An Bord Pleanála: Discussion with Irish Rural Dwellers Association.

I welcome the representatives of the Irish Rural Dwellers Association who are here to discuss their concerns about the composition of the board of An Bord Pleanála. Members may recall that queries about the composition of the board were raised by the committee at its meetings earlier this year. The clerk has circulated some relevant correspondence from the time. The concerns of the Irish Rural Dwellers Association are filed under reference No. 2008/86. I welcome the association's officials. We are joined by Mr. Jim Connolly, acting secretary of the association, and Mr. James Doyle, the association's chairman. I thank Mr. Connolly, Mr. Doyle and their colleague for attending. After the association has made a brief presentation, there will be a question and answer session with the members of the committee.

Before we begin, I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that while members of the committee have absolute privilege, the same privilege does not extend to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite Mr. Doyle to commence the presentation.

Mr. James Doyle

I thank the Chairman for giving me an opportunity to address the joint committee on behalf of the Irish Rural Dwellers Association. Today I want to focus on An Bord Pleanála, its role, its constitution and the appointment of the board's members. The IRDA is very concerned at the method of appointment of board members, to the point that some appointments may be in breach of the rules of appointment laid down in legislation. It is essential that rural Ireland is represented on the board given that one third of the population resides there. Some 80% of objections made against one-off rural housing are upheld by the board and are often made by serial objectors. Planning must be looked at within the general framework of the development of a vibrant community life in rural Ireland.

Social, cultural and economic development are factors of crucial importance as are the rights of individuals under vital headings such as freedom of choice, freedom of movement, rights of property owners, rights to fair and impartial treatment and many more. After 40 years of ever-increasing pressures on rural society by a planning regime determined on a policy of restrictions, rural people are fighting back. There is no fairness, equality, justice, democracy or any accountability in what is being practised in the name of planning. A policy of urbanisation is being forced on our rural culture, with scant respect for historical settlement patterns, stretching back for thousands of years.

Our presentation today could not possibly deal with all of these issues. Instead we will focus on the role of An Bord Pleanála. Furthermore we believe that the Oireachtas should undertake a complete root and branch review of all aspects of An Bord Pleanála for the sake of democracy. I take this opportunity to introduce my colleagues, Mr. Jim Connolly, our acting secretary, Ms Brigid O'Connor, Mr. Jim Talbot, and Mr. Seán Sweeney. I ask Mr. Connolly to make a presentation.

Mr. Jim Connolly

In our application to make this presentation today we specified five points of major concern regarding An Bord Pleanála. The first two deal with aspects of genuine rural representation — or rather the lack of it — on the board. A few points at this stage suffice to set the scene, but the committee may wish to return to rural representation later. First, and uniquely in Europe, one third of the population live in single houses in the countryside. In a just society, therefore, this should be genuinely reflected in the constitution of the board. Second, as recently as 9 May this year, Urban Institute Ireland, based in UCD, which is studying the development of guidelines for managing housing in the countryside, sought the views of various interested parties at a workshop session in Dublin. A planning inspector with An Bord Pleanála is on record as saying there should be no housing in the countryside. This statement has huge implications not alone for any element of fair and impartial treatment for cases being appealed, but is also in direct conflict with Government policy.

Third, one of Ireland's most important industries, farming, has been represented on the board since 2002, by two professional career planners who were employed by the board as senior planning inspectors at the time of their nomination by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Both of these were reappointed for a further five years by the then Minister, Deputy Dick Roche, in 2007. They can be further reappointed in 2012 for a final five-year term under the planning Act — a potential total of 15 years. Over the past eight months the IRDA sought answers from the Minister, Deputy John Gormley, John O'Connor, chairman of An Bord Pleanála and David Begg, CEO of ICTU, regarding the specific nomination and appointment of these two planning inspectors to the board. The questions, which have produced no answers to date, were published by the IRDA in a quarter-page advertisement in the Sunday Independent on 30 September 2007 and subsequently pursued by way of parliamentary questions and representations by Senators and Deputies.

Typical answers received by these Oireachtas Members ignore the actual questions, stating instead that the Minister is "satisfied that the current nomination and appointment processes are fair and transparent." However, protestations of fairness and transparency are not an adequate substitute for answers and in that context we welcome this opportunity to continue our quest for answers in this democratic forum today.

The IRDA wishes to stress that we ask these questions today as ordinary members of the public. Therefore, questions relating to the strict legality of these appointments are based on our reading of the appropriate sections of the Planning Acts as they appear to us. It is our view that in a democracy, where all citizens must obey the laws of the land, it follows that those laws must, in essence, be written in clear unequivocal language capable of being correctly interpreted by the average literate person. Ignorance of the law, we understand, is no excuse for breaking it.

I will now give a brief background to the questions relating to the appointments to the board. Ordinary members must be nominated by prescribed organisations. Currently there are 40 prescribed organisations grouped together in a number of panels representative of all sections of society. Members of the board are not intended to be experts as such. The board has experts to advise it. That statement has appeared many times on letters, copies of which have been received under freedom of information requests. However, six of the current ten-member board have professional qualifications in planning. One panel in 2001 comprised ICTU, the IFA, the ICMSA, the ICA and Muintir na Tíre. Legislation states that one member shall be selected from this panel. Nonetheless, in 2002, two senior planning inspectors were appointed to the board through being nominated by the ICTU at the same time.

Furthermore the Act states that not more than one member shall be appointed from any single organisation within the panel in the circumstances prevailing at that time. On 27 November 2006 the then Minister, Deputy Roche, said:

New board members are selected following an open and comprehensive request for nominations by a range of organisations representing the broad range of social interests. This process helps ensure that the board reflects the broader society that it serves.

These words clearly express the spirit of the law. In these circumstances it is impossible to visualise a situation where two people could justifiably be appointed from any one prescribed organisation, given that there are 40 organisations in total and that the majority may never have had any person appointed at all.

It is deeply disturbing that these two appointments were made in 2002, all the more so given that both appointees were full-time employees of the board at the time. Today, of the eight ordinary members appointed to the board through the panel system — the remainder are appointed directly by the Minister — some 25% come from one prescribed organisation. We can just imagine the outcry which would ensue if two members of, let us say, the IRDA were appointed to the board at the same time.

We have the following questions regarding these two appointments. Were all five organisations in the panel written to for nominations? We would like to see evidence from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. If so, how many submitted names? Once again we would like to see evidence. Given that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is supposedly independent, other than administering the appointments system, and that the board itself supposedly plays no act or part in appointing members and is not aware who has been appointed until informed by letter from the Minister — this is based on a Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government public statement — where did the suggestion to nominate two serving employees of the board, through ICTU, originate? This information is highly relevant and should be made public in the interests of openness, fairness and transparency.

As part of the nomination process, ICTU was required to provide letters from the two planning inspectors giving their consent to their names going forward. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was, therefore, at least aware of the intentions of the inspectors. Our question is whether it is credible in these circumstances to accept that the board or its chairman was not also aware that two of its senior planning inspectors had been nominated by ICTU. The Department stated that a professional qualification in planning, though not essential, was an added advantage for members given the nature of the job. That was stated in a report in the Irish Farmers’ Journal . Is it credible in these circumstances to accept that the nomination of the two planning inspectors, whose CVs and senior positions as employees of the board were fully known to the Department, did not receive favourable treatment over other nominees submitted by rural organisations?

Given that there is widespread unease regarding the total lack of rural representation on the board as well as the fact that the original appointments for five years have been extended to ten years, the IRDA contends that nothing short of an inquiry in depth, probably under oath, will reveal the full details surrounding the appointments discussed here. Considering that there is also widespread concern, under many headings, regarding the full appointment of any serving employees on to the board other than as an interim measure in certain specific circumstances, the results of such an inquiry would reveal whether the appointments system is truly ethically and legally above board and not susceptible to manipulation by any party.

The IRDA has stated publicly that the board could be entirely composed of its own employees in the future, and that would be in the medium term, given the precedent established in the case of the two planning inspectors. Mr. John O'Connor, chairman of the board, at a meeting with the IRDA dismissed this assertion, saying that the panel system would prevent this happening. However, the legal situation is that, if requested, a prescribed organisation can nominate any person it chooses, and that person is not required to be a member of the organisation in question. This legal fact affords no protection to the composition of the board from manipulation if parties are willing to so act. The re-appointment of the two inspectors for a further five years in 2007 means that farming interests continue to be represented on the board by two professional career planners. That information is contained in a written answer to a question in the Dáil. The IRDA considers this a cynical facade and an insult to democracy. It copper-fastens distrust in the board.

The further papers included with this presentation relate to what I have spoken about and include a copy of the relevant sections of the Planning and Development Act 2000.

I thank the IRDA for its presentation, which provides food for thought. I have always had the suspicion that something was happening that was not above board. That hits home when the facts are pointed out simply and in such detail. I am seriously concerned by the points raised. As a committee we need to examine them in detail and bring them before the relevant people. I have always believed that rural people have not been properly represented on the board of An Bord Pleanála. I have seen at first hand cases of inspectors giving reasons for granting planning permission in different parts of the country, probably overturning a local authority's plans. Even in those cases, when one looked at the bigger picture, when their report was made and the issue returned to An Bord Pleanála, their decisions were ignored.

This committee has a responsibility to take this a step further. I will propose later that we should bring this to the Minister or whomever An Bord Pleanála is responsible to. Another question I would ask is to whom is the board responsible? We had a presentation from An Bord Pleanála some time ago and I was not happy with the answers we received. Now that the IRDA has highlighted the problems in detail, the time is opportune to take this further.

It may be a matter for discussion on another occasion, but I have serious concerns with regard to bodies. Apart from the planning authority there is only one other representative body, and that is An Taisce, in regard to which I have serious reservations. Some other body should represent ordinary people who are trying to keep a bit of life in the countryside. That is what this is about. We see what is happening to rural Ireland, to our pubs, our post offices, our shops. How can there be life in the country if people are not allowed live there? What will keep it going? It will not be the birds, the rabbits, the foxes. We need people living in the country. A complete change in the mind set of the powers that be is necessary to turn matters around before it is too late. As TDs and Senators, as rural representatives, we must stand together and work with whomever is out there to work with us to turn this around. In my part of the country there are little villages that were gems in my eyes. They were absolutely beautiful places to live. They were supported by people coming in from the hinterland around them. They are dying and nobody seems to be concerned about it.

I commend the IRDA. Its work does not get sufficient recognition. As far as I am concerned, I am with the association because I see exactly where it is coming from. Given the job, I would not change one word of its presentation. We must work together and I hope we will get the support of all rural representatives, whether they are TDs, Senators or councillors. I again thank the association for its presentation.

I welcome the IRDA. It is an organisation I much admire because, while I live in a town, I was born and bred in the country and am extremely proud of my rural roots. There are several matters in the report that are worth referring to. If I touch on them it is to underline them rather than dispute them because they are absolutely true. The first, to which Mr. Doyle referred, is the issue of serial objectors. I know something about serial objectors. In one case in County Westmeath a young man applied for planning permission on his own land and the objector came from some 45 miles away and had not a bull's notion as to what the whole area was about. Westmeath County Council granted permission but its decision was subsequently overturned following an appeal by one of those serial objectors.

Much is made of rural development. Rural development is driven by people. It is not driven by jackdaws, crows, hares or rabbits. If we are to have rural development we must have a rural population sustained by a pragmatic rural development policy. At present, decisions of An Bord Pleanála fly contrary to that concept. Mr. Doyle states that, "a policy of urbanisation is being forced on our rural culture". That is an absolute fact. Later in his presentation Mr. Doyle gave the percentage of refusal of planning permission. This is a worrying factor.

Mr. Connolly made the important point that our rural settlement pattern is unique in Europe. Planning policy, which is being forced by the actions and decisions of An Bord Pleanála, is causing a flight from the land. The support for the land in Ireland has been clearly demonstrated. During the foot and mouth disease epidemic every man, woman and child in every town and village played their part, clearly demonstrating the feeling of the people, urban and rural, for the land.

It is not true to say we should all live in towns. I dispute that. A planning inspector from An Bord Pleanála has said there should be no housing in the countryside. That demonstrates a negative mind set. What planet did that individual come from? He is certainly not living in the real world. If that is his attitude he is not fit for the position he holds. If the sons and daughters of farming families wish to work the land and work in their own areas they must get planning permission to give a service in their chosen occupations. In many cases such people provide a service on the land itself. I gave an example of this in my opening remarks.

I agree with Deputy O'Sullivan's observations about the composition of the board. It needs to be examined. I would be surprised if other members of the joint committee do not feel as I do. I will not paraphrase what the witnesses have said. Their presentation makes the case very clearly. Legislation and regulations exist for the appointment of board members. These should broadly reflect the prescribed organisations. Apparently, they do not and the regulations must be revisited.

I would like to hear a response to my remarks. I compliment the Irish Rural Dwellers Association on its report. It is factual. This needs to be stated because the present situation is annoying, to say the least.

I wish to be associated with the welcome to the Irish Rural Dwellers Association and I thank them for raising this issue. It appears to me that we should have a more representative board. However, I question the effect that would have. The board, regardless of its membership, must take account of Government policy. For example, an incinerator has been foisted on my area even though an inspector of An Bord Pleanála found against it. Because incineration is Government policy, An Bord Pleanála overturned the recommendation of its own inspector and gave permission for the incinerator. I am not convinced that membership of the board will change matters significantly.

We are all familiar with situations where rural schools are suffering declining numbers because young families cannot get permission to build homes in the countryside. I was struck by a figure given to us by Mr. John O'Connor, chairman of An Bord Pleanála. He reckons that as many as 170,000 houses have been built in the countryside in the past decade. That is equivalent to approximately 500,000 people moving to the countryside. If there are that many planning approvals, it is imperative that we get the balance right. Some areas are suffering from rural depopulation and communities are declining as a result. We must arrest that decline and support those communities. Other areas are under significant pressure of urbanisation, particularly in the commuter belt close to Dublin. We must be careful regarding the policies applied in those areas. A very fine balance must be achieved.

We should return to An Bord Pleanála and ask it to defend its choice of board members. The representatives of the Irish Rural Dwellers Association have made their case very well.

I thank the IRDA for its presentation. I fully agree that more transparency is required from An Bord Pleanála. I am aware of many cases where an inspector has visited a rural site and made a recommendation, only to have the recommendation overturned by the members of the board, who might never even have visited the townland or village concerned. That should not happen. If an inspector is qualified to do a job his or her report should be accepted.

The area I represent includes north Leitrim, which is a very beautiful part of Ireland. The planners in Sligo are quite reasonable and we can negotiate quite well with them. North Leitrim, however, is very difficult. While it is very beautiful, people cannot live on scenery alone. A local councillor, Councillor Tony Ferguson, recently told me of 20 townlands in his immediate area where no one is living, simply because it is impossible to get planning permission to build houses. These townlands have been robbed of people because planning permission is impossible.

This morning, I spoke to a lady who applied for planning permission some months ago. The county council made recommendations regarding the site, these were accepted and the application resubmitted. However, An Taisce is now objecting to her application. The matter will probably go to An Bord Pleanála, in which case it will almost certainly be refused. In north Leitrim, a group called CLEAN objected to a development in Drumkerrin, involving an investment of €1.5 million, which was approved by Leitrim County Council. While north Leitrim is very beautiful, it has been very badly affected by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, two or three miles across the border. Any development in an area such as that should be fully supported. This group, which is certainly not made up of Leitrim people, objected to the development and the project has been abandoned.

An Bord Pleanála should be regionalised. A regional body might be more likely to understand different areas and how local people feel and want to live. I agree that An Bord Pleanála needs a shake up and must have rural representation on its board, which it does not have at this time. People in rural areas could put their names on the housing list and allow the local authority to supply a house. However, as industrious people they want to build on their own land, if they can. We should encourage and help them to provide homes for themselves rather than trying to block them.

I fully support what has been said by others.

I welcome the delegation from the Irish Rural Dwellers Association and thank them for their report. I was very pleased to meet them some months ago. They are pushing an open door. For many years I have spoken on the role of An Bord Pleanála and the decisions it makes. When I was a councillor I had to confront the issue of how it works and the transparency of the process. Sometimes I was not happy with its decisions.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss the report with them. One third of the entire population live in one-off houses. That point needs to be reinforced, yet we do not have a single rural representative on the board of An Bord Pleanála. The board comprises ten members, of which six are professionals. I question why one third of the population has no representation on the board, as there is none with a farming or fishing background or community workers. That must be addressed.

I worry when a professional planner makes a statement that there should be no houses in the countryside. How dare he make a statement like that? We live in a democracy. I am here to fight for the rural community. I want to see activity in rural areas. I have been on the Seanad trail for many years and I have seen the improvement in the countryside. There was a time when there was no activity in rural areas but that is not what I want for Ireland. I want a balanced community where people are free to live in the country where the sons and daughters of farmers and community workers should be allowed, if they so wish, to live in their own environment.

I question why there is no rural representative on the board of An Bord Pleanála. Why do we need planners? The local community is well able to reach a decision on what is right and wrong in any given area. Everybody can behave responsibly when on a board and take on the views of the people. In the Seanad this morning I requested that this subject be revisited along with the section dealing with it in the planning legislation. I am not at all happy as to how An Bord Pleanála relates to the local authority and how it reaches decisions. Very often one finds that a planning official will give a favourable decision and then that decision is overruled by a majority of the members of the board. I do not understand how An Bord Pleanála operates. If I was a planner and was sent to investigate, would I be happy if my decision was overruled? It should be everybody's responsibility on the board to take a decision on the applications before them.

I am not a member of this joint committee, but I made it my business to attend this meeting to speak in support of the case made by the Irish Rural Dwellers Association. We need answers. I hope members of the joint committee will pursue the issue further.

I will be brief, because what I would say has been said. I welcome the Irish Rural Dwellers Association. I fully support the points made by Mr. Connolly especially the points raised in the final two paragraphs of his statement.

I represent a constituency with both a rural and urban profile and I see what is happening in both rural and urban areas. Public representatives should pay more attention to county and local area plans. As well as taking account of the planning Acts, An Bord Pleanála takes account of the county development plan and the local area plan. Nevertheless, I support the points made by the delegation on the board having experts to advise it. The board of An Bord Pleanála does not need professional planners on it as it has professionals available to advise it. It is regrettable that the farming organisations which represent a significant body of farmers do not have a farmer or a person in that category on the board of An Bord Pleanála. If one is making a decision for a rural community who best to adjudicate on it than a person with that background knowledge of rural communities?

I would not espouse dotting one-off houses all over the countryside but the sons and daughters of people who have spent all their lives in a rural community should have the facility to continue to live in the area. There is an anomaly in that people who are living in some of the settlements nowadays are being refused permission to live in the rural communities. Most of the settlements were rural until five, six or seven years ago, when under the development plan they were classified as settlements. People who have lived for ten or 12 years in the settlements should be allowed to build a house in a rural community where it is appropriate to do so.

In the case of the two members of An Bord Pleanála who were referred to in the presentation, I do not know what research has been carried out into who they are, and whether they have a rural background, but I honestly believe that An Bord Pleanála has sufficient people to advise it and does not need to have all those professional people sitting on the board.

Do Mr. Connolly or Mr. Doyle wish to make an observation? There is general support for your presentation.

Mr. James Doyle

I will hand over to Mr. Connolly.

Mr. Jim Connolly

A Senator raised the composition of the board of An Bord Pleanála and he was not sure if a change in personnel would make a difference. There is possibly a lack of understanding rather than a misunderstanding of how and why An Bord Pleanála was set up the way it was, to be representative of the whole of society. I am quoting from all the documentation I have read, therefore I am not inventing any of this and anybody is free to challenge the points I make.

The reason the board of An Bord Pleanála was set up was "to represent all sectors of Irish society" and "it is not intended to be a board of experts as such". Those are the words of the people who established the board and they also assured us "It has experts to advise it". If a case has gone through the planning system, that means it has been considered by planners at local authority level. If it is appealed to An Bord Pleanála, for whatever reason, it is again considered by planners employed by the board. I refer to a balanced group of senior people nominated by the IFA and others who hold them in the highest esteem. They can take a balanced view, on behalf of the country. We are talking about the common good. The group sifts through what the planners have said. There should be no further involvement of planners. That was the concept.

I would compare the proposal to being considered by a jury of one's peers. Juries are made up of ordinary people. It is illegal to have a solicitor on a jury, or to attempt to have one on a jury. A jury makes its decision after the whole case has gone through the legal system. Barristers and solicitors may have argued the case for several weeks or months. A balanced jury of people who are not legal professionals is then required to come up with a balanced judgment. Under the international democratic system, a group of 12 people can consign a person to jail for life or set him or her free. That is democracy at work. It may not be perfect but it is as good as we can get. If juries were packed with solicitors, one would not have a jury system that works. I honestly believe the system to which I refer was the sincere desire of the people who established An Bord Pleanála. It appears the board is an extension of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government which gets whatever it wants. We have said we believe the Department is inextricably linked to An Bord Pleanála and the appointments system. We can give several instances of this.

It seems there is a question mark over a legal point. I refer the committee to section 106(3)(a) of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as passed by the Oireachtas, which states ”where not more than 5 additional members are appointed, not more than one shall be appointed from among persons selected by organisations which are prescribed for the purposes of a particular paragraph of subsection (1)”. These laws — they are not just regulations — govern ordinary appointments. When those to whom I refer were employed, not more than two people were appointed. It was not a question of “not more than 5”. Section 106(3)(b) states “where more than 5 but not more than 10 additional members are appointed, not more than 2 shall be appointed...”. That is the question we are asking all the time. Will somebody tell us, backed up by an Oireachtas designation, or whatever, whether what was done was legal? That is our question which has been totally and utterly avoided. We cannot get an answer. The association was invited to meet An Bord Pleanála after it had published its proposal. When we met its representatives, we put that question to Mr. John O’Connor and were told that we were in the wrong office, that the officials we had met were not involved in appointments and that we should be talking to the Minister. The question I have mentioned, the key to determining whether the appointments are legal, has not been answered to date. There may be an answer, but we cannot see it and have not been given it.

Senator Hannigan has asked whether the change we seek would make a difference. We believe it would make a total difference if the people whom it was originally intended to appoint to the board were to be placed in such positions. They are described in the legislation as people who can take a balanced view of all issues. Democracy is not perfect, but it is the best system we have. If it is taken over by a specific and narrow group of professionally trained persons — planners, in this case — we will have planners looking at planners looking at planners all the way along the line. Such a system would not be in line with what was originally intended, regardless of how one views the role of planners. That is why we have suggested this matter be dealt with by means of a root and branch review of An Bord Pleanála which was established 30 years ago when Ireland was different. Everything has changed since. I do not know why Irish society, in all its complexity, has handed responsibility for major decisions on everything from single houses to gas pipelines and motorways to a group of ten people who are not accountable to anybody. Our approach needs to be seriously reviewed.

I apologise to the Chairman and the representatives of the Irish Rural Dwellers Association for my late arrival. I was at another meeting but was keen to attend this one.

I am familiar with the work of the association. I commend it on the work it does on behalf of rural dwellers. I come from County Waterford which is predominantly rural, although there are some urban areas such as Waterford city. I was a county councillor for eight years before I was elected to the Seanad. As a result of my experience in dealing with planners, I sympathise with what Mr. Connolly and Mr. Doyle have said. I am sure many public representatives would make similar points. Local authority members are acting as a balance to the conditioning of planners who have been trained to work in the context of an English and urban approach to planning. If it were not for a range of interventions, rural dwelling would have taken a huge hit. The question of local authorities is separate.

Members of the Seanad are elected as representatives of the various sectors in Irish society. The idea underpinning the system of administrative, agricultural, industrial and commercial and educational panels is that people from all sectors of our democracy need to be represented in the Upper House. I agree with the valid argument that similar structures should be in place to oversee the appointment of people to a board which is adjudicating on the planning affairs of the citizens of this country. It needs to be a proper democratic institution, with balanced representation across the board. Therefore, I am sympathetic to the argument being advanced by the Irish Rural Dwellers Association. I commend its members, many of whom are volunteers whose work comes from their passion for rural Ireland.

When the Seanad debated this matter last week, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs told us that he was in favour of development in rural areas. He more or less admitted that his views were in conflict with the policies of planners. There is a job to be done. As a member of this committee, I look forward to raising the matter at this forum to see if anything can be done to ensure more balanced outcomes when inspectors are appointed to An Bord Pleanála. I accept that planners have views. It does not matter where the inspectors are from. The knowledge of the people of rural Ireland which is based on the experience of generations should be brought to bear on any decisions taken at a high level in our democracy. I am sympathetic to the views of the Irish Rural Dwellers Association. The committee should examine how appointments are made to An Bord Pleanála.

Mr. James Talbot

I am heartened by the response we have received from our public representatives. I appreciate their comments greatly. It is a pity Senator Hannigan has left because I would like to respond to a couple of points he made about the composition of An Bord Pleanála. We are concerned about whether its decisions are legal. If they are, we have to accept them. If it transpires that the board has been legally composed, I am not sure its composition reflects the wishes of the Oireachtas when it was putting the relevant legislation in place. The members of the board are supposed to have diverse views. I am not sure, however, that it was intended that six of the board's ten members would be career planners. As Senator Coffey has said, they are urban planners with British qualifications. Their concepts are totally alien to the culture of this country.

Ms Brigid O’Connor

I thank the members of the committee who supported us so strongly. I come from a rural community in the Dingle Peninsula made up mainly of small farmers. At the moment we depend on trying to keep our young people in our area. As Mr. Connolly and Mr. Doyle explained, people are being asked to move into the town and away from the land, which is decimating our countryside. There are older people who do not have neighbours and there are schools in which only a few young children started this year. In general it is a scourge on the community at the moment. We thank the committee for its support and for having us here today.

Mr. Seán Sweeney

I compliment the members who spoke. They have said everything we have been trying to say for the past four or five years. I am somewhat disappointed that I only counted six members present from a membership of 15. The others did not think it worth their while to come in and hear what we had to say. I am very heartened by the people who spoke and by their support for us. What we are trying to do is give rural Ireland a life. I hope that something will come out of it. I look forward to something happening as a result of this meeting.

Mr. James Doyle

We made An Bord Pleanála the central plank of our argument today. The composition of it is vital if we are to represent the broad spectrum of Irish activity fairly. At the moment that is not being done. I believe Mr. Higgins said that one person would make a big difference. Every person makes a difference. I am sure from time to time the board members sit around a table and have meetings. If a voice on behalf of the rural community was present, it would have to be heard. It would also reflect the interpretation of how the board operates. The board has a very severe interpretation of one-off housing, especially in the countryside, which is to the total exclusion of rural dwellers. The point was very clearly made by that lady who sits on the board. She stated at a meeting that no houses should be built in the countryside. That is an interpretation that is not in line with Government policy and as such must be challenged and changed.

Mr. Jim Connolly

The context of the numbers of houses built in rural Ireland sometimes goes completely astray. Statistics are very dangerous things, as we know. Statistics on the number of houses built have been challenged by our colleague, Dr. Séamus Caulfield, who was supposed to attend today but could not do so for personal reasons. The numbers of houses built in rural areas are misinterpreted all the time. Many of these houses are in groups of four or five and are close to villages but they are still counted as one by the ESB, which supplied the figures. There is a history to that which has now changed. The CSO is now providing correct statistics.

I put this in the general context of our history as Irish people. In the past 15 or 20 years for the first time in the history of Ireland ordinary people have got the opportunity to build new top-quality houses for their families and people. The standard of housing that existed and still exists throughout rural Ireland is small, cold, damp and substandard in every way. Therefore, people are entitled to modern housing. They are new people who can get their mortgages. Their hearts are broken because they are being refused. We have had a long history of deprivation and poverty. From driving around Ireland some people say they are shocked at houses painted in white, blue, green and so on. They should have driven around the country 30 years ago when there was nothing but dereliction and houses falling down. I echo Senator Ormonde's words. What a wonderful thing it is and it lifts my heart to see development in rural areas and to think people are being properly housed at long last in spite of the begrudgers. Our hearts go out to our young people who cannot build.

Mr. Connolly touched on the point I wanted to make. The figures that are produced are distorted. Many villages are included in those figures because there are development boundaries around many of them. They are settlements that do not come into them. All those are being counted as one-off houses, which they are not. A one-off house is a house built in a farm out in the country. Those figures are distorted and need to be rechecked.

Perhaps the committee might invite the Minister to come here to discuss what we have discussed today. That would allow us to highlight the points made regarding the make-up of the board. Perhaps the Minister could explain the legal issues or whatever needs to be explained. An explanation is required as to why the rural population is not represented on the board, as has been highlighted clearly to us. We need to get the Minister's view as to who is representing rural people. Is it in order to invite the Minister to appear before the committee?

Yes, absolutely.

We should invite the rural dwellers back at a later date to bring them up to speed on what the committee is doing.

At this stage, I will conclude the meeting because we have general consensus. Some of the members were speaking in the Dáil Chamber and, as we saw, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, was in the Chamber. Some of the Fine Gael and Labour Party members in particular were caught in the Chamber discussing other issues with the Minister. From that point of view they had good reason for not being here and had sent their apologies. However, we will ensure they get the transcript of the meeting.

I thank everybody for their time. The meeting was very informative and there was a general consensus on the issues. We will make copies of the transcript available to An Bord Pleanála and to the Department. When the Minister next appears before the committee we will have a follow-on from today's meeting as a topic for discussion. While we do not have a date for such a meeting, we will ensure that we specifically raise the points made today with the Minister when he appears before the committee between now and the summer.

Mr. James Doyle

I thank the Chairman for having us here today. It is very much appreciated. I also thank the Deputies and Senators for their support. It is very enlightening and heartening for us as a voluntary group of people. We are not paid and have no funds. We are working off our own bat and we are here today at our own expense. The country badly needs people who are prepared to put their shoulder to the wheel on behalf of their community when there is something glaringly and blatantly wrong being foisted on them and especially young people.

I was reared many years ago on a farm. At that time in the 1960s, if a house was being built everybody in the parish knew about it because they were wondering if the person building it got a legacy from America or if an aunt in England or America had died. That was the only reason for a house to be built. It is an awful state of affairs that now that we have a Government, a good economy and people with money who can afford to build a house, they are being refused that opportunity. This cries out for change and something needs to be done about it. I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for their time.

That concludes the meeting.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.10 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 4 June 2008.