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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 4 Feb 1998

Vol. 486 No. 4

Local Government (Planning and Development) Bill, 1997: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Bill which allows us to review all aspects of the running of An Bord Pleanála and the planning process as a whole. The board was established in 1976 as a statutory body and in 1996 it had a staff of 71. It is financed by a State grant and income from planning fees. In 1996 the grant was £2.315 million and the income from fees was £502,259. It is an important body which performs functions under the Local Government (Planning and Development) Acts, Local Government (Water Pollution) Acts, Air Pollution Act and Building Control Act.

The Bill allows for an increase in the number of board members, currently restricted by Statute to a chairman and five ordinary members and all Members support the measures being brought forward in the Bill. The activities of the board are of central importance to the socio-economic development of Ireland. In recent years there has been a huge increase in the number of planning appeals combined with accelerating rates of economic growth. We are also experiencing the problem of growing urbanisation and an increasing consciousness of environmental issues. It is important that the board be expanded as planning issues become more complex while it must also be efficient, utilise modern technology, employ highly qualified staff and be seen to be representative.

The board represents various interests, including construction and business organisations, planning and professional groups, environmental bodies and general interest groups. It is important that it be seen to be pro-enterprise and that a balance is struck in that regard. There are various bureaucratic obstacles in terms of setting up businesses whether at local authority level or in Government Departments. The board should recognise the important role business plays in the economy and it is relatively easy to ensure that in terms of the membership of the board.

We have got the concept of a planning appeal right. An Bord Pleanála should be independent of the political process and the Minister of the Environment and Local Government. That was not the tradition in past years but on balance the concept behind the board is correct although we criticise its operations from time to time with regard to individual decisions. In general the system of third party appeals works but there should be transparency in the operations of the board. There is a question mark over some decisions made by it, particularly where it overturns the decision of a local authority. People ask to whom the board is answerable as it is not often clear to those who have an interest in planning matters. A way to deal with that would be to ensure more transparency on controversial decisions.

This issue was raised at a convention on the Irish planning system, an initiative of the Minister, dealing with continuity and change on 27 November 1997. Those attending the seminar were strongly of the view that the report of the inspector should be published and there should be an explanation from the board where a decision has been overturned. I hope that could be accommodated in a review of the planning process.

I am unhappy with the role given to public representatives in the operation of the board. It is not fair to ask them to make a financial contribution in order to submit observations. It seems a public representative is only entitled to send a letter looking for a copy of the decision when it is determined, and to possibly mention in it whether he is for or against it if there is no financial contribution or if the submission is not made within a particular time scale. The role of public representatives was examined in great detail when this matter was last discussed in the House. As a public representative I feel somewhat isolated and do not want to fork out the required fee merely to make observations on behalf of my electorate. That matter should be re-examined.

I am sure all Members would agree that delays on decisions should be minimised. We have a thriving economy, business is expanding and there has been a great deal of overseas investment in hotels and so on. Outsiders in particular do not understand the delay on the part of the board, but I am sure the Bill will address that matter. The question of staffing is another important matter.

I have the honour of being the vice-chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment and Local Government which has just finalised its work programme. One of the first items on our agenda is a review of the planning process, which is currently taking place. Many members of that committee believe the Minister should be supported in the need to examine many aspects of the planning process. The committee's review is timely given that it is also a priority of the Minister. I am sure many of the matters discussed at the convention on the Irish planning system last November will be considered in the next few weeks.

I hope the planning process is improved by public consultation. Increased public participation and local democracy is crucial. As I stated at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Local Government, I am amazed at the lack of public involvement in major planning issues. It is generally only when a planning application for housing is lodged that people take note, but that is too late because the application for residential zoning would have been determined some years earlier. In many cases listed buildings are demolished before the public realise what is happening. It is regrettable they are not more vigilant at an earlier stage in such developments.

Modern communication techniques should be used by local authorities. There should be proper advertising through the media, leaflet drops and so on. As stated recently in the debate on the conduct of referenda, large official-looking notices or small advertisements in newspapers are not enough to attract public attention on such matters. It would be in everybody's interest, including developers, to involve the public on a partnership basis in planning matters. A great deal more needs to be done in that area.

The Bill provides for the enforcement of An Bord Pleanála decisions. Local inspectors employed by local authorities do not have enough power to deal with breaches of planning permissions and so on. They appear to be very restricted in what they can do and as a result they tend to adopt a rather laid back and traditional attitude. We live in a modern European State and regulations should be stringently enforced.

The Minister for the Environment and Local Government is concerned about abuse of retention provisions. He referred to this at the seminar last November and in reply to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Allen yesterday he stated that circumvention of the planning system should be eliminated. I agree with his view in that regard.

An Bord Pleanála has made many decisions on residential developments. It has often refused planning permission for residential developments on the basis of zoning. Escalating houses prices, particularly in the greater Dublin area, have turned from a talking point into a potentially serious problem. An article in the Irish Independent last September stated that prices in the Dublin area rose by 25 per cent in one year and that the average price of a house would soon exceed £100,000. That is well beyond the reach of young married couples even where both parties are earning relatively good incomes. If the Dáil does nothing else this session, it must address that problem. While I am aware the Department is taking steps in this regard, something must be done urgently. Young couples are facing serious problems in the months ahead. The results of a consultancy study on house prices will be published in March. I accept this is a complex issue and the Government does not want to introduce a measure that would increase prices even further.

I welcome the £15 million provided to service more land in respect of water and sewerage facilities. It is important that more houses are built. Unfortunately, in the current climate city councillors will balk at the possibility of rezoning land in and around the Dublin area. If there was official recognition of the need for more serviced land, city and county councillors would deal with it. It is vitally important that more houses are built, more lands zoned for residential purposes and that there is no corruption in the system, a problem that has still to be dealt with. I hope the Minister's study will address that issue.

I will be brief given that a number of Deputies wish to contribute to the debate. I welcome the Bill, the purpose of which is to increase the number of decision makers in An Bord Pleanála. Those of us who have been a member of a local authority for many years realise that the planning process, decision making, the objection process leading to An Bord Pleanála can take considerable time. It is important that the facilities are made available to An Bord Pleanála to enable it to arrive at a decision as quickly as possible in the interests of applicants for the various developments in our constituencies.

We have moved a long way from the time when decisions were made at political level, usually by the Minister of State at the then Department of Local Government. Many fine decisions were made at that time. Unfortunately it became unacceptable that politicians would be involved in the planning process. Given all the recent controversy, it is well that some of these decisions were handed over to an autonomous body, either the local authority or An Bord Pleanála.

As a member of a local authority for 31 years I have been involved in planning debates, the preparation of plans for my constituency — the county development plan — and as a member of an urban district council for the town development plan. Usually the desire of the elected representatives is that the decisions made in this area conform to the plan we have prepared which has been advertised and on public view with an opportunity for submissions to be made. When the plan is adopted all applications must conform to it. That is why I always defend the planning officer at local authority level. He has the local knowledge, has visited the site, listened to the objections and, through the due process of decision making, notifies the local authority members that he intends to grant permission to the various applicants.

In my local authority I am pleased the county development officer and the county planning officer bring to the attention of elected members the intention to refuse an application and the reasons. This allows members, before the decision is made, to debate the reasons an application is refused. Occasionally, we have found it was possible to achieve a consensus between the applicant, the legitimate objections of the planning officer and the local members. That process has proved satisfactory in my constituency.

In the past I have used section 4s in the area of planning and have no apology to make. Those section 4s were implemented following consultation with the planning officer, having regard to the overall county development plan and the reasons the elected members decided exceptions could and should be made without breaking the principle of the town or county development plan. We have moved from there because there were cases where the section 4 power was abused and used to direct the manager, under the County Management (Amendment) Act, to do something he considered he should not do and advised councillors to that effect. At the same time section 4s were pushed through, ignoring all the professional advice available. That is not how councillors should perform.

There are still discrepancies where genuine concerns are expressed by local authority members and of which the planning officer will take account. When decisions are made the objectors still proceed to An Bord Pleanála, as the supernumerary body, to give a decision which has been discussed and debated publicly in the area where the development is taking place.

There are times when I do not understand the reason An Bord Pleanála will overturn a decision arrived at, following the due process at local level. I have reservations about some of its decisions. Given this procedure I have always refused to be involved in either influencing An Bord Pleanála or giving my opinion about an application on appeal. However, I have asked it to expedite its decision so that the applicant or the objector know where they stand. We have a problem in that local authorities have to go through a public notice process of any developments within their jurisdiction. This requirement is cumbersome in comparison with the planning application. In other words if a local authority intends to have a housing development or a development for travellers or otherwise, it is precluded from entering discussions with people in the area before the public notice appears. Usually when the public notice appears and the consultation takes place much undermining of the original proposal will have taken place because of doubts in people's minds or even deliberate misinformation about a particular development.

People are always ready to object to proposals, regardless of what they are. Nowadays people have the attitude: "I am all right, I want nothing to happen in my area, I want no developments that will interfere with my privacy" and that they must object. There is also the anomaly that objectors are allowed to object in an area where they have no connections; for example, people in County Donegal could object to a development in County Kerry. An Taisce and similar bodies prescribed under the Act can use that involvement in applications which do not have relevance to the people listed as objectors. That is difficult to understand.

Likewise when a local authority gives public notice of its intent to do something it is appropriate that discussions take place. I would prefer if preliminary discussions could take place between the manager and the group who would be directly involved in a particular development. By the time the public notice appears much of the misunderstanding about the development would have been cleared.

I attended a planning conference recently, at which the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, was present, where a commentary was given by a person from the media who obviously considered himself an expert in the area of planning. He was inclined to blame everybody for every decision, including the Minister of State for decisions when he was not in the Department. This person considered Ireland was so precious — and it is — particularly its rural hinterland, that nobody should be allowed to live in the countryside, that everybody should be shepherded to villages and towns, hamlets and cities, thus creating a demand for land to be rezoned in these areas. This does not present a major problem in rural constituencies. It is the philosophy of the media, which has tremendous power, that nobody is entitled to live in rural areas, even the sons and daughters of a land owner, that they should be asked to live in a town or village which is alien to their culture.

A reasonable attitude should be adopted to development in rural areas, particularly along non-national primary routes. I defend the stance taken on the number of entry and exit points along national primary routes. These should be kept to a minimum. I do not share this philosophy, however, when it comes to national secondary routes, the proposed realignment of which is used as a reason to turn down planning applications for permission to build houses, even though local authorities previously allowed the construction of isolated cottages and other development along these routes. This does not mean that development which is not in keeping with an area should be allowed, but wherever possible demands for local authority or private housing should be met.

The provision of tiphead facilities is another source of contention. A particular procedure is being followed in my constituency of Tipperary South where such a facility is urgently needed. Independent consultants have been commissioned to conduct a review. The matter is in the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency which is studying the suitability of the site chosen, Hard Bog. Although there is spring water flowing through the site, it is impossible to convince local people that it is the correct one. In spite of this, the local authority has pre-empted the outcome of the EIA and issued compulsory purchase orders in respect of all lands adjacent to the site. If one pre-empts the decisions of bodies such as An Bord Pleanála and the Environmental Protection Agency in this way, people will lose faith in them. An Bord Pleanála was established to convince people that decisions would be made by professionals who would be independent in the exercise of their functions, would have no axe to grind politically and nothing to gain. That is the reason it has been so successful, with some exceptions which have been dealt with by the courts. I resent the fact that in anticipation of a positive result the local authority has served notice of the compulsory acquisition of the lands in question in the local newspaper. Who will meet the cost of this procedure if there is not a positive result? Placing such advertisements in local newspapers is an expensive process.

The purpose of the Bill is to allow for an increase in the membership of An Bord Pleanála. This is welcome as we wish to avoid unnecessary delays and requests for further information or additional time to visit a site. Where An Bord Pleanála decides not to hold an oral hearing or to visit a site, as it is entitled to do, it should refund the additional fees lodged by an applicant. I have made representations to An Bord Pleanála in respect of this matter. The Minister has confirmed that under the law there is no obligation on it to refund fees. I asked the Ombudsman to investigate the matter. An Bord Pleanála should not retain the additional fees lodged where it refuses to hold an oral hearing as requested. I support the Bill.

I welcome the Bill, the purpose of which is to amend the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1983, in order to allow for an increase in the membership of An Bord Pleanála which, because of the number of appeals in hand, is unable to address adequately all of the issues raised within a satisfactory timeframe. Planning legislation has been amended to ensure decisions are made within a period of four months but An Bord Pleanála is unable adhere to this. I understand it has written to applicants informing them of this and, I presume, seeking additional time to consider their appeal. This is regrettable. We should ensure there is an effective appeals mechanism in place to ensure An Bord Pleanála adheres at all times to the requirements laid down and to good planning practices.

The increase in the membership of An Bord Pleanála should speed up the process to the point where decisions are made much quicker than four months. An application may have been under consideration for a considerable period before it reached An Bord Pleanála. That is the reason I would welcome an immediate decision on the provision of adequate staffing and other supports required by An Bord Pleanála so that it could make those decisions in line with good planning practices. I hope the Bill will assist in the more effective operation of An Bord Pleanála.

We can improve communication between An Bord Pleanála and public representatives. I understand from communication I have received from An Bord Pleanála that if I appeal a decision on behalf of one of my constituents I must submit a fee as normal. However, observations from a public representative can be accommodated. I ask the Minister to take the opportunity of reviewing the current structures to allow public representatives make observations, support an appeal or make an appeal on behalf of their constituents. That might be done in an overall examination of the current structure.

We should also try to improve public perception because, on occasions, members of the public are somewhat baffled by decisions made by local authorities and An Bord Pleanála. We must ensure, if at all possible, that An Bord Pleanála becomes more user friendly. I am not sure how that can be achieved. The Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, is probably more equipped to make recommendations on that but there is scope to improve public perception of the manner in which cases are dealt with by An Bord Pleanála.

An issue not far removed from the concerns of the public in relation to controversial decisions made by local authorities and by An Bord Pleanála is rezoning to which a number of speakers referred. We have seen a major improvement in planning and rezoning over the past ten years. As a member of Dublin Corporation I am proud of our record on most planning matters. I am particularly proud of the genuine input from the public representatives on Dublin Corporation and that of the corporation's professional and administrative planners.

Concern about planning decisions and rezoning has been expressed by the public on occasions. It is important to clearly state that, by and large, the people involved in the planning process are genuine in what they are endeavouring to do. I accept that a cloud may hang over some rezoning or planning decisions but we must acknowledge that the people involved in the planning process are genuine. That process can be scrutinised by the public and the majority of its decisions would pass any acid test. I have been a member of Dublin Corporation since 1985 and I understand the commitment and dedication of the professional planners and my political colleagues. It is important to put down a marker that we are genuine in all decisions made in line with good planning practices, the current legislation and the recommendations made by the professional planners.

The question of rezoning is controversial, as we know from recent experiences, but it must be accepted that with the growing population, particularly in the Dublin area, and the current economic boom there is a need for mixed development whether it be industrial, commercial, residential or the provision of recreation and sporting amenities. As the city develops we will have to address this issue in a bona fide way to ensure that we adequately cater for its development and the expansion of other areas that require the appropriate rezoning. We need to plan many years in advance.

As a member of Dublin Corporation I participate in a local authority which does not have its own water supply, a graveyard or a dump. Those necessary services are not available in a city where many thousands of people live. Legislators, and particularly the Department of the Environment and Local Government, will have to ask those working in the respective areas to produce a plan for the future which clearly identifies areas that will require rezoning to accommodate such needs as we approach the 21st century.

I welcome the review the Minister has undertaken in all planning and development matters. He has encouraged members of local authorities and the general public to participate in this review. People who have a role as public representatives, either at local authority or central Government level, should encourage local authority members to participate in that review. We are frequently contacted by residents' associations or other interested groups in the community who wish to express their concern about certain matters in relation to planning and development. We now have an opportunity to ask people to participate in the area of planning and development.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.