I am pleased to have the opportunity to make my contribution to the debate on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, some aspects of which are important and with which I agree and others that I believe could go a little further. I will begin with the issue of development plans and will outline my experiences in this regard as both a town councillor and a county councillor. I have been involved in the drafting of development plans in both spheres and have found such plans to be highly complex documents. At the time, I thought the local authorities' internal expertise was insufficient and perhaps the councillors' background did not provide the correct mix of individuals in terms of feeding information from the various sectors such as the retail, farming, social and sporting sectors. I also thought that while some individuals within the local authorities were particularly interested in development plans, others did not have as much interest in their development.
Personally, I loved my involvement in drawing up such plans and I believe there has been much unfair criticism of councillors and their roles with regard to overzoning. As I noted earlier, development plans are highly complex and involve attempts to look into the future, in most cases for five years, although one does not know what will happen within five or ten years. Over the past ten years, councillors faced difficulties caused by the movement of people into their towns and a considerable amount of development around them. The councillors came under pressure to provide extra land for the development of their towns and areas and to do what was in their areas' best interests. In addition, they had an obligation to ensure the provision of balanced and proper planning. I believe that in our contributions, both I and the people with whom I worked did our best to achieve this at all times. It is easy to look back in hindsight and assert that councillors ran riot. I accept that mistakes undoubtedly were made in certain parts of the country.
However, I also believe that a complex set of proposals are put in place that deal with all aspects of the future development of one's town or locality. Much more expertise should be provided by the planning officials, engineers and architects from both the private and public sectors. The planning authorities must engage much more and at a higher level with such people before presenting plans. The system in the country as it was set out was one in which people would lobby their local councillors and Deputies to try to influence change, which is understandable. Another difficulty faced by councillors was that if not enough land was zoned, the five people who owned all the land around a small town were being given the opportunity to sell that lands onto developers at the time. However, were enough land zoned to have 20 such owners, it might have the effect of bringing down the price of land. Consequently, one was obliged to take into consideration many issues when putting plans in place.
I have seen both good plans and bad plans put in place. Some plans became unworkable on foot of pressure arising from the major public consultation meetings and a consequential paralysis between the planning officials, the councillors and the people who were living in the various villages. It has been necessary to revisit and reconsider such plans in certain cases because they have become unworkable. This was the outcome of pressure caused from both sides and not simply from the elected representatives. While I was a member of Wexford County Council, it produced a wind strategy plan for Wexford. At that time, I considered it to be an anti-wind, rather than a wind strategy because three years ago it was taboo to have turbines and people did not want them in their areas. Now however, they appear to be fashionable and turbines are being mooted nationwide. The council produced a wind strategy that now is perceived to be highly restrictive for a coastline and county that has enormous potential for wind development.
As for flood plains, developments in that regard were incredible. I operated in New Ross, where my late father and I had property on the riverbank there. It was a flood plain and I lost eight to ten nights' business every year because of flooding. At one stage I was obliged to know the contents of the book of tides one month in advance because it was my business to so do. My business was wiped out during a hurricane on 16 December 1989 due to severe flooding at the time and the only solution was to raise one's building out of being at risk. While this was done in respect of new developments in New Ross, this was based on local knowledge. In many recent cases pertaining to development on flood plains, local people were not consulted with regard to what happens with rivers and I fail to understand the reason for that. All sorts of engineering solutions have been proposed which would cost a fortune. However, were one to speak to the people on the ground who encounter such flood threats, they probably could solve the problem for a fraction of the cost. In my own case, two local publicans and I came up with a solution, which cost £15,000 at the time, to ramp the local boat club in New Ross, thereby preventing the water from flooding through it. Although this measure solved the problem, we were up against a project that would have cost a couple of hundred thousand euro from an engineering perspective and which proposed the building of walls all around the lower part of the village of Rosbercon. My point is that local knowledge in respect of flood plains and in respect of difficult areas for development always should be used.
I agree with Deputy Higgins in respect of city planners. This is a highly important initiative and every city should have its own planner. Moreover, rather than running for five years, city plans should run for ten or 20 years. Consideration should be given to engaging the professional sector to work with the local authorities in the various cities and counties to put in place such projects and plans for the next ten to 20 years.
I would welcome proper planning. Elected representatives should have no role in planning. It should be straightforward but because it is complicated we do not have the luxury of not being involved and we must engage. One can deal with a planner who will advise one of the particular style of window or house he or she favours; one then goes through the pre-planning process and put the plan into the system where it is dealt with by somebody else who does not like the style of window or house produced. Meanwhile the citizen who paid the planning fee is caught in the middle of the mix. I have serious concerns about this; planning should be much more straightforward and there should be no issues.
I learned a great lesson as a county councillor when friends in the New Ross area approached me about planning. At the time, I did my best for them but the planning application was refused. I brought them to meet a senior planner in the county council where I was told that unfortunately there was no way the people would be granted planning permission and that they would have to choose a new site. Approximately six months later when I was checking the planning lists I noticed that planning had been granted to the people on the original site. When I checked I noticed a party colleague who was a Member of the Dáil had secured planning permission for them whereas I was hung out to dry. The lesson I learned is that there is no such thing as "No"; one must be persistent and keep going back until one gets the planning permission. I have found the people I have dealt with over the years to be of the highest integrity and I have had no difficulties with them but the system works against them. For that reason they need assistance in the form of legislation to help them have clear guidelines and directives on planning.
My nephew is doing a thesis on regional authorities and regional assemblies and their role in the overall political system in the country. I was a member of a regional authority and those involved carry out great work. However, there is a huge disconnect between the work of the regional authorities and the role of a Member of the Dáil or town councillors. I met with the regional authority on only one occasion during my two and a half years in the Dáil. We should meet on a quarterly basis at least. I would love to see the role of regional authorities strengthened and I welcome that aspect of the Bill. They have a huge part to play.
For argument's sake on my next point, I will give the example of the new 25 m swimming pool being built in New Ross. A 50 m pool would be a far more welcome development in the south east region and New Ross is ideally located for this type of development. It should be part of an overall co-ordinated approach and plan whereby a 50 m pool is built and funded in one area, such as in the south-east region, and no similar development is allowed in the same area. This makes the one developed sustainable. We should do the same in the western area, there is one in Limerick, and the same in the north west. This would make the developments viable. What tends to happen is that we build a pool here and another there and nobody considers their ongoing viability. From a competitive and sports point of view 50 m pools are very important. There should also be a co-ordinated approach to other major projects of which we feel the country can sustain only one or two. I welcome the Bill if it will co-ordinate and improve a proper planning system and will link up local authority development plans with the national spatial strategy and the regional guidelines.
I am not sure about ministerial directives as I am a little concerned about ministerial intervention in the overall planning system. If the guidelines are set out strictly and in a straightforward manner initially there should be no need for ministerial directives. I question this aspect of the Bill. Overall consistency is the key to the success of the planning guidelines and I ask that these are examined to ensure the legislation is strong enough to ensure consistency in granting planning permission and how we deal with planning.
The jury is out on the requirement for a two thirds majority of councillors to pass plans. I remember being involved in plans as a county councillor and the difficulty in trying to get a majority to agree a plan because of the different backgrounds and philosophies of people. Someone might want a Tesco in a particular place and someone else might believe there should not be a Tesco there. This would be held up and argued out, perhaps not on a financial factual basis but because someone had a gripe against a particular company, whether it be Tesco, Dunnes or whoever. It will be interesting to see what way voting on plans goes and how the two thirds majority of councillors will operate.
I would take issue with the section of the Bill dealing with making amendments to development plans and minor adjustments. Nobody knows in what type of economy or environment we will operate in two to three years time. A major and very attractive development, such as a hotel or golf club, may want to locate on a particular site perhaps on the outskirts of a town not included in zoning. Councillors may be in favour of it but the directives in the spatial strategy and the national guidelines may be against it. I would question the strictness of allowances to make amendments to development plans. It may have an impact on future job creation potential which also concerns me.
I welcome the section on rogue developers. We need something to put serious pressure on developers who in recent years built housing estates in certain areas which are of very poor standard. I welcome this if it means we will have a much higher quality finish on our estates and proper finishing of apartments and public buildings. Not all developers short-changed the customer and were in it for profit, and some very fine buildings were developed. People were committed to building to a very high standard. I welcome this aspect of the Bill and I hope it is enforced with vigour in the coming years. We have much to learn from recent years about substandard properties and finishes. I hope we will see much improvement in this area in the next five to ten years.
I also welcome the provisions on planning permission extension. I am aware of many projects, as I am sure are other Members of the Dáil and councillors in the area, which have had planning permission for two or three years but finance is tight and people are unsure about investing in them. The Bill might provide certainty to a market that is concerned about going ahead with projects. I hope this will be examined fairly and that each project will be evaluated on its merit.
While I welcome the flexibility of the Bill with regard to levies and where they can be spent, a huge issue arises with regard to their collection and levels. People are applying for planning permission in small towns, villages or major cities where they are hit with huge car parking costs, albeit that someone may have made contributions two to three years earlier but did not survive in business. The levies are a real impediment to people starting up new businesses. Phased payment schemes over a longer period should be considered by local authorities. Most local authorities provide for phased payments over 12 months or two years. I suggest a built-in ten year phasing of levies because of their scale and size. The alternative is to reduce them to what is an acceptable level now. In good times people could probably just about reach them but they have gone out of control and are far too high. They are a disincentive to people creating and opening their own businesses.
As I am discussing levies I will mention the windfall tax of 80% with which I have a huge issue. This is unworkable. If it is meant to be punitive it should be reduced to a 40% tax. The reason we are not getting much hassle about it at present is that not much land is changing hands. However, people will decide against selling if they are hit by a windfall tax of 80% on their family land or land which has been zoned and this could pose a problem in the future.
I am not a great fan of An Bord Pleanála. It takes too long to decide on planning applications and makes it too easy to raise objections. It fails to consider the possibility of mischief makers obstructing young families from building on family land, personal vendettas or family feuds which extend back 50 years, even where the advice of a neutral person could be made available. The consequences of such interference is usually costly for the planning applicant. State agencies and An Taisce are also likely to raise objections through An Bord Pleanála. It is crazy that State agencies can appeal a planning permission granted by local authorities. It is probably preferable that I say no more about the matter other than that it annoys me to the nth degree.
The New Ross bypass project, which when complete will comprise a 14 km dual carriageway and the longest and highest bridge in the country, has been under way for the past 12 years. In the good times, it was costed at €300 million. A certain individual and An Taisce have decided to challenge the project in the High Court. The individual concerned is involved in a number of other high profile cases around the country and in my opinion is a mischief maker who is trying to disrupt the development of Ireland's infrastructure. The New Ross bypass is of great importance to the south east and the people of Wexford, south Kilkenny and Waterford. The project has already successfully completed a rigorous planning process. I understand a High Court challenge will be heard on 23 February but notice has been given that the case will be pursued in the Supreme Court and in Europe. The bypass will be the last element of infrastructure linking Waterford with Dublin through the N11 and the N25 to Rosslare. An Taisce and this individual, who does not come from anywhere near the south east, have decided to go against the system and stop the project. An Bord Pleanála has a lot to answer for in regard to how it allows individuals to interfere with major infrastructure projects. We in Government also have a responsibility for legislating to address this problem.
Although the Bill does not deal with disabled access, I wish to briefly address the issue. Local authorities are investing significant efforts in producing disability strategies and a number of towns and villages have ramped footpaths and installed wheelchair accessible toilets. Last week, I parked in the Jurys Custom House Inn and pushed down the quays to the O2 arena to attend the musical, "We Will Rock You". I had to negotiate a phenomenal number of intersections and obstacles just along that short stretch of footpath. Dublin still has some work to do in regard to that issue and these conditions are mirrored throughout the country. I travelled along the bicycle lane on my way back to my car and found it a joy to use.
I love attending the cinema and in recent times, planning permission has been granted for several cinemas, including a Storm Cinemas complex in Waterford. Along with my nephew, I visited Storm Cinemas Waterford, which is the cinema closest to New Ross. However, I discovered that the theatre which was playing the film I wanted to watch contained tiered seating and the wheelchair space was at the front of the theatre, only six feet away from the screen. When I objected to sitting in this area, the cleaning staff lifted the front row of seats onto their shoulders and carried it to the side of the screen. I had to park my wheelchair in a way that obstructed the view of the rest of the audience. I have not returned to that cinema, although I have contacted the company about my experience. I do not blame Storm Cinemas for my experience because it was the result of a planning issue which should have been addressed at the outset of the project. It is a similar issue to hotels which go the distance in terms of constructing wheelchair accessible dressing rooms, which in many cases are used to store cleaning equipment, but fail to install a hoist to lift people from their wheelchairs into the pool.