Engagement with the Office of the Planning Regulator

We are joined by Mr. Niall Cussen, planning regulator and chief executive at the Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, and Ms Anne Marie O'Connor, also from the OPR. Members have been circulated with the witnesses' submission. I will first ask Mr. Cussen to make his opening statement and members will then be invited to address their questions. They will have five or six minutes for questions and answers.

Members attending remotely within the Leinster House complex are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their participation in this meeting. Members are aware of their obligations under privilege. I remind them of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the place Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House or the Convention Centre Dublin. For witnesses attending remotely, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a person who is physically present. The opening statements submitted to the committee will be published on the committee's website after this meeting.

I invite Mr. Cussen to make his opening statement.

Mr. Niall Cussen

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation. I am joined by Ms Anne Marie O'Connor, who is the deputy planning regulator and the director of the plans assessment side of the business. Our remit is as an independent overseer of the implementation, by local authorities and An Bord Pleanála, of the regulatory and policy framework for planning set by the Oireachtas and the Government. In this statement I will draw upon material from an early analysis of our work over 2020. We will be submitting our annual report to the committee in June.

It goes without saying that 2020 was a year of enormous challenge for the OPR, similarly to every organisation and citizen in the country, as we grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a great credit to our staff and those we work with that the challenges posed by the pandemic were not only met but overcome. All of us have very successfully adjusted to a new and flexible way of working. It is also a great credit to the planning process in general, which the Government designated as an essential service from the get-go, that An Bord Pleanála, local authorities, the OPR and the Department maintained, to the greatest extent possible, delivery of planning services throughout the year. Work continued unabated in preparing the plans that will shape our future, informed by learnings from the pandemic, in assessing planning applications and appeals, undertaking enforcement and conducting a wide range of research, training and public awareness exercises. The pandemic also gave us as citizens and communities the opportunity to pause and reflect on our future, coincidentally and helpfully at a time when local authorities were preparing a new generation of city and county development plans right across the country.

I will now address our three statutory functions, focusing on the assessment of statutory plans, as the committee requested, but also mentioning reviews of local authority planning functions and our education, training and research and awareness functions. Regarding our statutory assessments of local authority development plans, we engage proactively with all local authorities throughout the plan-making process, from before the plan is published through the various different stages. We made 110 observations and 93 recommendations across 45 stages of plan-making processes. Members of the committee will be aware that a development plan goes through various different stages, from the initial pre-draft to a draft to material amendments and so on. We made quite a lot of observations and recommendations.

It is important to remember that the Oireachtas established the OPR not to set planning policy but to perform independent and thorough scrutiny of such plans, in order to ensure that the public are confident that the authorities reasonably and consistently apply relevant Government policies. These include important matters like securing urban and rural regeneration, and the targets for same in the Government's national planning framework; the appropriate levels and locations for zoning of land for future development; how we move about; the delivery of quality and affordable housing; ensuring vibrant city and town centres; and a deeper respect and care for nature and our environment in planning for the future. Over 2020, the vast majority of our recommendations were implemented by local authorities. Ultimately, we only had one case of a recommendation to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to use his statutory powers under section 31 of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018 to make a direction, which he accepted. I have included some figures and tables at the end of my submission to make that point. We worked very well with local authorities through 2020.

On the review of planning functions, we completed preparations and initiated our programme of systemic reviews of the procedures used by local authorities in the delivery of planning services. There are currently two local authorities going through that review process, which will hopefully wrap up by the first half of the year or going into the second half. All the preparatory work for that was done in 2020.

In relation to promoting public awareness of planning, research and training, the stand-out success of my team was the move to put in place an unprecedented level of training in planning for the 949 local councillors across the 31 local authorities, in conjunction with our colleagues in the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG. There were five events in total in 2020, which were attended by over 600 elected members of local authorities.

In our corporate functioning, we fully complied with all governance and financial procedures, implementing the code of practice for the governance of State bodies and we took possession of our permanent premises on the Technological University Dublin campus in Grangegorman, Dublin 7.

There are some key themes to our submissions on statutory plans. I hope members of the committee have had a chance to look at the tables at the end of my statement. The areas highlighted show where our independent and statutory assessments of local authority plans cover frequently recurring topics, including, for example, the issue of properly reflecting statutory ministerial planning guidelines across a range of topics from flood risk management to transport, housing and other matters. The second issue was the consistency between statutory plans and the objectives of the regional spatial and economic strategies and the national planning framework. Regarding the current round of regional strategies, we had no role in their development because they predated our establishment. Lastly, there was the issue of climate action and ensuring that plans contain specific and measurable commitments to influence future development patterns and forms in a way that cuts energy needs, increases renewable energy sources and adapts to the effects of climate change.

Our sense is that the interventions we have made in the plan-making process are generally taken as constructive input to ensure that, like the proverbial jigsaw, all the pieces of our local authority plans fit together and that we have good alignment, which good government depends on, between national, regional and local policies. We are getting there as local authorities are now monitoring that much more closely. For example, when we issue a submission on one local authority, other local authorities are looking at that, anticipating and learning right across the sector.

That is a good thing.

I want to highlight some of the recent commentary on the work of the OPR which has, at times, been unhelpful and inaccurate in terms of the statements made about our work. I refer in particular to some contributions made on 1 April during a debate on a Private Members' motion on Project Ireland 2040. There were accusations that the work of the OPR was an assault on rural democracy and that we act in a dictatorial fashion. There seems to be a pattern in that and other subsequent commentary seeking to suggest that our statutory role is attempting to restrict rural development when that is far from the case. Indeed, any proper reading of our submissions will reveal that, taking our lead from Government policy, the OPR encourages a plan-led approach to rural development, in particular the renewal of many of our smaller towns and villages that many members of the committee would probably agree face a very uncertain future.

What is more striking about the commentary, however, is that it seems to be harking back to a previous and darker era of planning in this country when there was absolutely no oversight of the quality, effectiveness or cohesion of the roles of local elected members, local authorities and so on in determining and delivering planning functions. We know what that gave rise to, namely, systemic failures and the establishment of the Mahon tribunal and, ultimately, the OPR in order to give back to the public confidence in the quality of the operation of the planning process.

As we grapple with battling our way out of the pandemic and face the even bigger existential challenge of climate change, we all need to work together for the common good and to align local, regional and national aims. The Government has, to its great credit, hugely developed and strengthened not just the policies but also the investment going in to secure the very concept of proper planning and sustainable development called for in the preamble of the Planning Act passed by the Oireachtas.

It is true that local authorities have some discretion as to how to reflect these policies at local level, but it is not a limitless one. The Oireachtas decided that in 2018 with the passage of legislation around the OPR. Going further back, the statutory duties on councils to properly apply strategic policies existed long before our establishment. The difference now is that, following the will of the Oireachtas in legislating for the OPR in 2018, we are statute-bound to oversee and ensure that relevant national and regional policies are actually implemented in broad intent and detail.

We are barely two years old, yet we have, in my view, built a strong and effective resource to bring about the better planning outcomes that government, the Oireachtas and, most importantly, ordinary citizens want to see. I think of the hundreds of elected members who are attending the first ever national planning training programme for councillors, our research and practice notes for local authority planning staff, our planning leaflets, 14 of which have recently been published for the public, and the wide range of online resources available on our website.

We have hit the ground running. We are working hard to strengthen the integrity and cohesion of our planning process. Moreover, we are confident that many of our submissions on development plans are seen as very positive and constructive advice in the development of the next generation of statutory plans and that they will represent major advances on many fronts. Ms O'Connor and I are happy to take any questions for as long as the committee has time.

I thank Mr. Cussen. Despite the word "planning" being dropped from the title of this committee, we still take planning very seriously in our role covering housing, local government and heritage. As we all know, a good planning system with a good forward planning and development and consent process, which is transparent and democratic, followed up with enforcement when things do not go so well, is vital and must be adequately resourced through all of the local authorities. The fact that we have independent oversight of those development plans by the OPR is critical and important to that process.

The move towards plan-led and evidence-based planning has progressed over the years. We recently agreed the national marine planning framework which will complement the national planning framework and will be followed by marine spatial plans. A great deal is happening in planning for the marine and land.

I thank the witnesses for their attendance today. I am sure members have questions to put to them on a number of planning aspects.

I will take the first slot and the second slot will be taken by Senator Byrne, as Senator Fitzpatrick is attending another committee meeting. I welcome Mr. Cussen and Ms O'Connor to the meeting. The comments from the Chair outline the importance of the OPR. It is about balancing that with accountability and the element of local democracy held by officials and elected members.

I will concentrate on two areas related to my constituency that need to be examined. My question relates to the north fringe, which is undeveloped land lying between Fingal County Council and Dublin City Council. Has the OPR considered the issue of land that sits between local authorities? I refer in particular to the decision of Fingal County Council more than 15 years ago to allow large-scale development on the edge of a city without any of the services, such as community services and so on, that were needed and the impact that has had on the wider community in Finglas and on other fringe areas along the M50.

Mr. Niall Cussen

Does the Deputy want to add a second question?

My second question relates to height. The previous Government's decision to allow height strategies to be set aside has had an impact. I will outline an example. Santry and Ballymun sit very close to each other. One will benefit from a metro scheme but the other will not. However, all of the large-scale development over the past 12 to 24 months has been in Santry. That is because the height strategy has allowed development to take place where developers wanted it, rather than where councillors and officials might prefer to be. What is Mr. Cussen's view on the height strategy? Has the decision to set it aside benefited planning or does it need to be revisited?

Mr. Niall Cussen

On the Deputy's first question on the north fringe and lands that straddle local authorities, he has raised a very good point. We are raising this with Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council in respect of the co-ordination of plans for the areas the Deputy knows very well and which abut each other. In some parts of Finglas, one does not know when one has crossed the border from the city council to the Fingal county area because it is part of a single community or area. It is important that the plans are similarly joined up. It is an area on which we were not especially strong before the Government strengthened the strategic framework for planning. We will examine this matter.

When we examined a recent variation of Dublin City Council's development plan for some of the areas north of Finglas village, this was a specific point we made and we are following it up with Fingal County Council and Dublin City Council in terms of how their respective development plans will co-ordinate on this issue. It is critical, in particular with the extension of the Luas network to Finglas which will be close to the area.

Going back to the regional spatial economic strategy which identifies areas that are strategically important along what will be the Maynooth DART line, which straddles the Dublin City Council and Fingal areas, it is important that there is a co-ordinated approach. That also needs to extend eastward towards the area where the Deputy correctly identified there have been issues in terms of development getting ahead of social and community, rather than physical, infrastructure. That can present issues.

We will examine this closely and engage with the relevant local authorities and encourage them to reach out to each other.

They do a lot of that themselves through various structural arrangements. We will also be examining how the quality unfolds in the written statements, including the maps that the local authorities publish as part of their development plans.

What about the height issue?

Mr. Niall Cussen

I am just coming to that now. In fairness, one of the key audiences for the guidelines published on building height is those concerned with the development plan process that the local authorities are embarking on. Sometimes some of the difficulties and the points of contention regarding what constitutes an appropriate height arise because we have not yet seen the review of all the development plans so as to take account of the policy advices in the guidelines. I am referring to identifying areas where an enhanced approach to building height may be appropriate and also to where it may not be so appropriate.

Would Mr. Cussen accept that there is effectively no height strategy in Dublin city any longer?

Mr. Niall Cussen

In effect, the guidelines state the arbitrary mathematical limits that have been imposed in some local authority development plans, but not all, are not very compatible with how we are going to ensure the strategic development of Dublin and other metropolitan areas in a way that is commensurate with meeting our wider housing and climate challenges.

I accept Mr. Cussen's point but I wonder how we can have a height strategy without having height dictated in certain areas. There is either a free-for-all or a strategy that prioritises height in certain areas, which will inevitably lead to an arbitrary cap. I would say it is not arbitrary; it is strategic.

Mr. Niall Cussen

That will be a matter for the various development plans to address in more detail. Where there is clear evidence that the authors of the development plans have engaged with the height issue and struck a reasonable balance, they will have met the requirements of the guidelines. The Deputy talked about balance. Planning is ultimately about finding balance.

I confirm I am present in Leinster House.

I thank Mr. Cussen for his presentation. I share his concern about some of what I would describe as the attacks made recently on the Office of the Planning Regulator. I want to be very clear about the fact that Deputies and councillors have every right to criticise policy. That is what we are elected to do. What concerns me about the comments, however, is that the criticism is not being directed where it should be, which is at the people who took the policy decisions, who in the first instance include the outgoing Government, in terms of the national planning framework, and the politicians involved in the regional assemblies. I do not want anybody to suggest I am saying politicians should not criticise but, as Mr. Cussen stated clearly, it is not his office that makes the policies; it is politicians who do so and, therefore, criticism should be focused appropriately.

To inform the public debate, it would be very helpful if Mr. Cussen talked us through the issue of where the policies were decided on population targets and densities with respect to the national planning framework and the regional spatial plans of the regional assemblies. Where a councillor in a certain council is not happy with the population targets and strategies, it is important that he or she understand who decided on them. That is my first question.

My second question is with respect to a piece in the Business Post that seemed to suggest there was a departmental circular issued in the past week that somehow introduced flexibility into the density requirements. My reading of that circular is that it introduces no such thing and that it is consistent with the broad approach of the national planning framework and regional spatial strategy. If Mr. Cussen could clarify the facts of this issue, it would be very helpful.

Compact growth is a key part of Government policy. It is a concept I support but when I examine what is being built, particularly outside the M50 in my constituency and in the commuter belt, I note that much more housing is being built in Kildare, Meath, north Wicklow, south Louth and west Dublin than inside the canals of Dublin city. Could Mr. Cussen comment on that and give us his reflections on why he believes it is the case and why Government policy is not being adhered to given that compact growth has been a policy for some time?

Mr. Niall Cussen

I thank the Deputy for his comprehensive array of questions. On the question on where the policies were decided, let me answer for the benefit of viewers and, indeed, the public. The Minister can publish statutory guidelines under section 28 of the Planning Act. There are around 30 of those, some of which date back quite a while. Some of them, such as those on density, date back a couple of years. The guidelines are published from time to time and there are consultative processes involved. The views of the public are sought. Usually, there is a large group of experts who advise the Minister. Again, going back to what Deputy McAuliffe said, there are always balancing acts accounting for a range of views and so on. The density guidelines date back a couple of years. As Deputy Ó Broin said, the Department recently issued a circular to local authorities that was not revising those guidelines but maybe drawing out some of their more salient elements. I might ask Ms Anne Marie O'Connor to contribute on this because some of the issues that arose regarding density of development arose in the context of some of our assessments of plans. Ms O'Connor can give an example of what arose and how we address it. We are quite comfortable with the circular that was issued in that it highlights some of the approaches that are needed, particularly to managing the development of the edges of smaller towns and villages. What is wanted is a blend of densities, ranging from higher densities in the centres of towns and villages to lower densities at the edges, remembering that towns and villages perform an important role in planning, providing an alternative to the pressure that often arises for one-off housing or sporadic housing at the edges of towns and villages. Local circumstances have to be accounted for carefully. One must judge carefully the densities that might be regarded as appropriate in particular locations. The circular was really bringing out some of the detail in the previous guidelines.

On the last question, on compact growth, much of the housing delivery has tended to be in suburban or greenfield locations. That is a point of concern. We highlighted it in our annual report for 2019. We conducted an analysis of house-building trends. We will be looking at these more closely in the context of our 2020 annual report. This gets to the heart of the broader housing challenge, which I am not here to discuss in detail, but there is no doubt that there are challenges ahead in delivering housing at the quantum and of the quality required, and ensuring affordability in our city and town cores. The Government has been very clear about this. People need homes. For various reasons, it seems that it is challenging to deliver those homes, be they for purchase or rental, in a way that makes them affordable if they are closer to city and town cores.

Greenfield development is fairly straightforward. The developer opens a site and gets stuck into it and so on. Working on brownfield sites, urban regeneration and renewal require a very integrated, intricate approach. One is working within existing communities that sometimes have very different views on what is appropriate in certain locations. It tends to be more contentious and difficult. Even though the infrastructure is often much more available, it can sometimes be very difficult to assemble sites and make them work with the existing fabric, but that is why the urban regeneration and development funds and various measures the Government is putting in place are so vital. I might just invite Ms Anne Marie O'Connor-----

I am sorry but I have to interrupt. Perhaps we could ask Ms O'Connor to contribute at a later stage.

Mr. Niall Cussen

At the end. That is fine.

I thank Mr. Cussen for his contribution and, most of all, for the two years of incredible work, including the annual report and the submission made to the committee today. The leaflets are a fantastic initiative. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, was part of their launch and they have been very helpful and informative.

My question is on residential provision. We are in a crisis and there is great demand for all types of residential properties and all types of tenure. I live in the constituency of Dublin South-Central, within which huge developments are planned on brownfield sites along Davitt Road, Bluebell and Kylemore. They are close to the Luas and to the city. There is an interesting balance, or interchange, between a need for density, climate and land availability, and all of these come into play. How does Mr. Cussen adjudicate on infrastructural supports and their adequacy with regard to predictions for schools, existing village type infrastructures and amenities? He has commented on how intricate it is.

One evening recently, a good friend counted all of the white vans she saw on a walk in the Bluebell and Kylemore area. She counted more than 60. She has also counted taxis. If we look at the existing types of employment in these areas how do we protect them so that future residents have the possibility of similar employment given the reduced parking capacity and high density apartments? How is this factored into Mr. Cussen's recommendations or considerations? If the nature of employment in these areas is not considered where should it be considered? Where should we plan for this?

Mr. Niall Cussen

I am delighted and will feed the Senator's liking of the leaflets back to the team. They worked very hard on them and we are delighted with the feedback. In fact, we would like to do more because anything that can be done to explain the workings of the planning process to people and how they can engage with it is great from our point of view.

The Senator asked about infrastructural supports and how we assess them and engage with them. To reassure her on this point, we have a particular statutory role and we engage with other infrastructural providers, particularly through watching, listening and engaging with them in the context of their statutory engagement with the plan making process. These include the Department of Education and the various transport agencies, Irish Water and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. We maintain a close network with them regarding what they say on schools provision, amenities and the physical infrastructure. As we put our view together, we keep an eye on ministerial guidelines, which stress the importance of engagement with soft and hard infrastructure providers when going through the plan making process and stress the tiered approach to zoning. There is a lot at the back of the NPF which, in a nutshell, requires local authorities to ground their plans on solid evidence that the various infrastructure agencies know what is coming down the tracks and have made, or are capable of making, provision accordingly. Plans are not flights of fancy and not a case of build it and they will come.

There are many arrangements in the plan making process. We will be looking at this and the veracity of it, in other words, whether the local authority has evidently done its homework on all of this engagement. Clearly if a number of infrastructure agencies stated they are short of this or that and do not have the budget, it would call into question the soundness of a plan where there was doubt about whether the money would be there for the necessary infrastructure. The Government is putting €116 billion into the NDP and billions of euro into urban regeneration funds and many other infrastructure funds. It is putting serious investment behind the planning frameworks. The resources are there where there is a focused, prioritised and structured approach. We are the backstop to make sure the homework is done.

The Senator raised a very interesting point about Bluebell, Kylemore and Nangor Road. I know the area well. They are probably areas that are transitioning as they move from warehousing and industrial use with a mix of residential into more mixed use residential and new employment and new opportunities for local communities. The Senator touched on a very important point. It is very important that the plan making process is mindful of the needs of the existing community and the particular functional needs it has regarding issues such as parking, where people will use their work vehicles or where they will locate their work vehicles once an area has gone through a development phase. We will be watching this very closely through the local plan making process. I cannot highlight enough the investment of resources and time and space being available to go through the detail of this at the local plan making process.

We have not yet seen the local plans that will fill in a lot of this detail. The city and county development plans set out a very high level framework and then the urban master plans and local area plans come together. South Dublin County Council and Dublin City Council, as the Senator is probably aware, are working on an arrangement to facilitate this coming forward as and when the main county development plans are finalised. There is a stage process.

I welcome Mr. Cussen and Ms O'Connor to the meeting. I have always been supportive of the office. I particularly thank the witnesses for their ongoing engagement with councillors on their programme. I downloaded the office's local authority elected members training programme for 2021 and it is a very impressive partnership.

We have 949 local authority members, all of them fiercely committed and passionate about their crossroads, towns and villages. Mr. Cussen addressed some issues of concern about criticism at the end of the report, and it did surprise me that it was there but it is his prerogative to raise this with us and it is a concern. I do not doubt him on this, by the way. We must also understand that people are passionate about their communities and places of living.

I have some questions on the rural housing guidelines, about which there has been so much uncertainty. We have the Flemish decree. In recent years, we have had ongoing correspondence from this committee and its various members about what is happening. There is a certain amount of uncertainty and this is feeding into the issue of people saying their daughters or sons or people in their community cannot stay but have a right to be there. They do have a right to live there but based on proper planning and sustainable principles. Will Mr. Cussen touch on this?

In the most recent annual report, which is online, he raised the need for a fresh impetus in the delivery of greater online processing in planning and I agree with him on this. If anything, Covid has taught us that we need to move faster. I have been very critical of An Bord Pleanála on the record because for a number of years it has had it in its plan but does not seem to have progressed it. I ask Mr. Cussen to speak to this because it is a very interesting way of communicating.

While I accept the independence of the office, will he share with the committee its relationship with An Bord Pleanála, other planning authorities and groups and the Department?

We need to understand where the office fits into all of that.

On the issue of local authorities, I am familiar with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown because that is where I live. I spoke to some members before Mr. Cussen issued his report and they said they were waiting to see what the Office of the Planning Regulator says about them. There was an anticipation and it is clearly well documented in the media that the office suggested there were over-zoned lands in Dún Laoghaire. Who is available to assist the elected members to decide which lands should be down-zoned versus others? For the past 25 years there has been a history of land zoned residential in Dún Laoghaire that has never been built on. The elected members will have choices now but I am not sure if they fully understand their powers in terms of that choice. Mr. Cussen knows that, ultimately, this is a reserved function.

I wish Mr. Cussen well. He is two years down. He is respected greatly across the local government sector.

We need to do more to assist the elected members, many of whom are new, in doing their work. Mr. Cussen's office is doing a good deal. Covid is a problem but it has literally become a full-time job for many local councillors and they need support. I will leave that with Mr. Cussen.

Mr. Niall Cussen

I thank the Senator, and I thank him for his kind words. On the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, engagement and the councillor training, the Senator has worked very hard behind the scenes to support that and we very much appreciate that.

In terms of the Senator's comment at the end of his contribution, as Deputy Ó Broin said, it is perfectly appropriate that we are subjected to scrutiny. I take issue with personalised attacks, however. The team I have working with me in very difficult circumstances through Covid have been exceptional. All of them are hard-working public servants and they are doing a job that is expected of them by the public. It is set out under the statute so when we are into the territory of name-calling and so on I do not think that is appropriate. There have been some very good pieces in the media from other parliamentarians about people being thoughtful in respect of the language they are using. It is not a good aspect of public life when we are calling people names and so on. That is not appropriate. The appearance here today is one of the few opportunities I have to set things out from our point of view.

We absolutely get the piece about the elected members at local level being passionate about their areas. We are all from different areas of the country. We are all very passionate about our local place. We absolutely get that. We want to do more to support the elected members. My team here are engaged in literally monthly training events, as the Senator knows, sometimes with more than 200 elected members registering in individual events. Is it not a sobering thought that now that our office is established, which reflects the vision of the Oireachtas and so on, this is the first national training programme for planning done nationwide and on a regular basis?

In terms of supports and notes, there are many different materials available for download from our websites. We video our events. The presentations are available. Papers and pamphlets have been prepared and we will do more on that. We will engage with the elected members to see how they can be supported more while at the same time remembering that their advisers are the executives of the local authorities. The officials in the local authorities are there to support, inform and advise the elected members in respect of their statutory functions.

I am glad the Senator raised the impetus on online planning because Covid has put into sharp focus that the planning service probably was not quite where it needed to be in terms of the delivery of online services. It is perhaps a bit more complex for planning than other aspects of public services. A planning application, as the Senator knows, is a complex beast with many different drawings and papers, especially if it is a large scheme. It is different from renewing one's television licence. I refer to how one views that and the infrastructure that has to go on in the background in servicing that. That is probably the reason An Bord Pleanála has taken more time than it would have liked to deliver a proper online service.

I thank Mr. Cussen. I have to interrupt as we are up to seven minutes on that. Eplanning is important. I have put down questions on it to try to get an overall eplanning system.

Mr. Niall Cussen

I might come back to that because there is an important point to be made in terms of resources.

That is right. It is my turn to ask questions. How does Mr. Cussen's office issue recommendations and directions that then come from the Minister? I have been at council meetings, as many of us probably have, where the Department, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, the National Transport Authority, NTA, the chief executive or the senior planners may be advising councillors not to adopt a certain objective that has been submitted as part of a development plan process or a local area plan and councillors decide to ignore that advice and proceed to approve that and have it included in a draft plan or a plan. That plan then has to be inspected by Mr. Cussen's office, which then makes a recommendation to the Minister and the Minister may make a direction to the planning authority to correct or amend an objective that does not comply in his or her view. Could he explain that process to us? Is there scope for a councillor who does not agree with it to be able to appeal to Mr. Cussen's office to highlight that or should it be expected that the Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, is so well resourced that it can take the time to view all of these plans and issue recommendations on them?

Mr. Niall Cussen

In a nutshell, we have a good team in the OPR that will examine the plans and all the different views that have fed into them because we get the chief executive's report and the story, so to speak, of how the plan has been prepared in a particular instance. Our job is always to compare the broad shape of a plan with the requirements of national and regional policies, the guidelines published by the Minister and so on. Ours is not a job to impose our view of planning. It is purely to read the plan across to what the national planning framework, the regional strategies and various ministerial guidelines have recommended or require local authorities to do in different instances.

In the example the Chairman mentioned, if a local authority, say, in finalising its development plan makes an amendment that clearly breaches a requirement of national policy or Ministers' guidelines that comes back to us for assessment in terms of whether the breach is serious or strategic enough that it would warrant making a recommendation to the Minister to issue a draft direction. That draft direction is subject to a focus process of public consultation. The outputs from that are also taken into account in a report of the chief executive back to the Minister as to how to give effect to the Minister's draft direction. It is then for the Minister to finalise the process. We have a good system and procedure, and expertise, internally to read the plans carefully. Anybody who looks at our submissions, all of which are available publicly on our website, will see that they are examined thoroughly and fairly and at a strategic level, not necessarily getting into a forensic level of detail but a proper strategic level of review.

Mr. Cussen would make a recommendation to the Minister based on national guidelines that a particular amendment or objective does not comply. It is up to the Minister then to decide whether to issue a directive.

Mr. Niall Cussen

Correct.

Is the Minister's assessment of Mr. Cussen's recommendation stating that the Minister has assessed this recommendation from the OPR and disagrees with it and will not issue a directive available publicly?

Mr. Niall Cussen

The legislation sets that out. Obviously, the Minister will consider the recommendation of our office and if the Minister concurs the process goes forward. If the Minister takes a different view reasons have to be laid before this committee. There is full accountability and transparency in respect of the process.

I thank Mr. Cussen.

I ask about resources for planning services throughout the country. We talk about the importance of the three stages - the forward planning, the consent process and the enforcement process.

Is it Mr. Cussen's view that the planning services throughout local authorities are well enough resourced? It is my view that enforcement is always the poor relation when it comes to planning and I wonder what his view is on it across the three different stages. Could he include staffing areas such as biodiversity officers, heritage officers, cycling officers or active travel officers, all of those various intertwined parts of the planning process that are so important for the natural environment and for transport as well?

Mr. Niall Cussen

It would be premature for me to draw any kind of off-the-cuff conclusions, but I reassure the members of the committee of some of our work and what we are doing. For example, we are working closely with the City and County Management Association, the Local Government Management Agency and the Department in undertaking a decent baseline analysis of the exact staffing across the various local authority areas. It is difficult to get very detailed statistics on the people and skills that are in different local authorities. As part of that work, we also hope to employ that knowledge and evidence in the development of a learning and development strategy that would inform training, reskilling and even looking at skills deficits where there is perhaps a gap.

Another area of our work that I would like to mention is our review function. We are looking at local authorities. I hope that next year, when we are back into full operation once the Covid restrictions that are hampering us a little bit at the moment are eased, we will review five to six local authorities on the broad scope and delivery of their planning functions, how they compare with their neighbours and in terms of national yardsticks. We have published a methodology for undertaking the reviews, which is on our website. We developed it with the local authorities, the Department and the various stakeholders. That will give a very good picture over the next year or two of where the various local authorities are at.

If you grant me a little bit of leeway, Chairman, I will say that the issue of resources is pressing. It goes back to the point raised by Senator Boyhan on the need for investment in online services. Planning application fees in this country have been static since 2001. My recollection of the National Oversight and Audit Commission's report of 2018 is that it cost approximately €140 million to run the local authority planning service, net of the board, and fees represented approximately 17% of the cost of running the service. That is probably one area for examination in the context of ensuring that local authorities have the income that is needed to defray the cost of running what is becoming a much more complex planning process than has been the case heretofore.

I thank Mr. Cussen.

I have a couple of quick questions. I will try not to focus on what other members have already asked. Could Mr. Cussen comment on the observations that have been made on the Dún Laoghaire development plan in terms of zoned land for housing? It seems odd to me that the planning regulator would make such a decision on somewhere within the county of Dublin in the midst of a housing crisis. I want to know the reasoning and the rationale behind the observations on the zoned land.

Second, I want to ask about the eplanning framework and some of the more practical ends of what happens in planning. We have proposals on strategic housing developments, SHDs. There is a very limited timeframe for residents to engage in what are very complex planning applications. I wish to ask a couple of questions on that. In terms of the dissemination of the website, has the planning regulator done anything to result in some of those websites being taken down? Currently I can go onto the local authority website and I can have a look back through plans for recent years. All of that documentation is with the developer of the strategic housing development. For the sake of posterity, how do we maintain those plans and ensure they are easily accessible and can be researched, in particular as so few of them are actually going to be built given that the sites are being flipped?

In terms of local authorities getting plans online, as we always do, we had a rush of applications on 23 December. There was a short period when people could make observations on plans. I am aware of cases in a number of inner city sites where we had three to four days following the information going up in the middle of the pandemic to get it online.

I also have a question on finding planning applications on the An Bord Pleanála website. It is at last possible to make a submission online, but has the planning regulator been in contact with An Bord Pleanála about the eplanning system and making planning more transparent?

Mr. Niall Cussen

I might ask my colleague, Ms O'Connor, to respond to the question on the Dún Laoghaire issue. Could you keep some time at the end for her, Chairman, to respond on that specific point? There were a lot of very positive aspects of that development plan that we were very happy with, but there was one issue we thought needed to be looked at more closely. It would be erroneous to suggest that we were calling the Dún Laoghaire development plan into question in any significant way. We might just have some time for Ms O'Connor to come back on that point because she manages that part of the operation.

On the SHD, the operation of the website, and eplanning generally, I must be honest with Senator Moynihan that we have probably not had the focus we would like on online planning services. One thing we have been doing is undertaking a survey of the effectiveness of the online offer of the various local authorities in terms of their planning application viewer facilities, how quickly drawings go up online, how easy it is to navigate and the quality of what one can see online, among other issues. We will publish that shortly. We are going back to the local authorities that we surveyed to make sure that we got the picture accurate and we will publish the survey as an assessment of the effectiveness of the online offer of local authorities.

It is fair to say that we have not engaged with An Bord Pleanála on its online offer, as of yet, but it is in our scope for examination later on this year and into next year. The whole online planning process and the accessibility of planning services online needs a serious look. The online planning application project is coming along and will be trialled in Tipperary County Council in the very near future. We need to see that rolled out more effectively and comprehensively across the sector. To answer the straight question: we have not looked very closely at the SHD and the online offer of the board, but we do have that in our work programme for later this year and into next year.

If Senator Moynihan has any specific queries that she wants to raise with us afterwards, through the committee structures, we would be happy to take them up with her offline, so to speak. Ms O'Connor will come back on the Dún Laoghaire piece in a little bit. Is that okay?

There are two minutes left in the slot if Ms O'Connor wishes to comment on the direct question on Dún Laoghaire.

Ms Anne Marie O'Connor

In a way, I agree with Senator Moynihan. There is a subtlety in terms of the Dún Laoghaire development plan that perhaps is not there in some of the other plans that we have dealt with that have been more straightforward. What happened in that instance is that the Dún Laoghaire plan came out around the same time as the new Government guidelines on housing supply targets, so the local authority did not have the benefit of the guidelines and data to inform and develop the plan. What we identified when we were reviewing the plan was that there was perhaps a misalignment and that too much land had been zoned to accommodate the number of housing units that would have been predicted through the guidelines and through the housing supply targets. Our submission is really to try to address that and focus on it. One of the previous speakers talked about choice; that is the case in Dún Laoghaire, it is about trying to prioritise and making sure we prioritise and develop first the areas that are better located in terms of access to public transport and other social and physical infrastructure in advance of the more remote areas that are still dependent on new infrastructure, particularly public transport. That is the subtlety around the Dún Laoghaire development plan. It is not that we are saying Dún Laoghaire should not grow. We should remember the national planning framework goes up to 2040. All we are dealing with is the six-year plan period. What we were trying to say in that submission related to prioritising for this six-year period where the initial growth should be concentrated on.

I confirm that I am in the Leinster House complex. I very much welcome the establishment of the Office of Planning Regulator. It has a very important function of which I am very supportive.

My question follows on from Senator Moynihan's comments on the SHD plans. Often a plan will go online and the website is then taken down. We were talking earlier about the importance of planning enforcement and how it is under-resourced. It is important that communities have access to those plans because planning enforcement often occurs when people in a local community say, "Wait a minute, I don't think that is what got planning permission." They then check the plans, contact a councillor, Deputy or the planning enforcement section of the council and the matter is then investigated. Not having access to those plans is very serious for local communities and planning enforcement. Can the regulator take action to ensure SHD plans are available online in an accessible format and are not lost when websites are taken down but are made available or stored elsewhere? It is important that the OPR do that.

Reference was made to the way in which Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council interact and the work the regulator is trying to do to ensure there is co-ordination between them. Will that lead to changes in the development plans as regards zoning, densities and so on?

I have a strong view that, as cities grow outwards, it is important to maintain insofar as possible distinct townlands and communities, rather than having them merge or sprawl into each other. Close to where I live, between Baldoyle and Portmarnock, there is a park that separates the two areas. Similarly, Portmarnock and Malahide are separate areas. That is important for identity. Is the national planning policy strong enough to support that?

Mr. Niall Cussen

Deputy O'Callaghan raised an important point about online access to drawings. That point is in the same vein as another we just discussed. We will certainly examine that more closely on foot of this engagement. The facility to see drawings online through the SHD process and the websites established by the proposers of particular projects duplicates the paper file, which is always available. The Deputy is asking, in effect, if and how those particulars can be hosted in some shape or form on the local authority website, as would be the case with normal section 34 applications. The Deputy makes an interesting point, and I understand exactly what he is getting at. Representatives of local authorities will be before the committee soon, so the Deputy could raise the matter with them. However, I will be happy to look at it more closely and revert to the Deputy with the information we get.

As a rule of thumb, given that the normal section 34 application, the particulars approved and so on are available online, people should also be able to see what was submitted in SHD applications. If they have a sense that something is awry, they will then have an instant point of reference rather than beating their way to the council office, queuing at the counter and so on. In fairness, local authorities encourage people to use the online facilities. There has to be a solution to that. I have made a note of it and we will take a closer look. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter.

We hope that the quality of the integration of the plans will be enhanced because of our work. Before our establishment, no one was doing that work. Nominally, the Minister or Department would have had the oversight role but Ministers, in a normal sense, are reluctant to get into very close detail and have other more strategic issues to address. The benefit of our office having a multidisciplinary team with the time and focus to look at how the pieces of the jigsaw click together is that we can probably drive a much improved and much better integrated set of plans in the future than we have seen in the past.

The Deputy made an interesting point about urban villages. The local area plan guidelines and the forthcoming urban design guidance on which the Department is working cover this issue in one sense. The national planning framework includes many good policies around identity. It is the case that our major urban areas should not grow in such a way that a person travelling from one district to another will have no sense of place or identity. The Dublin city development plan, in its current iteration, promoted very strongly the urban village concept where particular nodes, centres or districts in different parts of the city would have an identifiable sense of being distinct from other parts of the city and would perform different functions. People want to have that sense of community and identity. It is very important to bring that out in the local plan-making process. The Deputy should watch that space, particularly around the urban design guidance coming forward from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Ultimately, it is a matter for the Minister and Government to set the policy. There are good foundations to that policy approach in several of the documents I mentioned and it will probably be strengthened further in the area I mentioned.

I welcome Mr. Cussen for appearing before the committee for this important discussion. As he said in his opening remarks, this theme is very much linked to local democracy. Like many other members, I come from a local authority background having served as a county councillor for almost a decade. I represent Dublin Mid-West which stretches from Palmerstown and Lucan through to Clondalkin and across to the villages of Rathcoole, Newcastle, Saggart and Brittas. It is a constituency with two strategic development zones, Adamstown, Ireland's first SDZ, and Clonburris, which I and others feared did not deliver a holistic plan of phased development along with much-needed infrastructure. There is a plethora of active SHDs and a fairly large volume of large planning applications. Dublin Mid-West is, therefore, very much a growing area but what we want is to be a growing community. We want to grow in a cohesive way that delivers infrastructure and amenities hand in hand with housing and protects the history, heritage and character of the seven villages. Mr. Cussen said that planning is all about balance. That is the balance that many of my constituents want us to strike in Dublin Mid-West.

The Office of the Planning Regulator has responsibility for the review of planning functions. What are its findings and recommendations with regard to SHDs and whether they have achieved their objectives? Has the OPR found the prevalence of SHDs has led to an increase in judicial reviews? On SDZs, is the OPR looking at ways of using the experience of existing SDZs to shape the process for new ones? For example, residents in Adamstown feel their experience should be taken on board by the planners who will oversee the development of the Clonburris SDZ. Similarly, has the OPR given any consideration to appointing for each of the SDZs a local point of contact that could report to local authorities on a quarterly basis?

I would love to hear Mr. Cussen's views on planning regulations in general, not just in the context of strategic development zones and strategic housing developments. Does he feel local authorities are adequately resourced to follow up on planning enforcement?

I welcome what Senator Boyhan said about the need to modernise the planning service by moving things online. Mr. Cussen made similar comments. In my area, during the level 5 lockdown, an SHD was proposed on lands adjacent to the Foxhunter pub. People were hiking into the city centre, despite the 5 km restriction, to lodge their submissions on the development. That was not fair and probably highlighted for many people who would not be in touch with An Bord Pleanála too often that some of the system is still archaic.

To give Mr. Cussen some feedback on his collaboration with the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and the planning education he has been doing with county councillors, I know many of my local Fine Gael councillors attended his sessions and found them extremely useful. That is especially true of our new councillors. It is fantastic that he is doing that level of collaboration.

Mr. Niall Cussen

That is great, I am delighted to hear that. Senator Boyhan asked earlier where we fit in the firmament and some of the Deputy's questions raise similar issues. Policy and the regulatory framework for planning is set by the Oireachtas and the Minister. Local authorities get on with delivering the planning services and preparing SDZ planning schemes, which can be submitted, ultimately, to An Bord Pleanála for approval. The board is handling the planning applications, appeals and so on and so forth. We stand back and look at the overall system and how all the different cogs relate to one another.

The Deputy asked about SDZs and the appointment of a local point of contact. We are not involved in the delivery of SDZs and it would not be appropriate for us to get involved in individual matters of planning applications, appeals, enforcement and whatnot. That is, in fact, set out in the legislation.

The Deputy also asked about SHDs and our sense of whether they have given rise to more judicial reviews. That is a simple statement of fact. As our annual report from last year showed, and our annual report from this year will show, the amount of judicial reviews has increased somewhat. They are a tiny fraction of the 30,000 planning applications that are decided by planning authorities every year, around the majority of which there are little or no judicial reviews. We are talking about a very small subset but, nonetheless, there have been significant increases from a low base. Much of that has related to SHD cases, for a variety of reasons. We have not looked at that in any close detail at this stage. It is important to remember that, under the programme for Government, the SHD process will come to a close early next year. I hope that good things have been learned from the SHD process. The planning process has been in a constant state of reform and evolution since it was introduced in October 1964. The planning process we have now is unrecognisable when compared with that in place a long time ago. It therefore follows that we will, I hope, have learnings to take from the SHD process to, if you like, apply in a reform context in terms of looking at the process now and how it might evolve into the future. The mandatory pre-application consultation and engagement with different stakeholders is a good, strong point. These are matters of which the Minister and the Department must take account. I gather the Department has a group working on some of those learnings.

The Deputy also raised a question about enforcement and resourcing. My colleague, Ombudsman and Information Commissioner, Mr. Peter Tyndall, has highlighted every year in his area of work that enforcement is a big area of complaint to the Ombudsman's office in the context of individual matters in which we are not allowed to be involved. We are looking at the overall system. We have a good day-to-day engagement with the Ombudsman's office in terms of the performance of local authorities in that area.

Going back to the response I gave to some of the earlier questions, we will be looking at and analysing more closely in the coming 12 months or so where the different local authorities are from a resource standpoint for the delivery of planning services. We will also do reviews. We have two authorities going through the review process right now. We ask a series of questions across 11 different broad headings, one of which relates to enforcement, how authorities are delivering and how that compares, etc. All of those reports will ultimately be published. The Deputy will see the output of that in due course if she gives us a little bit of time.

I have a few questions to which I would like responses. There are numerous developments going on in Cork city and county at the moment. My concern has been the infrastructure, especially in my constituency of Cork North-Central where there are issues. There is no northern ring road or road infrastructure. Articulated and heavy goods vehicles run through residential areas. If we are talking about sustainable planning, there is a proposed light rail system for Cork with no connection on the north side of the city. There is a deficit in the whole areas of planning sustainable communities, jobs and education. Planning needs to be balanced.

Churchfield Industrial Estate is an area in Cork North-Central where there are a number of recycling and waste collection services in the middle of the residential areas of Gurranabraher, Churchfield and Farranree. The estate is surrounded by sports grounds on the other side. How these facilities ever got planning permission in the first place is a mystery to me. A new recycling centre has set up without planning permission. It is getting a bin collection service. We are talking about planning and enforcement and people are just riding roughshod over the regulations.

I have serious concerns about regeneration and densities. I come from Knocknaheeny which is an area of Cork city that has been regenerated. There are also places such as The Glen and Mayfield in which there have been social issues. My worry is that if we keep the densities high, it will be counterproductive to the work we are doing in trying to regenerate these areas. The density issue is important. Mr. Cussen spoke earlier about high, medium and low-density areas of regeneration. I believe the areas about which I am talking should be low density so the social issues can be tackled. I have raised a few points on which I would welcome the thoughts and comments of Mr. Cussen.

Mr. Niall Cussen

I thank the Deputy. It is nice to hear from Cork. My immediate point of concern in what the Deputy said is the unauthorised development. If he has evidence that a particular development in the waste management sector is taking place without planning permission and causing impacts on the community, that has to be dealt with in the strongest of terms by the planning authority. Waste management facilities, if not carefully managed, have the potential to have impacts. That will ultimately be a matter for Cork City Council.

I hear what the Deputy is saying about the issues around numerous developments in Cork and the north inner city area. These matters are, first and foremost, for Cork City Council. The Deputy is probably aware that Cork City Council has begun the process of renewing its city development plan. The Taoiseach and the Government unveiled a tremendous investment package for the city in the context of urban generation under Project Ireland 2040.

The metropolitan area transport strategy of the National Transport Authority is coming forward. While there may be issues about its reach into the north inner city, these are all matters to be teased out in the context of the city development plan. The good news is that there are unprecedented levels of resources being invested by the Government in the regeneration of those areas.

The Deputy, being familiar with Cork, will be well familiar with the historical imbalance in the strategic development of Cork, resulting in many social issues in some parts of the northside and a lot of growth, particularly along road corridors, on the southside. The Cork area strategic plan, CASP, process tried to address this previously when there were very few resources on the table. I genuinely believe the city development plan is the opportunity to try to tease out these issues, including that of density and the question of what is appropriate to a given location. In striking the balance on density, people will say we should have an approach involving very low density but, where this occurs, residents are moved increasingly far from the amenities and services, which can be accessed only by car. Some people might not have the means to have a car, or it might not suit them because of their age or another reason.

People also talk about the ten-minute or 15-minute city or town. That requires the striking of a balance and good design not necessarily in high-rise development in a particular location but in the reasonably effective and decent use of the land we have available. Once we build on land, it will be a long time before it is renewed. Any development will be in place for generations so we need to take our steps very carefully.

Mr. Cussen referred to the Government's recent announcement of €405 million for Cork, with €350 million for the docklands. This is great.

Mr. Niall Cussen

It is.

However, there is not one project for the north side of the river. Mr. Cussen mentioned strategic and balanced development but I found the position on the northside unbelievable. About six weeks ago, there was an announcement on strategic transport developments. Of those, 32 were for the southside and only 12 were for the northside.

My final point is on amenities. In the part of the constituency I represent, we are knocking 420 houses in Knocknaheeny, an area of regeneration, to build 620. In areas such as Knocknaheeny, The Glen, Mayfield-----

Mr. Niall Cussen

I know them well.

-----areas where we know there are issues, why would we increase the density so much? We are trying to build communities.

Mr. Niall Cussen

Some of those older housing developments from the 1960s and 1970s that are being regenerated were built according to principles of extremely low density, often with houses spread over a very large area. Sometimes there were green spaces that really did not function very effectively as green spaces because there was no real supervision of them and nobody looking onto them. There were spaces left over between housing developments. It is often the case when looking afresh at an area that you will try to achieve more effective use of the land but also passive surveillance, security and so on.

I am sorry but I have to interrupt. We are well over time on the slot. We will return to density and design if we get a chance.

I am substituting for Senator Fitzpatrick, whom I thank. Given that all the previous speakers have come from the metropolises of the greater Dublin area and Cork, Mr. Cussen will not be surprised if I focus on some of the important rural issues. I echo the concerns expressed earlier in that I do not believe some of the personalised attacks have been helpful, but I believe it is important that there be engagement.

Mr. Niall Cussen

Absolutely.

In Wexford, we are going through the development plan at the moment. Wexford County Council is one of the first in this regard. In Wexford, but also in many local authority areas, there is concern over rural planning. My argument is essentially that the difficulty for the Office of the Planning Regulator is its interpretation of "local rural area". There is a legitimate fear in many rural communities that the office does not understand the nature of local rural settlements. The submission the office would have made to Wexford County Council, for instance, was effectively interpreted as stopping all one-off rural housing because it meant small villages and rural nodes would be impacted if we allowed rural development. The concern is really that the Office of the Planning Regulator may not understand rural settlement patterns. One of the difficulties in many villages is that there are no water and wastewater facilities. This means there is no possibility of building in such a village. Also, the land may not become available where families have land in rural areas. What I am looking for is an assurance from Mr. Cussen that where a family is living in a rural community, the Office of the Planning Regulator is not going to stop them from being able to apply for planning permission in the area.

The second question, concerning the impact of planning on rural communities, is on the inadequacy of water and wastewater infrastructure. How does Mr. Cussen's office work with Irish Water in addressing some of those concerns?

Third, many of these spatial strategies were designed before this pandemic. The pandemic has resulted in a huge shift in working patterns. There will be much greater emphasis on remote working. It points to a possibility that will help to sustain many provincial towns and villages. In light of that and the Government's commitment to remote working, is there not now a need to review all the spatial strategies, especially in terms of how we can support our towns and villages?

Mr. Niall Cussen

There is plenty there. I just want to be careful because we are in mid-flight regarding the Wexford development plan. I do not really want to go into too much depth on the submission we made on it.

Maybe Mr Cussen could comment generally on it.

Mr. Niall Cussen

Absolutely. The Office of the Planning Regulator and its team understand at a very detailed level the challenges that various parts of the country, including rural areas, face. Many of us are from rural Ireland. Quite a number of my staff work remotely from rural Ireland. Therefore, we have an intimate knowledge not only of the urban challenges we face but also of the rural ones.

While guidance from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the topic is forthcoming – I want to respond to Senator Boyhan's question in the background – there are plenty of good examples of development plans that strike a good balance between supporting development that enriches and enables good strong rural communities and carefully managing the environs of cities and towns and preventing the main transport corridors from becoming highly developed to the point where there are concentrations of septic tanks and all sorts of access and infrastructural issues. Such issues have been prevalent in Wexford and many counties close to Dublin that are dealing with an overspill. I am sure the Senator, as a public representative in Wexford, understands the balance to be struck between ensuring development in rural areas is responding to those areas' needs and effectively waving a carte blanche and saying, "Whatever, wherever, off you go." It is very clear that Government policy recognises the balance to be struck in this regard. That balance needs to be struck whether we have a pandemic or whether we are adjusting to its aftermath because there are enduring challenges we will face, particularly concerning the vitality of our cities and larger urban areas and how vibrant they will be. We need to do a little thinking about that.

May I interrupt? Let us say that I came from the village of Camolin or somewhere else in Wexford, one that did not have adequate water or waste water facilities to expand but to which I was socially and economically connected. If I was offered a site just out the road and was able to come up with the willow beds solution, would I be given an assurance that I would be able to continue living in my community, which is the assurance people are seeking? If Irish Water found a solution, it would be a different situation.

Mr. Niall Cussen

To be clear, the OPR is not a policy setter. Our objective is to ensure that the development plan that is passed by Wexford County Council or any other council is broadly compliant with the strategic objectives of the various plans and guidelines nationally, regionally and so on. The very scenario that the Senator outlined is partly envisaged by some of those guidelines, but the key issue he is raising is that of the provision of services in our towns and villages. That is where we should be focusing our efforts. Indeed, it is emphasised in the Minister's guidelines on rural housing that the answer to this issue lies in the provision of serviced sites for self-builds in smaller towns and villages rather than an endless proliferation across the countryside, which would end up with all sorts of unintended consequences.

The Senator asked me about Irish Water and so on. Irish Water does not fall within my remit, but we will consider this issue in the context of our reviews of local authorities and how their legitimate plans, which have been put through the ringer of our assessments in respect of their consistency with national and regional guidelines, are being supported by the various statutory agencies through investment in services. As the Senator knows, this is arising as a major issue in many local authority areas. We will be examining it more closely in due course.

I thank Mr. Cussen and his team for the briefing and the work they are doing to regulate our planning system. I have a question. I am not sure Mr. Cussen can answer it, given his remit, but I will ask it anyway. It relates to the SHD scheme. Has Mr. Cussen concerns about it? It is not meeting its primary role of fast-tracking housing delivery and bypassing statutory development plans in the context of the densities and locations that planning permission is being given by An Bord Pleanála. According to the last report, SHDs were commencing on site at a rate of 29%, which was well short of the 80% envisaged. My office has done some research. The regular planning system for applications of between ten and 100 units has a commencement rate of 56% in south Dublin, 40% in another area, 36% in Westmeath and 32% in Dublin city. In light of these measurements, is the new scheme being proposed by the Department appropriate? Is the current scheme not fit for purpose, given that it is not delivering on its remit?

Mr. Niall Cussen

The Deputy will appreciate that it is not my role to comment on policy and legislation, which are matters for the Oireachtas, including Ministers and so forth. The SHD process was born of a particular context when we were coming out of an economic crash and many planning permissions had passed their expiry dates. It was put in place for a particular purpose. All of this has been well set out in the arguments around the scheme.

I would be happy to look at the Deputy's analysis. If his office is undertaking research, I encourage him to share it with us because we would be curious about it. It is fair to say that the Department, the Minister and his officials have undertaken analysis of the SHD process. There was an independent review, which the Deputy has probably come across. However, I will offer a word of caution, one that is borne out at a practical level, about analysing the commencement rates of small versus large schemes. It would be fair to say that some of the larger schemes involve many more moving parts than smaller ones, particularly in terms of the infrastructural enablements that are needed as well as parallel consents for other aspects, for example, fire safety certificates and so on. The Deputy should bear in mind that they are like apples and oranges. There is a world of difference between commencing a project of ten houses versus one of 1,000 homes.

That is relative. I have worked in this space and people can deliver houses quickly if they want to, as I am sure Mr. Cussen knows.

Mr. Niall Cussen

I do.

Mr. Cussen cannot really answer that question. Under the OPR's remit to monitor the planning system, does it take issue with the schemes that are flying in the face of our development plans? In south Kildare, people are horrified by some of the planning permissions that have been given in villages. Mr. Cussen talked about not wanting one-off housing, but applications to build a block of apartments in a small village with no school or transport infrastructure must ring big red alarm bells in his office when they come before it.

Mr. Niall Cussen

The board cannot consider an application for a strategic housing development on land that is not zoned for residential development. One of the lessons we must learn from the SHD process is that it involves deliberating on planning applications that are being made in respect of lands that have been zoned under previous or current iterations of development plans. By hook or by crook, the scale of the potential developments in various areas was envisaged or had to have been foreseen in the relevant development plan. Does that-----

I am sorry to cut across Mr. Cussen, but I will end on this point. I have heard of a developer applying for planning permission and the authority refusing it because the development was too dense. When he appealed that decision to An Bord Pleanála, it stated that the development was not dense enough. An Bord Pleanála has different density targets.

Mr. Niall Cussen

That emphasises my point. It is critical that, when local councils are making their development plans, they understand the implications of zoning land in a particular location and what the density guidelines, which date back many years, can entail. The board cannot insist on a density that is beyond what is set out in the Minister's guidelines. It works within the framework of the density guidelines. It is important that, when local councils are making decisions, zoning land and so on, they think through the implications of what a development might look like. This has to do with the point made by Senator Moynihan among others about joining the dots. In the planning history of this country, it has too often been about who benefits from the zoning of the land rather than necessarily what the community will be living with if there is development of that scale, in that location or of that pattern as a result.

I wish to make a final point. From my understanding,-----

Mr. Niall Cussen

The board is working within a policy context that is also set by local councils.

Yes, but my understanding of this situation from speaking with planners in Kildare in particular is that, if an application is received, they have certain remits to fulfil when deciding on whether to grant planning permission, for example, school facilities, the option to go to school and public transport. They make their decisions based on those considerations. However, An Bord Pleanála does not see that and is giving permission for large apartments in rural settings. Maybe it was a one-off or a number of one-offs, but I assume that this is arising as something with which the Planning Regulator takes issue.

Mr. Niall Cussen

We keep a long-run view, as it were, of general patterns in developments, planning permissions and so on so as to inform the preparation of the development plan. We have been looking at this issue and will continue to do so in the context of making inputs into the development plan.

I will revert to my basic point.

It is important to consider and reflect on the core strategy of the local authority, the blueprint at a development plan level, particularly in terms of its implications for communities, and to ensure that the core strategy does fit with the strategic plans at national and regional level. Some of the difficulties about which the Deputy is talking about could have been eradicated or addressed if those core strategies were compliant with policy in previous iterations of plans.

I will be quick. The regulator makes a really important point there, perhaps one of the most important made today, on the issue of zoning, the responsibility for which vests with city and county councils. I always say to people coming up in this development planning process to focus on something I would have always focused on and which serves people well, that is, zoning objectives and specific local objectives. One can shape a lot in that regard and there is potential for councillors to use the system imaginatively, have a bit of foresight and exercise a bit of power.

I want to make a comment before I ask a question. We have heard a lot of bellyaching from Oireachtas Members about strategic housing developments, SHDs. It is Government policy and the Government extended it. I have reams of paper clippings here and have seen lists of Deputies and Government Ministers opposing SHDs but despite all the debate, it is Government policy. The Government signed on the dotted line and SHDs are happening, whether in Goatstown, Dalkey, Killiney, Mulhuddart or Meath. I see Deputies and Government Ministers writing out objections and I am tired of the bellyaching. Those Deputies got what they asked for and brought it on themselves. I want to make that point. I do not want to make it too aggressively but I am tired of Deputies telling county councillors it is all terrible. They complain about the Office of Public Works, OPW, and An Bord Pleanála. The legislation is made in these Houses.

The planning regulator's annual report touched on the online planning processes. It stated there may be a requirement to review the existing planning fees that have been in place since 2001, resulting in only €24 million of income in 2018 to planning authorities against a cost of providing all planning services of €140 million. Will Mr. Cussen share his thinking with us? Is there a general consensus among people in this area? I have concerns about an increase but also understand that someone has to pay for it. Mr. Cussen might share his thoughts with us.

Mr. Niall Cussen

I thank the Senator. On his last question, planning fees are set by the Minister. It is ultimately a matter for the Minister to determine planning fees. As the Senator said, they were most recently revised in 2001. From the point of view of the administration of the planning process and how it works in an overall sense, local authority executives are faced with the dilemma of an ever-increasing requirement for resources in the planning process, enforcement, local plan making, pre-application consultation, online services and all manner of technical and environmental assessments that are required in a much more detailed way. Local authorities must be able to resource that while running libraries, keeping street lights on and cleaning streets, all the good stuff that they do and people take no notice of until the services are missing.

There is a case to be made for looking at fees. A planning application for one house may include people going out and doing site inspections, checking the site notices, undertaking the technical assessment of the drawings, all of that sort of stuff. Is it reasonable that the level of income coming back on that public process is a €65 administration charge? Is it right or fair that taxpayers and ratepayers pay for that service that benefits an individual or developer who is carrying out a particular project or projects? It is something we need to look at because there is an unreasonableness about asking more and more of planning authorities and so on. They may be struggling to put their resources together. It is fair to say in terms of staffing sanctions and so on that the Department and the Minister have been supportive of local authorities increasing staffing and so on. Staffing is only one thing because staff also must be paid. Various different functions have to be resourced etc.

The online planning service may also offer efficiencies. There are some new technologies, including remote sensing, artificial intelligence and being able to map development patterns much more efficiently from satellite imagery. Some fantastic work is being done by Ordnance Survey Ireland with great scope for integration into the planning process and online planning services. Covid-19 has taught us the absolute criticality of online services. Although many planning services are available online, I think we need to improve the quality of the offer. Committee members earlier pointed to a couple of gaps that need to be looked at in that regard. Those considerations fundamentally come back to the resourcing piece. I understand the Minister intends to look at the area of planning fees in the context of the roll-out of online planning services. As has been the case in other Administrations, people can be encouraged to engage more with the online service by differentiating planning fees between the online transaction and the paper transaction and so on and so forth. I am sure all of that is being looked at by the Department.

I confirm I am in Leinster House. I will start by thanking Mr. Cussen and his team for the work they are doing. I echo the comments made by my colleague, Senator Seery Kearney, about the planning leaflets. They have gone down well with anyone who has used them and with whom I have engaged. I compliment our guests in that respect.

The development plan process is ongoing across the country at present. Waterford, for example, has targets to grow by 30,000 to 35,000 people over the time period covered by the Project Ireland 2040 national planning framework. It is in that context I will make my comments. It is essential for us to have sufficient zoned land to be able to facilitate development. It is not as much of an issue in Dublin where most of the land is already zoned or can be interchanged to facilitate development. In our regional cities where there is room for further expansion, it is important that we do not place onerous restrictions on local authorities. We must allow them the scope to facilitate development over the lifetime of this plan and beyond. In that context, would Mr. Cussen agree that we should be treating differently the likes of the brownfield sites, about which he spoke earlier? If a local authority is going to take a former industrial zoned parcel of land that no longer has that function and encourage residential development on it, the authority should not be penalised by putting that in with its residential zoning. Such a development could be treated in parallel. Is there scope for that? Is that something to which Mr. Cussen would be amenable?

Mr. Niall Cussen

I might bring in my colleague, Ms O'Connor, to answer some of the specifics on this matter if there is time. I thank the Senator for his comments about the leaflets. We are delighted with that feedback. A theme running through the conversation this morning has been that planning is, ultimately, about choices. One of the choices that has clearly been teed up in the national planing framework is that planning authorities structure their development plans so that it is advantaging urban regeneration. There is a target in the national planning framework to secure 40% of residential delivery in our key urban centres from brownfield development. The question I would put back to the Senator is if we zone all the land for residential delivery, assuming that it can all take place in greenfield locations, when or how will brownfield regeneration ever happen?

The cards are stacked against regeneration if large tracts of land are being zoned and there is a much more straightforward and simpler solution. How will it be possible to regenerate the north quays of Waterford or some of the central urban areas if there is not a measured approach to ensuring greenfield and brownfield endeavours and that they are working in tandem?

This is critically important from the perspective of infrastructure requirements as well. I refer to where we have infrastructure in place, as we do in the case of the north quays in Waterford, in respect of rail access, water services and the ability to walk to the fantastic centre of the city. Yet, we are then going to zone the land for whatever we would like to take place on the north quays and also in the wider greenfield context, while providing the same infrastructure. We are encountering a double cost by increasing infrastructure and not getting regeneration. The development plan, therefore, is the forum to tease out these issues. Much of this activity comes down to phasing and how the development is structured. Ms O'Connor might want to comment.

Ms Anne Marie O'Connor

Mr. Cussen has set the situation out well. When we talk about the concept of density in our submissions, that is related to this aspect. I refer to the number of houses local authorities must provide and how much land they must zone to achieve that aim. If local authorities use too low a density in that calculation, it means they are overestimating the quantum of land needed. This is the classic issue, as raised earlier, of how can we avoid a situation where easier greenfield sites are developed but not the brownfield ones. Sites zoned on the edge of centres are likely to be developed in advance of more central and compact growth. It undermines the whole basis for the plan, namely, to develop a sustainable settlement and transport strategy.

The issue regarding infrastructure is also important. It confuses matters and makes it much more difficult for the infrastructure agencies to decide where they are going to invest. It also makes it more difficult in providing schools. We have a forum where we discuss these issues with the Department of Education and Irish Water, for example, to attempt to tease out these issues when we are considering making submissions on development plans. It is an aspect of which we are aware. We are also aware that there is only a certain amount of money and the focus must be on where such investment should go and on aligning it with the zoning of residential land, for the most part.

I thank the Chair. Do I have 30 seconds?

Senator Cummins has exactly 30 seconds.

That is perfect. Following on from what Mr. Cussen said earlier in response to Senator Malcolm Byrne, it is important that we have a balance in rural development policy. Reference was also made to alignment between the plans of Irish Water and the local authorities. Much of the emphasis and work of our local councils and that of the OPR will be in that area. It seems illogical to me then that Irish Water would not align its plans with local authority plans, rather than the current situation of it being the other way around.

Mr. Niall Cussen

Indeed, but Irish Water is a regulated utility and it works within a funding structure that it must work with. It also has to make choices. Returning to the point made by Ms O'Connor, the main aspect concerns ensuring there is robust engagement between the local authorities and Irish Water, and that engagement is being taken heed of in the context of the core strategies. I suspect, however, that we are not going to be able to conclude our discussion of this issue today. A critical part of the vitality of rural Ireland is unlocking the development conundrum and the resulting potential of some of the smaller towns and villages, particularly in the Senator's part of the world in the south-east. In Tipperary, there are approximately 160 or 170 smaller towns and villages. I cannot recall the exact number. We must, therefore, strike a balance between trying to service them all, or the ones deficient in services or infrastructure, and working within a programme, while at the same time supporting sustainable rural development. It will be a major issue for the future.

I thank Mr. Cussen. It is a subject we could spend a great deal of time discussing.

Mr. Niall Cussen

I think so.

Urban and rural planning and consolidation of towns, instead of a spread, is probably the answer in that regard. The third Fianna Fáil slot is available now. I call Senator Malcolm Byrne to come back in, and he might get a chance to elaborate on that urban-rural question.

It is related. Following on from Senator Cummins and my earlier question, the difficulty is that Mr. Cussen is saying to many people living in rural communities that they may not be able to build in some of our villages until Irish Water gets its act together and provides the requisite water and waste water services. That is the aspect-----

Mr. Niall Cussen

I am sorry to cut across the Senator, but that is a statement of fact. If there are no water services and no sewage treatment services in some of the smaller towns and villages, then how could we authorise developments that would cause water pollution?

Yes, but there are mechanisms, such as willow plants and other ways of treating-----

Mr. Niall Cussen

They have some potential, but I refer to larger housing developments. There is a legacy in Wexford of developer-provided infrastructure. Indeed, in a previous life in the Department I managed the programme dealing with unfinished housing developments.

I opposed many of those developments and I dealt with some of them.

Mr. Niall Cussen

Indeed, the Senator did. I have no doubt about that and he stood for proper planning. However, I have some horrific memories of housing estates built with no sewerage services at all. There were open cesspits in housing developments and that was all justified on the basis that such-and-such a technical solution would do something in that regard. The technical solutions never manifested, however, and residents were left picking up the pieces afterwards, sometimes for years.

I dealt with them, but the challenge we have here is that if there is not an alignment between the OPR and Irish Water, then we are not going to have balanced regional development. Our rural towns and villages will not be able to grow unless there is investment in water infrastructure. As the Chair is aware, we are going to have this debate for quite a while. I want to ask Mr. Cussen two other questions.

Mr. Niall Cussen

We agree on that point. Targeted, planned and programmed investment in smaller towns and villages is crucial for their vitality. I agreed with the Senator 100% on that point.

We are certainly in agreement on that matter. I have one question now on densities and another on the appeals process in respect of An Bord Pleanála. I refer to the view that the OPR is trying to force higher densities on provincial towns. A town such as Gorey, for example, is no different from Newbridge, Navan, or Clonmel. The idea in respect of higher densities is that we must look at building duplexes and apartments, when there is not a market for them in many of those towns. My home town of Gorey has a population of approximately 11,000 people now and it is growing rapidly. If we talk about developer-led endeavours, developers like higher densities because packing in more people will enable them to make more profit.

However, demand in those provincial towns is not for that higher density of development but for three-bed, semi-detached starter homes. From the perspective of getting houses built, it is more difficult for developers expected to build blocks of apartments because there are many more complications, as Mr. Cussen will be aware. It is much harder to provide housing if we focus on that approach.

My final question, because I will not get a chance to come back in, concerns An Bord Pleanála and appeals. Mr. Cussen mentioned some reviews happening in that regard. However, one of the big challenges for housing and infrastructure generally concerns cranks, as I will call them, but Mr. Cussen would not, in the system lodging appeals to An Bord Pleanála against planning and holding up major infrastructure projects. What actions can we take against such objectors? I am not talking about people who have legitimate issues, obviously, but about people who, for whatever reason, object to projects over on the far side of the country and, in turn, delay the planning process.

Mr. Niall Cussen

Those are ultimately matters of policy for the Minister and the Department. I am not going to be drawn on so-called serial objectors and so on. That is for the Oireachtas.

If we have time Ms O'Connor might say something on density. I would not want this to be seen as our response to the Wexford development plan but the Office of the Planning Regulator is not insisting on apartments or duplexes in various rural or small town locations. All we require is a broad consistency with the Minister's own guidelines. They refer to an average density of around 35 dwellings to the hectare, which is about making effective use of building land that is extremely expensive to service. We were just talking about the Irish Water issue a minute ago. Most people listening to this might wonder what 35 dwellings to a hectare looks like. It is like a modern, 1990s of 2000s housing development, which is different from the much lower density estates of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It is wrong to say that it is getting into apartments, duplexes and so on. Our assessment of some of the development plans recently have concluded that local authorities are actually putting quite average or low densities into their development plans so that they can then use it as a basis to zone more land in a more extensive, sprawled approach around towns and villages. When the Minister's guidelines seek an average of 35 dwellings per hectare for that category of towns, we have to point out that a development plan that is founded on the basis of promoting densities of 25 dwellings to the hectare or less is not in broad compliance with the guidelines. That is not to say that one might lower the densities in one particular part of a town or village because of the nature of the character of the area, and increase it in another, that is all envisaged in the Minister's guidelines, we are just pointing that out. We are not in the business of setting policy, we are in the business of ensuring that it is reflected. Ms O'Connor might like to comment on that Wexford-type point.

Ms Anne Marie O'Connor

Mr. Cussens has hit the nail on the head. We are looking to see if the assumptions that underline the plan are sound. Do they comply with national and regional policy? That is all we are doing. We are not trying to introduce or force higher densities that are not in compliance with the national policy, we very much about implementing it and trying to see whether plans are sensible and will lead to plan-led development in a way that is orderly, efficient and makes the best use of infrastructure, both existing and future. Once we see that in a plan, that is the benchmark we are looking for. We are not looking to see 12 storey towers in places like Gorey or anything like it. It just needs to be dialled back a little. Some of the concerns may not be founded in what we have actually said in our submission. A more detailed look at it might be in order. I know it is dry and boring and overly technical in some respects but that is the nature of the beast. That is what we are looking for, that is, that it sets out a good, sustainable settlement strategy for the area that is relevant to the area.

Mr. Niall Cussen

As well as the broad consistency between the regulatory and the policy contexts set for planning authorities by the Oireachtas, the Minister and so on, we also want to ensure that context is applied sensitively and appropriately to the local circumstances. It is not just a question of ticking a box and one is compliant with the requirements. When one actually reads the guidelines on density, it makes the point, that one takes care on how the standards are applied, not in some sort of slavish mathematic way, but that they are properly and sensitively applied to local circumstances. Where we have taken issue, it has been with the one-size-fits-all medium to low density approach and its implications for infrastructure delivery and, indeed, the sense of place that Deputy Cian O'Callaghan mentioned earlier. Guidelines set a broad framework, how they are applied in practice is crucially important. We look at the two.

I thank Mr. Cussens and Ms O'Connor. We could easily go around the table for another two hours of questions on planning. Many of those questions have not yet had a chance of being asked. We would probably look for another session with the regulator in the future, possibly after its annual report is published.

Mr. Niall Cussen

Indeed, we would be more than delighted to be at the service of the committee and answer whatever questions. If the committee wishes to follow up on any individual points we would be happy to do so, any way we can be of help.

I will finish on a density question, it is not about density for density's sake. When one gets density right one can provide services, and that is often public transport. We need to take into account carbon emissions from car-based sprawl that we have had over the last 40 to 60 years, when we just planned for the car. We have to rejig our thinking around that.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.36 p.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 11 May 2021.