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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 15 Feb 2000

Vol. 514 No. 3

Planning and Development Bill, 1999 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage (Resumed).

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

Deputy Neville was in possession and he has 16 minutes remaining.

I was dealing with charter fees when I concluded last Thursday. If one does not object to planning permission at application stage, one cannot make submissions or lodge an objection to An Bord Pleanála subsequently. However, it is possible that an individual who has an interest in a planning application could examine it and find that it does not impinge on his or her rights in any way or affect his or her property and be quite satisfied. Subsequently, a local authority could stipulate conditions and that is a regular occurrence. The individual who examined the planning application originally could discover that a condition had been laid down which adversely affects him or her but it is too late to appeal to An Bord Pleanála.

An example of this could be an application to build a nursing home. The person living beside the proposed development might not have a problem having examined the plans, but if the local authority lays down a stipulation whereby additional car parking must be provided and rezones a green area for that purpose, it might affect the person and he has no right to appeal because he had not objected initially.

The erection of site notices is another issue which can lead to disagreement. Site notices can be difficult to see. If they are put up in the spring they can be viewed for a short period but then the leaves come out on the trees and they disappear.

One might need binoculars to see them.

Site notices are written in such a way that one might need binoculars to read them. It is important that there should be controls in respect of such notices. I know the intention is to have them in clear view on the roadside but that is not always the case. This may not be done deliberately but on occasions it is deliberate. The Minister should ensure that signs of a substantial size, perhaps in colour, are placed on sites and that they are protected from the elements. If the site is substantial, a number of different notices could be placed around it. The site could be measured to determine the number of notices required.

The Minister should also examine the position with regard to notices in the newspapers. Notices should be placed in two newspapers if possible, not just one. In addition, all planning notices should be printed on one page of a newspaper because notices dispersed throughout the paper could result in an individual missing some of them. There should be a regulation that all planning notices in newspapers should appear on one page and under one heading.

I wish to refer to the county development plans. Engineers spend months drawing up a county development plan – in our case it could have taken up to six months – and going into a lot of issues in great depth. They are experts in the area and good luck to them. They then present the plan to the councillors who have to defend what they have been given. Councillors make some amendments but they do not make any root and branch changes to the plan. The plan then goes back to the planners, slightly adjusted, but it is then called the councillors' plan. It may be the councillors' plan in name but it is the planners' plan which has been slightly amended by the councillors. Conflict can arise subsequently because the councillors make representations on behalf of their constituents but the county development plan is referred to as the councillors' plan, despite the fact that the planners spent months drawing it up.

Councillors do not have the expertise to change a development plan but they do the best they can with it. There should be a means whereby councillors are involved from the beginning of the process, before the planners put anything on paper. Their views should be obtained on a range of matters before the planners draw up the county development plan. The planners could respond to the councillors' needs or disagree with them but at least the councillors would be involved from the outset.

Expertise should be made available to councillors because planning is a complex issue which can cause a lot of grief, as we all know only too well. Independent expertise should be available to the elected members when the county development plan is being drawn up and their views should be taken on board and put into planners' language. It is difficult for a councillor to argue every point with planners. Planners often say that this or that should be done and that this or that is good planning, but we may discover subsequently that some of the things they do are not necessary and are not good planning. Often their agenda is to push the boats out further.

Everybody in this House wants rural Ireland to survive and for that to happen we need people living in these areas, but planners will examine every angle to ensure planning permission is not granted in a rural area. Planning permissions may be granted, but it is happening less frequently. The time will come when planning permission will not be granted in rural areas without proper sewerage schemes. Permissions will be granted only in the bigger towns and cities. We are a rural nation. People want to live in rural areas and our planners and the system should facilitate that.

At a time when technology has advanced in most areas to a degree beyond that envisaged 20, 30 or 40 years ago, before man was put on the moon, I cannot understand why an effective and cheap system cannot be developed to treat sewage from a single house in an environmentally friendly manner. I know we have various biocycles but the planners say they are not 100% effective. They were fine when they first came out but in two or three years' time they will not be accepted at all. That is the trend.

The provision that planning decisions should be made within four weeks, rather than the present two months, is welcome. In speeding up this process, however, problems may be created because of staff shortages. We have seen this in my council where everything is run up to the wire. Planners sometimes only get a chance to examine an application days before the end of the two month period because they do not have the staff. Planners under pressure will make decisions they would not normally make and the first decision they will make will be to put the matter aside for another two months. They will ask a list of questions which will allow them space to complete the planning process.

One of the first steps the Minister should take is ensure staffing levels in planning departments are examined because there is no doubt that with increasing affluence, the number of planning applications increases. It is a natural consequence of a growth in the economy but it has implications for staff. In Limerick County Council, the planning section and the engineers are understaffed and people who are under pressure cannot be as responsive to the public as we would like. We had a great system at one stage where somebody could come in and have a discussion or send in a map and ask for some advice. That no longer happens in Limerick County Council because the staff do not have the time.

The Bill is as important to the planners as it is to local government representatives and those applying for planning permission. The decision to hold seminars, which the Minister mentioned, is important. The Minister knows well that those who attended the seminars found them very useful. Even if they gave people reasons to disagree with the Minister, they were a worthwhile exercise. The Department should be congratulated for organising them.

The Bill does not provide for any democratic reform of the planning system. The system should be more open, more responsive to public needs and more amenable to properly exercised political influence by elected members of local authorities. After all, they are elected by the people to do that job. Planners often resent councillors and believe they are interfering in the planners' role. The councillors' role is to represent their electors in all areas of council business. That should be recognised but in certain circumstances planners do not recognise it. They feel they are a law unto themselves. That is fine for housing, roads, sanitary services and other council areas but not for the planning section.

The housing provisions in Part V of the Bill are unworkable and any attempt to implement them will further increase the price of houses, not only in the upper end of the market but also in what is now referred to as the "affordable housing" sector. Adequate resources are needed for local authorities to build houses for rental and purchase and to make sites available at reasonable prices. At present, An Bord Pleanála cannot cope with the volume of appeals. It needs further strengthening because the changes made some time ago are inadequate. The Bill's provisions with regard to the content and objectives of development plans are incomplete. They can be strengthened by making mandatory the provisions that are optional.

Last week, Members received a worthwhile and comprehensive submission from the Irish Home Builders Association. The document is commendable and the Minister should examine some of its suggestions. It has been said that the Bill's proposals are similar to those which operate in England. The Irish Home Builders Association says this is not true and that the Bill's provisions are rigid and cannot be compared with the English system, in which there is no provision referring land to local authorities at below market value.

The association goes on to point out that an element of affordable housing should be sought on suitable sites, not arbitrary sites. Indicative targets for specified suitable sites should be set and it should be indicated in plans that it is planned to negotiate with developers for the inclusion of an element of affordable housing on such sites. Affordable housing is also delivered in the UK through bringing vacant houses back into use and by encouraging the conversion of larger homes into more suitable units.

The economics of provision must be considered. The flexibility and mutually acceptable solutions referred to by the Minister are not reflected in the Bill, according to the association, in so far as all options available are based on the transfer of land, houses or sites at agricultural value. It is their view that Part V will not increase the overall supply of housing, which is its objective, but will reduce the supply of private housing. The expropriation of up to 20% of private land, sites or houses for social housing will reduce the supply of private housing in the market and result in increased prices for the 80% of houses sold in the private market.

I am anxious to draw the Minister's attention to the contents of the submission. They should be responded to by the Minister in his reply or taken on board on Committee Stage.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Daly.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

In light of the recently announced national development plan, it is likely that this country will experience unprecedented development in the public and private sectors in the coming years. The introduction of this Bill is timely in that, if speedily implemented, it will pave the way for such development to take place without unnecessary delay and cost.

Planning law is currently scattered among a series of Acts and it is acknowledged by officials to be cumbersome and confusing. It has been impossible for members of the public and public representatives to maintain an overview of planning legislation. This Bill is welcome because it collates and updates the process in a comprehensive document and is, in effect, a one stop shop for officials, public representatives and the public.

The Bill also contains some welcome initiatives. I wish to make some observations on the key improvements in the planning process. Part II deals with development plans, providing that all development plans for individual towns and areas are to be co-ordinated to ensure consistent policies for neighbouring areas. This will ensure that all areas are planned fairly with no area receiving more favourable treatment than another. Such co-ordination may extend between different authorities which should eventually lead to consistent planning procedures throughout similar areas of the country.

At last, due recognition has been given to smaller communities in the form of local area plans which are dealt with extensively in the Bill. In the past development plans were confined to large and urban areas and it is welcome that smaller rural villages, some with a population of less than 500 inhabitants, are given the opportunity to formulate their own plans. This measure is important in giving local people a focus and a chance to contribute to shaping the future of their locality. Such areas fell behind in the past while heavily industrialised areas forged ahead. These areas will benefit now from the economic, physical and social renewal which are the goals of local area plans.

I welcome Part III which provides for the shortening of the time period available to the planning authority to consider additional information from two months to four weeks. This will impose extra pressure on planning staff who are already overstretched. The Bill should be accompanied by measures to adequately staff local authorities so that it will not be necessary for them to rely on additional information requests to gain more time to consider an application. This is an unfortunate practice which has crept into the planning process in busy local authorities.

There has always been a facility for a member of the public to inspect planning files but under Part IV of the Bill it will be possible to purchase a hard copy of the permission once the planning authority has made its decision. This gives those appealing a decision the chance to do so on a fair and informed basis. I welcome the fact that such transparency has been ingrained in the Bill. The status of outline planning permissions has been upgraded. Once outline permission has been granted, the planning authority will not be able to refuse planning permission when it is applied for on the basis of matters agreed by the planning authority at the outline stage.

While the Bill was not perfect in the initial draft, great steps have been taken to iron out any wrinkles that might prevent it from achieving its objectives. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, has worked with representatives from all sides and sought to respond to their concerns. As a result of these discussions and his examination of the Bill, the Minister has carefully revised it to its new, improved form.

After a two year review of Irish planning law, it is the accepted and widespread belief that the Bill represents a genuine effort to reform and update planning laws in a fundamental way. At regional seminars many useful suggestions were taken into consideration. The careful planning of the Bill represents a comprehensive effort to bring about an effective and substantial improvement of planning law.

Perhaps the most crucial section is the commitment to provide social and affordable housing for those in need. As much as one fifth of future housing developments are to be set aside for affordable housing. This strategy requires developers to sell a portion of land zoned for housing to local authorities at existing value which will then be made available for affordable housing. Those eligible for affordable housing are those whose income does not measure up to the cost of a mortgage. This provision is the best way to guarantee housing for all who need it. As the Celtic tiger passes over Ireland, there is no excuse for hard-working citizens to be denied a new home in which to live. The impact of the housing strategy provision reaches beyond merely providing homes for those in need. It is also a method of counteracting social segregation. While the housing strategy may be controversial, it is the most logical way of solving the housing shortage and preparing for future shortages.

Planning development is another central element to the Bill which introduces a more open procedure for local authority development plans. It will give local communities an opportunity to participate at an early stage. By involving localit ies, a better sense of needs and concerns will be taken into account when policy decisions are made. For example, the same development strategies are not needed in Limerick as in Sligo. Different areas and communities have different needs and the provision responds to this fact. A sense of ownership of development plans should help reduce controversy about them.

The Bill gives development plans a six-year term and ensures that out of date plans will not be a feature of the future. Progressive action is needed for a progressive future and time and resources cannot be wasted on unnecessary plans. With a greater focus on local authorities, local area plans are to be given statutory recognition, which will allow the development of areas zoned for larger scale new development, and are to be subject to more detailed planning and future local consultation. Local area plans will fill the planning void between the broad objectives of the development plan and individual development proposals. As previously stated, local authorities are in the best position to determine and study the effects of huge scale development.

The need for a broader, more strategic context for development plans is recognised in the provisions for the strategic planning guidelines at regional level. Statutory recognition will be given to regional guidelines undertaken by regional authorities and this represents a significant empowerment of these authorities. The backbone of the development plan provision is a bridge between the broad objectives of the development plan and actual development proposals. Steps must be taken to ensure that plans meet objectives and the involvement of local and regional authorities provides feedback and insight into the process of such development plans.

The concept of sustainable development is a primary consideration in all planning decisions and is the underlying principle of the Bill. A wide range of measures is designed to ensure more sustainable development patterns which will take full cognisance of environmental considerations. The concept of sustainable development is dynamic and all-embracing. Thus, a concrete definition would only stifle and limit future development. Sustainable development is an elastic and flexible concept which provides for future needs. We do not have a crystal ball into which we can gaze to see the future. Therefore, we must not erect concrete barriers for future planning and development.

As we make provisions for future development, we can also assist the present by streamlining the planning system at development and planning levels. By speeding up the processing of planning applications we can prevent the delay of necessary housing, commercial and other developments. Emphasis should also be placed on timely decision making and the tightening up of a number of time limits under existing law.

A new feature of planning is the provision for strategic development zones which are designed to ensure that sites selected for development are of importance to the national economy. Strategic development zones provide for greater certainty in securing planning permission and about the timeframe for securing it. SDZs are a way of controlling development for the present and future. This is not necessarily a sure death for the Celtic tiger, rather an opportunity to tame the beast before he slips back into the economic jungle.

The Bill provides for the protection of existing legislation. It ensures that planning law takes into account other legislative objectives and removes a number of provisions which are now dealt with by other legislation. The Bill includes in full the provisions of the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1999, which provides local authorities with the power to protect structures of architectural, cultural and historical importance. It also enables local authorities to control developments affecting the natural environment. The Bill also offers a way for owners or occupiers of land affected by a proposed development to lodge an objection to it. These provisions present the humane face of the Bill by taking more than economic and financial concerns into consideration. The Bill seeks to benefit all Ireland and not just developers and bank books.

I thank Deputy Wade for sharing his time. I compliment the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials on the huge volume of work done and the amount of time spent compiling this major and comprehensive legislation. It is timely in the sense that it coincides with the publication of the national development plan. The Bill recognises the need to modernise structures and put in place a streamlined, efficient service to meet the challenges of the future.

It is true to say that the planning process has gone through a period of dramatic change in the past few years which has been brought about by the dramatic upturn in economic activity which has affected almost every part of Ireland. It is also true that, in putting forward legislation of this nature, it is difficult to devise an overall, national framework which meets the specific needs of different localities. For example, the specific needs of west Clare which has seen a decline in population and a movement of people into towns and cities would be different from those of the cities. Nevertheless, we have proposed the framework which will meet the challenges of the next number of years and which has left open the opportunity to make adjustments where it is felt necessary and desirable to do so.

I have always believed – my view is unlikely to change – that a national planning authority is needed. While the various local authorities with their responsibilities have been to the forefront in this area, it is time we examined the establishment in the long term of a national planning framework which would be applicable to the whole island and which would avoid some of the shortcomings which have bedevilled the existing system for too long. For example, one of the areas with which County Clare has had difficulty, and I think the same applies in many counties, is the constant movement of planners and planning officials between authorities. The county manager for Clare said yesterday that only one individual in the planning office in Clare has about six months' experience in the office. This is the same for many counties. Planners are moving from one authority to another and changing positions often, presumably because there is a shortage of planners generally. There is a need for an overall examination of this and to establish at a future stage a national authority, along the same lines as An Bord Pleanála, to deal with matters at a national level to avoid conflicts arising in different areas.

There is an attempt in the Bill to deal with some of the problems I have highlighted. To take the Limerick area for instance, there are three authorities, Limerick Corporation, Limerick County Council and Clare County Council. To date these would have operated on their own initiatives in the different areas. Nevertheless, the environs of Limerick, which take in much of County Clare and County Limerick, have stagnated over the past number of years because of the absence of a co-ordinated plan. A few years ago a study undertaken by consultants hired by the authorities tried to sort out where the services would be provided and where the road network and by-passes would be constructed so that there would be uniformity in the way in which these matters could be dealt with. It seemed to me a little ludicrous that each of the three authorities had their own engineers to deal with planning, sanitation and other matters, and that the three were certainly not going in the same direction.

The Bill attempts to deal with such circumstances in that it provides for taking regional considerations into account in planning decisions. This is evident in the plan adjacent to Dublin city, where Meath County Council and other local authorities have but forward a proposal which is incorporated in this legislation. We need to do the same in many built up areas. I am sure they are doing the same in Cork city and its environs. There is a need to do the same to some extent in Waterford, Kilkenny and Galway. The Bill will endeavour to deal with that.

The fact that there is dramatic change in every area means that there is a need for legislation which will be capable of responding to the challenges. Local and regional development plans are becoming ever more important and they will take on a greater importance in development. There is an additional, very real reason to develop the provincial areas, that is, to counter the accelerating development in Dublin which is creating imbalances not only here but in regions such as Galway, Limerick, Shannon and Cork. There is a need to tackle this in an efficient and effective way. An efficient and effective planning service will go some of the way towards dealing with the evident shortcomings.

There has been a shortage of planners and I am sure that can be addressed. It is possible to greatly enhance the number of planners. There is a need to find ways in which much of the detail can be given to administrative assistants in the planning offices which would speed up the service. However, the main complaints I hear from the public in my local authority area relate to the delays and frustration in getting conclusions to what seem to them to be minor decisions.

The Bill has been debated at length in the Seanad, but on Committee Stage I would like a closer look taken at section 4, which deals with the exemptions. There are a fairly wide range of exemptions here.

The Deputy should conclude.

Some of these are welcome but many of them need to be looked at in more detail. For instance, nothing has created more consternation for communities than the installation of huge sewerage systems nearby. Nothing creates more problems for people than huge agricultural developments, which could be exempted in some respects, taking shape on their back doors without consultation.

A review of the judicial review system is long overdue. For instance, there is a daft situation in Clare where a £13 million project has been held up having gone through the county council and An Bord Pleanála. There was time given for lodging objections and months after the date for judicial review under the planning Acts had expired, a judicial review is taking place in the courts. People who are employed on that site are being put out of work at the whim of an individual who has no material interest or involvement in the area.

The Deputy should conclude.

This must stop and if the Bill can achieve that, it will be welcome.

I welcome the Bill in so far as it consolidates much of the planning legislation since 1963. If, as it is claimed, its purpose is to transform the way planning is operated, I welcome it but I have my doubts because of certain of its sections.

Most people will agree that planning reform is necessary. Too often planning has raised the interest of bodies other than the local authorities for all the wrong reasons. That is a pity. While I am concerned about the negative aspects of various irregularities in planning over the years, which have been drawn to our attention, many organisations, which have contributed to the highlighting of certain aspects, are doing so for the wrong reason.

In the past An Taisce has been an impediment to planning. I have been a member of Galway County Council since 1974 and at that time there was a facility, which is not used frequently now, which was abused. Often I cringed at the attitude of my fellow councillors because of the abuse of section 4 to ram through planning permissions against the wishes of the executive and the planners, the professionals who were paid to guide proper planning. For all the wrong reasons, political majorities were used and abused to make sure that planning permission was granted. Bad decisions were made as a result of this attitude. Recently some of them have come back to haunt us in County Galway, where we highlighted the need to have many families relocated as a result of flooding. It was section 4 decisions which forced through planning applications and allowed those people to build in the very areas in which they had been told not to build. The flooding to which I refer has caused problems and it has imposed serious relocation costs on the Government and local authorities.

It is difficult to reconcile one aspect of planning which annoys me. In the local authorities there are many elected members who, as auctioneers or property developers, derive a living from involvement with property. One seldom hears those councillors declare an interest prior to or during a debate on an application in which they have an interest. I would hope that the Bill will include a provision which would put the onus clearly on the elected representative, who has made representations on behalf of an application in which he has a direct interest, to state that he might sell or develop the property at a later stage.

It would take much of the sleaze out of the planning process if there were some such provision in the Bill. I have not found it, although it could be there. I would appreciate it if we could hear about the provisions in the Bill which would make it imperative for local authority members to come clean, to declare their interests and to take a back seat. Too often, they sit quietly and slip information into a process about which they have prior information. All of us have that information and we appreciate it, but I hate to see it being abused. They get prior notice of the decision of the council which gives an unfavourable advantage in that instance. The Bill does not deal with these small technical issues but it should do so. If we are to restore the confidence of the electorate in the planning process, it is time we dealt with such issues. They may be small matters which are not frequently abused but they can be. It is important to deal with them.

I am sure other interest groups have made submissions to the Minister prior to the publication of the Bill, including architects, engineers and so on. These submissions should be given credence. It is an important matter when one sees a recommendation from an architectural body suggesting that every council should have an architect in the planning section. One must query the sincerity with which they make that suggestion. It casts doubt on the professionals in place and their adequacy to make proper or reasonably good planning decisions. The Minister has had diffi culty because of the great scope of the Bill and all he has tried to embrace in it. However, it is important, at a time when transparency is required, that we play our cards face up. Only the tribunals will bring out into the open what has gone on. It is important that is done precisely and that those who have been found wanting and who have abused their power and the privileged position in which they found themselves face stringent penalties.

From time to time, planning issues have been emotive – when certain decisions were made by local authorities, where huge developments were involved and when lobbying occurs. Lobbying is fine provided pressure is not put on the local representatives, executive or planners, as has happened in the past. There is an onus on people, on whistleblowers, to highlight where this has happened. The developer who uses such tactics should be wiped off the map. The Bill is very weak in this respect.

A main problem with the planning process is the delay which is caused by two legitimate factors. The first is the inadequacy of the staff and resources available in many local authority. I will give the Minister an example of the increase in the volume of applications received by local authorities. Galway County Council has the second highest number of applications in the country, and that includes Dublin and Cork cities. In 1995, Galway County Council received 2,350 applications, in 1996 it received 3,700, in 1997 it received 4,100, in 1998 it received 4,700 and in 1999 it received 5,500. – a 250% increase in five years. Resources or additional personnel in proportion to the increase in applications were not made available to Galway County Council. As a result, personnel in the planning section and the executive were under considerable pressure to make decisions.

While we welcome the Minister's decision to increase personnel and the number of planning officers in the local authorities, it is totally inadequate. If we add to the mix the demands which this Bill places because of the considerable extension of responsibilities in the planning area, there is an urgent need to look at every local authority to assess the professional personnel available in planning sections and the back-up service they have by way of facilities and administrative staff. If the Bill is to be successful, we must do that. It will cost money and will not be cheap, but it must be done.

I read some of the contributions we, as public representatives, received. The one which caused me the greatest concern was from IBEC. It was extremely frightening in that it said that individual projects should not have to seek planning permission but rather confirmation that if they comply with the agreed planning scheme they can proceed. What is the intention behind that? What vested interest does IBEC have in saying that we should take a function away from the local authority, its executive and members and allow a project to go ahead without going through the plan ning process? I do not know how IBEC will explain that? If it has a viable explanation, I would like to hear it. If IBEC's recommendation had the Minister's ear and was successful, who would be the next group to ask for a free run? I have serious reservations about fast tracking certain aspects of planning. I do not agree that any major industrialist has turned away from this country because of a delay in planning. For that reason, I question seriously IBEC's contribution to the Minister on this issue.

I hope the Minister will ensure finance and personnel are made available to the local authorities to allow them to continue the good work which many of them have done down through the years. In the 1998 list of applications to Galway County Council 3,520, the majority of the 4,752 applications, were for private housing, 595 were for domestic extensions, 70 for agricultural buildings and 424 for commercial developments. There were 119 applications in respect of other applications for development and 184 appeals to An Bord Pleanála. There were 15 material contraventions and 500 unauthorised developments. Those figures provide food for thought. I am sure the breakdown of applications in other local authorities is similar.

A total of only 500 unauthorised developments were investigated by Galway County Council in 1998 because the enforcement section of its planning department does not have the personnel nor the resources to adequately check on developments. When that position prevails for a long time unauthorised developments may become acceptable, but they should never be acceptable. I am not sure if the provisions in the Bill that deal with the pursuance of unauthorised development, where works are carried out contrary to planning conditions or without planning, are strict enough. If they are weak, it is unfair to applicants who are required to follow the legitimate route and put up with the delays involved.

There is a need to reduce the large number of planning permissions for domestic extensions. Where there is a legitimate reason for a domestic extension, small house extensions should be exempt by way of notification. The current limits, which are totally inadequate, must be increased. I propose an exemption facility similar to that which applies to the agricultural sector. That exemption process is legitimate. I do not propose that applicants should not need to apply for an exemption for a house extension. They should notify the local authority of their request for an exemption. The high number of planning applications for domestic extensions clogs up the planning process unnecessarily. I am talking about cases where there is a legitimate need for an extension which can be proven to a local authority, such as one required to meet the needs of a disabled person. Such applicants should not be required to pursue the long planning process required for other planning applications but should be able to avail of an exemption facility similar to that which applies to the agricultural sector. I hope the Minister of State will consider such a proposal and include it in the Bill.

I cannot understand why An Bord Pleanála is not required to give detailed report why it overturns decisions of its planners. That is not dealt with in the Bill. There must be suspicion why An Bord Pleanála would overturn a decision of its planners. I had hoped Dúchas would not have responsibility for planning. We, in Galway County Council, are forced to refer some planning applications to Dúchas for its blessing. That requirement is not fair.

In the case of waste disposal a licence must be sought from the EPA. I am upset at present about a rumour, and maybe that is all it is, that the EPA will grant additional tonnage in respect of waste disposal into a landfill site in Ballinasloe without recourse to the local authority by way of application. If that happens, it will be an abuse by another statutory agency which we cannot accept. Henceforth, I hope a restriction will apply to bodies outside the local planning authority and An Bord Pleanála, in respect of such activities.

I welcome the Bill and this opportunity to speak on it. The Bill is an impressive and welcome development for a wide range of people and institutions, including planners and developers, local authorities, public representatives, An Bord Pleanála, those concerned with the preservation of architectural heritage, purchasers of houses in general and, in particular, those on local authority housing lists.

The Minister and his Department are to be complimented on this comprehensive revision and consolidation of our planning law, which will provide a positive legislative framework within which the Government's major initiatives on housing and infrastructure incorporated in the national development plan can be effectively brought to fruition. Of the £40.6 billion expenditure projected in the national development plan, £21 billion or just over 50% will be invested in social and economic infrastructure. This is an average yearly spend of £3 billion, which is to be welcomed.

More than 42,000 houses were completed in 1998, which is a record. The number of planning permissions for housing in 1998 was up 27% on 1997 and continued to grow during 1999. This will ensure continued output growth. Planning guidelines on residential density issued last September will ensure more efficient use of serviced development land, facilitate provision of more affordable housing and promote sustainable development. Local authorities and An Bord Pleanála are required by law to have regard to these guidelines.

A major expansion of social housing is planned with an expenditure of £6 billion over the next six years compared to £2.4 billion spent over the past six years. The Government's housing and infrastructural programmes in the national plan have received a broad welcome from the construction industry. This positive reaction is exemplified in the recent annual review from Patterson Kempster & Shortall who are reputable commentators as well as practitioners in the industry. They are particularly complimentary about the introduction of multi-annual planning and the positive benefits that brings to the sector. This creates a stable set of parameters within which firms can plan without having to factor in a major risk element relating to possible changes in Government policy.

The construction sector welcomes the certainty provided by the Government's policies. It can now be further reassured by the provisions of this Bill, which sets out clearly the statutory framework within which business plans can be implemented.

The measures contained in the Bill designed to streamline the planning system and speed up the processing of planning applications will assist in ensuring that delays to necessary housing developments are minimised. Not only are financial resources being committed to solving housing and infrastructural problems but they are being supported by the commitment of additional human resources.

The previous speaker referred to staff shortages in planning departments. Additional staff have been provided in local authority planning departments. Staff numbers in planning departments are 14% higher than in 1998, with further increases in the pipeline. The Government is committed to the elimination of obstructions to progress regardless of where they exist.

Membership of An Bord Pleanála has been increased from six to ten members. It has also received significant additional personnel, with staff numbers up from 70 in 1995, under the rainbow Government, to 105 in 1999. However, a great deal more must be done in this regard. The board's Exchequer grant has almost doubled in the same period. Appeals on all housing and apartment developments involving more than 50 units are being allocated priority status by An Bord Pleanála at all stages. Appeals are also being monitored on a weekly basis by the chief officer and priority is being given to the processing of housing cases.

I ask the Minister to ensure, through the creative provisions of the Bill, that this progress is maintained and that no delays are allowed to be attributed to a lack of human or financial resources. The provisions in section 105 which relate to the employment of other than permanent, full-time staff should be availed of in this regard. The section might be amended to enable the employment of staff in a short-term capacity or on a part-time basis.

The necessity for a comprehensive and integrated range of initiatives to address unfulfilled demand in the housing market – through measures on house pricing, the removal of constraints and delays to investment, fiscal measures and measures to assist housing affordability – will be significantly assisted by the passage of the Bill. While not wishing to diminish in any way other important components of the Bill, the statutory framework to be put in place in relation to housing supply is of the utmost importance, particularly to young people. It is a clear indication of the Government's recognition of housing as a continuing priority.

The commitment to a comprehensive housing policy will maximise housing output and supply and promote affordable housing for all. It will free up land for development through the serviced land initiative which was introduced in 1997. Exchequer funding of £39 million is being provided towards water and sewerage schemes in order to open up land for residential development. Total investment, including local development levies, will come to £100 million.

The initiative will yield 100,000 sites by the end of this year. Approximately 100 schemes commenced construction in 1999, providing over 60,000 serviced sites. A further 43 schemes are due to commence this year, yielding a further 35,000 sites. That is not a bad achievement. Local authorities are being asked to allow the use of temporary waste water treatment facilities to allow development to commence in advance of permanent facilities. For example, on Dublin's north side this has the potential to bring forward up to 16,000 sites for construction in advance of the completion of the north fringe interceptor sewer in 2002. These measures exemplify the Government's creative approach to resolving planning bottlenecks in the housing development process.

Local authority housing starts were 4,500 in 1999, the highest since 1986. A multi-annual local authority programme of 22,000 starts of a four year period, 2000-03, will commence this year. The authorities are currently being notified of their starts under the programme. Net local authority need has increased by approximately 40% from 27,400 in 1996 to 39,100 at present. This underlines the urgency of the multi-annual programme and the accelerated social housing programme. The commitment to increase local authority housing stock by an additional 22,000 dwellings to be built over the next four years will have a major impact on disadvantaged areas in particular.

The various provisions should reinforce and further facilitate planning authorities in major urban areas in their efforts to rapidly develop private and identified surplus State lands through the creation of temporary water and sewerage treatment systems and by the application of the recently announced high density guidelines to rapidly boost housing supply. It is also heartening to see that statutory provision is being made to ensure that planning authorities will be permitted to take the necessary measures to counteract undue segregation in housing between persons of different social backgrounds.

The continued economic boom, with its associated and inevitable differential impact on incomes, renders positive action on social inclusion and cohesiveness all the more necessary. Planning for socially integrated housing is an important element in promoting this. I trust that planning authorities will learn from their past mistakes in the planning of housing schemes and use the Bill's provisions in a creative fashion which will attempt to remedy past deficiencies and prevent their repetition in the future.

I wish to raise a number of specific issues which are of particular concern to many of my constituents in north-east Dublin. I refer here to the recurring problem of developers making substantial variations to projects in the course of construction or after initial planning permission has been secured. I agree with many of the points made by Deputy Ulick Burke in this regard. People who have an ongoing interest in the nature and content of developments in their general areas are often at a disadvantage to know what is happening, even where legitimate variations occur. I refer to developers who, for example, make planning applications for 46 three bedroom houses, alter it the following week to 60 two bedroom houses and change it again two weeks later to five apartments and a mixture of other dwellings. The general public and councillors are sometimes so confused that they do not know what is happening. This problem must be tackled.

Hear, hear.

It would be helpful if planning authorities used the provisions in section 34 to impose conditions on developers to display public notices on sites where they are engaged in significant variations from the original planning permission and, where appropriate, to publish same in the local or national media on each occasion on which such a variation is made.

There are continuing problems in many areas with developers failing to complete works on estates in order that they can be taken in charge by local authorities. It is well known that some of these developers are repeat offenders in this regard. Developers who fail to complete estates – it has taken up to five or six years for some estates on Dublin's north side to be taken in charge by local authorities – should not obtain planning permission for other developments until they do so. Accordingly, I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that the various provisions in section 34, which enable planning authorities to impose conditions on planning permissions, can be used to refuse, restrict or further delay planning permissions for such offending developers until such work has been carried out to the satisfaction of local authorities, which will allow them to take such developments in charge without delay. It might also be worth considering the practicality and utility of making the persistent disregard of such conditions an offence under the provisions of the Bill.

I commend the Minister for his comprehensive and creative approach to the revision of the plan ning code, which is intended to address fully the contemporary problems I have outlined.

Debate adjourned.