Deputy Howlin is not present to move amendment No. 1. I call on the Minister of State to move amendment No. 2.
Local Government (Planning and Development) Bill, 1997: Report and Final Stages.
Does that mean that amendment No. 1 is not being moved? I oppose that amendment.
It cannot be moved if the Deputy is not present.
Amendment No. 3 is an alternative to amendment No. 2. Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 will be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 4, line 23, to delete "section. " and substitute the following:
"section: provided that—
(a) where not more than four additional members are appointed pursuant to an order under section 3(2) of this Act, not more than one shall be appointed from among persons selected by organisations which for the time being stand prescribed for the purposes of a particular paragraph of subsection (2) of this section;
(b) where more than four but not more than eight additional members are appointed pursuant to an order under section 3(2) of this Act, not more than two shall be appointed from among persons selected by organisations which for the time being stand prescribed for the purposes of a particular paragraph of subsection (2) of this section. ".
I do not object to waiting for Opposition Deputies. It is a little unusual that they are not present.
We will wait for a short period.
Deputy Howlin is welcome. As I indicated on Committee Stage, I accepted the thrust of the amendment put down by Deputy Howlin. It provided that in the event of the appointment of up to four additional members to the board, one only would be appointed from each of the specialised panels and in the event of the appointment of up to eight additional members to the board, no more than two would be appointed from each of the panels. Two small drafting changes were required to the amendment in the interest of clarity and on the advice of the parliamentary draftsman. I have, therefore, put down this amendment. Neither of the small changes affects the thrust of the Deputy's amendment.
The Minister intends to appoint two additional members only to the board. It is unlikely that more than three additional members would be appointed. If it became necessary to increase the board membership to the extent envisaged in the amendment, which would result in a possible 14 member board, it would be necessary to revise the structure of the board to ensure it could continue to work efficiently.
I was led to believe there would be a vote at 12.30 p.m. The Minister of State might have waited a few minutes so that we could have debated amendment No. 1. If he had not been present, I would have waited for him.
Amendment No. 1 deals with an extremely important issue which I discussed at length on Committee Stage. It is also supported by the Fine Gael Party. I apologise for being late but, out of courtesy, I might have been given the opportunity to make a strong argument for the amendment. It is a pity that cannot be done because it is important for the Bill that interim appointments are made from the existing panels. Perhaps the Chair can explain if there is a procedural means to revisit the amendment.
I welcome amendment No. 2. It is the same as the amendment I put down on Committee Stage in every detail except for four words at the end of the second paragraph. I bow to the drafting skills of the parliamentary draftsman and of the legal team in the Office of the Attorney General. I welcome the acceptance of the Minister of State of the thrust of my amendment and I am happy to withdraw amendment No. 3 in its favour.
However, I hope there is a procedural means by which we can at least ventilate the arguments on behalf of amendment No. 1.
We are unable to return to amendment No.1.
It is an issue of courtesy. If the Minister of State had been two minutes late, the House would have waited for him.
The Chair dealt with amendment No. 1 after which I said I had no objection to waiting. The Bill could have been passed before the Deputy arrived. Out of courtesy I asked the Chair to wait until somebody turned up. No Member of the other Opposition parties have come to the debate.
It is true that all Stages of the Bill could have been passed in two minutes and, if the Minister of State had been late, we could have taken similar action. However, that is not the normal approach of the House to legislation. I do not blame anybody as I was three minutes late. However, I regret that an important issue, which we discussed for a considerable time on Committee Stage, will not be debated now for the sake of three minutes. That is not right.
It is unfortunate this dilemma has arisen. If there was any way I could help, I would be disposed to do it but the House is discussing amendment No. 2.
The Chair could have waited for two minutes.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 4, between lines 31 and 32, to insert the following:
3. —Any member of the Board in office immediately prior to the passing of this Act shall continue in office as if this Act had not been enacted. ".
This is a saving clause for which I argued at length on Committee Stage. During that debate, I offered to furnish my legal advice on this amendment to the Minister of State and I have done so. There are good reasons for including this explicitly saving clause in the Bill for the avoidance of doubt. The structure of An Bord Pleanála is a sensitive subject. Decisions of the board are scrutinised by lawyers and are often the subject of judicial review. It is extremely important, therefore, that every aspect of planning legislation should be crystal clear. Unless there is a compelling reason for not including this amendment — one could argue it is a belt and braces approach — it should be accepted.
I gave significant cause in writing to the Minister of State to justify a fear in this regard, for both the retained membership of An Bord Pleanála and the issue of warrants of appointment. I hope he reflected on the advice I submitted. The amendment is important for the avoidance of doubt. As decisions of the board could be subject to judicial review, it is better to insert this saving clause.
Deputy Howlin's amendment proposes that the provisions of this Bill would apply only to the proposed new members of the board and that the existing members would continue in their current positions. Even though it may be unnecessary legally, I am disposed to accepting the amendment in the interests of clarity.
I welcome this modest proposal. It does not seek to fundamentally alter planning law but to expedite the planning appeals process by the appointment of additional members to An Bord Pleanála. I deeply regret that on the issues articulated on Second and Committee Stages, unfortunately not on Report Stage, on the interim appointments, the Minister did not see fit to allow for the appointments to be made from the existing panels rather than from his own Department. On Committee Stage I argued that it would be wrong in terms of the principles of the Bill to move outside that nominating procedure. It would also weaken the core of expertise available to his Department if senior officials were seconded for a period of time to An Bord Pleanála. I would have welcomed the Minister's reflection, having had time to think about the arguments put forward on Committee Stage, but, alas, it was not forthcoming. Perhaps even at this late stage the Minister will comment on that matter.
A great amount of fundamental reform is needed in the planning process and that is being done in parallel with this enactment. I look forward to a comprehensive Bill on planning in the not too distant future to correct the many anomalies which we have identified, some of which we have tried to graft on this Bill but were deemed to be inappropriate graftings for this measure. I hope we will have an early opportunity to consider the planning system at local authority, planning authority and appeals level. I hope, particularly in the light of significant growth in planning, construction and planning appeals, a comprehensive planning measure will be before us shortly to bring relief to the many people affected by the various anomalies identified during discussion on this Bill and in the committee on the environment and local government, which has a role in reviewing legislation on the planning side.
I wish to comment on Deputy Howlin's amendment, debated fully on Committee Stage, which proposes that the interim appointments should be made from existing panels. That would be highly impractical for the reasons I outlined on Committee Stage, and I have not changed my view since then. It would not facilitate the immediate appointment of persons to the board, necessary to achieve the objective of enabling the board to deal expeditiously with the increase in planning appeals that are now before it or that may come before it in the future when it is deemed that the size of the board needs to be increased to deal with substantial and immediate increases in appeals.
The large number of appeals reflects the growth in activity in the economy, which is welcome. It is important that everything possible is done at legislative level to facilitate growth, and this Bill is necessary to enable An Bord Pleanála to meet its targeted objective of deciding at least 95 per cent of planning appeals within the four months period. That target began to slip in 1996 and was not met in 1997.
The measures to enable interim appointments to be made immediately by the Minister from his own staff or the staff of An Bord Pleanála are practical. Deputy Howlin's suggestion that the appointments be made from existing panels would not allow for immediate appointment because people would have to extract themselves from other jobs and would be appointed for perhaps only three or four months in many cases. That would not be attractive for them and would not achieve the objective of immediately increasing the number of board members of An Bord Pleanála.
This Bill will assist applicants for planning permission and the construction industry whose output is greatly affected by the efficient operation of the Planning Acts. Delays have often been identified as a cause of additional costs, where money has been invested and construction work cannot commence until full and proper permission has been granted. We are seeking to do everything possible to provide for efficient operation of the planning system so that unnecessary costs are not incurred on projects. The Government is concerned about the increased cost of private houses. This may help to alleviate to some extent one of the many factors which contribute to the high cost. There is not one obvious cause but a myriad of effects result in high demand. By making the planning procedures more efficient we are helping to improve supply. The Bill will prove very useful and, I hope, very effective in achieving that objective.