Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government Statement of Strategy 2003-2005: Presentation.

I welcome Mr. Niall Callan, Secretary General of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and his officials to the meeting. We will hear first from Mr. Callan before taking questions from members. Before Mr. Callan commences his presentation, I wish to draw his attention to the fact that committee members have absolute privilege but this does not extend to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite Mr.Callan to make his presentation.

Mr. Niall Callan

I thank the committee for inviting my team and me to discuss with it the Department's latest statement of strategy. My team comprises Maurice Coughlan, principal officer in charge of the environmental policy section; Des Dowling, Assistant Secretary and head of the housing division; Tom Corcoran, Assistant Secretary and head of the local government division; Michael Canny, Assistant Secretary and head of the corporate services and finance division, and Shirley Groarke from our change management unit who is in the driving seat in terms of compilation of the strategy statement and annual reports among other things.

I will not try to compress the content of a 70 or 80 page strategy statement into the few brief introductory remarks which I propose to make to the committee. My remarks will be more directed towards setting the context and the background to the statement of strategy and where the Department finds itself in terms of the challenges presenting to it over the next two to three years.

This is the third statement of strategy produced by us under the Public Service Management Act 1997. There have been four statements of strategy, the earliest preceding the enactment of that legislation. The current strategy attempts to set out a vision for the Department for the period 2002 to 2005 and to focus on the means for implementing that. Although central and important, the strategy statement does not stand alone. It is clearly complemented by the Department's customer service action plan for 2001 to 2004, our human resources strategy which was published around this time last year, and the annual business plans developed by all the individual working units in the Department.

The statement of strategy is also supported by a range of other strategic policy documents - some I hope well known to committee members - which we have developed in recent years for the different sectors for which the Department is responsible. These set out policy objectives and performance indicators in a more detailed way for the agendas which they address, and we believe they are important drivers of action for us in the Department and our agencies and local authorities. We believe also that this approach of preparing published policy statements for our key areas of responsibility is an important means of communicating with and holding ourselves accountable to our stakeholders, the public, and the Oireachtas.

To give a flavour of some of these other relevant policy statements, committee members will be aware of the review and outlook document, Making Ireland's Development Sustainable, which we published for the occasion of the Rio+10 world summit in Johannesburg in September last year. This in effect amounted to an update of Ireland's national sustainable development strategy as originally published in 1997. Other strategies published recently include the national climate change strategy, the national spatial strategy, a recycling strategy, the national heritage plan and the national biodiversity plan.

The Department's mission is expressed in the strategy statement in the following terms: to promote sustainable development and improve the quality of life and heritage, infrastructure provision, balanced regional development and good local government. To paraphrase this mission statement, one could say the Department has a key role in promoting sustainable development and in improving the quality of life for the people of Ireland. We aim to bring about a situation where Ireland's natural and built environments, as well as key infrastructures, and the quality of life associated with these issues, are appropriate to our status as an advanced society and economy.

There have been significant changes to the shape and mandate of the Department since the publication of the statement of strategy prior to this one. Following changes announced by the Government about this time last year we are now charged with a more comprehensive responsibility for environmental protection, while heritage policy, conservation, nuclear safety and Met Éireann have been added to our brief. This resulted in our staff numbers rising from some 800 to 2,400 last year and the situation will change significantly again when some 1,100 staff, mainly industrial staff, involved in built heritage operations transfer to Office of Public Works.

Since the transfer of other functions to us in June 2002 we have engaged in a major review of the organisation of heritage functions and we recently received Government approval for revised organisational arrangements. Under these policy and regulatory responsibility for the natural and built heritage will all be retained within the Department while operational matters relating to the built heritage will be transferred to the Office of Public Works. As I said, this transfer is now being advanced. The new arrangements will build on the traditional strength of my Department in policy regulation while availing of the skills of the Office of Public Works in property management. We will work to ensure that heritage policy and regulation are strengthened through being mainstreamed within the wider Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

I will briefly address some of the bigger challenges facing the Department. The EPA's millennium state of the environment report shows the nature, location and pace of economic activity in Ireland, together with associated patterns of consumption that are placing growing pressure on the environment. The EPA confirmed that policy responses need to focus on reducing eutrophication in inland waters, better management of waste, protecting the urban environment, controlling greenhouse gas emissions and protecting biodiversity and natural resources.

To minimise environmental pressure we need critically to improve the environmental efficiency of our economic growth. Significant demographic changes, evidenced in absolute population growth, increased household formation and regional imbalances in population distribution continue to challenge us in the development of our planning policies, in the protection of the built and natural heritage and in our construction programmes, particularly with housing. The population of the country disclosed by the 2002 census was almost 4 million, up 8% since 1996, and is the highest rate of population growth since the 1970s. The increase was most marked in Leinster, where the population exceeded 2 million for the first time. More balanced regional development within and between regions and between urban and rural areas to address of those demographic changes will be one of the key elements in continued economic growth and competitiveness. The national development plan identified congestion in some areas as a challenge, along with underutilisation of other regions. The national spatial strategy is our policy response to this issue.

Changing lifestyles have led to growing housing demand and associated settlement patterns and the context in which housing policy operates has changed dramatically in the recent past. In particular, we have experienced an unprecedented demand for housing which has been driven by a number of economic and demographic changes such as rising disposable incomes, historically low interest rates and changing household formation patterns. All of those factors have been and are placing pressure on housing supply and house prices.

Equally, many opportunities present themselves in relation to realising the Department's objectives. New material and technology are assisting in energy conservation and waste disposal. Ireland has an agile construction industry which has already assisted in the unprecedented output in housing. The increasing e-enablement of society and public services in particular is an important resource for the Department, its agencies and local authorities going forward. Finally, modern industrial development in Ireland, which has been the main driver of economic success, is based on modern, cleaner and more energy-efficient processes. This means in general terms that Ireland does not have the legacy of pollution and environmental liability prevalent in many other countries associated with older industries.

The Department's approach in responding to these challenges and opportunities is to seek to be adaptable and innovative. While regulation will inevitably remain a key policy instrument, and the committee will know better than anyone that the Department maintains an active programme of primary and secondary legislation, it is increasingly important to look at alternative policy approaches and to combine appropriate mixes of instruments. For example, we have been promoting the idea of producer responsibility, in which producers play a role in meeting the waste management costs of products they have placed on the market. Two successful initiatives are already well under way in the areas of packaging waste and farm plastics. Other such initiatives are in preparation for other waste streams such as end of life vehicles, tyres and electronic and electrical equipment. We have taken forward new ways of working with other Departments and stakeholders to devise robust and effective policy solutions. I refer to Core, the national sustainable development partnership, and the work of the greenhouse gas emission trading advisory group, which is chaired not by my Department but more appropriately and very effectively by the National Treasury Management Agency.

The committee will know of the success of our environmental levy on plastic bags, which is attracting interest from all over the world. We are using the funds raised by that along with a landfill levy to give financial support to a wide range of initiatives including particular facilities waste recovery. Improvements in collaboration across and between Government agencies and Departments in areas such as social inclusionhave enhanced Government and Department responses to cross-cutting issues for which no one Department holds sole responsibility. The increasing involvement of the voluntary and co-op housing sectors as partners in achieving our housing objectives has also greatly assisted us in our progress in the area.

We have demonstrated innovation in other areas also, including the introduction in Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 of radical measures to improve housing supply. Further changes were introduced in the 2002 Planning Act to facilitate the further operation of Part V and local authorities and developers are now working to bring forward more houses under this measure.

I intend now to touch briefly on our progress on key targets and obviously it is open to the committee to probe us on the details of matters I will now summarise. Suffice to say that this statement of strategy covers 2003 to 2005, by which time we intend to have achieved significant progress in achieving our objectives and building on milestones already achieved. Looking forward to the next phase of the water services investment programme, we will build on the progress made in the first phase of the NDP, which included the completion of 110 major water and waste water schemes and 120 other smaller schemes to service 55,000 new housing sites. This programme also produced increased Irish compliance with the EU urban waste water treatment directive, from a starting point of 25% to 69% and that will increase to 87% by the end of the year. Very positive results have been obtained from the water conservation programme as a sustainable alternative to the provision of new infrastructure.

EPA data shows a reversal of the long-standing trend towards deterioration of river water quality. The proportion of river channels classified as unpolluted rose from 67% in 1995-7 to 70% in 1998-2000. We will seek to maintain and build on this. The achievement of our Kyoto emissions limitation target of 13% over 1990 levels is one of the most demanding challenges facing the Department. To ensure more focused and intensive implementation the Minister has initiated a review of implementation of the National Climate Change Strategy.

Significant progress has been made in national recycling performance. In the period 1998-2001, collection of packaging waste for recycling doubled from just over 100,000 tonnes to 220,000 tonnes, thus ensuring that Ireland meets the packaging waste directive target for recovery of 25% of all packaging waste. We are now exceeding that target, as we must do because a more stringent target awaits us for achievement by 2005. In addition, just less than one-third of Irish households benefit from segregated household waste collections. Substantial investment in the servicing of land and the efficient use of this land through residential density guidelines has led to significant increases in housing supply, with almost 58,000 units completed in 2002, the eighth successive year of record housing output. Ireland is building at a faster rate compared to our European counterparts. I asked a Swedish colleague in the past month what the output in Sweden was and she said it was in the low 20,000s for a population of nine million people. Achieving this level of housing output will remain an important objective for the next few years.

Local authorities are key to the achievement of the Department's objectives and the implementation of strategies in most areas. We have been engaged with local authorities in the modernisation and strengthening of the local government system. This is a major undertaking with important goals, namely, to enhance the community leadership role of local authorities, to ensure the provision of local authority services in a more efficient and effective manner and to ensure the delivery of high quality services to local authority customers. Strengthening of the local government system to deliver these goals is continuing and involves a wide range of new organisational structures to enhance the role of the elected member, including county and city development boards, strategic policy committees, corporate policy groups, area committees and a parallel strengthening of local authority management and staffing, particularly through the creation of directors of key services and the ending of the dual structure at senior local authority management level.

A quality assurance group representative of management, staff and the customer base, which was established under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, has provided external independent evaluation of these significant changes. A similar verification group is being constituted under Sustaining Progress. The group constituted under the PPF reported early this year, or perhaps late last year, and was satisfied, based on reports from each local authority and a random closer examination of 14 authorities, that considerable progress had been made in the local government sector, notably in relation to e-local government which is acting as an important driver of change across the system.

Since then it is interesting that the committee on public management research, the secretariat to which is provided by the Institute of Public Administration, has published a report on the local government modernisation programme which again recognises that progress has been made to date while also pointing to areas such as SPCs where further development work is needed in some local authorities.

Significant progress has been made in recent years in relation to the restructuring of local government finances. In view of the rapid pace of change and the general stringency affecting public finances, the Minister has determined that an independent review of local government finances is now appropriate. We have been advancing arrangements for this and expect to go to public tender very shortly.

In conclusion, key requirements to be addressed by the Department over the next three years include the continued leadership and promotion of the sustainable development agenda, in line with our policy document, Making Ireland's Development Sustainable published, in 2002; working with local and regional authorities and with a range of other agencies to make a reality of the national spatial strategy; organising an effective EU Presidency in 2004 in relation to the important and wide-ranging environmental agenda; continuing to promote regulatory reform and delivering on the commitments in Sustaining Progress addressed specifically to my Department in relation to waste management, affordable housing and the public service modernisation programme.

The changes in staffing and organization which the Department has had to accommodate in the past year, underscore the importance of a proactive approach to human resource management, in line with the Government's public service modernisation programme. Our human resources strategy, developed under the auspices of our partnership committee and published in 2002, provides a platform from which to move forward and further develop policies and practices to the mutual advantage of staff, the organisation and our customers, not least of which is the Oireachtas itself. I would like to pay tribute to the staff of the Department for their commitment and flexibility in face of the many recent changes and challenges, which I have outlined.

We thank you again, Chairman, for the opportunity to present our statement of strategy. We welcome the interest shown by the committee in the statement and as a Department we look forward to meeting the challenges that implementation of the strategy will present.

I welcome the senior officials from the Department. It is good to have a group of people who are experts in a broad range of issues. I expected the Minister or one of his representatives to attend. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding. I thought there would be a political figure here today because many of my questions may touch on political matters and I would not expect the officials present to answer them. Would it be normal to have the political representative from the Department present?

No. In cases like this it is always the Secretary General who attends.

I would like to touch on a number of issues. I have questions rather than statements. I have just returned from Sellafield where I spent part of Monday and all of yesterday. As usual, we were taken on an exhaustive tour of the complex. Two issues arose which worried me. This relates to page 14 of the strategy - monitoring the implementation of safety commitments at Sellafield, continuing to oppose the MOX plant and working towards the eventual safe closure of the installation.

My view up to Monday evening was that the ongoing level of discharges of liquid into the Irish Sea had been reducing gradually in recent years and would continue to do so. What concerns me is that we were told that because of changes in procedures and processes on the site the rate of discharges would increase in the short-term. When I asked why would discharges increase and what was meant by short-term, I was told that a number of new processes were being introduced to decommission part of the plant and there were a number of new processes in other areas of the plant. They were not being very specific but the consequences were that discharges would increase. I asked what was meant by short-term and I was told it could be anything up to 20 years. It came as a surprise to me and I wonder if it comes as a surprise to the Department.

Regarding new processes on site, Irish law demands that environmental impact studies or assessments be carried out. I asked questions about what assessments or studies are being carried out and I was not given any answers. I was told first that none were required but that the Department would investigate further and details would be supplied to the committee on Tuesday. On Tuesday, the committee was informed that the information was not available but would be made available shortly. Is the Department aware of the situation I have outlined? What contacts have there been between the Department and Sellafield or British Nuclear Fuels on the issue? What is the situation regarding the increase in discharges?

On the question of the consequences of a breach in security at Sellafield, we are told that due to the sensitivity of security arrangements these cannot be divulged to us. We made the point that under the international agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom, issues such as that can and should be discussed at the level of Prime Minister and Taoiseach. Has the Department, through the Minister, recommended to the Taoiseach that this type of information should be sought on a one-to-one basis and has this happened?

On the subject of refuse collection, there has been a privatisation of the refuse collection service in some local authority areas. The Competition Authority has expressed concern about the lack of competition and the existence of a cartel operating in the private sector. We are aware of the consequences for the public of the existence of cartels. Has the Department examined the level of charges being imposed by private operators compared to refuse charges imposed by local authorities for the public service? What are the implications of privatisation for those who are on waivers, especially the elderly and the sick? What administrative arrangements have the Department put in place to ensure that the most disadvantaged are not suffering because of privatisation?

Another issue that would affect the administration of the Department is the failure of local authorities to produce annual reports. I recently tabled a parliamentary question on that matter. Local authorities have not been fulfilling their legal obligations by submitting annual accounts and they have been in breach of the law for a number of years. Since I asked that question, what action has been taken by the Department to tighten up the procedures?

The Secretary General spoke in his submission about the enhanced role of the elected members. My difficulty is that this is a political issue. How can an argument be made for the enhancement of the role of the local authority members when powers are being stripped from the members on an ongoing basis, in relation to the waste management plans, local development plans and the raising and imposition of charges? How can this statement be taken seriously in that context?

The Secretary General stated in his speech that the changes in Part V were made last December because the section was not operating effectively and there needed to be greater flexibility in the area of social and affordable housing. What monitoring is being carried out by the Department on the operation of Part V since the changes have been implemented? Will the Department tell the committee how many houses have become available to local authorities as a result of the amendments to Part V?

It was stated that there is an ongoing review being carried out of the disabled persons grant scheme and the other two schemes. What progress has been made? That scheme is a shambles and a social shambles for those who are dependent on it.

I received a response by letter two weeks ago to a question I put to the Taoiseach on the Order of Business. The letter informed me that the regulations governing the relationship between Members of the Oireachtas and local authorities would be published last week. I was told in the Dáil on Wednesday last week that they would be published on Friday last. I have not received a copy of them and neither have my colleagues. Members have to make decisions and we would like to know where we stand.

Deputy Allen has asked a number of questions and I invite the Department representatives to respond to those questions before we take any further questions.

Mr. Callan

I thank Deputy Allen for those questions regarding my statement. I will invite other members of the team to speak by referring some of the questions to my colleagues. I will deal with the Deputy's question about Sellafield and his visit there. In broad terms, the Government has regularly expressed concern about discharges to the marine environment from Sellafield. It was aware of the prospect of some increases and, like Deputy Allen, it is concerned at that situation, as indeed are a number of like-minded countries, Scandinavian and others, at the prospect of the necessity, as BNFL puts it, of making certain increases in liquid discharges to the marine environment.

As to what the Government is now doing about that, the Minister has regularly put questions to his UK ministerial counterparts in relation to these issues. As committee members will be aware, in the past few weeks, the arbiter tribunal on UNCLAS, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, has dealt with one of the actions taken by Ireland against the UK in relation to Sellafield. Part of the interim ruling handed down by the arbiter tribunal late last month in its judgment was a direction to both the UK and Ireland to make more effective the co-operation between them on certain issues affecting Sellafield which had already been ordered by that tribunal in 2001. The upshot of that is that the two sets of authorities must now confer on these issues and submit the first of what may possibly be a series of progress reports to the tribunal by 12 September 2003. These reports will address provisional measures to be agreed between the two sides on the handling of certain issues around Sellafield pending the later hearing of the substantive issue by the tribunal.

This obliges the Department, the Office of the Attorney General and other elements of the Irish team that are helping us to confer closely with the UK authorities with a view to determining what improvements in co-operation can be jointly agreed and recommended to the tribunal from both sides by 12 September and probably by later deadlines as this process of co-operation continues. It would be difficult for me at this stage to speculate as to what exactly will come out of that process of dialogue and engagement, but suffice to say that it is seriously under way at this stage and that we have in mind the importance of the issues raised by the Deputy.

Deputy Allen is right in saying that the increasing involvement of the private sector in refuse collection, which was previously a local authority monopoly sphere, raises a number of issues. He spoke of the concern of the Competition Authority at the lack of competition. We would certainly accept that as the privatisation, if I can put it that way, of the Irish waste industry and waste collection services in particular gains ground and intensifies, there will be a need to a greater extent to look at the economic regulation and not just the environmental regulation of the whole system. That is not a criticism of those private sector operators who are now entering the Irish waste market and waste industry.

It is said in some instances that local authorities are maintaining monopolies in relation to the holding of waste and that issue needs to be regulated as well. The whole issue needs to be looked at in the round from the point of view of the proper commercial constitution of the market and ensuring competition. This is what we will be doing in the review of waste policy, which the Minister has pledged to publish shortly.

Tomorrow will see the publication of an important EPA report giving an update on waste data - in other words collection of waste statistics updated to 2001. The EPA will develop some commentary on the way things have been moving, not just in relation to waste data but the way the market is developing and in terms of the involvement of private sector operators. It is correct to identify this as a new dimension and a new complexity in dealing with waste management in Ireland and it is one that we must properly address.

My recollection is that the Minister answered the Deputy on the question of waivers by saying that where services were provided to people outside the local authority structure and system, so to speak, questions of income support in relation to the ability to afford these services or utilities were matters for the general social welfare system rather than matters for local authorities to involve themselves in.

There are three questions on the local government system, which I would like to refer to my colleague, Mr. Tom Corcoran, who is head of the local government section. Some months ago, the Deputy identified the poor performance of local authorities in producing annual accounts. We have progress to report there. It is important that he raised the issue and equally we have tried to respond to the difficulties there. Mr. Corcoran will give an account of where we now stand on that.

The other issue the Deputy raised on local government related to the regulations on disclosure of information to Oireachtas Members. The Minister has made those regulations, but guidance on them is not quite complete. It had been the Minister's intention to publicise the two together when the guidance is complete. However, the regulation has been made and while I do not know if we are carrying a copy, we can make it available to the Deputy at very short notice. The guidance will take another few days. I will ask Mr. Corcoran to come in on these matters in more detail.

The Deputy asked a general question about the powers of elected members and various legislative amendments which appear to transfer some of those powers back to the manager and the executive. These, as the Deputy indicated, are largely decisions for the Oireachtas and a number of pieces of legislation have on an ad hoc basis, if one likes, brought in exceptions to the general rule that policy is for members and implementation and executive responsibility is for the manager.

These kinds of improvisations in legislation have been a feature for some time. In the late 1980s there was an amendment to the City and County Management (Amendment) Act to include the provision of Traveller accommodation within the definition of emergency work so that the manager could do this without consultation with the council. It is not a new story. A number of what I might call improvised solutions has been adopted by the Legislature over the past 15 years. It is possible for the Legislature to amend these provisions and to define the balance in some different way. It is difficult for us to respond to the Deputy in great detail on that.

I now ask Mr. Corcoran to comment in more detail on the other points.

Mr. Tom Corcoran

We acknowledge there have been difficulties in getting the annual financial statements completed in recent years and particularly in the past year. To put it in context there were a number of things going on. We were not just computerising existing financial systems for the local authorities, but we were also changing the whole basis of the accounting system, so there were two fairly major changes taking place at the one time. The new accounting system is being rolled out. Phase 2, the income and building system, will be completely rolled out by September. At the moment, we are in a transitional phase, as it were. The Deputy particularly asked what the Department is doing to improve the situation. We can point to progress on a number of aspects. There was a skills deficit in local authorities, in terms of accountancy and, to an extent, in the computing area. With our encouragement, local authorities have now increased the number of professional staff in those areas. For example, the new heads of accountancy function are now required to have professional accountancy qualifications. That is one indication of a more professional system.

Already this year, we have seen some improvement, with 18 annual financial statements received as compared to six at this time last year. In order to build on that improvement, we have set up a high-level steering group in the Department, involving the chairman of the finance committee of the CCMA and the chairman and director of the Local Government Computer Services Board, who are heavily involved in the process of devising and delivering the new structure. That four-man team is tasked with ensuring that the annual financial statements are delivered in a timely manner. I fully accept the point as to the importance of meeting that requirement.

The Deputy also referred to the regulations in relation to the dealings of local authorities with Oireachtas Members. The Minister signed these regulations within the past few days and copies will be provided to the committee before the conclusion of this meeting. In addition, we intend to write to managers with a view to securing their active support in the new arrangements to ensure that the role of Oireachtas Members as public representatives is respected and supported.

Will copies of that letter be provided to the committee?

Mr. Corcoran

Yes, but it is not available today as it has not yet been cleared by the Minister. It will be provided as soon as it has been cleared.

I thank the Secretary General and his staff for their replies. What is the position with regard to the DPG and other new schemes?

Mr. Callan

That is in Part V. Mr. Dowling will elaborate on that matter.

Mr. Des Dowling

In relation to Part V, we see this as one contribution to the overall housing effort. Given the planning system, it is difficult to put precise numbers on this and it is still early days. We will be surveying local authorities to monitor what is coming through. As the Secretary General indicated, local authorities are involved in very active pre-planning discussions with developers. A few points should be noted. First, a number of permissions, which have yet to work through the system, would not have had the Part V condition attached. In relation to the others, we need to work out precisely what the figure is - we do not have that figure at this early stage. We are working to develop guidance for local authorities on this. There are various options under the new arrangements whereby developers can meet their commitments under Part V. Obviously, our emphasis is on achieving additional output. These changes are directed towards ensuring output in the supply of private housing as well as social and affordable housing. The guidance, which we have been developing with the industry and other stakeholders, will facilitate this. Over the next couple of months, I hope to get a closer assessment of the situation.

The feedback I am getting from local authorities indicates that they are floundering somewhat in trying to implement the amended Part V, although a half year has elapsed since the law was changed. My information is anecdotal, in the absence of statistics, but it indicates a lack of guidance for local authorities in the implementation of the amended Part V.

Mr. Dowling

I hope that is not the case. The Minister has made it very clear to local authorities that additional output is required. I have met county managers collectively and directors of housing and reiterated that message to them. I called on them to get into pre-planning discussions in a very active way and report back to the Department with solid indications of progress. We are also aware that many developers are putting out feelers and making contacts with voluntary housing associations with a view to partnering, as it were, the Part V aspect of these developments.

Could the Department ensure that the message reaches County Cork?

We will solve it in Cork, apart from any legislative difficulties.

Mr. Dowling

I am very conscious of the fact that, in discussing numbers and activity at this level, we are operating at a considerable remove from individuals waiting for some service, such as house repairs or installation work. Activity under the scheme has expanded hugely, from an overall output of €13 million in 1998 to €53 million last year. That is also reflected in the increased number of grants paid, up from around 3,600 in the year 2000 to almost 6,000 last year. Given that change in the level of activity and the pressures on local authorities, we recognise that there is an issue which we have to address. We are trying to do that in a number of ways.

Perhaps the word "review" may indicate a lack of emphasis on achieving change, but that is not the case. We are operating at a number of levels. First, we are having discussions with local authorities with a view to resolving any immediate difficulties. Second, within our pool of resources and given the growth in activity in this area, it is difficult to see how it could be sustained at that level of increase. We have to look at the needs on the ground and try to prioritise within that context. If we need to consider regulations to support that process, we will do so.

Perhaps there is a more fundamental and longer-term question to be addressed, as part of the review, as to what was the original intention of the scheme. In that regard, we have had consultations with the Irish Wheelchair Association and have undertaken a survey of incoming applications, in terms of the profile of applicants. Increasingly, those involved fall into an elderly group, indicating disability in the sense of immobility. We need to consider the full spectrum to ensure the correct prioritisation. I hope the review will make good progress over the next couple of months, but we need to get it right, rather than simply doing it quickly.

I welcome Mr. Callan and other the senior officials from the Department. In relation to the strategy and Mr. Callan's presentation, the term sustainable development may need closer examination. As a result of frequent use, it is now a somewhat hackneyed term. Has the Department considered the possibility of updating it to a more realistic and clearly focused term? When I asked the Taoiseach about the relationship of the partnership document, "Sustaining Progress", with sustainability, he said there was no such relationship, that it was just a matter of continuing that type of approach to sustainability. I get the impression that rather than embracing the concept of sustainability, many people often view sustainable development as continuing development.

It is difficult to know what some of the terminology in the strategy means, such as "respect of ecological integrity". Has this area been given much thought in recent times? One notices serious problems when one examines certain ecological indicators. There has been a loss of hedgerows and there are low levels of broad leaf compared to other countries. I appreciate that the Department may not be responsible for all of these issues, but it is important that we assess certain ecological indicators. Wildlife corridors are not adhered to here as they are in other countries. Wetlands have been lost. It seems to me that we should try to enhance ecological biodiversity, as the policy of "respect of ecological integrity" is not working.

What progress has been made by the Department in its difficulties with the European Commission? I refer, for example, to the nitrates directive, which was mentioned in the newspapers yesterday as the subject of a court action. Ireland has been found to be in breach of EU law in that regard. To what extent have the habitats directive and the birds directive been implemented?

There are many vacancies in Dúchas, which is now the responsibility of the Department. Does the Department have any immediate plans to fill the vacancies? I am particularly interested in the posts as wildlife rangers throughout the country. I do not believe Dublin has a ranger at present, as it has to share. The fact that rangers have to cover vast areas means that they have a very difficult task. What progress has been made in filling the vacancies in Dúchas?

I would like to make further queries about European legislation that has had a bumpy ride here. Having mentioned the habitats directive, perhaps it is appropriate that I should also mention the landfill directive, about which I have asked the Minister. I appreciate that many of my questions are political in nature, but I am interested in the Department's views nonetheless.

The programme for change and the recycling strategies that are in place have been mentioned, but I would like to ask about the national waste strategy as a whole. I pay tribute to the Department for facing down the Department of Finance in relation to the plastic bag levy, which has been a great success. I will not speak about the matter in great detail, other than to state that I am aware that the Department faced a great challenge in ensuring that the funds from the levy are ring-fenced. I am glad the Department was successful in that regard. Are there plans to extend the concept of environmental levies to provide for a deposit system for glass bottles or cans? I understand that a deposit has to be paid on newspapers in some parts of the United States. Such systems provide an incentive for consumers to return recyclable goods. Perhaps we should go beyond such measures to encourage the use of rechargeable batteries, for example. I understand that Returnbatt Limited, which is based in County Kildare, collects many batteries but we need to encourage people to use rechargeable, renewable and reusable batteries.

Is the Department satisfied that the landfill tax is being used entirely for recycling projects? A recent report in a newspaper suggested that the funds in question are being used to assist incineration facilities. I would like this issue to be clarified, as it would seem contradictory if what I have read is the case.

Deputy Allen raised the question of nuclear safety. Has the Department made progress in raising the possibility of the closure of Sellafield through the mechanism of the EURATOM Treaty? The question of whether the treaty can be used to bring about a speedier closure of nuclear installations, as Luxembourg and Austria believe it can be, could be debated in the context of the proposed new EU constitution.

I appreciate that I am raising quite diverse issues, but the strategy covers many areas. May I ask a question about housing? I am aware that the Part V provisions have been amended. I would like to know whether a serious development loophole will be closed. I will cite the example of a development in my home town of Balbriggan without naming names. There is a requirement that 20% of the houses in a development be allocated for social and affordable housing or shared ownership schemes. This figure was increased to 40% in the case of the development in question, on the understanding that the figure would be 0% in the case of a much higher-priced development in Malahide. Have such scams been brought to an end? Such agreements suggest that the spirit of the original initiative is being flouted, whatever about the letter of the law. I would like this matter to be examined and addressed in any future delivery of integrated housing.

Is the Department following closely the work of the Joint Committee on the Constitution, which is preparing to receive oral submissions about property rights? Does the Department intend to make a submission about the price of property and housing? Will an initiative be taken to remove the greed factor from the system of rezoning here? CORI has suggested such an initiative, for example. The Green Party has brought forward Private Members' legislation which suggests that local authorities should take ownership of land before it is rezoned. This would ensure that the windfall profits would accrue to communities and local authorities rather than private speculators.

I would like to ask about energy matters before moving on to discuss Kyoto, which is our biggest challenge. The Department has the leading role in that regard. We are probably seeing higher levels of house building in Ireland than ever before. Have any serious energy conservation conditions been attached to the construction of houses in the interests of promoting renewable energy and conservation and decreasing this country's reliance on fossil fuels? Clear incentives have been put in place in Holland and Germany to promote photovoltaic solar panels, water heating using solar power and much higher specifications in terms of energy conservation. A much higher proportion of houses are built from timber in such countries, for example. House construction here tends to be dominated by the cement block. Is energy a factor in terms of the increase in the building stock?

Other countries have a much more focused approach to houses that are almost empty. I refer, for example, to large houses in which children were reared but in which one or both of their parents may now be living. Does the Department intend to bring forward an incentive to deal with this "empty nest" syndrome? Two people could be encouraged to move to a smaller house, for example, leaving family houses free for growing families in urban areas where facilities such as schools are already in place.

I was interested to hear the departmental officials saying that emissions trading is now being dealt with by the National Treasury Management Agency. The impact on us all of a failure to meet satisfactorily the requirements of the Kyoto protocol should be highlighted. Mr. Callan is correct to say that Kyoto is demanding, but failure to comply with it would place even more demands on us given the costs which would accrue. Will Mr. Callan look at the current issue of the New Statesman which goes into a measurement of when we last had a challenge like this? It happened 351 million years ago when the Earth faced the similar challenge of a 6° increase in climate temperatures. That took place over a much longer period than our growing crisis, but it managed to wipe out 95% of all species. I am not sure whether humanity would be left in the remaining 5%. This points to a failure to grapple with the problem, perhaps because it is difficult or seen as an issue for tomorrow. It is not that far away in terms of human history however which is why I hope Mr. Callan encourages the Department of Finance and the National Treasury Management Agency to examine quality of life indicators as well as GDP and GNP as measurements of our economic well being.

Has Mr. Callan been in contact with the International Panel on Climate Change and has he looked beyond Kyoto to determine the economic requirements which will be of concern to the Department, among others? The international panel refers to a need for a 60% cut, at least, in CO2 emissions. The European Union has made a cut of 8% while Ireland's emissions have increased by 13% since 1990. If it is demanding to contain an increase to 13%, I can only imagine the demanding nature of a cut of 60%. Has consideration been given to the post-Kyoto scenario?

Mr. Callan

I thank the committee for their interesting questions.

The term "sustainable development" has been evolving since it first came into widespread international currency at the original Earth Summit in 1992. It was largely understood at that time to have environmental and ecological connotations although the question of equity between the developed and developing worlds was a real issue even then. In the evolution of things since 1992, it has been agreed internationally by the Commission on Sustainable Development, the OECD and those bodies most competent to deepen international thinking on sustainable development that the concept must also have economic and social dimensions. The Department took up this wider thinking in the elaboration of what we refer to as our Johannesburg report of last autumn. We try to do justice to these three fundamental aspects of sustainable development. I will shortly invite Maurice Coughlan to elaborate further as he was the main author of the report to which I refer.

In respect of biodiversity and the integrity of hedgerows, wildlife and nature conservation, I say in response to Deputy Sargent that my Department has seen a great opportunity in the responsibility it has been assigned since last year for legislative codes, policies and the staff dealing with these issues. Since assuming these new responsibilities, the Department has given a reasonable account of itself in pushing the envelope for biodiversity. The addition of a range of raised bogs to the portfolio of special areas of conservation has been confirmed. We are at the European mean, more or less, in terms of the coverage of special areas of conservation in the national territory which, depending on how one measures it, stands between 11% and 14%. We are adding to that coverage through the addition of raised bogs and we recently published proposals for a diverse range of new special areas. The biggest land take involved consists of strips of land alongside salmonid rivers. The proposals were issued in draft form about one month ago and they are being progressed. There will be further proposals to complete the network of major nature conservation areas, but, without wishing to put an exact quantification on it, the vast majority of designations needed to secure ecological integrity and wildlife corridors have been achieved. We must now manage these designated areas in a way which ensures the protection of the biodiversity they are designed to preserve.

I cannot respond to the question regarding individual vacancies occurring in my Department. We have a policy of filling vacancies, particularly in relation to outdoor jobs involving the patrol of particular territories. A competition is being organised to recruit more wildlife rangers, but overall the Department and all public sector agencies will have to make a contribution to the 5,000 reduction in jobs announced by the Minister for Finance in the last budget. I cannot, therefore, be too expansive in saying that every vacancy arising in the Department will inevitably be filled.

Deputy Sargent was referring to a summer job.

Mr. Callan

Within the constraints of such macro policies we acknowledge the Deputy's point. I understand the importance of maintaining front-line jobs which cover particular stretches of territory. We will try to do that.

The Deputy asked also about the recent judgment of the Advocate General with regard to Ireland's failure fully to transpose and implement the nitrates directive. The Department was aware of the proceedings which now move from the Advocate General and have yet to reach the European Court. Against the background of developments which have been taking place, the Minister has recently made regulations designating the whole country as a single zone for the purpose of implementing the directive. He is committed to finalising an action programme in relation to implementing the nitrates directive by the end of the year. There is a commitment in the addendum to Sustaining Progress which was formulated with the farming pillar for active co-operation in relation to that goal. I am keeping the housing questions for my colleague, Mr. Des Dowling.

The Deputy also asked about the general issue of Kyoto. We agree with what he said in terms of how challenging that objective is for Ireland. We have already set out a systematic policy in our national climate change strategy in terms of how we intend to go about living within the commitments which Ireland has made. We have given at least one progress report on that strategy. While progress may be limited in some spheres, it is more extensive in others. It sets out progress under the various headings, including the built environment and residential sectors. I will not go into all of the detail which the report gives on what is happening to make building more sustainable in Ireland, but there are quite a few interesting and exciting things taking place and we see it as a valid target area in seeking to bring down our greenhouse gas emissions and come closer to our Kyoto targets.

I should like to elaborate on something I said in my introduction; the emissions trading agenda is now moving forward to another stage, following a decision taken by the Government some weeks ago. Until recently, the National Treasury Management Agency was offering us advice on how to go about emissions trading. The EPA has now been more formally charged by Government to lead the development of a national allocations plan among different industries to manage the emissions trading business in the real world. We are about to go into a pilot phase under the EU directive and we must give our details to the EU by spring 2004. Things have to move along quickly and if you talk to IBEC you would be left in no doubt that there are real issues here for companies and that they are seriously engaged with how this matter will be handled by Government and by the EPA. It is right that we put new structures and arrangements in place quickly to manage the process. Announcements will come into the public domain in this regard over the next few months and there will be consultations with the major affected energy users.

My colleague, Mr. Maurice Coughlan, will, perhaps, amplify on the landfill tax. The Deputy asked whether this is being used entirely for recycling purposes. I think the purposes identified in the legislation for the environment fund go beyond recycling but, perhaps, he would clarify that for Deputy Sargent and maybe say something about sustainable development.

The Waste Management (Amendment) Act 2001 gave a broad statement of purposes for which the environment fund could be used. While the Minister has prioritised waste infrastructure and waste recycling and recovery initiatives, it is not intended solely for that purpose.

In regard to sustainable development, people on this side of the table——

Can it be used for incineration?

The grants that have been announced have been primarily for waste recovery and recycling initiatives.

Recovery can be a euphemism.

I am open to correction but I do not think any of the grants have been used for that purpose.

In terms of sustainable development, those of us on this side of the table would share your frustration at sustainability sometimes being used in contexts other than for what they were originally intended. In terms of the concept as a whole, it is worthy to note the good work that has been done by Comhar in relation to sustainable development and its meaning. Comhar produced a good publication on principles of sustainable development in the context of the world summit last year and it was reflected in our report for Johannesburg. Comhar is endeavouring to give further meaning and life to that concept in its ongoing work.

I have raised an issue with the Taoiseach, time and again, and perhaps Mr. Coughlan may not want to give a response as it is a political matter but I think it is one worthy of debate. Comhar is not one of the social partners and the concerns of environmental sustainability, or sustainability in any sense, is not central to the partnership process. We need to include that aspect of the country's future and prosperity in the partnership make-up. I accept that Mr. Coughlan is not a politician and that this is a political question.

The Deputy's question is more appropriate for the Minister.

My frustration is spilling over here, in the sense that we are here talking on the fringes of where decisions are being taken in terms of the partnership. I hope that is something that you do not mind me pushing, Chairman.

Mr. Callan

I will not respond in detail to the Deputy on that issue. From the Department's point of view, and that of those who are charged with taking forward the environmental agenda, it was interesting that we had active negotiations on the importance of waste management, the nitrates directive and SACs in the discussions on Sustaining Progress. These were all issues that were being actively negotiated and this was done in the end game of Sustaining Progress. Whatever about the arrangement of the various institutional chairs and so on, I think environmental issues did enter into the reckoning in a real way in the context of the partnership talks.

My colleague, Mr. Des Dowling, will take on the questions Deputy Sargent asked on housing issues, principally in relation to Part V.

Mr. Dowling

The Deputy asked three questions on housing. In regard to Part V, I would prefer not to comment on particular developments, as such, but I do understand the point. What we sought to do was ensure that there would be flexibility that would allow us to adjust to circumstances. We want to achieve a social mix in terms of developments and to have integrated communities, as opposed to seeing this purely in terms of bricks and mortar. I think flexibility is necessary to achieve that aim. Problems arise, in particular, with developments of a small number of houses where it does not necessarily make sense to have five private houses and one social or affordable house. There is also, of course, a cost attached to this from the viewpoint of the local authority and the Exchequer because each of these houses has to be purchased. Our aim is to avoid the type of situation outlined by the Deputy and, at the same time, have a rational approach in terms of meeting whatever needs are in a given local authority area.

Big mistakes were made and Mr. Dowling has clarified that.

Mr. Dowling

The other point in relation to that would be the question of guidance. I have tried to emphasise that the guidance we give to local authorities is to ensure that it makes sense in terms of local need. We also emphasise the achievement of output and supply as opposed to the other options provided under Part V. The All-Party Committee on the Constitution is in the early stages of its deliberations and I am not in a position to anticipate them. We will certainly be interacting with that committee in a variety of ways in terms of a submission. I am sure it wishes to discuss with us a range of aspects of its work.

It might not always suit a local authority to take for itself a particular piece of land arising from a rezoning decision - it would have to be examined on a case-by-case basis.

It is the other way around. It is a case of the local authority buying the agricultural land, and it would decide whether it was to be rezoned or not.

Mr. Dowling

I question whether it would necessarily suit the local authority, depending on the land in question.

The third point was very interesting and relates to the question of sustainable development and how it might apply to housing. Ultimately, we are trying, across the housing front, to achieve a match between housing needs and housing infrastructure. We have achieved very rapid growth in terms of housing demand and, in turn, the response to this. There is an increasing need to avoid the kind of mismatch the Deputy has mentioned, which is more likely to arise in respect of older stock.

Houses should be designed to ensure housing is adaptable, in so far as this is possible, to changing needs in society, whether this is due to mobility issues, age patterns or household formation. We have some work to do in the economy to ensure that this is being achieved but it is very much part of the agenda. As a more short-term response, a number of local authorities have engaged in surrender schemes in relation to their own stock, but this is an issue that we need to consider rather than one that has already arisen for us.

I, too, welcome the Secretary General and the officials and thank them for their concise answers. I am very pleased to hear about the increase in the housing units and I recognise the comments on the comparison with other European models.

I come from a county in the midlands and a case is often made to its local public representatives regarding the need to support local housing developments, particularly in rural villages. I am not here to use this forum to bash planners - far from it - and I fully realise our role in devising, supporting and presenting the county development plan but I often note, not just in my local authority area but in others, that there is a reluctance - I hope I use this phrase wisely - on the part of the Department to accept proposals and support the need for communal sewerage systems or septic tanks in villages, for instance. They appear to be frowned upon.

I recognise the strides the Department has made in respect of social, affordable and voluntary housing. I have seen an increase in housing units in my own local authority area, yet I reflect the views of many members who recognise the need to support rural and village life. A change of attitude towards supporting communal-type systems or group systems would be an obvious step forward. I want to hear the response of the Department on this matter. I am not trying to turn the matter into a political issue - far from it, because members could say to me, quite properly, that there is another forum in which I could make these points - but I believe there is a tremendous need to change the thinking that exists. There is a huge demand from people to return to rural life, particularly people from the villages in question. They find it difficult to obtain planning permission although they see the need for eight, ten or 15 houses in a scheme.

Although there has been a quite sizeable increase in the group water grant over the years, there has not been a corresponding increase in respect of the grants for sewerage schemes. I often made the point that water and sewage are not the most glamorous aspects of public life, nor is it popular to make proposals pertaining thereto. Nevertheless, most issues that arise, particularly in rural communities, reflect the need for services. If we do not have the vital services we will not have the follow-ons. God knows we have had many meetings over the years seeking an extra teacher or school or on the upkeep of a post office. These matters all revolve around the issue of population change and if we had a change in thinking it would be beneficial. I am not trying to blame the Department but am wondering if it will change its thinking.

I am fully conscious that I am not here to blame planners but how often do we see inconsistency in planning decisions between various local authorities? In my county, not just because it is in the midlands, I often hear it said that if we are to grant planning permission to a person, we should sterilise the surrounding land to ameliorate the problems associated with septic tanks. Yet, planners I meet ask we why should they support the farming community in selling off land and they state that the policy should surely be to maintain the existing acreage to support farming enterprise. I see a contradiction in that and believe that if everything squares up, notwithstanding the fears of the health authority, people should be supported in terms of rural housing.

I was interested to hear the remarks about special areas of conservation and national heritage areas. Let me cite two examples from my constituency that reflect the overall concerns that exist - I will not mention names. I find it difficult to support the Department's position regarding the first example, in which somebody made a huge investment to buy bog land on the open market. When the investor secured a loan for the investment, local landowners refused to accept the prospect of one person owning the 300-acre tract of land and they went to the courts to ascertain whether the investor had legal ownership. After the investor made such a financial commitment, it is questionable that the Department should have been allowed designate the land as a special area of conservation and appropriate it. The investor only received the ordinary level of compensation, even though the Department was aware of the huge expense involved. The background of such cases should be researched by the Department to ascertain the expenses incurred by parties involved.

In a number of places in County Laois, farmers in farm management and investment programmes, possibly in years three or four of such schemes, were approached by Department officials, without warning, and told them they were empowered to make the landowner cease activities and that the land had become a special area of conservation. I have to accept the principle of protecting the lands in question but a policy position should be arrived at under which levels of investment are taken into account and certain concessions are made to investors who have reached a point of no return. I was dismayed that the appeal on one particular case I raised with the Department fell through last week. Those are just a few points highlighting the need to re-examine the policy. Will there be newthinking on supporting rural development?

We will take a few more questions before we ask the Secretary General to reply.

I welcome the Secretary General and his staff to the committee.

In his statement, the Secretary General referred to the national spatial strategy as being our major document seeking to bring about more balanced regional development. At present, we have a huge number of area plans, county development plans and national plans in the public domain and the regional authorities are to bring about regional planning guidelines throughout the country, the first drafts of which are available in most areas. Who will deal with inter-regional issues in the preparation of the regional plans such as rail and road infrastructure, waterways and so on? I am not aware those issues are covered by the inter-regional planning guidelines.

The Secretary General spoke about local authorities being the key to achieving development and the delivery of services in particular areas as well as the new organisational structures which are in place to enhance local government. Does he not think that such structures will bring more bureaucracy into the system because funding is what is really required to deliver services in a region? For example, Deputy Moloney referred to group sewerage and water schemes, road infrastructure and public lighting. By August, September and October, particularly among smaller local authorities, funding seems to run out and yet there is a layer of bureaucracy with little to do from September onwards. The director of roads for any local authority will tell one that, by September, he or she has run out of funding for county and regional roads.

In regard to the disabled persons grants, raised by Deputy Allen, there is a requirement that a local authority must put up matching funding in order to draw down maximum grants. Smaller or weaker authorities have difficulties with low budgets and low rate bases in acquiring this matching funding. Will the Department embark on a plan for equalisation? The Constitution states that we must cherish all of our citizens equally but people under the jurisdiction of the weaker local authorities are at a disadvantage in regard to services and this must be addressed.

The reorganisation of local authorities into better structures means that the new layers of bureaucracy needs to be serviced by secretarial and administrative staff, all of which are extremely expensive for local authorities. Councillors are elected by the people and should be provided with research facilities. This issue must be examined because such facilities have been inadequate to date.

A whole plethora of quangos has been set up in recent years in regard to local government and development. There are 22 quangos being funded by about six Government Departments.

What is the Senator's definition of a quango?

A quango is an organisation which meets behind closed doors and is not generally accountable to the public. There are too many such agencies for funding in place. I was trying to remember some of them and I have reached number 11 now. Does any elected representative know the amount of Government funding that is going into their area in any given year? Who is getting the funding; how much are they receiving and is the funding achieving what it is supposed to? These are issues of real concern to the public and to elected representatives and they must be teased out and dealt with. There must be greater accountability. The local authorities and the Oireachtas are transparent bodies. Their meetings are held in public and yet many of the bodies to which I have referred meet behind closed doors. If they make errors, are they reprimanded? I would like to see these issues dealt with.

There is a big problem in regard to Part V of the Planning Act concerning pre-planning meetings because of a shortage of staff. The system is not being operated as effectively as it should because of a shortage of staff in those areas.

At present, we recycle some 12% of our waste. The strategy statement sets a target for recycling but will we have markets? What attempts will the Government make to ensure that we have markets for recycled products?

I welcome the Secretary General and his officials to the committee.

According to the Department's policy document, "economic and societal changes are reshaping the context within which this policy developed rapid economic growth, a rising population and the convergence of the average Irish household size towards a European norm are resulting in a significant demand for additional housing." We are in a dilemma at present because we have seen huge inflation in house prices in recent years and there must be a reason for that. We know the reasons but we never seem to find out why we did not plan ahead and anticipate them. We must examine that.

We now have the national spatial strategy. For example, there is the study in the greater Cork area and I assume all the other local authorities are drawing up their county development plans. However, no one seems to be in charge of direction or responsible for encouraging local authorities to point out what will happen in the future. From my experience, and seeing what happened with the housing market, it appears we did not have enough land zoned in time. As a result certain people made enormous sums of money but from now on we will face a dilemma in that we no longer have a free market operating in regard to development. Certain people can anticipate what will happen, purchase land in advance, sit on it and drip-feed it onto the market. That is happening wholesale and is very much evident, although developers will deny it is the case.

Local authorities seem not to have been able to react quickly enough when there was a massive demand for housing. Some of the serviced land initiatives which were announced five years ago have still not come on stream. While we talk about implementing policies, the people who are at the coalface of the implementation are the planners and developers in local authority areas and the Department must adopt a more hands-on approach. It is not good enough for the Department and the Government to say these issues are a matter for local authorities. The fact is that most local authorities failed abysmally to anticipate demographic changes and the demand for housing and we are now playing catch-up having left ourselves in a horrendous position where most young people cannot afford a house. There must be a reason for this. Is it good enough for a Department, when these issues are raised, to say that it is a matter for a local authority or for someone else? Somebody needs to encourage, cajole and drive forward local authorities because they do not have the resources or the expertise to envisage what might happen down the road or to change with an evolving society. This is of particular concern to me and to my generation, who have almost been denied the hope of having a house.

A planner on a visit to an area may decide that from now on all houses must have pink gable ends or, if he likes dormer-type bungalows, that nothing else but bungalows can be built. In parts of my county one can tell when one crosses from one planning area to another because the slates change colour or the house designs are different. Is there any way we can allow for more imaginative approaches and allow people to express themselves through architectural design and so on? We are limiting people's abilities to develop and improve exciting buildings because of these rigid rules. One planner can decide when appointed that he or she likes blue slates. There seems to be no allowance for difference in architectural design and so on. I expressed the same concerns to representatives of the Irish Planning Institute when they appeared before the committee. This is something we should do. Our architectural designs are quite boring. In 100 years people will wonder whether we did anything interesting at the turn of the century.

Perhaps the Secretary General would like to answer those questions, or he can delegate the hard ones to his colleagues.

Mr. Callan

I will certainly try to do that, but first I will deal with some of the interesting points raised. Deputy Moloney's questions were all about issues of rural development and they remind us that this is a very big part of the national spatial strategy. The strategy is not just concerned with major urban areas; it is also about the needs of the rural dweller in changing times.

A query was raised about my Department's attitude and willingness to support smaller communal sewerage schemes. For some years, almost until now, we were beholden by the demands of the EU directive on waste water treatment to finish off the provision of secondary treatment or whatever environmental standard was required in the major urban areas, many of them on the coast. These schemes - an example is the Dublin waste water treatment plant, opened last week by the Taoiseach and the Lord Mayor - were capital intensive and tended to claim the lion's share of our capital budget since the early 1990s. The job of fitting out the major population concentrations with the requisite secondary treatment is now beginning to be completed. Our water and waste water capital programme is now to a greater extent addressing smaller, disaggregated schemes. There is scope for us to become more involved with local authorities in designing solutions on a smaller scale than before and we willingly accept that challenge.

I appreciate what the Deputy is saying about SACs and NHAs. We have agreed with the farming pillar to consider the operation of the habitats regulations in relation to compensation issues and designation procedures themselves. Last week the Minister received a composite delegation of farm interests to begin that process of engagement. Our predecessors in the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands introduced the habitats regulations in 1997. As I have said, they have done much good; they have done the basic job of establishing a nature conservation zone across large stretches of the country. We are hearing from landowners that when it comes to various procedures and details the shoe is pinching and that improvements can and should be made. We have agreed to enter into discussions with landowners to see what can be done, without detriment to the core aim of the system, which is to conserve biodiversity.

Senator Bannon mentioned the national spatial strategy and this is also relevant to Deputy Moloney's comments. My Department has a commitment under the national spatial strategy to produce planning guidelines for rural housing by the end of the year and we are working hard on that. We do not underestimate the complexity of the issue and the mix of different interests involved, but we felt that a document at a general level could not solve or purport to give guidance on all issues relative to rural housing and that, furthermore, the issue of detailed guidance should be addressed by the Department.

Senator Bannon was worried about increasing bureaucracy in local government and the prospect that reforms leading to better local government could founder because of current constraints on revenues and finances for local authorities. It is certainly true that in an ideal world, we in the Department would like to see the new system buoyed up by greater resources so that various programmes can be implemented. On the other hand, a better management system should be an asset in times of constraint or scarcity. If the management system is genuinely improved and doing its job, it will do better by the local area in a time of difficulty than if the system was ill resourced.

The Senator mentioned the tension between universal levels of service for the disabled and local discretion, which is an important issue. We would argue that there is a place for varying the approach to service provision according to the requirements and the profile of the local authority concerned.

Deputy Kelleher asked who leads the direction of housing policy and strategy. My Department would not disown this responsibility. Whether we are discharging this responsibility as well as the committee feels we should is a matter for it but we accept the mandate Deputy Kelleher says is necessary in the present situation. Since the late 1990s, the Department and the Ministers concerned have done this in a visible way. There were three iterations of the policy initiative, Action for Housing, under which new instruments were developed. There were major legislative changes, including the introduction of Part V, but also the obligation on local authorities for the first time to produce detailed housing strategies well aligned with their development plans.

We took an active hand in identifying the problems with housing land and tried to do something about it and we currently have a five or six year supply of housing land around the State. That does not apply in every area but it is an average estimate. We set targets in the national development plan for the level of housing output required, 500,000 over the next ten years, which may even be conservative, but that is being exceeded by us at present.

Deputy Kelleher spoke from real experience of the problems of affordability and house price inflation, which I do not dispute. We are hardly doing wrong by producing new houses at by far the highest rate of building in Europe. In economies which enrich themselves like that of Ireland, it has been observed that property values of all kinds rise in sympathy very quickly, as they have done here. I am not sure that intervention of other kinds would necessarily have prevented that but we are where we are and we must keep a hand on the wheel in housing. We will continue to do that.

The Deputy mentioned development plans and planning control and asked if there should be detailed control over design. There are tensions even between professionals in this area; the architects are less keen on it than the planners. My Department's advice, which is of long standing, is that development plans should avoid excessive detail in these matters but we will visit this again in the advice on rural planning guidelines, which we hope to issue by the end of the year.

Mr. Dowling

Senator Bannon mentioned the Part V fees and the difficulties with pre-planning discussions. All we can say in response is that we will keep the pressure on local authorities because we need to see what is happening with the overall volume coming through and look at the substantive issue of output. We will continue to put pressure on managers to ensure there is openness and a capacity to deal with such discussions.

Has the inter-regional issue been addressed? Regional planning guidelines are being prepared but how will those be addressed within the context of the document on the national spatial strategy?

Mr. Callan

The inter-regional issues fall within the competence of various national institutions, not just Departments but nationally based agencies such as the NRA, the IDA, other industrial promotion agencies and the RPA. Our priority is to achieve stronger regional planning. We developed such guidelines for the greater Dublin area in the late 1990s and they were successful in shaping development at county level in a regional context with regional co-ordination. It is a priority to push that exercise into the other regions where it has not been developed to the same extent, with the exception of Cork.

There will still be planning issues that transcend all of these regional planning exercises and they will have to be dealt with. We have a national roads plan formulated by the NRA and there are strategies by the IDA. When the regional planning function is strengthened and when it produces stronger and more coherent guidance within the next nine months, this will enhance the residual national and inter-regional planning functions.

We need to limit structures we do not need any new ones. It is important that we redefine the roles of those structures that are in place and eliminate some of those that are already there.

Mr. Callan

It has been a concern for some time that the local development field is rather crowded and rationalisation is needed.

On a programme recently the following question was asked: what is the difference between conservation and preservation? Can the witnesses answer that? The progress to be made in our national recycling performance was mentioned by the Department. We would like to see greater success but what are the main ingredients responsible for the progress we have made so far? The Taoiseach made an announcement on Friday on affordable housing. Have the details of that scheme been worked out? Who will build the houses? Is An Bord Pleanála entitled to accept an objection from a group or individual who had not shown an interest in a planning application at the local authority stage?

Mr. Callan

The last question deals with an interpretation of the law but we will give a layman's answer to it. In general under the Planning and Development Act 2000 the board should not accept and will reject any purported planning appeal from somebody who is not party and did not pay the observation fee at the initial stage. There is, to my knowledge, at least one exception to that. A person whose land is adjacent to the land which is the subject of a planning application can successfully claim that his property interests are affected in some way by a condition in the decision by the planning authority which he could not have foreseen. He may have chosen not to take part in the planning case at local level but a condition may be imposed by the local authority which he would not have anticipated and which affects his property in a way he did not anticipate. The board will entertain an appeal from a person who can demonstrate those circumstances even if that person has not been involved in the case at local level.

To Mr. Callan's knowledge they are the only circumstances in which——

Mr. Callan

Yes, that case or something similar. That is the main exception that I am aware of. Otherwise there is a requirement that one must have participated and paid the observation fee at the local stage of the planning case. In terms of conservation versus preservation, I am sure my professionals and other experts would have a field day giving the committee all the nuances of difference. My layman's appreciation of the difference is simply that conservation carries a somewhat more proactive connotation in that one is trying to make an old building a living thing and restore it if possible to some viable use in the present scheme of things. That emphasis on conservation may not be there in the case of preservation.

Regarding progress with our recycling strategy, I should have said in response to Deputy Kelleher that we are at 11% overall in terms of recycling in Ireland. The best practice in the world would be around 40% and we continue to aspire to attaining levels of that kind, although it may take us longer because of our relatively peripheral status in terms of logistics, markets and so forth.

In asking what the key ingredients are in achieving that the Deputy is again putting me on the spot. There are key ingredients from two sides. One is enthusing the public and interesting the person in the street in the importance of recycling. We have already achieved a lot there and public support for the whole enterprise is important.

The other thing that is very important in promoting recycling - and as I said in my opening address, we are working on this - is more and more involvement of the business and commercial sector. It is already involved in marketing the goods concerned. As the Repak initiative in particular has demonstrated, the sector has a business know-how about how to manage these things in a way that makes maximum commercial sense and that will make the recycling process more efficient. It would be very difficult indeed if my Department and local authorities had to go back every year into their offices and think about how they are going to get recycling levels up and so on. We need to go with the grain of the market and get the private sector involved by applying a certain amount of pressure.

Generally what we say to them is that if they do not volunteer and produce a good and workable scheme yielding such and such outputs we will bring in some sort of regulation which they may not like and may be obstructive. One finds that the private sector responds to that. Those two things, public support and the support and know-how of the private sector, which may be under a certain amount of pressure from the regulators, can move us forward on recycling. I will ask Mr. Dowling to respond on the affordable housing initiative, on which he has been working.

Mr. Dowling

As the Chairman indicated the Taoiseach did make an important announcement last Friday specifically in relation to the release of a number of State sites to the Sustaining Progress affordable housing initiative. I cannot add a great deal to what the Taoiseach said but it might be useful to reflect on some of the key aspects of the scheme set out in Sustaining Progress and to contextualise it. Deputy Kelleher referred to some of the broader challenges in the housing domain, and our responses cut across the full spectrum of needs in terms of social, affordable and private housing. This must be seen in the context of that overall response.

The precise modalities as to how this will be done will vary depending on the particular site in question but the key point, as Sustaining Progress recognises, is that we target those who in the past would have expected to purchase a house from their own resources but find they are unable to do so in the current market. We must work out with the parties to the pay agreement who came forward with this proposal initially exactly the groups of eligibility.

There are a number of parameters within which we have to work. One is that the initiative should not detract from existing schemes, which is important, and another is that it should not impact on general Government finances. The modalities to be put in place to ensure that we stay within those parameters does require a bit of work and challenge, but the release of these particular sites gives an important initial fillip in terms of getting the initiative going.

What dates are being aimed for?

Mr. Dowling

In the overall initiative in terms of the sites that are being immediately released we would be looking at 2,000-plus houses.

All members of the committee were present today under orders, and on Mr. Callan's behalf I asked them not to mention the hen harrier and am delighted at the response. They do not normally do what they are told. I thank the Secretary General, Mr. Callan, and his officials for attending. Their presentation was very worthwhile and we very much appreciate the effort they made in replying to the questions raised my members. Is there any other business?

Did we send out an invitation to An Taisce? I thought we were bringing in An Taisce, An Bord Pleanála and a few more.

We will deal with that in one second. We were hoping to have them here in the autumn.

Was an invite sent to them?

Yes, we have been in touch with them. We will have a meeting on this day fortnight dealing with scrutiny of EU directives and we will then have a launch in the House which will be addressed by Frank McDonald. I would appreciate if all members could attend.

What date is that?

On 23 July. We will have the meeting in the morning, possibly at 11 a.m., followed by the lunch.

The joint committee adjourned at 4.59 p.m. until Wednesday, 23 July 2003.