Sustainable Communities Bill 2004: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Molaim An Bille um Pobail Inchothaithe 2004, the Sustainable Communities Bill 2004. I will speak for ten minutes and will share time with Deputies Gogarty and Cuffe, who will have five minutes each, Deputy Crowe, ten minutes, Deputy Cowley, four minutes and Deputies Gregory and Finian McGrath, three minutes.

I recall in the last Dáil as a member of a joint committee visiting Gort in County Galway to observe the damage from a particularly bad incidence of flooding on the Shannon and meeting a number of local authority engineers and management. I asked one official about measures which the local authority in question was taking to address, or at least not exacerbate, the trend of climate change related to heavier rainfall patterns. I was referring specifically to research that had been carried out by people such as Dr. Tim Osborn in the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia. This clearly states that in the 1960s about 7% of the rainfall in this part of the world generally fell as "heavy rain" whereas in the 1990s the statistic for heavy rainfall had risen to 15%. The same pattern is to be seen in the United States, Europe in general, South Africa, north-east Brazil, parts of the former USSR and generally in mid-latitudes which have wetter climates due to rising atmosphere temperature. The flooding on the Shannon, which is becoming more frequent, is part of that overall pattern.

The reply from the local authority official contained a salient lesson for Members of this House. He stated that the local authority had no remit to think about climate change or related issues. These were matters for Dáil Éireann or the Earth Summit, or some other far-away or remote authority, from his viewpoint.

Local authorities have to play their part in dealing with the effects of climate change. Dublin City Council, for example, is looking for €150 million for coastal defences directly related to the problems associated with climate change. The reality is that the national climate change strategy, NCCS, will not be effective unless communities are involved. They must be involved in reducing fossil fuel use, promoting greater use of solar panels and more cycle ways, encouraging clean industry, waste minimisation, planting more trees, having more reed bed sewage treatment and local facilities and playgrounds to reduce the need for travel undertaken by parents to find facilities for children and, indeed, schools.

This Bill is much needed to facilitate the changes we need. Hence it reminds all of us, especially local authorities and communities, that Ireland cannot become sustainable unless all of us are purposefully involved in devising and implementing local sustainability strategies. That is what the Bill is promoting. Had the UN's Local Agenda 21 been seriously implemented after the Earth Summit of 1992, these strategies could well be in place by now. Features of a sustainable community strategy, for example, would include the provision of local services and amenities, such as green spaces and children's parks; the procurement and sourcing of goods which are either produced or grown locally; the growth and marketing of organic forms of food production and local food economies; increasing the number of locally generated jobs to reduce commuting, for example; increasing the quantity of sustainable products produced in the regions where they are consumed; increasing measures to reduce the level of road traffic and promote public local transport as well as measures to decrease the amount of product miles; and boosting social inclusion, including an increase in the involvement of citizens in local democracy.

The Bill also provides for indicators to evaluate the progress being made to implement parts of a sustainable community strategy. Indicators are intended to answer a simple question, how might we know objectively whether matters are getting better or worse. In this country we have indicators such as GNP and GDP, but they do not tell us how we are doing as regards sustainability, and they can be misleading in that regard. One of the advantages of local community-based indicators is that we can move away from pure statistical data. Community icons or motifs may be used to symbolise the data.

In Sustainable Seattle's 1992 work, for instance, the indicator for water quality is the number of wild salmon that return to rivers and streams each year. It could have measured turbidity, temperature, percentages of oxygen, chemical composition or any number of other scientific measures. People do not get emotional about things like parts per billion. In the Pacific north-west region, people get emotional when major cultural and economic resources, such as salmon, are in decline, just as they are in Ireland. People throughout the world who face vastly different economic, political, social and environmental circumstances are experimenting with ways and means of developing indicators for their neighbourhoods, communities and regions.

I wish to sum up before I ask my colleagues to contribute. It is important that we examine matters such as energy, transport, the geo-politics of transport and oil dependency. I mentioned during Taoiseach's Question Time that Ireland's dependency on imported energy grew from 65% in 1990 to 87% in 2001. The Irish level significantly exceeds the average dependency of 50% for the European Union as a whole. The matter is more urgent in Ireland than it is in many EU member states. If we are to bring about change in that regard, we need to develop sustainable communities and sustainable community strategies.

The transport sector, in which we have an overall dependency rate of 98% on imported fuel, is potentially more vulnerable to a disruption of supply. The most predictable and effective response we can make, to enhance security of supply, is to manage our demand for oil in the domestic sphere. Such management is also necessary if we are to control the economic impact of future geo-political upheaval, for example resulting from the war in Iraq and the continuing stalemate in respect of Palestine.

Having read the EPA reports, we know we have a great deal to do to protect surplus water and groundwater. Such matters also have an impact on our fisheries. As a native of Donegal, the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, will be aware that 25 of the 56 commercially targeted marine fish stocks in Irish waters are over-exploited and in decline. Issues of that type are documented in the EPA's reports, such as Ireland's Environment 2004, which makes fascinating reading. Four matters are cited in the report as key challenges — waste, acidification, greenhouse gases and eutrophication. Such areas have particular poignancy and relevance to communities and local authorities.

It is important that the Government endorse this Private Members' Bill and ensure that local authorities have clear guidelines and templates to provide for sustainability in local communities. There is a great deal of evidence from all parts of the world to suggest that the type of Bill being proposed by the Green Party is working. Such legislation has been proposed in one form or another in the UK and other countries. I have a copy of Towards Sustainable Communities: Resources for Citizens and Their Governments, which points out that actions are being taken in Washington state. The commute trip reduction law was introduced there, requiring large companies with more than 100 employees to initiate trip reduction programmes. Measures such as parking fees and transit subsidies have been introduced to encourage people to use public transport. Similar provisions have been made in Germany, New York state and Nevada.

The Bill before the House is not new or novel — it is working in other countries. It is needed more than ever in this country because we are becoming less and less sustainable as the years go by.

Ireland is one of the most centralised states in the European Union. I would argue that it is also one of the least sustainable We face two challenges, therefore, tackling the problems of the lack of sustainability and over-centralisation. We need to decentralise real decision-making powers to local government. The Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, would not understand the idea of spreading decision-making powers throughout the country. Decisions should be made locally, rather then relocating a centralised Department and engaging in the old "cute-hoorism" by moving jobs to County Laois. People are being uprooted from Dublin, where they have been happy for many years, and their opportunities for promotion are being affected.

The Green Party has always tried to achieve proper decentralisation, but we are conscious that there is a risk that local cabals will make bad decisions on behalf of their communities. Councillors from the Government parties and other parties have made planning decisions in the past which have been shown not to be sustainable. My constituency is a case in point, but the problems stretch as far as the western seaboard. Development that is not sustainable has taken place in return for favours to certain developers. The fabric of rural communities has been threatened.

We need guidance from the Government and the Sustainable Communities Bill 2004 aims to provide for it. Under the Bill, local authorities will be told that they have to operate within the terms of local sustainable strategies. The legislation will give local communities the tools to operate in that way. Local government structures are in place in many cases; for example, under Local Agenda 21. I refer to structures such as county enterprise boards and strategic policy committees. I know from my limited experience as a councillor that such bodies are no more than talking shops. However, if they were given a proper framework, for example under a local sustainability strategy, local communities throughout the country could make decisions based on what would be best for the sustainable development of their areas.

The creation of sustainable communities is at the heart of the Green Party's Bill. Rather than imposing a top-heavy vision, we are saying that society needs to be sustainable in terms of its long-term direction, its scarce resources, the global situation and EU legislation and directives. We suggest that local communities should be given the opportunity to make decisions for themselves. This has a number of knock-on effects, for example in my portfolio of education. In the context of planning and rezoning, there is plenty of scope for local authorities and the feeding-in bodies such as the strategic policy committees to decide where schools and other community buildings should be located.

Many fast-growing new communities are not sustainable because they are car-based. People have to drive everywhere. My colleagues may allude later to the fact that it is inevitable that oil production will peak and prices will rise. We are totally dependent on overseas fuel. We will have to become more self-sufficient somewhere down the line. It will be a problem if one has to drive 30 miles to get to a school, or just two or three miles in an urban area. The planning of schools and other local facilities is a major issue.

Tourism is another of my portfolios. There are huge opportunities for developing sustainable tourism in the context of this Bill and the county enterprise boards. Jobs can be created in new alternative forms of sustainable eco-tourism, which are driven from the bottom up. The issue of access to land would be better served if it were dealt with at local level because each case is distinctive. Farmers are trying to prevent walkers from getting access to their land because they feel they are being imposed on. There are benefits for all concerned when local deals are made and adhered to. If walkers are allowed to use land in an agreed manner, tourists are more likely to come to an area. They do not damage eco-systems or local infrastructure, but they create jobs by contributing to the local economy. One can make all the national agreements one likes, but the local context is much more appropriate to this and other forms of sustainability.

In 1987, the then Norwegian Prime Minister, Ms Gro Harlem Brundtland, said that sustainable development is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". Her definition has become a mantra among environmentalists and others, who remember it as others would remember the catechism they learnt by rote. I think sustainability is about giving the next generation the choices we have. It is about simple things, such as being able to take a bus to work or walking to the shops, the pub or the church. I am not convinced that the decisions emanating from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and other Departments will allow future generations to have such choices. We have seen an attempt to greenwash Government policies in the past 15 years.

Ever since the so-called green European Presidency of the then Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, in 1990, successive Ministers, particularly Fianna Fáil Ministers, have attempted to portray themselves as being green. However, our increase in climate change emissions is the highest among the European Union countries. That highlights for me the lie behind attempts to cover the Government's policies in green because underneath it there has not been much of a change of heart.

Future choices are being compromised by decisions that are made by Government. For example, if we spend four fifths of our transport funding on motorways, it is unlikely we will have decent public transport. If we build incinerators throughout the country, it is unlikely that Irish agriculture will find a good niche market in the promotion of organic produce. If people in local government are not empowered to make decisions, it is unlikely they will be able to take brave and wise decisions. Increasingly, local government is being stifled by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

What would making Ireland more sustainable mean? What would the themes that run through this Bill mean in practice? There would be a few simple changes. We would abolish the fee to make an observation on a planning application. It might also ensure that, for instance, new taxis would be accessible to those with disabilities, again a decision of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It might allow our children to be able to cycle safely to school without parents being scared stiff about what might happen to them. It might mean that new communities will have schools, health clinics and parks from day one instead of waiting on them for many years. It might mean that the next Luas line might be in place in three years instead of the 13 years since Fianna Fáil promised a new light rail system for Dublin in the 1991 local elections. It is not a hugely complicated issue. Sustainability is about giving us choices to change our environment.

We are not looking for the sun, moon and stars in this Bill. Green parties worldwide have always said they are looking for the earth. In essence, we are trying to ensure that people have those choices in the years to come. It is also about a balance in terms of the three pillars identified in Lisbon — social, economic and environmental — but I do not believe that balance is being achieved. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has, to an incredible degree, pushed forward the needs of business to the exclusion of environmental issues and real action on climate change. That is the reason we are trying to put the onus on the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, through this Bill, to show us clear scientific targets and indicators because if we use the science of environmentalism to examine the way policies are being used, it will show that we must make fairly radical changes in the way we go about our lives and the way various Departments go about their business.

Sinn Féin supports the intent behind the Sustainable Communities Bill 2004 introduced by the Green Party. It is clear that little progress has been made on sustainable development in this State despite the publication of a number of strategies, including Making Ireland's Development Sustainable 2002, the National Climate Change Strategy 2000 and Towards Sustainable Local Communities — Guidelines on Local Agenda 21.

It appears the goal of sustainable development remains undermined by the ideology of the Progressive Democrats, shared by many Fianna Fáil Cabinet Ministers, which is akin to that of the 19th century industrialists who valued economic development but had little time for social development and less for environmental protection. Like those 19th century entrepreneurs, whose activity in the pursuit of profit sowed the seeds of climate change as they allowed industrial pollutants to spew into our rivers and seas and to blight our landscapes, cared little for the welfare of workers and the harsh conditions in which they lived. The Government cares little beyond the soundbite for the quality of the lives of its citizens, particularly those living in disadvantaged areas. What the Government has bestowed on us is economic prosperity without social progress and with a deteriorating quality of environment whose protection is subordinate to the mantra of the interests of economic development. The Government lacks the social conscience and the sense of global responsibility which is necessary to deliver on sustainable development.

Despite publication by the Government of the strategies mentioned earlier, development in this State has been characterised by uncontrolled urban and rural sprawl; vast ghettoised estates without services or facilities, built with little or no regard to the housing needs of the community; under-investment in public transport; and moves to privatise existing public transport. Too little has been done to combat social exclusion, deprivation and poverty.

Sustainable development and spatial strategy in this State remains a mess of short-term, piecemeal decisions and developments, taken most often without consultation with the people affected, mostly on the basis of profit and private corporate interests.

What has been achieved since the publication of Sustainable Development: A Strategy for Ireland in 1997? The Progressive Democrats-Fianna Fáil coalition's rule has been characterised by privatisation of public services, capitulation to developers in regard to integrated housing and to industry in regard to carbon taxes directed at industrial users of energy.

The Rio declaration on environment and development stated that "people are entitled to healthy and productive lives in harmony with nature". The Government has not supported its supposed commitment to this goal with action. Until we reform local Government and, crucially, the funding of local government, little progress can be made on making local communities sustainable. As long as power remains centralised and the current coalition remains in power we will never get a genuine commitment to the development of sustainable communities. The failure to reform and the disempowerment by stealth of local government means that even where there is a commitment at local authority level, they have few powers to act and remain cash-strapped. The national climate change strategy identified local authorities as having an important cross-sectoral role at local level, including partnership with local energy agencies. This is all fine in theory but until local authorities are empowered, participative and properly financed, those intentions remain aspirational. Sustainable development cannot be delivered by an institution of Government which itself is underfunded and has little power.

The Government, in the foreword to Towards Sustainable Local Communities, states that "the core of Local Agenda 21 is to encourage greater local ownership of and participation in local decision making for sustainable development" but it has done nothing to encourage and bring about greater participation in decision making.

A reformed local government, with empowering communities through engaging them in meaningful consultation and providing them with a voice at local and regional governance in the decision-making process, is a necessary first step to further the goal of sustainable development. Our goal must be to create thriving, vibrant communities which exist in the greatest possible harmony with nature while ensuring access of those within the community to the infrastructure, facilities and amenities which are necessary to live productive and fulfilling lives. Local authorities must take an integrated and community centred approach to all development. Housing projects need to be built in conjunction with social amenities such as schools, health facilities, child care facilities, retail outlets and an adequate, accessible and affordable local public transport infrastructure.

This is not rocket science. Sinn Féin has called for the establishment of best practice guidelines on housing mix in new developments, dwelling size, size of green, provision of playground facilities, child care facilities, common areas and overall environmental impact. Unfortunately, the Government has chosen to sit on its hands while the emissions output in the State continues to escalate. It has failed to set meaningful emissions targets for industry to enable the EU meet its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol.

The weak and inadequate targets, announced by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, will eliminate the economic inducement that should be created by the policy and will harm incentives for industry innovation. Sinn Féin is concerned that the Government's response to its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol involve an over-reliance on emissions trading. This indicates a lack of concern at Government level in achieving reductions in emissions output and protecting the environment.

Contrary to Government assertions little, if any, progress has been made on decoupling energy and materials intensity from economic growth and in reducing industry emissions. The Government does not have a balanced view of economic development in comparison with social development and environmental protection. It only pays lip service to environmental concerns and protection. The national climate change strategy promised appropriate tax measures prioritising CO2 emissions to be introduced from 2002 on a phased incremental basis across a range of sectors, taking into account national economic, social and environmental objectives. However, this has not happened. Increased use of public transport was also promised through additional investment in improving existing suburban bus and rail facilities and developing new facilities. However, the Government has absolutely no commitment to public transport having promoted private transport through road constructions. It would privatise all public transport in an instant if it thought it could get away with it.

The Government must realise investment in the environment and renewable resources will benefit citizens and ensure a better quality of life for future generations. The Government must invest in climate change prevention, waste management based on a zero waste policy and environmental protection. Sinn Féin believes that our goals should be efficient, cost effective, State lead development of natural and renewable energy resources, focused on ending external dependencies and reducing fossil fuel emissions. With Ireland's geographical position and natural resources, it should lead the world in the generation of renewable energy.

To achieve sustainable communities the Government must give equal commitment to the economic, social and environmental pillars. It must prioritise the reform of local government, the delivery of services, environmental proofing of all Government policies, investment in the environment and renewable resources with a long-term focus on sustainable energy generation.

I support this Bill in principle as I want future generations to live in an unpolluted environment. However, too often the word "sustainable" is used as a weapon against the right of rural dwellers, like myself, to live in our own areas. This commendable Bill centres on consultation with a range of agencies, such as local authorities, Comhar, environmental NGOs, county enterprise boards and special areas of conservation, which is necessary for democracy and balanced decisions. Too often, however, consultation can be an empty process of going through the motions simply for show. When drafting the Mayo county development plan, though consultants took submissions from local representatives and communities, not one of those wonderful ideas appeared in the final plan. We are all for power to reside locally but it is becoming more centralised. It is based on urbanisation, forcing people into cities and towns where they do not want to go and which is not better for their welfare.

I would welcome an opportunity to discuss with my Green Party colleagues their definition of sustainability. Where does the Green Party see rural housing in its definition? Where two out of three people live in County Mayo it is unsustainable. Is the Green Party definition of sustainability so narrow that it rules out those living in rural Ireland? The document, Towards Sustainable Local Communities 2001, encouraged housing to be closer to town centres and more amenable to public transport. Yet proper local public transport systems are not available in rural areas. Rural housing in Ireland is indigenous. While one third of our population live in rural areas and over half the population live outside Dublin city, we encourage further urbanisation, which will not help anyone.

People speak unfavourably of groundwater pollution in rural areas as an excuse to blame and block further rural housing developments. No Member will agree with 30% of urban sewage being discharged untreated into our seas and rivers. The billions required to sustain large urban populations is unsustainable. It is better to allow ourselves and our children to live in the open countryside and avoid adding to urban congestion. There is begrudgery towards the amounts spent on rural areas which is largely based on misinformation. It is cheaper rather than expensive to build and maintain a house in a rural area than in an urban area. More CO2 emissions are produced by idle cars caught in traffic jams or going at ass and cart pace than by rural cars. In Dublin city, despite a well developed public transport system, 70% of workers still travel to work in their motorcars. More detailed studies are needed on the costs of rural versus urban car usage. One third of all people in Ireland live in the open countryside but less than one quarter of houses are now being built there. Ireland is rapidly urbanising, with villages becoming more nucleated and centralised.

I support this Bill as there is an urgent need to promote local sustainability strategies, based on the needs of local communities and shaped by them. I know the need at first hand because I represent severely socially, environmentally and economically disadvantaged areas. The level of democratic involvement in decisions and developments that affect their future has been negligible. This has been all the more significant with large redevelopment and so-called renewal in inner city and dockland districts without regard for the needs of local people. The level of consultation with indigenous communities has been derisory. While a great deal of lip service is paid to what is termed "consultation", no attempt is made to recognise people's right to a meaningful role in the decision-making process. While IAP monitoring committees, dockland councils and so forth are a step forward, they have little or no real power.

However, inner city communities have defended their living environments. For example, the major Spencer Dock planning proposal in northside Dublin's docklands was the largest planning application in the history of the State. It was fronted by, among others, Treasury Holdings, the wealthiest development company, and supported by the Fianna Fáil Government which ensured the necessary support at Dublin City Council. Yet if that proposal had gone ahead, the existence of an indigenous local community in North and East Wall areas would have become untenable. Sustainability was not part of the agenda of Treasury Holdings, its fellow developers or political supporters.

The local people refused to capitulate and despite being without resources took on the developers and beat them in an epic An Bord Pleanála hearing. Had there been a strategy of sustainability at local level, at city council level, the time and energy involved could have made for a genuinely balanced and sustainable development and avoided such damaging conflict.

For every victory there are undoubtedly many defeats where small powerless local communities have their rights trampled on by major developers. I see it all too often. There is a critical need to provide these communities with the resources to ensure that this does not happen. In this context I pay tribute to the work of organisations such as Community Technical Aid, which works with disadvantaged communities and helps them protect and defend their living environment. This type of work is essential in the absence of a genuine strategy of sustainability. I support the Bill and I hope the new triumvirate of Labour, Fine Gael and the Green Party at Dublin City Council is as inclusive there with other democratically elected members as its Bill is here.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this legislation. I support the Bill because it has potential for the future. It gives a chance to members of the Technical Group to work together in the interests of our community. In a way this is real community politics. It is about working in and for the community. These are core principles on which we can all agree. People on the side of the poor, the disadvantaged and working people in general are not on the side of big business and other vested interests. That is something we should reflect on in this debate. Our communities are tired of the old faded politics in Ireland today. We have a great country and people, with massive resources, yet approximately 30% of our people are constantly left behind. This Bill is about closing that gap.

The details of this legislation show that it is bottom up rather than top down. It ensures that central Government uses resources to draft and promote local sustainability strategies that are responsive to and as far as practicable driven by local councils and communities. Indicators for local sustainability should be based around local environment protection, open spaces, community recycling, sustainable energy provision, local economies, facility services, procurement of jobs, social inclusion and democratic involvement. In effect the Bill provides for the empowerment of local government and local citizens opening the pathway to sustainable local communities involved in the decision-making process for their future, and able to exercise ownership and choice over their local economic, social and political environment.

This Bill has great potential to develop and empower local communities. We must face the other reality of Irish society today, the reality of greed, of the winner taking all, of money being power and clout, and the rampant selfishness that is now part of our economic boom. There is no point in an economic boom if an elderly widow in Donnycarney has to bolt her doors every night at 7 p.m. during the summer because of fear of attack, if there are 150 people on trolleys tonight in our Dublin hospitals, if there are 2,826 people with intellectual disabilities on waiting lists or if 15 children with multiple disabilities in a Sandymount centre are not getting onto the July programme because the Department of Education and Science cannot find the necessary €5,000.

These are the important issues in our lives and the ones relevant to this Bill. When I looked at the details of this Bill I was immediately reminded of the words of Karl Marx who said that philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point being to change it. That is what true community politics is about. It is about changing our world, our area, our villages and towns, and about changing our society in a way that puts equality, justice and peace at the top of the agenda.

I share the concerns of Deputy Cowley regarding rural communities, but the overall thrust of the Bill is positive and progressive and I urge all Deputies to support it.

I am glad of the opportunity to respond to this Bill, which the Government opposes on the basis that it is bureaucratic and unnecessary, and provides no added value to the sustainable development agenda at any level. We have had to guess to some extent what the Bill is all about because it does not tell us what any reasonable legislator would expect to be told about draft primary legislation.

Because it is a Private Members' Bill.

There are no definitions and the general incompleteness of the Bill begs questions such as what exactly the proposed local sustainability strategy would contain and what additional local measures might be envisaged. Such questions, it seems, are a matter for my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, and the Department to address.

No one asked me if a local sustainability strategy, legislative-based or otherwise, was needed or might be helpful. If the Green Party had asked, I could have saved it and this House a lot of time and trouble by asking what exactly the proposed legislation was intended to achieve, because the Bill before us would achieve absolutely nothing.

Section 2 of the Bill provides for an elaborate consultation process for the purpose of producing a draft local sustainability strategy and section 3 provides for the involvement of every local authority in the country in developing both draft and final strategies. However, in section 4 we see that implementation at local level is totally optional. The Bill does not contain a single requirement for action to be taken in pursuit of sustainable development at local or community level and that is why it would achieve nothing. It is hollow and devoid of purpose.

This Bill has nothing to offer because the Government has already put in place a range of initiatives and participative structures which provide a framework for sustainable development at local and community level.

They are not working.

Through progressive policies, programmes and procedures we have provided leadership and direction to guide and underpin sustainable development, creating the right conditions for local growth and progress within a well protected environment. An Agreed Programme for Government identifies a range of areas for action in support of sustainable development, including a specific commitment in my area to continue the successful operation of Comhar, the national sustainable development partnership, as a forum for partnership and participation across society on sustainable development issues. The agreed principles for sustainable development published by Comhar in July 2002 provide a good benchmark for mutually reinforcing policies across the three pillars of sustainable development.

Sustainable development is much broader than environmental protection. It must encompass economic development and social progress as well as environmental protection. Its fundamental objective, achieving a balance between economic, social and environmental aspects of development, as well as maintaining a high quality environment as a source of complete advantage, is recognised and supported in Sustaining Progress, the social partnership agreement 2003-05.

The 1997 national sustainable development strategy reflected and took forward in an Irish context the programme set out in Agenda 21, the international action programme adopted at the United Nations conference on environment and development in 1992. While the strategy continues to have a major influence on national policy and action, it cannot stand still because the pursuit of sustainable development must be dynamic, not static. The policy document Making Ireland's Development Sustainable, which my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Cullen, published in 2002, reviewed and assessed progress made by Ireland since the Earth Summit in 1992 and set out updated and ambitious priorities for the new decade.

Among the progress reported in that 2002 document was increased provision at individual and local level for public participation and involvement through both the process of Local Agenda 21 and new structures established under the local government reform process.

Local Agenda 21, originating from the 1992 world summit, was designed as a framework for the pursuit of sustainable development at local or community level. It is an approach based on participation, which respects the social, cultural, economic and environmental needs of the community in all its diversity and relates that community and its future to the regional, national and international community of which it is a part.

My Department issued updated guidelines in 2001 to assist local authorities in their pursuit of Local Agenda 21. The guidelines outlined the process towards development and delivery of Local Agenda 21 and encouraged high levels of participation and partnership with the public generally but also with local enterprise and community groups. Importantly, this process was placed in the context of the new structures established under local government reform, creating a mutually reinforcing overall framework for local government. In particular, the guidelines examined the synergies between the roles of the county and city development boards, strategic policy committees and Local Agenda 21, showing how these different initiatives could be successfully integrated.

The role of indicators in monitoring the effectiveness and delivery of policies is well recognised at international level. In recent years much work has been done on indicators relevant to the pursuit of sustainable development by the Environmental Protection Agency and through NESC.

How are we doing?

Obviously, however, indicators used at national level will not all be practicable at local level due to resource, expertise or data requirements, or simply as a result of the size of the locality. In a new initiative, local authorities will, for the first time this year, benchmark their performance in housing, planning and environmental services delivery against 42 service indicators, with the results independently to be verified by the Local Government Management Services Board.

I acknowledge that more can be done to improve uptake and implementation, and that is a common feature of Local Agenda 21 activity in many countries. A recent report of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, Towards a Green Isle — Local Sustainable Development on the Island of Ireland, makes a number of recommendations towards embedding local sustainability values in local government and local development.

A decade on from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the sustainable development agenda has evolved and become clarified.

It has not been implemented.

Not surprisingly, therefore, there was a marked shift in emphasis from Local Agenda 21 to Local Action 21 at the follow-up summit in Johannesburg in 2002. The report of the Centre for Cross Border Studies refers to the rapid evolution of national policy over the past ten years. An institutional framework better suited to the delivery of sustainable development now exists, including, in particular, city and county development boards and strategic policy committees within local authorities. The report acknowledges that these bodies have a strategic focus and an approach based on partnership and inclusion, essential requisites for effective local sustainability practices. In effect, international experience and independent commentary have provided a strong and positive endorsement of the direction taken by the Government and the progress made in recent years in promoting and pursuing sustainable development.

As the Minister, Deputy Cullen, was not consulted prior to publication of this flawed Bill, I tell the Green Party that we fully agree that local communities should have a say in influencing public policy at local level.

He consults us on his policies, of course.

He told me he was too busy.

It was precisely with this in mind that we established a number of structures at local level as part of the programme of local government renewal to enable local communities to make their input into policies, plans and programmes which affect their areas. County and city development boards have been set up in each county and city and are led by local government. The boards bring all the players together locally — public sector agencies, social partners, local government and local development bodies, all co-operating and planning together for the betterment of their communities.

A key focus for the boards is the more co-ordinated delivery of public services at local level. The boards published their strategies for the economic, social and cultural development of their counties and cities in 2002. These are currently being implemented via their member agencies. These strategies did not just materialise out of the blue. They were the culmination of an unprecedented and unparalleled level of consultation with local communities.

Will the Minister take a question?

Across the land, local communities were asked for their views on how their counties and cities should be shaped. Practical measures were taken to ensure that this was not just a token exercise. The communities were given two places on the boards. A community and voluntary forum was established in each city and county to enable the community to influence how the board strategy was being developed and subsequently to monitor its implementation. In addition, my Department provides funding to each forum on an annual basis to support it in its work. The Minister has also encouraged other public agencies to use the fora as a very useful sounding board.

It is a talking shop.

It is worth noting that they operate on a democratic and transparent basis and are accountable to the communities that select them.

The strategic policy committees, SPCs as they are more commonly referred to, established in each county and city have a key role in developing and overseeing the implementation of the local authority's policies. At least one third of the membership of each SPC is drawn from sectoral interests, representative of the local community.

On coming into office, the Minister asked that the SPC system be reviewed so as to ensure that it delivered on its full potential. As part of that review, SPC members representing local communities were consulted. He asked that the recommendations of the review be implemented now by the new SPCs being established following the local elections. I am confident that the local governance structures which we have put in place enable local communities to have their voices heard in the development of their local areas. This is a real bottom up approach, unlike the Bill.

The Bill works in other countries.

Turning to planning and development, improved frameworks for planning at national, regional and local levels have been provided with the national spatial strategy, regional planning guidelines and the revised arrangements for preparing development plans and local plans under the provisions of the Planning and Development Act 2000.

What about decentralisation plans?

The function of the planning system is to support the sustainable development of land in the interests of the common good. The Planning and Development Act for the first time explicitly incorporated a sustainable development ethos into the Irish planning system and introduced a hierarchy of spatial and land use plans. There are four elements in this hierarchy: the national spatial strategy, regional planning guidelines, development plans and local plans.

The national spatial strategy establishes a spatial framework at national level and gives indicative land use guidance which is relevant at all levels within the planning hierarchy. The formulation of plans at other levels must have regard to and be consistent with the strategy. The strategy, through its focus on economic, social and environmental issues and on the inter-linkages between them, is a key policy instrument in the pursuit of sustainable development. The Government is fully committed to the implementation of the national spatial strategy, NSS, and has put a wide range of measures in place at national, regional and local levels aimed at achieving the strategy's objectives.

They are screwing it up.

Important recent developments supporting the achievement of the Government's objectives as set out under the NSS have included the substantial progress now being made on major national development plan capital investment programmes supporting balanced regional development. This is of particular importance in areas such as the development of key regional and inter-regional road and rail links and substantial infrastructure projects which will support the role the key gateways and hubs identified in the strategy.

The mid-term review of the national development plan also signalled strongly the potential for further aligning NDP expenditure with the NSS planning framework, particularly in the environmental infrastructure and regional operational programmes. Gateway implementation frameworks are now in place in Cork and Galway and work on similar frameworks is advancing in other areas. The proposals announced recently for substantial investment in new suburban rail services in the Cork area provide a significant example of a direct response from the Government to the planning policies which have been put in place by the Cork County and City Councils, creating the conditions for accelerating the development of Cork as a key regional city and gateway in the south west.

Regional planning guidelines provide a long-term strategic planning framework for the development of regions. The planning framework set out in the guidelines must take account of the future development of the region for the period of the NSS, the period up to 2020. The national spatial strategy provides the context for the preparation of the regional guidelines and these in turn will provide the strategic framework for development plans, thus forming a hierarchy of planning policy from national to county, city and town level.

A significant milestone in the implementation of the national spatial strategy was reached recently with the adoption by all regional authorities of regional planning guidelines which will help to structure and inform more local planning. For the first time, guidelines of this nature have now been put in place throughout the whole country setting the strategic policy agenda which planning authorities must address in their development plans and creating the crucial link needed between overall national spatial policy, as set out under the NSS, and local planning policies.

Will the Minister take a question now?

The development plan lies at the heart of the planning system and is intended to provide the strategic framework and policy context for all local planning decisions. The Planning and Development Act 2000 reinforces the role of the development plan as the primary strategic statement on land use planning at city, town and county level and provides a clearly defined context for the formulation and content of planning applications. The development plan must set out an overall strategy for the proper planning and sustainable development of the planning authority's area through the objectives to be included in the plan. The plan will influence major capital investment by both the public and private sectors, including capital projects by the local authority itself. The plan must give spatial expression to the economic, social and cultural needs of the community, in terms of influencing new development, enhancing valued amenities and protecting the environment.

The development plan is a framework for initiating and influencing the process of change in our surroundings to support the wider economic, social and environmental objectives of the community. Effective integration of the wider community in the plan preparation process through public consultation, as provided for in the 2000 Act, with the democratically elected members of the planning authority, will build ownership of the plan and will facilitate its subsequent implementation. This will make the ongoing planning process, including the assessment of planning applications, more transparent and efficient.

And more expensive.

The 2000 Act provides that a planning authority may prepare a local area plan for any area within its jurisdiction which it considers suitable and, in particular, for those areas that require economic, physical and social renewal and for areas likely to be subject to large scale development within the lifetime of the plan. A planning authority is obliged to prepare a local area plan for an area with a population in excess of 2000. The Act requires that a local area plan must be consistent with the objectives of the development plan. It should not, therefore, contain any objectives which materially depart from those set out in the development plan, including zoning of land in local plans. The development plan is the "parent" document, which sets out the strategic framework within which the objectives of the local area plan must be formulated.

Development plans should indicate those areas for which a local area plan will be prepared, set out a clear context for their preparation and give an indication of particular policies or objectives which may need to be included therein. Local area plans were provided for under the 2000 Act to provide a flexible mechanism for the preparation of plans for particular urban or rural areas, for example, or for particular parts of such areas, within the development plan framework for the larger area to which that plan relates.

Sustainable communities include communities living in urban areas. My Department supports sustainable urban development through various initiatives and incentives, such as, the tax incentive based urban and town renewal schemes and the LOTS, living over the shop, scheme; urban and village renewal and conservation grant schemes; the operation of the Tidy Towns competition. The current urban renewal scheme, which is not due to finish until the end of June 2006, applies in the five cities as well as in 38 towns with a population in excess of 6,000. Under this scheme, residential and commercial tax incentives are available for designated sub-areas based on integrated area plans, IAPs, prepared by the relevant local authority for these areas.

The IAP based approach to urban renewal incorporates a number of sustainability principles. In particular, it is a targeted approach to the availability of urban renewal tax incentives, both in terms of scale and application, and——

What about the people? It is not just buildings and taxes.

——it addresses not just the physical regeneration and development of the urban fabric but the broader issues of social and economic improvement. Overall, investment leveraged under the urban renewal scheme is expected to amount to €4,896 million, with more than 16,000 residential units developed or redeveloped.

The town renewal scheme, TRS, with targeted residential and commercial tax incentives, is aimed at the restoration and conservation of townscapes in 100 smaller towns with populations of between 500 and 6,000 people. These incentives are available on designated sites within these towns until the end of June 2006. Overall, investment under the town renewal scheme is expected to amount to €477 million, with an estimated 2,208 residential units developed or redeveloped. The living over the shop, LOTS, scheme began on 6 April 2001. It aims to convert vacant upper storey space to residential accommodation, is operating in several streets in the five major cities and will run to the end of June 2006. Overall, investment under the living over the shop scheme is expected to amount to €66 million, with projected residential output at 363 units.

The part EU funded urban and village renewal and conservation grant schemes of both the southern and eastern and the Border, midland and western regional operational programmes enable grant assistance to be given to local authorities and voluntary conservation bodies. The objective of these grants is to finance a range of measures which are designed to rejuvenate the social and economic life of cities, towns and villages, rehabilitate the built environment, and restore and conserve important elements of Irish architecture.

Major flagship urban renewal projects are being funded in each of the five main cities of Cork, Dublin. Galway, Limerick and Waterford. In towns and villages grants are also being used to carry out renewal works which are designed to improve the physical environment of these centres, attract and sustain an enterprise base and support tourism and living conditions generally. Grants are also being provided for the conservation and restoration of buildings of architectural and heritage merit. Many landmark buildings with historic features which were in need of restoration have now been preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Overall investment under this sub-programme will amount to in excess of €150 million in the 2000 to 2006 period. This investment will help create more attractive environments and underpin and encourage investment in enterprise creation and commercial and residential activity in towns and villages and their hinterlands.

Residential densities are a further important consideration for sustainable communities. Guidelines issued to local authorities in September 1999 support Government policy of encouraging more sustainable urban development by the avoidance of excessive suburbanisation and the promotion of higher residential densities in appropriate locations in harmony with improved public transport systems. The guidelines acknowledge that from a planning perspective, the benefits of increased residential density include the more economic use of existing infrastructure and serviced land, a reduced need for the development of greenfield sites, urban sprawl and ribbon development, reduced need for investment in new infrastructure, better access to existing services and facilities and more sustainable commuting patterns.

The guidelines recommend that, in general, increased densities should be encouraged on serviced land or land proposed to be serviced. They state that planning authorities should review and vary, if necessary, their development plans to promote higher residential densities, particularly in re-developing brownfield sites and in proximity to town centres and public transport corridors. The guidelines stress that firm emphasis must be placed by planning authorities on the importance of qualitative standards in design and layout to ensure that the highest quality of residential environment is achieved.

Other initiatives, such as the Tidy Towns competition, encourage sustainable environmental practices in towns and villages. Some 700 Tidy Towns committees participate in this annual competition, as well as contributing to other local environmental initiatives organised by the Department, local authorities and other agencies.

I have just touched on some of the key areas where I have responsibility for policy, legislation and programmes that contribute to sustainable development, and stimulate local authorities and local communities to pursue sustainable development in their own areas. Many others, in areas such as housing, waste, other environmental services, or participation in local energy agencies are relevant and important for sustainable development.

There is no legal impediment to sustainable communities, and there is certainly no need for this Bill. The structures, guidance and opportunities for sustainable development at national and local level that have already been put in place by this Government are well established and widely pursued. What is needed is commitment and leadership at local level and within communities, but one cannot legislate for those, and that is the basis on which this Bill must fail. It is not just fundamentally flawed and misleading. It offers no added value, no leadership, and no concrete action. Far from increasing the sustainability of local communities, it is an empty shell.

I am disappointed by the predictably negative response of the Minister of State. It is a pity the Government cannot overcome its tradition of opposing anything the Opposition does. It would be much better if the Minister of State had suggested consulting the Parliamentary Counsel and the civil servants so that together we could produce something that would lead to sustainable development in communities. It is unusual for a party to use Opposition time to produce a Bill. Opposition parties should, therefore, be encouraged and not belittled in respect of the Bills they produce. I am in principle in favour of what the Bill is trying to achieve. I accept the Minister of State's view that there may be better ways of doing it. However, let us get together to do that.

I am slightly concerned about the provision in the Bill that local authorities should lead in this matter. Perhaps a body other than a local authority should be given responsibility for sustainable development in communities. Local authorities find it difficult enough to carry out the functions they already have. If I ring my local authority, Galway County Council, I will be answered by an answering machine and instructed to dial one if I require the planning department, dial two if I require the housing department, and dial three if I require the roads department. If want to be put through to the planning department and dial one, I will hear another answering machine and might be kept waiting an hour, as happened to me twice last week.

How can the local authority get away with giving such a service to the general public?. If my office provided that type of service, I would be gone from this House long ago. The local authorities do not have the staff because they are not given the necessary resources. On top of that, the Department saddled local authorities with benchmarking increases and provided no money for this. It had to be done from existing resources by cutting back on other services.

The Minister of State said that development plans lie at the heart of the planning system. This is contrary to what the Minister for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, announced in March when he stated that he would allow rural houses to be built everywhere. It was a stunt before the local elections. The Minister of State, who was a member of a local authority, knows that cannot be done if it is not already included in the county development plan, and there was no time between the announcement and the local elections to alter the development plan because that is a process that takes up to six months. The Minister thought he would get away with this, but people in rural areas were not fooled.

Sustaining local communities is about much more than that. It is a mindset involving getting people to empower themselves to sustain their local community. There are many apartments being built now, but every house has a back garden. How many householders sow a ridge of potatoes, lettuce, turnips, carrots or anything else? That would help to sustain local communities. I happen to have a ridge of potatoes in my back garden. Recently I was amazed to be asked by two young lads from Dublin, aged 18 and 19, whose parents grew up on farms, whether the potatoes grew on the stalks.

It is only 150 years since we had a population of 8 million.

I ask the Deputy to move the adjournment.

I have never felt in better form. That is a pity.

It is a shame, 150 years after the Famine, when 8 million people were living on potatoes, that the present generation does not even know how they are grown. I wish I had half an hour to talk about that.

Is the Deputy sharing time with a colleague?

Yes, I am sharing time with Deputy Crawford, who can have my remaining time as I cannot be here tomorrow night.

Debate adjourned.