Deputy Eamon Scanlon has eight minutes remaining.
Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed)
Fianna Fáil supports the passage of this Bill to Committee Stage. The main purpose of the Bill is to give a basis to one of the core planning reform recommendations of the Mahon tribunal. The recommendation in question calls for the establishment of an independent planning regulator to oversee and assess decision-making and other processes in planning authorities. We are committed to drawing from the lessons of the Mahon tribunal and improving transparency, consistency and good decision-making. Following strong action throughout the planning system when Fianna Fáil was in government, it is vital that we continue to put in place the legal institutional framework to prevent the corruption and planning abuses that the Mahon tribunal uncovered.
The big problems are in the major urban centres such as Dublin and elsewhere. I served as a member of Sligo County Council for many years. There was never any question of corruption or anything like that. People did their business honestly. In Dublin, however, it is different because the value of an acre of land could increase from €20,000 to €2 million. One could understand that there is the possibility that corruption could take place, and it did.
We believe this Bill strikes an appropriate balance in giving the new planning regulator independence in its role in evaluating local and regional development plans while maintaining some democratic control over the body by the Minister and the Oireachtas. However, we have a number of concerns regarding some of the key provisions. We believe these require further scrutiny and amendment. There are several major omissions from the Bill relating to key Mahon tribunal recommendations in respect of improving transparency and planning, the disclosure of political donations by planning applicants and the noting of all submissions by political representatives in planning applications. It is important that these facts are recorded and that people can see exactly who is supporting what at all times.
Some of the planning regulator functions and powers prescribed by the Bill may not make it an effective overseer of the national planning strategy. For example, the regulator is given no role in overseeing executive transport planning agencies, including the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. The rationale given by Mahon for establishing the planning regulator was to achieve greater integration between land-use planning, including local authority zoning decisions and strategic transport planning. It is disappointing, therefore, that the new regulator is not given any role in overseeing the development or implementation of plans by the NTA or the TII.
We are concerned that the limitation of the planning regulator's powers, as prescribed in the Bill, may make it toothless as an anti-corruption watchdog of the planning process. We also have serious reservations about placing the successor to the national spatial strategy - the Government's as yet undrafted national planning framework - on a statutory footing in view of the fact that it does not exist.
I wish to make a point about An Bord Pleanála. Any politician in the House can appreciate the way objections to planning applications are made to An Bord Pleanála. Some are vexatious and some are genuine. An Bord Pleanála sends inspectors to inspect sites and examine applications. Sometimes the inspector might recommend granting or refusal of an application only for the board to overturn the recommendation. That is unfair and people do not understand it. Sometimes the decision is made by a roomful of people in Dublin. The inspector has looked at the application and has made a decision. In fairness, that procedure should make a strong case for whatever the inspector says. However, this does not happen and it annoys people. This is something at which we should look and perhaps this Bill provides the opportunity to do so.
Another issue I am keen to raise relates to An Taisce, a prescribed body. We have a situation in Sligo at present involving a man who employs 12 people in a rural area. He runs a vegetable business and he has applied for planning permission. He could create a further 12 jobs. Given the area in which he is based, that would be the equivalent of 50 jobs in a small town. He applied and got planning permission from Sligo County Council. However, the application was objected to by An Taisce. The individual spent a great deal of money. He reapplied and addressed every issue raised by An Taisce. He went above and beyond in respect of the concerns expressed. We are not talking about a national heritage site or a national heritage building. The second objection related to a road. In fairness, Sligo County Council has plenty of engineers who can decide whether a road is safe. Unfortunately, this objection has cost the man a substantial amount of money. He is prepared to employ people and a further 12 jobs are available if he obtains planning permission. The case is before An Bord Pleanála. I hope the decision handed down will be fair and that he will be given the opportunity to progress his work. In fairness, An Taisce has a job to do and I would never question that to any great degree. However, to object to a planning application because of a road amounts to going way beyond the function of An Taisce in respect of planning. It is very unfair. We should look at these issues when we are considering planning legislation.
I wish to share time with Deputies Quinlivan and Ellis.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this very important legislation arising from the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal. Despite its rather anodyne title, the tribunal report dealt with issues of corruption in the planning process. It is disappointing that it has taken so long for Government to implement some aspects of its recommendations. It is even more disappointing that many aspects of the report's key recommendations remain unimplemented. It is also important to point out that given the length of time since the Mahon tribunal was established, the debate on how best to tackle corruption in public life has moved on and Government action on these issues and the issues raised in the tribunal report should not be limited just to its own recommendations.
One of the areas dealt with by the tribunal and worst affected by politicians trading cash for votes was in my constituency Dublin Mid-West. The zoning and planning decisions that led to the development of Liffey Valley continue to have a profound negative consequence for the communities of Clondalkin and Lucan. In exchange for bribes, politicians named in the Mahon tribunal report disregarded a long-standing proposal for a town centre in Clonburris to serve the social, economic and cultural needs of the local community. In its place, they facilitated an out-of-town shopping centre in Liffey Valley which served neither the needs nor the interests of the people who lived at that time in Dublin Mid-West. Politicians made the decision in exchange for donations to their election campaigns, printing of leaflets and posters, trips to Cork to meet Seanad election voters and expensive meals and fancy hotels. Today, communities in Bawnogue, north Clondalkin and south-east Lucan live without a viable town centre, without adequate amenities, services or infrastructure. It is important to keep in mind the real human cost of the planning decisions that the Mahon tribunal examined.
When this House sets about the task of implementing the planning-related recommendations of the tribunal report, we need to make sure that we do a job in a way that ensures communities such as those in Clondalkin and Lucan are never treated in this way again, and that those who are responsible for the decisions do not go unpunished. Before I comment on the substantive proposal in the Bill, the office of the planning regulator, I want to raise several issues about other aspects of it. I would like the Minister to clarify some matters in the Bill and omissions from it. I am conscious that many of us who were Members of the Thirty-first Dáil did not have the benefit of the very extensive engagement at the then environment committee preceding the drafting of the Bill. Some of my questions may have been dealt with at that stage. Those of us who are new are keen to get clarification on them. Section 8 relates to publication of documents on council websites. I welcome this move and many councils already do this as a matter of course. The issue does arise, however, of those without access to the Internet and how they can be assured of equal access to the information. I would be interested to hear at the end of the debate the Minister’s views on how we can ensure this access.
Section 9 facilitates the making of planning opinions available electronically, which is also very welcome. Can the Minister assure us that this will not result in reduced access to non-electronic facilities as has been the case, for example, with motor tax registration as we are seeing in some parts of the country and library services? I am not clear on the purpose and intentions of sections 11 and 15 and would like the Minister, if possible, to provide more background to these changes. With respect to section 14, was consideration given at drafting stage to including other categories of premises, for example, fast food restaurants and takeaways? If not, would the Minister be open to considering the inclusion of these on Committee Stage? I am also concerned about the proposed exemption from publication of certain documents as outlined in the amendments to sections 9, 11, 12 and 13 and in particular exemptions arising from legal opinions or ministerial interventions. Could the Minister give more detail of the kinds of documents that he or the drafters of the legislation think will be covered by these exemptions?
I am also concerned by the absence of several key recommendations from the Mahon tribunal. While the issue of directly electing members of regional authorities has been deferred, does the Government have any proposals for improving the accountability or transparency of this body in planning related matters, which is a key concern of Mahon? Why has the Government ruled out using an independent appointments process for appointments to what was the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII? I listened with interest to Deputy Cowen during the previous session of this debate and I share his broad concerns at the omission of these transport bodies from the broader remit of the Bill and, like him, I urge the Minister to reconsider this matter.
Contrary to claims made previously, the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal on increasing transparency in the planning process have not been fully implemented in the Bill before us, which does not address some key proposals. I would like the Minister to say why this is the case and if we can return to these matters. Measures relating to decisions by councillors in contravention of the advice of officials and declarations of political donations by planning applicants remain unaddressed. These are key recommendations of Mahon. I urge the Minister to reconsider these important issues and either table his own amendments on Committee Stage or be open to those from Opposition parties. This is not a criticism of the current Minister but a point about how some of these issues were reported during the previous Dáil. It is not good enough to produce progress reports as has been previously the case, stating that recommendations are supported in principle or being progressed to some degree. I urge the Minister, now that he has taken responsibility for this Bill, to bring forward to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, at whatever stage is appropriate, more detailed progress reports on the implementation of the planning related aspects of the Mahon tribunal, stating very clearly what has and has not been done so that members are very clear about that aspect.
The real substance of the Bill is the creation of a planning regulator. It is not unjust to say that this is the most important recommendation that Mahon made in planning terms arising out of the report. It is important to read the key wording of that recommendation in chapter 18 1.14:
...with regard to enforcement, the Tribunal is concerned that recent changes in the planning system have resulted in an over-centralisation of power in the hands of the Minister for the Environment which is not subject to sufficient checks and balances. Consequently, the Tribunal is recommending that the Minister for the Environment’s ability to give directions to Regional Authorities and Local Planning Authorities should be entrusted to a Planning Regulator.
It goes on to state that the Minister’s responsibility in terms of adopting the spatial strategies and development plans should continue. The specific wording of the tribunal is really important. The intentions of that recommendation are not contained in the Bill before us; in short, it simply does not create a planning regulator. The language used in section 31P of the Bill before us has been chosen very carefully and deliberately. This new body is being given powers only to evaluate, review, assess and observe specific aspects of the planning process. Crucially, and this is the big difference between what is at the heart of this Bill and the Mahon report, its only power is to make recommendations to the Minister, which he or she can disregard if he or she so wishes.
While the training and research functions are without doubt welcome in the Bill, it cannot in any way be described as an independent body with the powers of regulation and enforcement as recommended by the Mahon tribunal. It is arguable that rather than enforcement powers being transferred from the Minister to the independent regulator, we actually end up with the contrary of what Mahon requested, which is increased powers being given to the Minister. That is against both the letter and the spirit of the tribunal's recommendations.
The language in section 31AU dealing with complaints about specific planning matters is similarly weak. It refers to examinations not investigations. The powers to compel witnesses to secure relevant documentation and to make findings are not clear. This is something we will have to return to on Committee Stage. How any of this would have stopped the kind of planning corruption that left the people of Clonburris and Lucan without a town centre is not clear. If the Bill before us cannot prevent such corruption in the future, we would be better to return to pre-legislative scrutiny after drafting a Bill that does what Mahon recommended and what people across the country deserve. In addition to these legislative weaknesses, I am also concerned about the issue of resourcing. Whatever powers are eventually given to this new office, without adequate staff and funding these powers will be of limited value.
I raise these issues because I am genuinely interested in the passage of this Bill. Sinn Féin is not going to stand in its way on Second Stage and will engage very constructively on Committee Stage by proposing amendments in the spirit of the tribunal’s recommendations. Having listened to the debate and the Minister’s comments at the start, all of us in this House want to have a fair, transparent and accountable planning system with a robust and independent system of regulation and enforcement. If we can do additional work on this Bill on Committee and Report Stages, we could end up with an Act that not only could we all support, but do so enthusiastically.
Sinn Féin welcomes this legislation as it places the national planning framework on a statutory footing. The legislation is one of the outcomes of the Mahon tribunal which in itself was set up as a result of huge public disquiet, political instability and charges of corruption, criminality, brown envelopes and shady deals. The physical manifestation of that is found in every village, town and city across the country. Ghost estate sprawl, poor architecture, badly designed public realm and huge infrastructure deficits are the hallmarks of that era. The purpose of the legislation is to ensure that untrammelled, corrupt and vulgar development on such a scale never happens again.
The Mahon tribunal shed a light on the dysfunctionality at the heart of the Irish political system and the failure and startling inability of the institutional machinery of the State to protect ordinary people from a corrupt and greedy political elite and officials. The lust and insatiable appetite for money pushed the price of land and housing into a different sphere and out of the reach of ordinary people, and city and county councils. A house became a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder like any other product on the open market, with the sole aim of maximising profit. The idea that a house was not just a place for living in but a home with sentimental ties to family, which marked it apart, was all but ignored.
If we fast forward to 2016, we find ourselves in a shocking and shameful situation in that we cannot house large numbers of our people and young children spend the important formative years of their lives going to schools from cheap, cramped hotel rooms. This same society places no value on public housing. In the event that some units are to be built, the dominant discourse is about limiting the numbers, integration, and basically limiting the impact of housing.
Long gone from both official and public discourse is the notion of public housing as a social good and a key component of the State's duty to house people. The main function of the new office of the planning regulator is to evaluate and assess local authority development plans, local area plans and regional, spatial and economic strategies during their development. I welcome this important provision in the Bill. I hope that the establishment of this office signals a clear departure from the corruption and greed of the past and that from now on, public interest and common good will take precedence over all issues, particularly over profit.
I want to briefly mention the national spatial strategy, which the Mahon tribunal recommended be put on a statutory footing. As the Sinn Féin spokesperson for jobs, enterprise and innovation, I am confronted on a daily basis with the failure of successive Governments to plan for the long-term economic, social and infrastructural development of the country. Nowhere is that more evident than in Limerick, where we do not have a Limerick to Cork motorway, and no plans for one.
We are now in a situation where the spatial and economic development of Dublin and the greater Dublin region is speeding ahead while the rest of the country languishes in a sort of economic limbo and is powerless to stop its decline. Uneven economic and spatial development has resulted in the overdevelopment of the Dublin region at the expense of the under-development of the rest of the country. There is an onus on all of us to face up to that fact, and to address it. My hope is that the new planning framework and the office of the planning regulator will mark the end of past practices which served only the corrupt and the greedy. We have truly crossed the Rubicon in terms of planning at all levels.
Our task in the future must be sustainable development, grounded in good planning practices, that has the interest of ordinary people and communities at its core. That philosophy must be the guiding principle at local, national and regional levels. We cannot sort out local issues without also addressing regional imbalances, and we cannot deal with national problems unless local areas feel a genuine connection to national decision-making policies.
I wish the office of the planning regulator well. This Bill is important, but it is only a first step in the momentous task of ensuring that Ireland has a planning system and culture fit for a 21st century country that likes to think of itself as a republic.
As we all know, planning issues have been a huge area of contention and concern for many years. In the eyes of most people, the planning process represented one of the most corrupt areas where politicians and planners had a huge influence over zoning and development. To remind the House and to put in context what the Mahon tribunal meant to people living in my constituency, many working class communities, and particularly in Dublin West and Dublin North West, had been affected by corruption in planning matters, and some are still living with its consequences. It was big business, and those who held high political office conspired to corrupt the planning process. Those individuals used their positions of influence within some political parties to line their own pockets with corrupt payments by corrupt developers at the expense of the very communities and citizens they were elected to represent. The effect is that some estates are located on flood plains as a result of land rezoning decisions made by local councillors at the behest of landowners or property speculators, while sizeable populations in this city have to get into their cars to travel to a shopping centre because the one that was planned nearer to them was not built or those nearer to established communities were not facilitated against planning advice. There was over-zoning of lands, much of it in the wrong place, and absolutely no consideration given to any long-term strategy or support in terms of the required services.
To this day, there are people dealing with these decisions every day of their lives so, as Members can imagine, it came as a surprise to me that one of the key recommendations of the Mahon tribunal, namely, the establishment of an independent office of the planning regulator, is not being fully addressed in this Bill. The tribunal was concerned that the changes in the planning system resulted in an over-centralisation of power in the hands of the Minister. As everyone knows, the Mahon tribunal recommendations were to improve transparency. The proposals in the Bill to establish an office of the planning regulator do not really deal with that.
In May 2015, Sinn Féin and Deputy Brian Stanley brought forward a Private Members' motion calling for an independent planning regulator. The Government of the day voted against the Sinn Féin proposal. Our proposal included the strict application of planning criteria before any rezoning of land could proceed. We also proposed that any housing development must include access to social and cultural amenities, public transport, jobs and education facilities. I am disappointed that the Bill does not provide a fully independent office of the planning regulator, but I am not the only one disappointed with this Bill. In respect of enforcement and the role of the Minister regarding the office of the planning regulator, two bodies that have to deal with planning issues are also disappointed. An Taisce is largely disappointed with the proposed arrangements for the office of planning regulation, and the president of the Irish Planning Institute, Mary Hughes, stated: "...the Regulator can be overruled by the Minister meaning it is more advisor than Regulator in some respects and its powers fall short of those originally envisaged by the Mahon Tribunal." The Minister can overrule the regulator. What is the point of the office? It does not go far enough. If the proposed office of the planning regulator does not have teeth or real powers, it will not be effective. We are potentially back to those days where the corrupt and the financially astute decided how we lived in our country. We have concerns, as outlined by Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, and it is extremely important that we put in place a robust planning process and not one overseen by the Minister. While we welcome the Bill, it is clear more needs to be done. I hope the Minister will take on board our concerns.
Considering the recommendations arising out of the Mahon tribunal were published four and a half years ago, it is good to see this Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill in the Oireachtas. We in Sinn Féin tried to bring a motion before the House last year, as Deputy Ellis stated, to establish a planning regulator's office but the Government opposed it on the basis that the legislation before the House now was coming on-stream. However, we believe this is a poor implementation of the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal. Our motion called for the appointment of an independent planning regulator because Mahon found rampant planning corruption in Dublin. As a rural Deputy for Sligo, Leitrim, west Cavan and south Donegal, I can attest that corruption did not end when one crossed the Dublin county line.
Rural Ireland is littered with ghost estates while many people cannot get planning permission to build in the field beside their home place. Rural Ireland is littered with the results of bad planning decisions, and these do not just affect those who live beside them, they affect us all. The flooding we have experienced in recent winters is due in no small part to construction on flood plains. These estates were built in areas with no facilities for families and they are not good places to live. Planning matters even more in rural areas.
To show how the planning regulator in this Bill is not the one envisaged by Mahon, I will read into the record the role of the planning regulator as recommended by the Mahon tribunal. Section 1.15 states that the planning regulator's role should be:
[T]o investigate possible systemic problems in the planning system, including those raising corruption risks, with the aim of making recommendations to address those problems. The Regulator should also be responsible for providing training to members of both local and regional authorities on planning and development to enable them to discharge their functions in this area more effectively. The Regulator should have sufficient powers to carry out his or her functions effectively, including the power to question witnesses and compel the production of documents.
That is a far cry from what this Bill is proposing, which is nothing more than an advisory position. The issue of planning permissions and regulations raises the hackles of many people in rural Ireland like almost nothing else. That is because of the disasters we have seen. To avoid more of them, to be more ecologically constructive, to be fair and to be transparent and honest, the planning regulator will need to have the teeth, backbone and powers as described in the Mahon recommendations.
We have not forgotten how, when the then Minister, John Gormley, instigated investigations into seven local authorities with regard to planning decisions, the then Fine Gael Minister, Phil Hogan, stopped them by watering them down into ineffectiveness. I have not heard the present Minister, Deputy Coveney, say he will get to the bottom of the outrageous planning decisions that have arisen around this State, many with a planning history like that. It is even more worrying that, under the terms of the Bill, the Minister seems to be able to overrule the decisions of the so-called regulator. Everyone with an interest in good, honest and transparent planning has agreed that we need a regulator and not an adviser. This feature should be included in the Bill.
Last year Deputy Ferris introduced a rural equality Bill, which I will be reintroducing into this House shortly. I wonder if, were it to be enacted, the national planning framework would stand up to that kind of scrutiny. Where I come from, precious little attention is paid to equality in the provision of services and certainly not in respect of infrastructure. There are many examples and one of the big ones in rural Ireland, particularly in Leitrim, is what is practically a ban on rural planning permissions. This is because of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, rule that if the soil sample fails the test, no effluent can be allowed to flow. In these cases there is no possibility of using any kind of system, which effectively bans rural planning across vast areas of the country, even though there are engineering solutions which have worked in the past and still work perfectly well.
Another issue is the need to deal with the unfinished estates around the country, of which there are many in rural towns with no footpaths, no lights and a developer who has gone bust and disappeared. The local authority is under pressure from people living there but they have a bond which is held by a company in London or Frankfurt. This company avoids its responsibilities while the local authority has to decide whether it will take the risk of doing the work and then calling in the bond. Many local authorities are afraid to take that risk because they do not know if they will get their money back if it goes to court. In these cases maybe 100 people, who had paid dearly for their houses and who had expected the estates to be finished, are left high and dry as a result.
Infrastructure is also very important for rural Ireland, and rural Ireland wants a planning process in which an infrastructure project can be delivered quickly and effectively, especially in the case of fibre optic broadband, which is vital. The role of Irish Water has also come up for discussion in rural Ireland. The local authority used to be in charge of our water services and if a business wanted to come to a rural town, it would want to know if water and sewerage services were available. Now they find the local authority has no control over it and it has passed to Irish Water. Companies who might want to come to Manorhamilton or Ballyshannon will not do so without those services. They will go elsewhere if they have the capacity to provide the sewerage and water services they require.
There are many areas in planning that need to be dealt with, but at the forefront is ensuring housing estates that are only partly finished are finished properly and that, where people want to buy houses in rural areas and have the justification for it, they can do so. I look forward to the regulator who will be put in place by this Bill being able to deal with these issues and to make a constructive difference. For too long these things have been kicked from pillar to post while many people in rural areas have been betrayed by the planning process. Amendments will be necessary to the Bill in order that the regulator has teeth to deal with these issues. I hope it goes through with speed and is implemented in order that people can be proud of it.
I welcome this Bill which has been a long time coming. Its history goes back to a long time before the publication of the Mahon report. There was the McCracken report and then the Flood report, which led to Mahon. They were established because of appalling corruption in the dealings between public representatives, planners and developers. As Deputy Ellis said, that did a great disservice to people, particularly those living at the edge of Dublin who had to live with the consequences. It also led to an abhorrence of the practice of the brown envelope. I remember the news reports of the evidence of gatherings in public houses at which councillors were met and given their envelope, with planning decisions being made as a result of these corrupt payments.
We need to remember the source of the legislative proposals we are discussing today, namely, the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal, but not all politicians behaved in this way and Deputy Joan Burton in my own party, who was a member of the county council at the time, vehemently fought against the corruption she saw all around her. Deputy Broughan also had personal experience of what was going on and he will speak later of that. It is a terrible indictment of public representatives that they behaved in this way. It was not only public representatives. Planning officials were also involved, as were developers who stood to gain a great deal. It is not a victimless crime and there are people for whom a shopping centre that was meant to be close by was put somewhere else because somebody paid people to vote for rezoning and changes in planning.
The background is grubby and unethical but, thankfully, it brought about a total change in how we approach these issues. There is legislation before us tonight but a series of legislative and other measures has been brought in by this House, including ethics legislation, legislation controlling political donations and legislation requiring lobbyists to register.
Thankfully, we now have a very different situation where there is much more transparency and where the possibility of corrupt behaviour for personal gain and greed has been taken away because of these various legislative and other measures, and that is to be welcomed. What we want is a planning system that serves the community and does not serve private interests.
Another measure that was taken was to get rid of developer-led plans. Previously, developers could submit planning proposals, not only individual plans but local area plans. I have to declare an interest because I was Minister of State at the then Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government with responsibility for planning for some of that period, including that particular measure, and I and other Ministers used powers under section 31 of the Planning and Development Act to stop proposed zonings because they were not in accord with good evidence-based planning and due to issues such as building on flood plains to which Deputy Martin Kenny referred. There were so many abuses in the past and to paraphrase somebody else, a lot has been done. We are doing one of the "more" things, so to speak, by bringing in this legislation to implement the main recommendations of the Mahon tribunal, as others have said, particularly the establishment of the office of the planning regulator.
Another measure is putting the national development plan, which I understand will now be called the national planning framework, on a statutory footing in order that it has the power and authority of statute. Planning needs to be evidence based, but it also needs to fit into a hierarchy, which is the term that is used, where we have the national spatial plan, regional plans, local authority plans, what are called core strategies in which local areas decide on their strategy and priorities and what they have to do to serve their population in terms of providing housing, schools, infrastructure and everything else a community needs, and local area plans. These all have to be part of a whole in order that we know what we are doing, why we are doing it in different areas, and people do not build something merely because it serves their own interests and that is not in accordance with proper planning.
Often planning does not get the central position it deserves in our national debates. We also need to ensure we have different kinds of plans. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has housing plans. For example, we have capital plans. We need to make all these plans fit together and serve the purposes of the community. In this regard, I agree with my constituency colleague, Deputy Quinlivan, on having a balance in the country and not having everything happen on the east coast. We need to link up the parts of the country, and that is why the Limerick-Cork road is so important. It is about not having everything go into or come out of Dublin and having the rest of the country linked. That is important in terms of getting balanced regional development. That is my general view on the importance of these issues.
The Bill makes a number of provisions, the main one being the office of the planning regulator. It provides for the publication of submissions on local area plans and development plans on the websites of planning authorities. That is by way of providing the public with information with regard to the plans under which planning applications are made and under which other decisions are made with regard to the local area. The sending of notice to the relevant regional assembly of any proposed grants of planning permission which would constitute a material contravention of a development plan or local area plan is about having the hierarchy of plans fitting in with each other. The provision that the local authority development plan can regulate, restrict or control the location of new licensed premises is an innovative one. Underpinning in statute the concept of electronic planning allowing the introduction of online planning applications, appeals and payments is purely practical in terms of how the process works and the modern technology we have now.
Requiring planning authorities to provide data for databases on our national planning systems, as may be specified by the Minister, is about having the appropriate information that can provide the evidence for decisions that are appropriate and objective. I attended the briefing on the national planning framework which the Department provided recently, and one of the statistics arising was that the minimum projected population growth over the next 20 years is 500,000 people. Obviously, we have to plan for the future where our population will significantly increase, but we must do that in a way that avoids doing the kind of stupid things that happened previously whereby houses were built, with due respect to Deputy Martin Kenny, in some counties where there was no population to justify them, and yet in areas where there was a need, houses were not built. We now know where populations grow. We know where populations are and where they are likely to be in the future.
In my previous role as Minister for Education and Skills, the demographic information we had was very useful in planning schools several years ahead. We knew that there were a certain number of children already born in certain areas who would require a school. There has been much more integration with the local authorities in the planning of schools, for example, and this measure works in tandem to avoid a situation where a school is needed in an area in a year's time. We plan well ahead. Those kinds of relationships have been built up now between the Department of Education and Skills and local authorities, and that is a good development.
The other measures are around providing for the payment of reduced fees or no fees by elected members when making submissions on applications for planning permissions and the noting of such representation on the relevant planning file. The balance in that is important. Local authority members made the point that it is part of their job to have a view on these matters, but this provides that they do not merely have a word in the planner's ear. Those views are noted on the file in order that it is clear that they have been expressed.
I refer to the main issue, which is the planning regulator and the decisions with regard to the office of the planning regulator. I hold a different view from the one expressed by Deputy Eoin Ó Broin. I think the balance is correct. One is getting the balance between evidence-based planning and the democratic role of both local authority members and, in this case, the Minister. If the planning regulator were to make the final decision, there would not be accountability. We have often heard complaints that answers cannot be obtained in this Chamber from the National Transport Authority or the HSE. The decision, which the committee, when looking at these proposals, agreed with as well, was that the regulator would make the recommendation after an investigative process was completed but that the recommendation would then be given to the Minister, who would make the final decision and he or she would then be accountable. If the Minister were to make a decision that was different from the recommendation of the planning regulator, the Minister would have to explain why he or she was making a different decision. I hope I have understood that correctly. I think I have.
It is pretty accurate.
Therefore, there is accountability. The recommendation is published. The Minister's opinion is published. If the Minister makes a different decision, he or she has to explain why. That is a fair balance between democratic accountability and evidence-based planning. It is well known that one of those central to the investigations of the Mahon tribunal was a senior planner in the local authority concerned, and planners are not immune from corruption either.
There are not purist planners here who somehow or other should be given all-embracing power. Planners do not have public accountability whereas Ministers do. I think the right balance has been struck between democratically-elected people and trained and expert planners. There is balance at local level whereby local authority members must sign off on the plan, which must be based on the core strategy and fit into national and regional planning. There is a great deal of material now in the public arena and public representatives are held to account to ensure the plan they adopt is in accordance with proper planning. Public representatives do not make individual planning decisions, which are left to professional planners. I think the right balance has been struck at local level.
It is an interesting debate and it is one that is worth having. It is valid for people to have different views on the Bill. We have been discussing the core element of the proposed legislation but there are other elements to it as well. I hope we will deal with the Bill relatively quickly but at the same time that we will have the necessary debate on it. There will be further Stages in the Dáil and subsequently in the Seanad. We will support the Bill on Second Stage and I expect we will also propose amendments on Committee Stage.
I wish to share time with Deputy Broughan.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I wish to give an overview of the Bill we are discussing. The publication of the long-awaited final report of the Mahon tribunal brought to an end the longest running and most expensive public inquiry in Irish history. The Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments, which was the tribunal’s official title, was established by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government in November 1997 and held 917 days of public hearings with 400 witnesses. The tribunal’s terms of reference were soon expanded to allow for the investigation of all suspect payments to politicians and local authority officials in connection with a spate of rezonings in Dublin city. The tribunal cost the public in or around €250 million, taking into account third party costs, so it was a high price to pay for the grubby actions of certain people - politicians, developers and planners - involved in the planning process.
That brings me to certain points I will make on the regulator. The Mahon report was issued in 2012. The process involved many witnesses and the investigation of politicians and planners and I am very concerned that parts of the report’s recommendations are not being implemented. I would like more of an explanation as to why the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal are not being implemented to the letter.
The Liffey Valley shopping centre was built in an area where it should not have been built, as people did not have access to it. The shops in the centre are a bit more expensive than shops in other areas. Houses that were built on the flood plains in the Blanchardstown area and likewise in Athboy were flooded two or three times because they were built on flood plains. Many people suffered because of that and could not subsequently get home insurance, for example. The follow-up response to the bad zoning decisions, bad planning and bad building was to put in flood barriers, which also cost the taxpayer money.
The man and woman in the street saw the tribunals as more of a fig leaf to allow the politicians to say: "Carry on, there is nothing to see here and we will get back to our business of being in the Dáil and getting paid our wages". Nobody was brought to account following the tribunals. The only person who went to prison did so because he did not respond to an instruction from the tribunal rather than due to the tribunal’s findings. The then Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, resigned in 2008 due to the controversy surrounding the tribunals. People were very angry about what happened and rightly so.
Four judges were involved in the course of the tribunal. To my knowledge, 64 recommendations were put forward for further consideration on a range of policy areas including planning, conflicts of interest, political finance, lobbying, bribery, corruption in office, money laundering and the misuse of confidential information, asset recovery and miscellaneous matters.
The tribunal made a total of ten planning recommendations, all of which I will read out. The first was to place the national development plan and the national spatial strategy on a statutory footing. The second was to directly elect members of regional authorities. The third was to facilitate documentation of regional authority considerations in making draft regional planning guidelines. The fourth was to have an independent appointments board to appoint members of the National Transport Authority. The fifth was to increase transparency in the planning process. The sixth was to provide for advance notice of material contravention of development plans. The seventh was to restrict the use of the procedure set out in section 140 of the Local Government Act 2001. The eighth was to provide for documentation of submissions and interventions made by elected members on applications for planning permission. The ninth was to introduce a requirement to identify relevant political donations when making a planning application for planning permission. The tenth was to transfer the Minister’s enforcement powers to an independent planning regulator.
They were the ten key recommendations made by the Mahon tribunal. As far as I am aware – Members can correct me – recommendations 1, 3 and 5 have been partly implemented. It is not proposed to implement the recommendation on the independent appointments board. It is considered that recommendation 2 on having directly-elected members of regional authorities, would be incorporated as part of a broader local government reform programme in the future. The outstanding recommendations are from 6 through to 10. They include the provision for advance notice of a material contravention of development plans and restriction of procedures set out in section 140 of the Local Government Act. It was felt that they would result in additional responsibilities for An Bord Pleanála and could be achieved by way of legislative amendment, according to the then Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. I would like to know what those amendments are.
The tribunal also recommended that interventions made by elected members in respect of specific planning applications should be noted on the file and that the file should be made available for inspection on the relevant planning authority’s website. That is currently practiced by some planning authorities. However, the Department, in its analysis of the tribunal’s recommendations, stated that a circular or amendment to regulations could make the process more transparent in that it could clarify that any form of contact by an elected representative, be it by phone, e-mail or other means, should be recorded on the planning file of all planning authorities. I fully support that approach.
The Department’s analysis also stated that recommendation 9, while logical, is difficult to implement in that reliance on accurate declarations would be required and would be difficult to verify. That was the recommendation to introduce a requirement to identify relevant political donations when making a planning application for planning permission. I do not think we can accept that. We must find a way, if we can, to determine if anyone has received a political donation from anybody in relation to a planning application.
The final recommendation relates to the establishment of an independent planning regulator, which would require the amendment of planning legislation. The tribunal recommended that the Minister for the environment's enforcement powers should be transferred to an independent planning regulator who should also be charged with carrying out investigations into systematic problems in the planning system as well as being conferred with education and research functions.
There is a question over the required staffing levels for an independent regulator.
What is the reason for the change in the provision that the regulator may also advise the Minister to reject or overturn part or all of a plan when it is not deemed acceptable? The advice will be published and the final decision to act will rest with the Minister of the day who will be accountable to the Oireachtas for his or decision. That is not an independent regulator. If the independent regulator deems that he or she must reject or overturn part or all of a plan because it is not acceptable, it should be brought to the Dáil to be debated. It should not be the decision of the Minister. It should be brought to the Chamber to be debated. That is proper accountability. It should go back to the public representatives again after going through the councils. It should be brought through for the regulator to adjudicate over and decide it is all above board and that all planning regulations have been adhered to. It should then come back to the Dáil if there is a problem with it. If the Minister does not disagree with it, he or she should bring it back to the Dáil to elected public representatives for discussion and debate. I will table amendments of that nature to the legislation.
Regarding the staffing levels of An Bord Pleanála at the moment, as a result of the cuts over the past number of years to An Bord Pleanála, it has reduced staff and resource levels. The regulator, whoever it is, will have to be fully resourced on these matters because at present An Bord Pleanála has reduced the capacity with which it can process planning appeals. In order to cope with a growing backlog of cases, in recent years the board made a decision to focus on strategic infrastructure cases, in other words applications of national or regional significance. It then makes decisions on regular planning cases in chronological order. It was a decision An Bord Pleanála had to make because of the cutbacks. This contributed to the delay of new developments, including a delay in residential units being delivered into communities. If the regulator is set up, which it should be, it should be independent and able to make a recommendation to the Minister. The Minister should come back to the Dáil to debate it and it should not be a decision of the Minister. It should be independent and accountable.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak briefly on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016. It is welcome that the Bill is finally before us and provides for an office of the planning regulator, which was a key recommendation of the Flood-Mahon tribunal. Ordinary constituents and citizens welcome the idea of a regulator because we often have a situation in planning where some crass development is proposed which is not sustainable or is totally out of sync with its immediate district. Perhaps when people register their opposition to it they are supported by the council but when it goes to An Bord Pleanála, it overturns the decision and permission is granted. As it is now, the only recourse is to go to the High Court on a point of law. At least we will now have a regulator to whom our constituents can make a complaint. At that basic level, the idea of a regulator is welcome.
The Mahon tribunal's final report was published early in 2012 and made 64 recommendations to the then Government. Ten of these 64 recommendations were on the planning system and the key recommendation was the need for an independent planning regulator. This Bill is part of a series of Bills introduced by the Government in a feeble attempt to address the housing crisis through the Construction 2020 strategy. While the steps taken by these Bills are to be welcomed, it is a very slow process. At the end of 2016, in my constituency and many other urban areas, the desperate need of families for housing is acute and despite the roll out of the HAP programme, it is worsening.
For most citizens, over its 15 year lifetime, the Flood-Mahon tribunal revealed a history of brazen attempts to subvert the democratic planning process. Failure to implement the Kenny report of 1974 allowed the hoarding of huge land banks around the greater Dublin region and similar practices around other cities and towns in Ireland. When development plans came along, councils were subjected to immense pressures. Councils used to be in charge of water before Deputy O'Sullivan's party was in Government. We were the water authority. It is very striking that while elected councillors are not the planning authority, housing authority or drainage authority, they had a unique power to rezone land in their functional area at the time of development plans. It is an extraordinary and important power but it was open to very severe pressure. We had the careers of lobbyists like Frank Dunlop and agents for the developers allegedly seeking to influence zoning and the shape of development plans. While some conclusions of the Flood-Mahon tribunal may be rolled back, the tribunal clearly revealed very disturbing practices in the making of development plans. It also demonstrated a planning process for the development of our towns and cities which compares very unfavourably with the far more democratic and publicly controlled land zoning and planning systems in countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland and indeed the UK. In my region of the north fringe of Dublin city or the south fringe of Fingal, we were shown comparisons with the cities of Stockholm and Amsterdam when they developed new huge urban regions like we were hoping to develop of 20,000 or 30,000 homes with ancillary social services, schools, health centres and so on. The process in Sweden and Holland was much more publicly controlled.
On a number of occasions in the Thirty-first Dáil I asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and the Taoiseach to report on the current situation with regard to the investigations by An Garda Síochána and the Director of Public Prosecutions into the findings of the Flood-Mahon tribunal. The Minister told me in May 2015:
As the Deputy may recall from my reply to his further question No. 491 of 24 March, the position is that following the examination by An Garda Síochána of the report of the Moriarty Tribunal, the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions was sought with a view to determining whether or not a full Garda investigation should be commenced. The Garda authorities have also been engaged in an examination of the Report of the Mahon Tribunal, which was referred to the Garda Commissioner by the Government. This examination is ongoing at present.
The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, has just left the Chamber but perhaps he might refer in his reply to the examination of the report of the Mahon tribunal and whether the Government has received a report from the Garda Commissioner. Will he indicate if the examination is continuing, whether full Garda investigations are proceeding and whether any file has been sent to the DPP?
Chapter II on the establishment, functions, organisation and staffing of the office of the planning regulator is the heart of the Bill. In section 31P, the key functions of the regulator include the evaluation of development plans, variations of plans, local area plans and regional spatial and economic strategies. They are all very important aspects of planning. The key power in section 31P(1) is to bring a plan which the regulator considers deficient to the attention of the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. The office also has important research, education and review functions and has to produce an annual report and statement of strategy. I agree with Deputy Jan O'Sullivan about the importance of sustainable planning in creating a humane society in which people can live very comfortably. It is a critically important subject.
The regulator has to take cognisance of the policies and aims of the Government, the public interest, EU directives on environmental impact statements, the habitats directive, the birds directive and especially the national planning framework, which is given statutory basis in the Bill, which I welcome warmly. The planning regulator is appointed by the Minister as provided for in section 31W for five years following a competition by the Public Appointments Service. Its accounts will be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General and its annual report sent to the relevant Oireachtas committee. Two committees in this House, the Committee of Public Accounts and the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, will have the opportunity to question the regulator. They can send the regulator a note asking him or her to attend. Deputy O'Sullivan feels that the Bill got things right on the public control of planning.
The helpful Bill's digest prepared, very well as always, by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service staff, notes that the Mahon tribunal recommended establishing a post of independent planning regulator, as Deputy Joan Collins mentioned, and that the Minister’s powers of enforcement and to issue directions to planning authorities should be transferred to that new office. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, in its pre-legislative scrutiny in response to the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly’s general scheme of a Planning and Development (No 2) Bill, agreed with his recommendation that the final power to issue directions following assessment of local plans should rest with the Minister. However, given the history of the Flood and Mahon tribunals, I fundamentally disagree and agree with other colleagues who have spoken tonight. The planning regulator should be fully independent of the Government. After all, and I emphasise this point for my colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, when I asked the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, about car insurance prices going through the roof, and our constituents screaming at us as a result, he replied with a long letter in which he said he cannot do anything about it because the Central Bank is independent. In the past, when I asked the former Minister, former Deputy Pat Rabbitte, and other Ministers about energy prices and what they intended to do about those prices going through the roof at the time, they said they could not do anything because the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, was independent. When I asked about the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, and the rip offs in mobile telephony, which still exist and we are not sure how that will pan out regarding roaming charges and so forth as a result of Brexit, I was again told that ComReg was independent and the Minister could do nothing. Why should it be the case that in the vital area of planning the regulator should not be fully independent?
When an inspector is appointed and prepares a report, the Bill is unclear on whether the Minister may depart from a planning regulator recommendation after an investigative process has been completed by the regulator. The general scheme of the Bill referred to periodic reviews of regulators under the OECD’s best practice principles for transparency and accountability, but did not indicate how often this should take place. The provisions of the Bill before us also have this lacuna and it appears to be left to the regulator to conduct his or her reviews of the performance of their own office. Obviously, the Oireachtas committees will keep an eye on the performance of the regulator, but perhaps the Minister will examine this matter on later Stages.
The Bill does not make provision for the establishment of a national register of enforcement orders and-or sanctions imposed by courts for breaches of planning law. The environment committee of the Thirty-first Dáil called for such a register so it would be possible to easily identify, on a nationwide basis, developers in breach of planning law. As part of our job as public representatives representing our constituents, Members generally know what developments are taking place in their constituencies and are interested to know the track records of developers, particularly people engaging in major commercial or housing developments. Recommendation No. 6 of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht report called "for the introduction of a national register of enforcement orders and/or sanctions imposed by the courts for breaches of planning law". According to that committee, it should be possible to readily identify on a nationwide basis any developers who have engaged in serious or serial breaches of the law. This is not provided for in the Bill. It is a major gap in the legislation and should be addressed on Report Stage.
I recall a Bill I was proud to support in the Twenty-eighth Dáil. It was a planning Bill put forward by my great Fingal colleague, former Deputy Sean Ryan, one of the greatest Deputies ever to speak in this House. The Bill sought to refuse any further planning permission to a developer who had failed to carry out the provisions of an earlier planning permission or to remedy major defects arising from the permission. We have seen developments with horrendous defects, for example, in the north fringe, yet developers put forward new developments before the remediation has taken place or before we have had a chance to study their track record. Unfortunately, that Bill was defeated by the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government, which refused to put any constraints on developers.
In view of the history of planning, the code of conduct in section 31AL is vital. It will relate to the management of conflicts of interest. I note that there will be a written policy statement which will set out the need to disclose relevant relationships and interests within the regulator, including memberships of other agencies and, importantly, disclosing financial interests, whether work outside the office is taking place, gifts and so forth and disclosing information which may be of importance to the work of the office. It will also lay down the best practice for reviewing and management of development plans and submissions. I did not notice whether there is a cooling off period for the regulator and its staff. In other words, if the regulator leaves the office of regulator, will there be a period during which that person could not immediately go to work for a property company or developers? Is there an intention to include such a provision? If it is included I did not see it. I believe we have that type of provision relating to other areas of the public service.
With regard to section 31AS, I welcome the provision for reviews of those involved in planning and their systems and procedures. The section sets out the parameters of the review, including the provision for sending a draft report of the review along with recommendations to the relevant planning authority and other appropriate recipients. I am most familiar with the development plans of Dublin City Council, of which I was proud to be a member for 12 years, and of Fingal County Council, which I have been proud to represent for the past 24 or 25 years. We were educated through those development plans to seek the highest standards of sustainable planning in our areas, particularly in major developments, and in the sustainable development of the north side of Dublin city.
I welcome the provision in section 31AU for access to information during a review, and that once an authorised person is assigned to the review the Bill provides that he or she will have the authority to enter lands and other premises for inspection. Should somebody not comply with an office of the planning regulator request or, indeed, obstruct or impede a review, the Bill provides for such obstruction or non-compliance to be classified as an offence. Employees and consultants working with the OPR will also be prohibited from disclosing information. How will that chime in with the Protected Disclosures Act 2014? The House has had long discussions about the role of whistleblowers in the Garda Síochána and in other organisations, so I wonder how that will pan out in respect of that section.
Chapter lIA of the Bill provides for the replacement of the national spatial strategy with the national planning framework. I welcome that. Sometimes, however, I believe there is a feeling among our rural colleagues that everything goes to Dublin and so forth. Of course, we feel the opposite and that the city has not been given sufficient resources. The population of the greater Dublin area is heading towards 2 million people. If we want Dublin to be a premier league capital city and a premier capital of the European Union, which I believe everybody does, we must include that as an ambition. There should be a section of the framework discussing the capital city and stating that the city will be planned to the highest international standards. I recall the budget day when the former Minister for Finance, former Deputy Charlie McCreevy, announced decentralisation, which seemed to include a range of towns and villages across the country. I believe that was the wrong approach. In spreading development across the regions, we should have concentrated on building up cities such as Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford, Sligo, Castlebar, Tralee, Letterkenny and the Athlone-Tullamore nexus in the midlands, to hold their populations and give them the widest range of social services and jobs. The ambition should be included to have Dublin as a premier capital city but also to develop Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's city and our other cities as fine, important regional capitals as well. Section 20C(2) outlines the matters the national planning framework will address and it should include something on the capital. Such infrastructure includes water, waste, energy, health and cultural requirements. There is also a framework for maritime spatial planning. Under Directive 2014/89/EU, a framework for maritime spatial planning must be established. The framework will be reviewed every six years, and I welcome that.
Regarding our capital, I am of the view that, at times, there has been a lack of a cohesive plan for the region among the four councils. In the south fringe of Fingal and the north fringe of Dublin city, one tends to find the planners of the two councils doing their own thing and meeting very rarely to plan.
In my constituency, a person living in Baldoyle and another person living up the road in Donaghmede do not really think of themselves as being in two different local authorities. It is the same region. One of planning's key failures is the fact that the north fringe of our city was not a single strategic development zone. This is something that should be worked out for the future. I was once a member of the regional assembly for the greater Dublin region. This included counties around Dublin, including that of the Ceann Comhairle. We need to work together to have a sustainable and, hopefully, a very fine urban environment. We need a direct election for the mayor of the Dublin region, a cohesive plan for the region and all the facilities we need for sustainable development.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan referred to developer-led planning and said that we had got rid of it. I do not think that is the reality. If one looks at the kind of plans that are coming before Dublin City Council, one can see that developers are still making the running. I agree with the Deputy that this House and the county and city councils are the ones who should make the running and have the master plan. For example, the north fringe had a few lines scribbled on a page instead of a detailed plan. When we get the plan together, that is the time to bring in the builders and let them build.
I welcome the planning regulator with a few caveats. I would like the office to be fully independent and I hope a few issues I have mentioned will be addressed. I hope it will be a step in sustainable planning and the sustainable development of our country.
I am also delighted to be able to speak here tonight on this Bill, which we discussed in the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government with the Minister. I am disappointed he has gone. I know he could not stay all night but he has left the Chamber. Much of the Bill came about as a result of the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal. The public in Tipperary, and the public all over the country and I, are sick and tired of tribunals and more tribunals and hearings by retired eminent judges. When someone fills out a form for a college course, they will have to put in a position for a retired judge or justice of the peace because it is inquiry after inquiry. It is like a spinning top. Nobody knows when it is going to stop.
We had the Mahon tribunal, and there are lots of references to it in the explanatory memorandum. The tribunal went on for 997 days and cost hundreds of millions of pounds, with still more to be paid in euro because there are still outstanding challenges regarding fees and expenses. What happened? What was the result apart from keeping journalists busy, selling newspapers and exposing dirty laundry in public? We have all these recommendations and are acting on some of them, but no real charges were brought. We know that the file is still with the Garda Commissioner and we do not know whether any charges will be preferred by the DPP. If they do not hurry up, all the people they were investigating will be dead. It is like something one would see in outer Mongolia. There is no effective accountability. We are waiting and waiting for the DPP. We do not know if the files have been referred and, if they have been referred, we do not know when the DPP will come back with recommendations for prosecution, if any. That is a very unhealthy situation in our country.
We know it came about because of the boom in Dublin. I listened to Deputy Broughan, for whom I have great respect. He lamented the fact that people in the country complain that Dublin gets everything. We are complaining with some justification that Dublin gets most of the cake. There is congestion and huge problems but if Deputy Broughan was living in Tipperary, east Cork or even south or north Kildare, not to mention Kerry, he would see that we get the crumbs. We do not even get the crumbs. We might get a bit of the vapour that blows off the mist from what goes on in the city. It is an imbalance that must be addressed, but this Bill does not do so.
This Bill does not address many issues. We talk about setting up a regulator as if it was the Almighty. We have regulators galore. It is a mushrooming industry. There are regulators for everything and they are regulating nothing. We see the insurance scandals at the moment where people and families are being ripped off and plundered for car insurance, house insurance and business insurance. We have a regulator, but what is he or she doing? I am talking about the office of the regulator. It is nothing personal. It is doing absolutely nothing. It has no powers and the same is true of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. When I and lots of other people have complained to it and asked it to intervene, we are told that it is not its area, it cannot intervene and it does not have enough enforcement officers. It is a joke.
Ordinary people have to comply. For example, there was a dawn raid quite recently in Tipperary involving up to 14 small bus operators - the little people who are vulnerable and can be challenged. There were huge dawn raids and their computers, phones and records were taken because there was a fear that they were coming together to try to survive and get a base price for every mile for every student they brought to school. I do not know whether there was a breach of competition laws, and I hope there was none, but there was ferocity, force, showing off and muscle flexing involved. They came back with the gardaí if they were not allowed in and they terrorised some people who have been in business for 40 years because they had phone calls, letters or correspondence with other people. What are we supposed to be? All these small businesses are being driven out of existence for quoting for State work and the competition authorities are coming the heavy with them. Some of them have not had their computers or records returned. Records of up to 30 or 40 years have been taken away. They have the time to do that but they cannot touch the big people. It is not about Dublin as such. It is all about who one is rather than what one is. Ordinary people have to put up with all the legislation and regulation.
This is toothless. I said this to the Minister in committee as well. We must have the regulator and in this case, the regulator can be overruled by the Minister. The regulator can make a decision and the Minister can overrule it, but the Minister must explain to the House or on the public record why he or she overruled it. That is a good thing because we cannot keep appointing regulators. We are going to have a public competition and it will be transparent, but it will not be anyone we have not heard of who gets the job. It will not be anyone who is a very eminent person, for example, an unemployed person with degrees or qualifications. It will be an insider who has probably been in the public service. That is what happens. There will be a bit of accountability, but I know it is very difficult for the Minister and the people writing the legislation to couch this so that we do not have a regulator who is toothless, fruitless, does not even have a peann luaidhe to write a letter, as has been the case so far, has no accountability, cannot be challenged by anybody, and says he or she has no power.
We ask questions in the Dáil and the Minister tells us the regulator is independent. We ask questions in the Dáil about the HSE and are told "the HSE is not under my Department". We have abdicated responsibility and control. We are elected, the Government is elected by Deputies and this Government is, thankfully, a minority Government because there are good restrictions on it and the Cabinet, but there is no accountability. It is a case of just handing it over to the regulator. There is a plethora of new regulators. We build new offices for them and then we have to build regional offices for them with all the equipment and God knows what. There is a plethora of staff around them and a board must also be appointed. It is very important to have five or ten people on the board that can be replaced every couple of years. It was mentioned by an earlier speaker that we are supposed to have a process for appointing board members. There is nothing new about it. It is about insiders, friends and cronies. This is what has gone on and it is still going on. For the first four years I was here, I listened to Fine Gael attacking Fianna Fáil for all the board members it appointed but, my God, there were no slow learners on that side of the House when they got over there. They filled, packed and stuffed them with all their cronies. Look at where the former Minister, Phil Hogan, is now.
The Deputy is wandering a bit.
I would say only slightly.
We are enjoying it, but the Deputy is wandering away from the subject matter.
I am not. The regulator has been appointed. I am trying to address some of the issues and recommendations from the tribunal, which cost so much. If we knew the price per word, it would be some amount. It is farcical. We are still not grappling with the issues. We are trying to deal with the housing crisis and fast-track legislation on Committee Stage to allow developments of 100 houses or more to bypass local authorities. The relationship between members of local authorities and the planners is a very important and noble one, and we are celebrating it this year. I was a member of a local authority for many years before being privileged to be elected to this House. Local authorities cannot have any say or have any interaction with planners in Tipperary. While there are some very good local planners, with whom I deal, senior management at Tipperary County Council does not want anything to do with public representatives.
I have no problem with the idea that any correspondence or lobbying - whether by phone, text or e-mail or by meeting a planner at a match - about planning of any make, shape or form should be recorded and kept on file. It must happen. We cannot have the nod and the wink but we must be able to interact. I have said this to the Minister at committee meetings. Councillors in Tipperary and Oireachtas Members - I am speaking for myself - have less and less interaction. If a constituent asked a representative to keep an eye on a file in the past, we could put our name on the file and we were notified if further information was going to be requested. If the applicant was abroad, we could alert them. In the context of what is proposed, we will not be notified anymore. That is a bit of a nuisance. Is it so hard to send an e-mail, or press a button to add two or three more people to an e-mail? Neither will councillors be notified, and there are 40 of them in Tipperary.
We always used to have site meetings with planners. If a person wanted to build one house - which is very important to themselves - or a number of houses or a business development, we would have facilitated it. This has also stopped. A planner cannot meet a public representative and an applicant on site together. You would think there was going to be fisticuffs or something and that it is a health and safety issue. It is pure nonsense. We sorted out many issues where neighbours might not have been the best of friends. One looked at the site holistically, and if it was a farm for rural development, and the site was not the best site, and the planners attempted to come to an agreement, one helped to persuade the planner to get a better site, a different location and land holding. The Minister of State would understand this, given that she is from a rural constituency. For example, if there was an issue with site distances for the entrance, one could negotiate with the neighbour to realign the roads for everybody's safety, never mind the house. A lot of good will was earned as a result. I am sure the Ceann Comhairle and many of us have stood in fields, on roads and boreens and God knows where else, played our part and done our public duty. We are elected by these people to help them, to try to advise them properly and to ensure that they do not find themselves in dangerous or other kinds of situations.
I recently dealt with a case in Tipperary. The Ceann Comhairle might say I am straying, but it is all to do with the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill.
No, the Deputy is spot on now. He should keep going.
Good man. Go raibh maith agat. It is very difficult to keep out of trouble all the time - one can sometimes wander. We appreciate the help and guidance of the Ceann Comhairle.
I dealt with a business in Tipperary town which employed 30 people and leased a yard. The lease was being withdrawn because the owners of the yard wanted it back. The business identified a site on the Limerick road in Tipperary town and wanted to lease it and keep the jobs in the town. However, I could not get a planning meeting for weeks and the planners refused to visit the site to see what was involved. There is nothing better than being on a site, seeing the traffic flows and identifying the issues that arise. Eventually, a meeting was held in the council buildings. While the business development officer and others were trying to keep the business going, the planners seemed to be on a different planet and did not want to engage. When they did engage, it took ages to get back and the business owner was phoning me to say he had to consider other locations. Then, the planners came back with a negative answer - "Níl" button was on and it was stuck in "Níl". We have a new button here, "Staon". We can abstain, and perhaps then press the green button and change to "Tá". However, the "Níl" button was on in this instance. The planners would not go and meet the business owner. It would take a variation of planning, given that, as we were told, the area was zoned for retail. There are acres of retail space in Tipperary town, and in most other towns and villages, which are not being used. The planners said the council would probably not support it and could object. The business had to move 16 or 17 miles to another town. Thankfully, it stayed in County Tipperary and did not go to some other county. What happened was due to lack of interest, understanding and empathy with the difficulties of keeping the business afloat, paying the wages and dealing with the trucks and staff. It is a logistics business. There was no empathy from the planners. It was a lethargic effort in a jobs black spot in Tipperary town with no supports.
I am disappointed that the Bill does not deal with revitalising our town centres and villages. There is a small mention of little things, as there is in the budget. I proposed that we change Tipperary's county development plan to deal with shops that have been closed for five or ten years, of which there are many in all the towns in Tipperary and in the towns in the Minister of State's constituency. I previously proposed that it be made easier and quicker to change the use of such a premises without being faced with a planner and without huge charges being applied. If we rejuvenate town centres, we will bring life back into them and bring people back to living in them and we will deal with the 3,000 approved housing applicants in Tipperary waiting for houses, never mind the countless thousands of people who have not even been approved. We would have living town centres. At the Government formation talks, I proposed that property owners, or those who buy or lease a property, would get the VAT back on what they spend in changing a property's use. I did not ask for money for developers or bankers or anybody else, just a straight return of the VAT, as is the case with regard to the home improvement scheme. It did not happen and it is not happening in the Bill.
We all get lip-service and talk about the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act and how we are going to revitalise our towns. We are not. We could crack two nuts with the one sledgehammer. We would provide accommodation units and bring life back into our towns. O'Connell Street in Clonmel, which used to be a thriving town, has been destroyed by all the out-of-town developments. There are only two units occupied over premises in the town, never mind all the shops that have closed down. The same has happened in Tipperary town, Carrick-on-Suir, Cahir, Clogheen, you name it. Villages such as Ardfinnan are all being devastated. This would be a way of reducing housing lists, dealing with the homeless crisis - we could use the voluntary sector if it is needed - and revitalising the towns. Towns would be living. People would be there at night and the towns would not become ghost towns at 6.05 p.m. after the shops close and everybody has gone home. It did not happen and there is no sign of it. Where has the imagination gone? Where is the vision to do this and deal with the problem? We do not need a Mahon tribunal to give us a recommendation or regulation. We need joined-up thinking, but it is not there.
The other issue we are not dealing with is the planning charges. There are gravy trains for the councils, county managers and finance officers. They have fancy names now; the finance officer is now known as director of services for finance. The previous Government - which the Minister of State voted for - abolished the town and urban councils. The town of Clonmel had a budget of €15.1 million. Now, it has diddly-squat. The enabling document for it was called Putting People First, yet the Government took away the services from the people and shut down democracy. The Minister of State's former colleague, Phil Hogan, did this. I will meet him tomorrow at the meeting of the Joint Committee on European Unions Affairs, and I look forward to a robust engagement with him. Now an esteemed European Commissioner, Phil Hogan devastated democracy and bulldozed Tipperary together. As a result of what he did, the Minister of State has to canvass a big part of Tipperary and there is a constituency in Offaly. He just bulldozed them. It was arrogance and ignorance. There are not enough adjectives to describe the actions. Again, we are left without any source of funding.
The gravy train of charges was okay during the boom times, if such charges were ever okay. I voted for them in my county and I voted for the community charge, which came to good effect with playgrounds, halls and crèches being built with assistance from it. Now, eight years into the recession, why can we not see that they are too high and are prohibitive? A man came to me in Clonmel six months ago. His business had closed and he wanted to turn his premises into five apartments. Again, this would solve accommodation for five families. His bankers and accountant told him he was bonkers, particularly as 48% was going to go on change-of-use charges, planning fees and development charges.
It would have been off the wall and he could never have made it viable. Even leasing it for ten or 20 years would not have repaid the loan, so another project was abandoned. The Bill misses that completely. It offers no recommendations, directions or guidelines to councils to start viewing the gravy train of fees as a negative for building and development. It is the same for a young couple trying to build a house. It depends on whether people can get a planning meeting and planning permission. They cannot see planners with me or any other public representative. I do not know why such regulations have been made.
Many recommendations of the tribunal have not been implemented. The tribunal was a sham, full stop. We should not even be discussing this legislation four, five or six years later, a Bill that is meant, mar dhea, to implement some of the planning tribunal's recommendations, because that tribunal was farcical and like a long-running soap opera. Afterwards, we decided to set up more tribunals. We will have tribunals in 20 years' time to examine the standards that we are forcing on people now. We are setting up this and that body. This is quangoland. The Bill is weak on decisions and definite actions.
As to local public representatives and fast-tracking, I warned people at the committee. We must be careful because we are in a democracy and the planning process must be public and transparent. There must be public notices in newspapers, files must be available and everyone is entitled to make observations. We cannot stop this because there have been devastating effects in my county, where there are up to 60 unfinished estates waiting and no funds to finish them. I lay much of the blame with the planners. They gave planning permission for large estates but, when those were half built, people came forward with plans to build more. There was no enforcement whatsoever. If I built a dog house without permission, officers could enforce the regulations, but they could not enforce these permissions. They were oblivious.
I have held meeting after meeting with planners, enforcement officers and residents in Tipperary town, Cahir, Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir and so on where people have been left in appalling conditions - unfinished footpaths, holes in roads, unfinished surfaces and, above all, no lighting. We will head into old time in a week or ten days when there will be darkness from 5 p.m. People talk about security, health and safety, but there are health and safety issues everywhere and the council is just rubbing its hands. When asked why the regulations were not enforced, it says that it could not and cannot do so now because the builders are broke, in liquidation or in NAMA or it cannot speak with them because it is dealing with the receivers. This is disgraceful. People invested and bought houses off of plans for pristine, finished estates with crèches, playgrounds and everything else, but what have they now? Ramshackle estates like one would see in Third World countries with holes, water, no public lighting, no proper sewerage systems, collapsed attenuation ponds and hoarding around them to stop children from falling in and drowning. It is a nightmare from morning until night and the planners are rubbing their hands and saying that they can do nothing about it. The enforcement laws existed and should have been enforced.
The bonds were ridiculous. That issue is not addressed in this legislation. The Minister is back. Trying to call in a bond is nigh impossible. The Minister knows that. There is no real effort being made in this legislation to deal with the issue of outstanding bonds. Some of the developers are in the Congo, Hong Kong or America and their bonds cannot be called in, yet the unfortunate people who worked hard to earn their deposits and got loans are repaying their debts. Many of them are in negative equity. They are living in hellholes of estates without even stop signs or children-at-play signs or a public light. It is disgraceful. I am referring to the fast-tracking of more than 100,000 houses. They are the people who caused all of the problems, but we are going to fast-track the houses. There is nothing in the Bill to stop this from recurring.
While I can be critical of how slow the planning process is, the ordinary citizen is entitled. It is the same up and down the country with EirGrid and overhead power lines for the North-South interconnector and wind turbines. It is the same carry on. Communities are being ridden over roughshod.
I am disappointed that there is nothing in the Bill to stop a retired official or an official who leaves early from joining a planning company. This happened recently in our area in the middle of the EirGrid battle when a senior member of An Bord Pleanála was appointed chairman of EirGrid. That sends out desperate signals. He might be the most honest man in the country, but he has influence. He knows the pitfalls and how to get around An Bord Pleanála. How it happened was disgusting, but that is happening all of the time. The greatest evidence of this was in Irish Water, which had three or four retired county managers as well as others. Some did not leave a blaze of glory behind in the areas from which they came. I could name them. They were pushed into Irish Water. Thank God that they are being weeded out. There were some good ones in there as well. There must be strict legislation. There should be at least five years of a buffer between leaving a planning office or a State board, for example, An Bord Pleanála, and getting a top job in a semi-private company like EirGrid. There has to be. There is too much temptation.
We gave the Mahon tribunal a long time, it has been four years or longer since we received its report and it had a cost, but here we are doing this. What about the basic issues? People can have no trust or faith in the process. We are not dealing with that situation in this legislation. We should have dealt with it. It sends out the wrong message and only proves what people know, namely, if one is a big business, one can do what one likes.
It is the same in my county, east Cork, west Waterford and south Kilkenny with large racing conglomerates. They have done a great job with the racing and are buying up every perch of land. They are buying houses, cottages and everything else and doing them up. That is the power of money. They bring bulldozers in the next day without any planning application and transform the place. The Minister should have dealt with this because we have major issues with development on flood plains. A fellow rang me today. He was looking for a house in a rural parish. He was told by the planners that it was on a flood plain, but if it got flooded, we would all be on the ark. The 100-year flood plans are there. They have to be brought in now. The guidelines for these are not published. When are they going to be published so that we will know about the flood plains? Insurance companies are using them as an excuse not to insure. We were told two years ago that flood plain risk assessments would be published, but they have not been.
The changes in land use, demographics, the removal of fences and the demolition of drainage should be covered by this Bill. If one puts a bulldozer in a field, one will lose natural drainage. This has an impact on flooding, making it worse because water travels and many of those fences were carefully constructed, but they are being blown out of it by the power of money and machinery.
There are many weaknesses in the legislation. We should make haste slowly to address many of the issues that the Minister has examined. He is bringing us to somewhere in Dublin in the next day or so to look at an estate.
I mentioned career people hopping from State bodies to local authorities to An Bord Pleanála and back. An Bord Pleanála is transparent and above reproach, we are told, but countless times an inspector's report has been overturned by the board. The Minister has seen it happen. I have seen it happen. An Bord Pleanála is paying the inspector. The inspector is supposed to be a qualified person. I know some of them and they are. When an inspector makes an honest report, it is rubbished. It is not expedient enough and is overruled by the board. We need a great deal more insight into that so as to ensure a more transparent process in dealing with issues.
The costs cannot be prohibitive either. I know there is NIMBYism about many issues, but we must separate the wheat from the chaff and ensure that making legitimate submissions is not prohibitive and local communities are listened to. They are not being listened to concerning wind farms and pylons. EirGrid did not consult the community. It came in top heavy and bulldozed. We need a greater response from planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála to deal with issues of that magnitude.
The big bugbear is money and greed, or even big money and big greed. Farmers, who are currently hard-pressed, are offered so much per year per pylon on their land. It is an attitude of divide and conquer from these companies, with expertise, mar dhea, brought in from other countries. These are projects that have failed in other countries in the past 25 years but we are looking at them as if they are a new and great idea that has just arrived.
I thank the Acting Chairman for his forbearance. There are many shortcomings in the Bill. It cannot all be about the Mahon tribunal but it is meant to put clothes on the Mahon skeleton. It has not done so. It is meant to facilitate the fast-tracking of some developments and achieve some transparency. That has not been happening. It is the ordinary cottier, the man and woman building a house, who must go through planning hoops. They are easy prey. There are many good developers but it is the rogue fellows that left abominable messes that cannot be touched. We have challenged the authorities at meetings and they have told us they were too busy, there was not enough enforcement, this or that. The bonds were ridiculous and the bonds they could put in place cannot be retrieved.
Surely to God we should get more legal advice on this. We have legal advice in every county council in the country that is very well paid. There is a letter written to a farmer about a patch of land or a road and the legal advisers get a good stipend from it. We are getting very poor value for buck for the public with these planning issues and enforcement. These authorities can make sure an ordinary person has built a pier at an entrance that he or she was supposed to - we want safety above anything else - but they ignore the big developers.
We believe the establishment of an independent office for the planning regulator is welcome in principle, although we have concerns about it being independent. That is something that is likely to come up on Committee Stage.
The Mahon tribunal cost in excess of €160 million, although the currency was in pounds when the tribunal started its work. That demonstrates the length of time we are talking about. It cost much more in terms of bad planning and loss of confidence in the planning system. For example, the cost of duplicating services is a component, and we have had a series of tribunals, including the beef tribunal and the Mahon, Moriarty and Smithwick tribunals. Part of the reason we now have commissions of investigation is the cost and time involved in those tribunals and, in many cases, the lack of sanctions that followed. That we are discussing this legislation in 2016, so many years later, demonstrates there is still a ripple effect arising from what went on in the planning system. This is part of the reason we have proposed an independent anti-corruption agency that would work across sectors. That is not unique as the process has worked well in other countries in changing the culture.
The independent office of the regulator would be responsible for the independent assessment of all local authority and regional assembly forward planning. The goalposts will change because of new legislation facilitating the fast-tracking of housing developments. I question whether that initiative will speed things up to the extent that is expected and it will further reduce powers of councillors. The value of development plans is that they are the rule book, and it pretty much determines the decisions made. If that is undermined, and to a degree it is being undermined with another planning authority-----
We are not undermining it.
I will deal with it a little later but if another planning authority is making the decision, it erodes the local government system further.
The planning regulator will be responsible for looking at the systems and procedures in local authorities. There is not a uniformity in local authorities and there are great variations, for example, in the number of staff available, depending on what part of the country one is in. Some staff are busier and my local authority is certainly seeing much more activity than there has been. If the planning regulator is considering this process, it cannot consider like for like. It is important there can be some degree of equalisation, meaning there can be some sort of uniformity of outcome, which cannot be done without the proper resources.
Compliance with planning permission has costs one way or the other. We have seen many failures, and the Minister has seen them in his Department as there has been poorer building practice and a lack of oversight. Some of the housing stock in some quarters is unsafe as a consequence. We will pay for it one way or the other. If the planning regulator considers the performance of local authorities, the ability to monitor the conditions of planning permissions properly and watch buildings as they progress will be an important component. There is a fairly big piece of work involved with that.
The taking in charge process is a major source of criticism. The planning regulator has a role in considering the performance of the planning authorities and their functions. The public purse will pick up quite a lot and has done already in trying to work out some of the unfinished housing estates. If estates are taken in charge in a timely way, in many ways risk is mitigated. The extension of planning permissions has allowed a scenario where it can be 17 years before people may petition to have an estate taken in charge from the time planning permission has elapsed. The issue must be addressed in a timely manner because there is a price to pay in the length of time it has taken, in some cases, to take estates in charge. When a developer disappears, essentially, and people petition to have the estate taken in charge, the difficulty is that very often there is much remediation to be done and the local authority must do it.
There is not much point in having planning laws if we are not willing to enforce them. The area involving unauthorised developments will bring serious trouble, certainly from my perspective. These are the issues that the public pays attention to and demonstrate failures in the planning system. It is one thing getting planning permission, which is a legal process, but if that legal process is undermined by an inability to ensure conditions are complied with properly and there are no unauthorised developments, there can be a significant delay in the process and in some cases that is never resolved.
The explanatory memorandum to the Bill refers to the importance of proper planning, sustainable development and community involvement in the planning process. I am concerned, however, that the proposed housing (miscellaneous provisions) Bill will undermine the planning system in this regard. I am not saying there should not be changes, streamlining, simplification and a speedier process, which that Bill proposes to deliver. However, it is a mistake to think people will not have concerns about the idea of fast-tracking applications. We have improved the planning process over the years by way of the national spatial strategy, underpinned by the regional planning guidelines. I saw very significant changes in the local authority of which I was a member, with people starting to take a strategic approach as opposed to the piecemeal approach that was there in the past. That piecemeal approach was one of the problems that led to the planning tribunal. Under the new process, we have the county or city development plan, underpinned by the local area plan where most zonings occur.
An Bord Pleanála is not obliged in its rulings to be consistent with a development plan. It has a responsibility to have regard to the plan, but that is not the same thing at all. I have seen many instances where submissions made have improved the planning decision, where it was a positive decision, and where members of the local community felt their concerns were taken on board. That type of process reinforces the faith people have in the planning system. There is now the prospect of that being undermined just as people have got used to there being a process they understood and could engage with if they needed to. The new regulations amount to a changing of the goalposts. Language is very important, whether the reference is to an obligation to have regard to something or a requirement to be consistent with it. Court cases have been taken on that issue and changes to the planning law have come about on foot of those challenges.
The legislation will require planning authorities to provide data and information for databases or national planning systems as may be specified by the Minister. I hope this will include provision for the establishment of a national planning compliance register. Each local authority is unique and what we have seen in the past is developers undertaking projects in one part of the country and leaving a trail of destruction after them before moving on to another local authority area and doing the same thing. The lack of a national planning compliance register, even in situations where enforcement proceedings have been successfully taken against developers, is a major omission in the system. It would be of assistance not just to the planning regulator but would also function as a good consumer protection element. The fact each local authority has its own unique register is not a benefit of the system.
The provision that elected members will be subject to reduced or no fees when making submissions could be problematic if we end up with a situation where councillors and Deputies are looked to as a vehicle for conveying community submissions. A recent judgment issued in the European court concerned the introduction of planning fees, which was, if I recall correctly, done via the Planning and Development Act 2000. As I understand, the fees do not bring in much money and seem to serve little purpose other than as a source of frustration and expense. A charge of €20 might not seem like a lot of money to most people but for a pensioner, someone on a small income or a person in receipt of a small social welfare payment, it is a sizeable sum. I wonder why the exemption is not being fully extended rather than limiting it to public representatives.
Fortunately, most of the unfinished estates in my constituency are being worked through. This is the second time I have seen that profile of unfinished housing developments. I was elected at town council level in 1988 and subsequently to the county council in 1991 and one of the main occupations for my colleagues and me right through the 1990s was trying to work through unfinished estates, calling bonds in and so on. We often saw the same developers reappearing under a different guise, which is something I am seeing again now. There is a sense, in fact, that we are repeating the mistakes of the past. That debate is probably one for another day but it is clear a change in culture is needed in the construction sector whereby good developers are incentivised and there are greater penalties for bad behaviour. That cannot be done without staff in local authorities having the ability to enforce regulations properly, to which end an enforcement register would be useful and might have a considerable impact.
The 2000 Act was consolidating legislation and we have had much planning legislation in the interim. There is evidence these myriad legislative items are causing some of the delays in the planning system, which is an issue that may need to be addressed if we are to achieve quicker outcomes. We all want quicker outcomes, of course, but not at the expense of excluding the people who have a vested interested in an area, who live there and want to shape how it develops. I hope the relevant legislation does not come before us in the form that has been outlined because it would be a mistake. In principle, however, I support the establishment of an independent regulator. My only concern is that such an office must really be independent.