken up elsewhere.

If the statement just made about the huge anomalies in the different structures of planning and the lack of compliance on the part of county managers and planners can be substantiated, it means the whole planning process is up in a heap. I ask Ms Moylan to make a comment because this is causing huge unrest throughout the country. I can understand fully now what is going on.

The planning regulations were amended in 2001. New regulations were brought forward to try to introduce greater efficiency and transparency into the system. There have certainly been some difficulties in bedding them down in local authorities, some of which have been more effective than others in implementing them. By and large, most are now implementing them quite well.

We are having ongoing discussions with the local authorities to see what the problems are. One of the problems centred on the training of staff in understanding what was involved. Obviously, we would be concerned if information from local authorities was not getting into the public domain in the operation of the planning system or if people did not have an opportunity to comment on planning applications, which would be very serious.

We have taken the matter up with the local authorities which have advised us that there are difficulties in relation to the regulations. We are assessing the matter to acertain whether there are real problems and some of the requirements we have made are overbureaucratic. That is an analysis we have to make to see if it is necessary to review the regulations. We will be doing this in the coming months now that we have had one year's experience of implementing them. This relates to the procedural aspects of the administration of the planning system.

With regard to Mr. Lumley's comments about the abuses and lack of guidelines, particularly when An Taisce has such a vested interest in planning, to make a statement of that nature means that the planning——

I am concerned about the statement that An Taisce selects its objections on the basis of the efficiency, or the lack of, of the local authority. I will be asking that the committee ask for the matter to be investigated by the appropriate person. Perhaps it is not a monetary matter or the concern of this committee but it is the concern of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, of which I am also a member. I will be insisting that it be raised at that committee because it is a serious statement. I believed An Taisce's criteria for selecting matters to be appealed were based on different matters but this does not correspond with the view expressed. How can the local committees of An Taisce which, as Mr. Smith said, have a dedicated lay planning person be in a position to judge whether a local authority is efficient in the manner in which it deals with applications for planning permission?

That is a very good question.

I have a further question for Mr. Smith. Has An Taisce ever withdrawn appeals it has lodged?

That question was discussed but if Mr. Smith wishes to come back on it in the light of the statement made, he can refer to it.

I would like to hear the short answer.

Mr. Smith

I do not think Mr. Lumley was saying the primary motivating factor in An Taisce's activity in a particular local authority area was the extent of maladministration. The Deputy should perhaps supplement what he is saying.

I am asking if An Taisce has ever withdrawn an appeal it has lodged?

Mr. Lumley

That matter has already been clarified in the discussion.

It was not clarified for me.

Mr. Lumley

To summarise, in a number of rare cases it may happen that an applicant will bring to the attention of An Taisce material circumstances relating to an application not contained in the planning file. For instance, it could be the case that the health circumstances of a person are such that they require him or her to live near his or her parents' house, which information he or she, for his or her benefit, should have included in the public planning file in the first instance to justify the application. In certain rare cases such as this - there have only been a few that I can recall in recent years - An Taisce has reconsidered its appeal. In general, an appeal is based entirely on planning and environmental grounds. Strategically, we identify potentially the most problematic decisions by local authorities.

I am not clear on this. Mr. Smith gave us the reasons An Taisce might consider withdrawing an appeal. Has it ever withdrawn an appeal it has lodged against the granting of planning permission?

Mr. Lumley

Yes, that has happened in several cases but I have explained the main circumstances.

Whom do I contact in An Taisce when such a matter concerns me?

Mr. Lumley

There is a procedure for this, the regulations are quite clear. When an appeal is made by a third party to An Bord Pleanála, the procedure is that the first party makes a response to the submission.

I know all that. I am more interested in how somebody gets An Taisce to withdraw an appeal it has made. I am talking about someone who comes to me and makes a genuine case and says planning permission was granted but is now being appealed by An Taisce. To whom do I make the case that he or she has to make?

Mr. Smith

Perhaps I could answer that question. Our articles of association provide for a mechanism whereby we deal with the possibility of withdrawing appeals. There is a committee which comprises the planning officer responsible for writing the submission, the chair of the local association, if we have one, the national chair of An Taisce, and the chair of the policy committee which deals with the subject matter. This committee considers any written representations received. As a matter of good practice, we consider that if we are interfering with property rights, albeit in the public interest, we should meet people if they have concerns about appeals we have lodged. That is the least we can do. We have an official procedure involving a number of people at different levels of the organisation which must be observed before we withdraw an appeal.

The procedure is similar to that which applies in politics. Is it the case that it is as a result of representations that An Taisce will consider withdrawing an appeal?

Mr. Smith

It could be. There are other reasons we might withdraw an appeal. For example, if we decide that there has been a major relevant change in circumstances or a major error of fact, we will of our own volition withdraw an appeal.

Does An Taisce ever withdraw an appeal as a result of representations made to it?

Mr. Lumley

In a few cases, as will be shown in the documentary records in the book and on the website, appeals have been withdrawn. As I said, most withdrawals occur when applicants withdraw their appeals——

I am interested in An Taisce.

Mr. Lumley

The applicant has borne a financial cost and withdraws the appeal.

I am not interested in the applicant but An Taisce. When people say to me that if I approach it in the right way, it will withdraw an appeal, I want to understand the mechanics. As I never knew there was a mechanism for doing so, I am trying to establish how I can get in on the game.

Perhaps An Taisce will furnish the committee with the procedure.

Mr. Smith

It is completely transparent. It is included in our articles of association because we wanted to make it as comprehensible as possible.

Perhaps An Taisce will furnish the committee with the articles.

Mr. Smith

I will be happy to do so. To put the matter in context, over the last year we have withdrawn two or three appeals out of a total of 300.

I cannot get that information under the Freedom of Information Act because An Taisce is not subject to it.

Mr. Lumley

It is available on the An Bord Pleanála website on which An Bord Pleanála is to be congratulated for its extreme efficiency. Its website is a very good model that local authorites could follow. It contains particulars of all applications, with the names of applicants and those who have appealed. Decisions, as well as inspectors' report, are posted as soon as they are made. Particulars of withdrawals of appeals also appear on it.

Is all the information on the reason a case has been withdrawn to be found on the website?

Mr. Lumley


I thought so. I will bypass that question.

Mr. Lumley

There is one point the Deputy took up which perhaps implies a misunderstanding of what I said about the strategic basis for an An Taisce appeal. He implied that it was based on whether a local authority was efficient or inefficient. The problem is that local authorities which are inefficient in administering the planning Acts by not publishing lists on time or notifying prescribed bodies preclude us from taking appeals because we only become aware of the decision after the four week period. That has happened in a number of cases. That is the reason there needs to be a serious remedy to ensure all local authorities comply fully with the Acts and regulations with regard to the publication of public information and all parties making submissions, whether third parties or prescribed bodies, are sent receipts.

There are major issues arising from the failure to send receipts. Article 28 of the planning regulations and the relevant provisions of the Acts require that any third party or prescribed body be sent a copy of the decision within three working days in order to consider whether an appeal is merited. The failure of a number of local authorities to comply with these requirements is disenfranchising An Taisce and many other third parties and prescribed bodies from exercising their right to appeal to An Bord Pleanála. That is a very serious matter since it also, potentially, allows a bad local authority decision to prevail, as well as circumscribing legal rights.

My concern is different, it relates to cases that come to your notice that have gone beyond the time limit for appeal because people making representations were not notified within the statutory period. I am trying to establish the criteria you select in making appeals. It was quite clear from the earlier answer I got that the criteria were based mainly on the alleged inefficiency of some local authorities. I would like that matter investigated.

I fully support the Deputy. The initial statement clearly indicated huge incompetence on the part of local authorities. That is my interpretation.

Mr. Smith

That is not An Taisce's stance. That may be what is recorded but it is not what motivates An Taisce.

We will see when the minutes are produced.

Mr. Lumley

I was very clear in stating the reasons for An Taisce appealing were developments that would affect or proscribe amenity, architectural heritage, archaeology, nature conservation, the protection of water quality and other issues associated with spatial planning and transport which would be considered on a national and strategic basis, and how planning applications affected these issues. They are the only reasons An Taisce will take an appeal.

That is a corrected answer.

The first run was quite different.

I distinguish between local authorities not complying with requirements to publish information under the planning regulations and the quality of decision-making. Local authorities having difficulties in publishing lists and so on is a matter we want to address, perhaps through e-government. This would obviously require regulations. Where there is a view that local authorities are inefficient, affecting the quality of their decisions, the clear recourse is an appeal to An Bord Pleanála. That provides the method for dealing with the matter.

Regarding your property portfolio, what funding are you receiving from the State?

Mr. Smith

Unfortunately, we get no funding from the State for the management of our——

Are you getting no funding at all?

Mr. Smith

We run 16 properties with no State support. We effectively run them on a budget of zero, though in some cases we have arrangements, for example, with Dúchas, whereby it manages the properties. We get IR£55,000 from the Government.

The interpretation of how the properties are run is amazing if you can run 16 properties with no funding. How can that be done? Representatives of the Office of Public Works appeared before the committee recently. The Office of Public Works has a massive budget but huge difficulty maintaining State properties, which it was selling. I strongly recommend that you join its board.

The amount of money An Taisce received from the Government in 2001 for running its affairs was IR£55,000, as Mr. Smith acknowledged. Objections to planning permission were its biggest interest. What is the figure for State funding for 2002 or 2003? Have there been any cutbacks?

Mr. Smith

The arrangement was IR£55,000 for three years. The European Commission is very concerned that environmental bodies get some support from the State. A recent survey undertaken by it found that Ireland was last but one in terms of state funding of environmental organisations. The truth is that, because there are so many volunteers in the organisation, An Taisce is run on a shoestring.

I know that. I am involved with many organisations which are run on a shoestring. An Taisce is claiming credit for cleaning up the environment and communities. I was never a member, like all those who go out with me on a Saturday morning, yet we continue to do it. I am trying to establish whether you received a rise on the IR£55,000 you received in 2001, or are cutbacks affecting you also?

Mr. Smith

I repeat that there is an arrangement for three years whereby we get IR£55,000 a year. There has been no cutback and no increase.

While An Taisce has charitable status, is the company limited by guarantee?

Mr. Smith

It is a company limited by guarantee with charitable status.

What are the benefits of charitable status?

Mr. Smith

We get certain benefits if people make donations to the organisation. However, most of our funding comes from the membership, which, I am happy to report, is on the rise, and from our management of projects, including the litter campaign and the blue flag programme. Donations come far back in our sources of funding.

Are your company accounts lodged in the Companies Registration Office?

Mr. Smith

An Taisce's affairs comply, as they have to, with the highest standards of transparency. We are very open. The problem is that, especially against a background where quite often the purpose for which people seek membership would not be one with which our members would necessarily be happy, we have no choice but to comply with the terms of the Data Protection Act 1988 which states an organisation keeps a list of its membership solely for the purposes for which the members gave their names in the first place. I wish we could do otherwise for it would deny the possibility of saying we are in some way lacking in transparency but my understanding is that it would be illegal under the Act and also a breach of people's privacy, especially if they were subject to intimidation afterwards.

Do you operate more than one company by limited guarantee?

Mr. Smith

Just one. We are hoping to benefit from the same tax advantages that the UK National Trust has. In Britain one can meet a tax liability by giving property to that value to the National Trust which has come into hundreds of properties on that basis. Unfortunately, we have never benefited from similar legislation here. We are hoping to form a subsidiary company with other environmental organisations such as Birdwatch Ireland and the Georgian Society. However, it has not come into effect. Its function would be property management. We operate as a charity and one company limited by guarantee.

You must have very generous benefactors if you can balance your books on a State income of IR£55,000.

Mr. Smith

I repeat that we get money from our membership and also some——

You have 5,000 members. The fee must be huge.

Mr. Smith

The fee is €7 for unemployed persons, €12 for students and €28 for ordinary members. From this we get around €80,000, just over the amount we receive from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. As I said, we also get money from managing projects.

That concludes a very interesting meeting. I thank Mr. O'Connor of An Bord Pleanála and Mr. Smith and Mr. Lumley of An Taisce for being here today. I also thank the Comptroller and Auditor General for his outstanding report. As always, his team has produced an excellent document. I also thank Ms Moylan of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

From today's meeting, I hope there will be co-operation. I appeal to An Taisce and all of the bodies working on the controversial element of planning. The perception among customers and constituents is important. There must be an appearance that people are working together, although Deputy McCormack will agree there are conflicting opinions. I hope the Department will accelerate the timescales, which is urgently needed.

I thank the Comptroller and Auditor General for an outstanding value-for-money report which has brought to life many issues of concern throughout the country. Is it agreed that we note it? Agreed.

Next week we will deal with the accounts for the National Treasury Management Agency for 2001 - chapter 13.1, which deals with the national debt, and chapter 13.2, which deals with the savings bank fund. We will also deal with the accounts for the national pensions reserve fund for 2001.

The witnesses withdrew.

The committee adjourned at 2.40 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Thursday, 19 June 2003.