I thank Deputies for the contributions they have made since the debate on this Bill commenced on 28 September last. Their comments clearly indicate the importance of the Bill and the measures proposed therein. Many interesting and varying contributions were made over the course of the debate and while I may not agree with all of them, I fully accept that they were made in a constructive spirit and that most speakers were genuine. I welcome the broad support for the Bill and will work with all sides to deliver a positive final outcome.
As the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, outlined in opening the debate and as acknowledged by Deputies in their contributions, a properly functioning planning system is critical to the ongoing development of all parts of the country and ensuring that development takes place in accordance with the principles of proper planning and sustainable development. That is the primary purpose of the planning system and it is important that the highest standards are applied by and adhered to at all times by all parties engaged in the planning system.
The establishment of the new independent office of the planning regulator, OPR, to oversee the development plan process and planning system generally will, as outlined in the Minister's Second Stage contribution, add a layer of sophistication to the institutional arrangements within the planning system, with a view to ensuring the overall integrity of the system is preserved and, where possible, enhanced. In addition to the establishment of the new office, the Bill gives legislative effect to further planning related recommendations of the Mahon tribunal report, and I will address these shortly. First, however, I will respond to some of the broader thematic issues raised during the debate, after which I will elaborate on some further specific aspects of the Bill.
Transparency and accountability are key principles which must underpin the planning system. In this connection, and as specifically recommended by the Mahon report, the Bill specifically provides for enhanced transparency in the planning process by requiring the publication of submissions on local area plans and development plans, as well as the chief executive’s report on such submissions, on the website of the relevant planning authority, and the forwarding of any proposed grants of planning permission which would contravene materially a development plan or a local area plan to the relevant regional assembly for observations.
On the national planning framework and the successor to the 2002 national spatial strategy, which will be titled Ireland 2040 - Our Plan, the placing of the new plan on a statutory footing, again as recommended by the Mahon tribunal, is focused on establishing a legislatively defined approach to its development and review. Deputies Barry Cowen and Eugene Murphy referred to the need to place the national planning framework on a statutory footing even though it is not yet drafted. In this connection, the Bill outlines the procedures to be followed in the development and adoption of the forthcoming national planning framework and its successors. These procedures, including public consultation and participation in the process, the periodic review of the framework every six years, and the requirement to obtain Oireachtas approval of the framework or any revised framework, need to be set out in statute so as to ensure they are followed in future. Critically, and as indicated, the proposed new procedures provide a role for the Oireachtas in the approval of the national planning framework and its successors, unlike the previous national spatial strategy, which was adopted by government alone. This should be broadly welcomed by the Oireachtas in that it is being given a role in establishing the broad overarching national framework for the strategic planning of urban and rural areas throughout the country, the securing of balanced regional development and greater co-ordination of regional spatial and economic strategies and city and county development plans.
On the issue of the greater alignment of spatial and transport planning, I accept that this issue, which was raised by a number of Deputies, including Deputy Cowen, needs to be further examined. Many of the existing planning and transport problems which have resulted in unsustainable patterns of commuting and increasing congestion stem from a lack of integration between planning and certain land uses, including transport. Deputies Barry Cowen and Eugene Murphy made a good point in this regard and I agree that it is important that a more integrated approach is developed between these two areas. Consequently, I accept that there may well be a need for a defined role for the OPR in the assessment and evaluation of the transport planning strategies of bodies such as the National Transport Authority and Transport Infrastructure Ireland. I will reflect further on how this may best be achieved and, if appropriate, further initiatives will be taken in this matter.
With regard to the role of the office of the planning regulator and the handling of planning complaints, the OPR will be empowered to examine complaints made by any person on a planning matter, including, where considered warranted, the referral of the matter and any related documents to one or more of the following: the Ombudsman; the Standards in Public Office Commission; the Garda Síochána; or such other State authority as may be prescribed.
In addition, the OPR may, on its own initiative, at the request of the Minister or on foot of complaints received, carry out reviews and examinations of the operation of planning authorities, including An Bord Pleanála. In this connection, the OPR will be able to form its own opinion and make recommendations to planning authorities and to the Minister where a planning authority may not be carrying out its functions in accordance with the Act; is not complying with guidelines or directions issued by the Minister; may be applying inappropriate standards of administrative practice; may be applying systemic discrimination in decision-making; or may be operating in a manner where there is a risk of corruption or there are serious diseconomies or inefficiencies in the conduct of its functions. These are significant new powers which will facilitate much stronger oversight of the planning system than has applied until now.
To address other specific contributions made during the debate, a number of Deputies questioned whether the Bill addresses all of the Mahon tribunal recommendations. In this regard, it is worth noting that the tribunal made 64 recommendations in total, of which only ten are planning related. Some of the ten planning related recommendations have already been implemented and the remainder, where feasible, are provided for in the Bill. Only two planning recommendations have not yet been implemented. The first of these relates to the proposal that members of the regional assemblies be directly elected. In this regard, I note that the new regional assembly structures were only established in 2014 further to the Local Government Reform Act of that year. Accordingly, it is premature to progress this recommendation at this time. However, the intention is that it will be reviewed after the new structures have run a full five-year term.
The other outstanding recommendation relates to the introduction of a requirement that planning applicants be required to disclose if they have made a political donation to a member of a local authority when making a planning application and indicate the identity of the donation's recipient. In this connection, issues relating to political donations generally are probably most appropriately addressed in standards in public office legislation. However, I will reflect further on whether it may be possible to address planning related political donations in the planning legislation. In this connection, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin called for the publication of progress reports on the implementation of the Mahon tribunal recommendations. As I indicated, the 64 Mahon tribunal recommendations extend well beyond the planning sphere and, accordingly, any reporting of this nature does not fall solely to the Department.
I will now briefly address some of the other issues raised by Deputies in their contributions. Deputies Barry Cowen, Eoin Ó Broin, Dessie Ellis, Eugene Murphy and others expressed some concerns regarding the remit of the OPR, its powers and independence, operational practices and resourcing. I am satisfied that the Bill, which has been drafted in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General, comprehensively and satisfactorily addresses all of these issues.
While generally welcoming the provisions in the Bill relating to the introduction of e-planning, allowing for the online submission of planning applications and appeals, Deputy Ó Broin asked if this would preclude people without Internet access from submitting planning applications in paper format or having access to or viewing planning documents. In this regard, the introduction of e-planning is in response to public demand for more streamlined and accessible planning processes, particularly from the planning and architectural professions. However the existing paper based arrangements will remain in place, whereby it will still be possible to submit planning applications in hard copy or to be viewed at the offices of planning authorities.
Deputy Ó Broin, who made many comments on the Bill, also asked for some background on the provisions in section 14 relating to the control of licensed premises and whether similar provisions could be extended to include fast food outlets. This section 14 provision relating to the controlling of the location of licensed premises emanates from the final report of the Commission on Liquor Licensing, which stated that local authorities rather than the courts are the appropriate bodies to assess the suitability and location of premises for the sale of alcohol. With regard to the location of other types of premises and businesses which are not licensed by the courts, such as fast food outlets, it is considered better to deal with these on a case-by-case basis through the development management planning permission process. The issue Deputy Ó Broin raises needs to be addressed, not only by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, but also, in the context of other types of facilities, by the Department of Education and Skills. In that context, I note my constituency colleague, Deputy Shane Cassells, is present. He and I are aware of certain cases in our home town which may result in changes being required. The appropriate way to deal with these matters is through changes in the planning process, which should be made in consultation with other Departments.
Deputy Ó Broin also questioned if the powers of the OPR in dealing with complaints by members of the public could be strengthened. In this regard, the detailed arrangements for the investigative powers of the OPR were considered in detail in the drafting of the relevant provisions with the Attorney General's office.
The advice provided was that it would be best not to duplicate the powers and functions of the Garda, the Standards in Public Office Commission or the Office of the Ombudsman in this legislation. As I mentioned earlier, following the examination of a planning complaint the OPR will be empowered to refer the matter to the other statutory authorities mentioned for further investigation. This is considered to be the most appropriate and balanced approach in the circumstances, having regard to the already crowded institutional space in this area.
Deputy O’Rourke proposed the insertion of a provision allowing for the extension of the duration of planning permissions in respect of unfinished developments. Extensions of duration of planning permission where developments have not been completed during the original five-year permission are already allowed under section 42 of the planning Act. In recognition of the reality that many housing developments were not completed within the timelines originally envisaged due to the economic recession and the downturn in construction activity, provision has been made in section 28 of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016, which was enacted before Christmas, for a second extension of duration of planning permission in specified limited circumstances. Deputy O'Rourke also referred to situations where planning permissions have been granted but the works cannot commence due to infrastructural difficulties. This is intended to be addressed, where possible, by the €200 million local infrastructure housing activation fund, which I announced some months ago, with a view to facilitating the delivery of large-scale housing developments which would not otherwise be delivered.
Deputy Broughan questioned if the provisions in the Bill relating to the prohibition on the disclosure of information by OPR staff members were in conflict with similar provisions in the Protected Disclosures Act 2014. In this regard, the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 applies to workers globally with the objective of protecting workers who raise concerns about possible wrongdoing in the workplace. Employees of the OPR, when established, will be covered by this legislation. However, the specific provision in this Bill about which Deputy Broughan expressed concerns relates to prohibiting OPR employees from disclosing sensitive confidential information which they obtain in the performance of their duties. This is a standard confidentiality-type requirement in bodies such as the proposed OPR and there is no conflict between the provisions of this Bill and the Protected Disclosures Act.
Deputy Catherine Murphy raised the issue of the establishment of a national register of planning enforcement orders and the taking into account of past non-compliance by developers with planning conditions when deciding on planning applications. With regard to the Deputy's first proposal of a national planning enforcement register, much of the information relating to enforcement notices is already required to be published on each planning authority’s planning register and so this information is largely already in the public domain. With regard to Deputy’s second proposal in relation to taking into account past non-compliance by developers with conditions attached to planning permissions when assessing new planning applications by developers, this also is already provided for in section 35 of the Planning and Development Act.
I have endeavoured to address as many of the contributions made by Members during this Second Stage debate as openly and comprehensively as possible. I would like to signal to the House at this point that I will be bringing forward a number of amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage. These will primarily relate to improving and streamlining the procedures in connection with the taking in charge of housing estates by local authorities, which is an issue in which I know Deputy Catherine Murphy and others have a particular interest and raised on Committee Stage of the Bill dealt with prior to Christmas last. I will also be bringing forward amendments to the Planning Act to address the issue of land hoarding by developers, which is an issue about which a number of Deputies and Senators expressed concerns during the discussions on the Planning and Development and Residential Tenancies Act 2016, which was also dealt with before Christmas and which my Department has since been working on. Land hoarding is unquestionably an issue that needs to be addressed as part of the measures to tackle the current housing shortage and bring forward housing supply.
I have outlined in some detail the main purpose and provisions of the Bill. I am sure Members on all sides of the House will agree that this Bill is aimed at delivering a number of fundamental, important and necessary revisions to the Planning and Development Act 2000 arising from the final report of the Mahon tribunal. In particular, and as I have already indicated, the establishment of the independent office of the planning regulator will introduce a further institutional layer of sophistication and oversight to the planning system. The establishment of this new independent office, to take over the function of evaluating and assessing local development plans and regional strategies, to oversee the operation of the planning system generally and also to conduct reviews of its operation, where considered necessary, is aimed at ensuring the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the future and that the planning system is operated in an open, transparent and impartial manner in the interests of the common good.
I thank Deputies for their contributions to Second Stage and I look forward to their further constructive engagement on this important Bill as it progresses through the House.
I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to further engagement with Members on Committee Stage.