I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The main background to the important Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 is the Final Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments, otherwise known as the Mahon tribunal, which was published on 22 March 2012. The Bill is therefore primarily intended to give legislative effect to the planning-related recommendations of the tribunal report, providing for the establishment of a new independent Office of the Planning Regulator; the statutory underpinning of the proposed new national planning framework as a successor to the 2002 national spatial strategy; and other updates to the Planning and Development Act 2000 that are necessary to deliver greater transparency, efficiency and integrity in the planning system, including giving legislative effect to all further planning-related recommendations of the Mahon tribunal report.
As outlined, the main overarching objective of the Bill is to provide for the establishment of a new independent Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, as it will become known, whose key functions will be to evaluate and assess local authority development plans, variations to development plans and local area plans during their preparation, including proposals relating to land zonings; to make statutory observations and recommendations on the content of such plans and strategies as appropriate to the relevant local authorities and regional assemblies, with a view to ensuring that the plans or strategies set out an overall strategy for the proper planning and development of the area concerned which is consistent with national and regional policies; to undertake reviews of the organisation and systems and procedures used by planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála in the performance of their functions under the planning Acts; and to undertake research and conduct programmes of education and training, including for elected members and officials of planning authorities, to underpin the principles of proper planning and sustainable development.
The core key function of the OPR, namely, evaluating and assessing local plans and regional strategies, will also enable the OPR to make recommendation to the Minister in relation to exercising the pre-existing ministerial direction powers under the planning Act to ensure that a plan or strategy sets out an overall strategy for proper planning and sustainable development for the area concerned.
The establishment of this new office to oversee the development plan process and the planning system generally will add another layer of sophistication to the institutional arrangements within the planning system with a view to ensuring that the overall integrity of the system is preserved and where possible enhanced. In this regard, it is important that we learn from past well-reported experiences in the planning system, which gave rise to the establishment of the Mahon tribunal in the first place, and that we endeavour to ensure that they are not repeated in the future.
A properly functioning planning system is critical to the ongoing development of all parts of the country and to ensure that development takes place in accordance with the principles of proper planning and sustainable development, namely, that development takes place in the right locations, in the right way and at the right time to meet the needs of our people while also simultaneously protecting the many qualities of the natural and built environment. That is the primary purpose of the planning system and it is important that the highest standards are applied by and adhered to at all times by all parties engaged in the planning system including planning authorities, public bodies, the construction and development sector, professional practitioners, private interests and the general public in the interests of the overall common good.
A well-functioning planning system which responds to the needs and demands of society will also be critical to setting the proper planning basis for many of the actions in the Rebuilding Ireland plan, the Government’s recently published comprehensive action plan on housing and homelessness. The planning system impacts on many aspects of our daily lives and therefore we need to ensure that it operates in the manner intended so that it can deliver quality in planning outcomes. The proposed establishment of the OPR, as recommended by the Mahon, tribunal, represents a fundamental reform to the planning system and that is why I regard this as an important Bill.
As I have indicated, the Bill also provides for the establishment of a legislatively defined approach to the development of a successor strategy to the 2002 national spatial strategy, to be known as the national planning framework, NPF. It might become known as something else when we launch it but that is what it is called for the moment. Specific provision is made in this regard on the procedures to be followed in the development of a new framework, including public consultation and participation in the process, for periodic review of the framework every six years and for obtaining Oireachtas approval of the NPF or any revised framework prior to its adoption.
The Bill contains 15 sections and 4 Parts in total and together with four Schedules sets out the necessary provisions to give effect to these measures and related matters. I will now turn to the sections and Parts of the Bill in more detail. Part 1, sections 1 to 3, contains standard provisions dealing with such matters as the Short Title, commencement, interpretation, and provision for expenses.
Part 2, comprising section 4, provides for an extensive amendment to the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, by inserting a new Part II B therein to provide for the establishment of the OPR. This is the most significant part of the Bill. This new Part, comprising the insertion of new sections 31K to 3IAX into the Act of 2000, contains four chapters which provide for preliminary and general OPR matters, the arrangements relating to the establishment, organisation and staffing of the OPR, the powers relating to the evaluation and assessment of plans and strategies by the OPR and the review of the performance of planning authorities, including An Bord Pleanála, by the OPR.
As Part 2 of the Bill relating to the establishment of the OPR is quite extensive, I will spend some time outlining what it proposes.
The new chapter I of the OPR provisions, Preliminary and General Matters, comprises just one section, section 31K to provide for definitions of terms used in this Part.
Chapter II, relating to the establishment, organisation and staffing of the OPR, includes new sections 31L to 31AL, inclusive. Rather than going through the sections individually which primarily relate to standard organisational and operational-type issues normally associated with statutory bodies and which are quite detailed and complex, I will instead give a summary of them. They include provision for the chief executive of the office to be known as the planning regulator who shall be a corporation sole and responsible for the performance of the functions and the administration and business of the office and the functions to be performed by the OPR. As mentioned, its key functions will be to evaluate and assess development plans and strategies and make statutory observations and recommendations on them; to conduct research on planning matters, including research at the request of the Minister; and arrange education and training programmes in planning. Further provision is made for reviewing the performance of An Bord Pleanála and planning authorities and overseeing the delivery of effective planning services to the public by planning authorities; making observations, as it considers appropriate, to the Minister on planning legislation, planning guidelines or ministerial directions; and the assignment of additional functions as may be specified by way of ministerial order, subject to the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
Chapter Il further provides for the independence of the OPR in the carrying out of its functions and the authorisation of staff to perform such functions; the OPR having to have regard to Government policies and objectives, as well as other specified matters, in the performance of its functions; the review of the organisation and the systems and procedures used by the OPR in the performance of its own functions; and the appointment and term of office of the planning regulator, with any such appointment to be approved by the Government on the nomination of the Minister. In this regard, it is proposed that the planning regulator be appointed for a term of up to five years which can only be renewed once.
Further provision is made for the appointment of up to three directors to assist the planning regulator in the performance of its functions; the appointment of staff and the remuneration of such staff; the ceasing of the position held by the planning regulator or a member of his or her staff where they are nominated, elected or co-opted as a Member of the Oireachtas, a planning authority or the European Parliament; the making of a superannuation scheme in respect of the planning regulator and the staff of the OPR; the prohibition of the disclosure by staff, without consent, of information on the work of the OPR; the non-liability of the planning regulator, a former regulator or a present or former member of staff for damages arising from the performance of their functions, unless shown to have been done in bad faith; the payment of grants by the Minister to the OPR out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas for the purpose of meeting its expenses; the keeping of accounts and the auditing of the accounts of the OPR; the preparation by the OPR of an annual report on the performance of its functions and principal activities, also providing that the planning regulator may be called before the relevant Oireachtas committee to account for matters relating to such annual reports; the Minister providing services, premises, equipment and other resources, as necessary, for the OPR to perform its functions; the charging by the OPR of fees in respect of reasonable costs arising in the provision or undertaking of any training and research programme; and the adoption of a code of conduct by the OPR to be followed by the planning regulator and its staff.
As indicated, the Chapter II provisions relate primarily relate to organisational and operational-type issues.
Moving to Chapter III, on the evaluation and assessment of development plans and regional strategies by the OPR, the chapter includes new sections 31AM to 31AR, inclusive. Section 31AM provides for the OPR to evaluate and assess development plans and variations to development plans at all statutory stages of the plan-making process to ensure the development plans and regional strategies, as made, address relevant legislative and policy requirements. In this regard, the section provides that the OPR will submit observations or recommendations on draft plans and strategies to the relevant planning authority and submit copies to the Minister. The chief executive's subsequent report on proposed development plans and variations to development plans for the elected members will summarise the issues and recommendations raised by the OPR and be published on the Internet. A planning authority will subsequently notify the OPR where it has made or varied the plan. Where the plan has been made in such a manner as to be inconsistent with any OPR observation or recommendation, the planning authority shall state the reasons. Where the OPR is subsequently of the opinion that the plan, as made or varied, does not set out an overall strategy for the proper planning and sustainable development of the area or region concerned, the OPR shall recommend the use of a ministerial direction to ensure the plan or variation sets out an overall strategy for proper planning and sustainable development and shall submit a draft direction to the Minister for issue to the planning authority concerned. As Deputies know, that is a role the Minister takes on. A copy of the notice submitted to the Minister shall be made available on the website of the OPR.
Section 31AN provides for consequential provisions whereby the Minister either agrees or disagrees with the notice or recommendations from the OPR. Where the Minister agrees with the recommendation of the OPR on a plan or strategy, he or she will issue the draft direction under section 31 of the Act to the relevant local authority and regional assembly and the Bill sets out the detailed procedures that ensue. Where the Minister does not agree with the recommendation of the regulator, he or she, in turn, will be required to explain the reasons for such disagreement, lay the reasons for such disagreement before the Houses of the Oireachtas and publish them on the Department's website, all in the interests of increased transparency in the local authority development plan process generally.
Sections 31AO to 31AR, inclusive, provide for similar detailed procedures relating to the evaluation and assessment of local area plans and regional spatial and economic strategies.
The new Chapter IV on the review of planning functions includes new sections 31AS to 31AX, inclusive. Section 31AS provides that the OPR, where it considers it necessary to do so, may conduct a review of the planning authority or An Bord Pleanála in respect of the systems and procedures used in the performance of their functions and may, on foot of such a review, recommend that the Minister issue section 28 guidelines, a section 29 policy directive or a directive under section 255(2) to the authority concerned. Alternatively, it may, on foot of such a review, recommend the appointment of a commissioner under section 255(4) of the Act to take over the functions of the planning authority concerned.
Supplementary to section 31AS, section 31AT empowers the Minister to request the OPR to undertake a review of the organisation and the systems and procedures used by a planning authority in the performance of its functions where the Minister is of the opinion that a planning authority may not be carrying out its functions in accordance with the Act; is not operating in compliance with guidelines, directives and any other direction issued; may be applying inappropriate standards of administrative practice or otherwise acting contrary to fair or sound administration; may be applying systemic discrimination in the conduct of its functions; may be operating in a manner whereby there is impropriety or risk of corruption in the conduct of its functions; or may be operating in a manner whereby there are serious diseconomies or inefficiencies in the conduct of its functions.
Sections 31AU to 31AX, inclusive, outline the procedures to be followed by the OPR in the examination of complaints made by a person to it on a planning matter, including, where considered warranted, referral of the matter and any related document to one or more of the Ombudsman, the Standards in Public Office Commission, An Garda Síochána or such other State authorities, as may be prescribed.
These sections further require that information, records or documents be made available to the OPR, or to an authorised person appointed by him, as part of any review or examination; that a planning authority or the board and its staff comply with any requests for information and records and that they co-operate with the OPR in this regard; and that any person who obstructs or impedes or refuses to comply with a request of the OPR or an authorised person commits an offence and shall be liable, on summary conviction, to specified penalties.
Part 3 provides for a number of miscellaneous and consequential amendments to the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, primarily relating to the development of a national planning framework and addressing other Mahon tribunal planning-related recommendations, including providing for a legislative basis for the development of a national planning framework, NPF, as a successor to the national spatial strategy; that the broad objectives of the NPF will be to establish an overarching national plan for the Government in the strategic planning of urban and rural areas to secure balanced regional development, and to secure the co-ordination of regional spatial and economic strategies, and city and county development plans; that the NPF shall be adopted for a period of between ten and 20 years and be reviewed every six years; that national strategic development requirements shall be identified in the framework; that public consultation shall be undertaken with regional assemblies, local authorities, An Bord Pleanála, prescribed bodies and the Northern Ireland Department for Regional Development in the development of the framework - all of that is already happening I am glad to say; that the framework shall be subject to the provisions of relevant EU environmental directives; and that the Government shall submit the draft of a revised or new framework for the approval of the Oireachtas before it is published and shall have regard to any resolution of the Oireachtas in the finalisation of the NPF.
As I mentioned, the other provisions in Part 3 largely emanate from a combination of all the remaining Mahon tribunal planning-related recommendations as well as specific actions required to be completed under the previous Government’s Construction 2020 strategy. These include enhanced transparency in the planning process requiring the publication of submissions on local area plans and development plans as well as the chief executive’s report on such submissions on the website of the relevant planning authority; the forwarding of any proposed grants of planning permission which would contravene materially a development plan or a local area plan to the relevant regional assembly for observations; the removal of an overlap between development contributions for water infrastructure being paid for through the planning permission conditions to local authorities and the separate collection of water infrastructure costs by Irish Water from developers under the provisions of the Water Services Act 2014; the provision of legislative underpinning to facilitate the introduction of e-planning, electronic planning, regarding the online submission of planning applications, appeals and associated fees; requiring planning authorities to provide data and-or information for databases or national planning systems as may be specified by the Minister, for example, www.myplan.ie, the Department’s public information website on development plans, local area plans, etc.; and provision for the payment of reduced or no fees, rather than the current €20 fee, by elected members when making submissions on planning applications and the noting of such representations on the relevant planning file.
The final part of the Bill, Part 4, contains just one section, section 15, which amends section 33 of the Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 to provide that Irish Water, in preparing a water services strategic plan or capital investment plan shall have regard to proper planning and sustainable development in line with any development plans made under the Planning Act, in particular with the core strategies of such development plans. This amendment is primarily intended to ensure that water services infrastructure will be provided where it is needed in accordance with the provisions of local development plans and core strategies. The remainder of the Bill comprises a number of Schedules for the purpose of making a series of miscellaneous and consequential amendments to the planning Act arising from the provisions in the preceding parts of the Bill. I would like to signal to the House that I will bring forward a number of amendments on Committee Stage, primarily relating to improving and streamlining the procedures in connection with the taking in charge of housing estates by local authorities, as well as possibly some other miscellaneous revisions to the planning Act which my Department is still examining and reviewing.
I have outlined in some detail the main purpose and provisions of the Bill. I hope all sides of the House will agree the Bill is aimed at delivering a number of fundamental, important and necessary revisions to the Planning and Development Act 2000 arising from the final report of the Mahon tribunal. In particular, as I have already indicated, the establishment of the independent office of the planning regulator will introduce a further institutional layer of sophistication and oversight to the planning system. The establishment of this new office, to take over the function of evaluating and assessing local development plans and regional strategies, to generally oversee the operation of the planning system and to conduct reviews of its operation where considered necessary, is aimed at ensuring that the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the future and that the planning system is operated in an open, transparent and impartial manner in the interests of the common good.
The planning system is integral to the ongoing sustainable and economic development of our country and it is consequently important, if not imperative, to ensure that we have a fit-for-purpose and modem planning system to underpin future development, that we have the highest standards in terms of applying a planning system, that we maintain those high standards in the role that public representatives play in that system and that we do not undermine the integrity of the broader system in any way. I look forward to hearing what colleagues have to say. I have made a detailed contribution and I do not expect Members to take it all in straightaway. We will have an opportunity on Committee Stage to go through the Bill line by line. It remains very loyal to the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal, which is exactly what we should be doing. Colleagues might look to add appropriate amendments to the legislation and we will try to be constructive in that regard.