I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The purpose of the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Performance of Certain Functions) Bill, 2002 is to complement the making of a Government order under the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Act, 1939, transferring functions relating to heritage matters to the Department of the Environment and Local Government. In announcing the new Government on 6 June, the Taoiseach placed strong and renewed focus on environmental sustainability. Consistent with this approach, the Taoiseach has mandated the Department of the Environment and Local Government with the additional responsibility of protecting our natural heritage and heritage policy generally. This is a timely move, particularly in light of the recent publication of the national heritage plan which my Department will implement in line with the commitment in An Agreed Programme for Government.
There is widespread understanding of what is meant by our national heritage. It includes the natural environment like flora, fauna, wildlife habitats and the built environment such as monuments, archaeology, streetscapes and more. Heritage is valued by the people, not only for its intrinsic value but for its economic, cultural and recreational benefits. The recent publication, for the first time, of a national heritage plan signalled a new and more coherent approach and provides a comprehensive strategy and framework for the protection and management of heritage over the years. The Government policy statement on heritage contained in the plan states that it is an objective of Government to ensure the protection of our heritage and to promote its enjoyment by all. This underscores the recognition which the Government accords to heritage and which is complemented by transferring responsibility to my Department, which of course retains its responsibilities for the complementary areas of protection of the environment, the planning system and local government.
It is very appropriate that the Department with responsibility for local government will also take responsibility for heritage matters. Over the past decade the planning process, which is administered by local authorities, has become a central element in the protection of heritage as well as an important instrument for the delivery of sustainable development. Amendments to the planning code in recent years, especially the provisions on protected buildings, have seen significant advances in the protection of heritage. The national heritage plan envisages local authorities taking a more pro-active role in protecting our heritage, especially in broadening involvement at community level in the protection of heritage.
I should mention that, throughout my speech, I will use the term Dúchas to refer to the division of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, formerly Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, for which I am assuming responsibility. Dúchas is the part of central Government with overall responsibility for preserving the national heritage and promoting public interest in Ireland's rich store of national monuments, protected buildings and ecologically valuable sites. As such it has developed a body of expertise which has been put at the disposal of local authorities, An Bord Pleanála and the Environmental Protection Agency. Under EU and other international law Ireland has certain legal obligations to ensure the protection of our natural and built environment. Dúchas, and now my Department, has a key role in meeting these obligations.
As the pace of development in this country has increased over the last few years, this role Dúchas plays has become increasingly important if we are to achieve sustainable development. Of course, this role must be carried out in an efficient, open and transparent way. As the House will be aware, there are a number of mechanisms by which Dúchas is involved in the planning and environmental licencing processes. Dúchas is a statutory consultee with local authorities in preparing their development plans and has particular responsibility under the Planning and Development Act, 2000 in respect of recommending structures of special architectural interest for protection through the development plan. This function will dovetail with the traditional function of the Minister for the Environment and Local Government in overseeing the development plan process.
In addition, Dúchas is a statutory consultee in relation to planning applications which may impact upon protected structures, national monuments or other objects of archaeological, geological, scientific, ecological or historical interest, or which may have significant nature conservation effects. Planning applications for the relevant developments are assessed by Dúchas officials who have specific heritage expertise. It is not practical to expect each planning authority to develop the necessary expertise in these matters, as it is more sensible to have the expertise available centrally. This specialist service provided by Dúchas for local authorities, An Bord Pleanála and the EPA in relation to the protection of our heritage is vital. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure such advice is available from my Department as an input to planning or other licensing processes.
The Bill will amend the Planning and Development Act, 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency Act, 1992, and the Waste Management Act, 1996, to provide for the performance by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government of the functions transferred from the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, formerly the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. The Bill makes an identical technical amendment to one section in each in these Acts.
Section 30 of the Planning and Development Act, 2000, precludes the Minister for the Environment and Local Government from exercising any power or control in regard to any particular case with which a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála is, or may be, concerned. Similarly, section 79 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act, 1992, and section 60 of the Waste Management Act, 1996, preclude the Minister from exercising any power or control in regard to the performance, in particular circumstances, by the Environmental Protection Agency or a local authority of the functions assigned to it by those Acts.
The principle that the Minister for the Environment and Local Government must not intervene in individual cases before An Bord Pleanála was enshrined in the planning code at the time when the board was established and the Minister's functions in determining planning appeals were removed. The Minister was, however, given power to issue general policy directives to the board to which it must have regard. However, it was specifically provided that he or she could not exercise power or control with regard to individual cases coming before the board. This was intended to underline the independence of the board in dealing with individual appeals while operating within a general policy framework set out by the Minister. This principle regarding An Bord Pleanála was extended to the determination of planning applications by local authorities in 1982 and restated when the planning code was generally revised and consolidated into the 2000 Act. On the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1992, and when its functions were extended to include responsibilities with regard to waste management in 1996, the same provision was included in the legislation to ensure the independent operation of the EPA.
This policy of non-intervention and the legislative restriction on involvement by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government in individual cases, which all of us would agree has worked well, would not, however, permit the giving by the Department of specialist advice on the natural and built heritage which is such a vital part of the planning and environmental licensing processes. I am advised that in order to permit the continued exercise of the statutory consultative functions with regard to the built and natural heritage in planning and environmental licensing matters which Dúchas has, new legislation is necessary to disapply the above mentioned sections with regard to the transferred functions only. This is the reason for bringing forward this urgent legislation, otherwise the functions could not have been transferred now or else Dúchas would have to suspend its involvement in planning and environmental licensing until this enabling legislation was passed.
Section 1 of the Bill replaces section 30 of the Planning and Development Act, 2000. It restates the restriction on the Minister for the Environment and Local Government exercising power or control with regard to any matter that is, or may be, before a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála. However, with regard to the functions transferred to the Minister from the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs by way of the Government order under the Ministers and Secretaries Act, and only to those, the section disapplies the restriction. As a result, specialist advice on wildlife, built heritage and national monuments protection functions will continue to be available to An Bord Pleanála and the local authorities when the functions are transferred to the Department of the Environment and Local Government.
Section 2 amends section 79 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act, 1992, which contains a power for the Minister to issue general policy directives to the EPA regarding its environmental licensing functions. Subsection (3) sets out that this power cannot be construed as enabling the Minister to exercise power or control with regard to the exercise of the EPA's functions in particular circumstances. The new subsection (3A) will disapply subsection (3) in so far as it relates to the transferred functions. The same amendment is made in section 60(3) of the Waste Management Act, 1996, which contains a power for the Minister to issue general policy directives to the EPA or local authorities regarding their functions on licensing and managing waste.
By referring to those powers specifically transferred under the Government order it clearly delimits the areas where the Minister is empowered to intervene in the planning and environmental licensing processes, that is, to the newly transferred powers. I look forward to assuming the new functions, integrating them within the Department of the Environment and Local Government and giving effect to the Taoiseach's wish for a renewed focus on environmental sustainability. In accordance with the Public Service Management Act, my Department will be preparing a new statement of strategy. This will give us the opportunity to set out our enhanced goals for this strengthened Department of the Environment and Local Government which we are creating to promote sustainable development and improve the quality of life for all. I commend the Bill to the House.