Business of Joint Committee.

We now have a quorum and I call the meeting to order. Apologies have been received from Senators Cannon and Coffey. I remind members to turn off their mobile phones as if they are merely left on silent mode they will interfere with the sound recording system.

The minutes are the first item on the agenda. The proceedings of the meeting of 23 July 2008 have been circulated. Are they agreed? Agreed. Do any matters arise that are not on the agenda?

I wish to raise an issue in correspondence relating to the minutes.

If it is in correspondence we will deal with it under correspondence.

It is No. 212.

That is definitely coming up. The next item on the agenda is correspondence. We have circulated a list and I will go through it. It should not take too long.

Document No. 204 from the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland is its annual report, which is noted. No. 205 is from HomeBond regarding waste water treatment systems. I suggest we note the correspondence but if anybody wants to refer to the HomeBond correspondence in today's discussion with the Irish Agrément Board because we are dealing with waste water treatment systems, please feel free to do so. In essence, HomeBond does not cover septic tanks and sewage treatment systems as part of house construction.

No. 206 is from the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. We note the correspondence. No. 207 from the EPA and Housing Finance Agency concerns their annual reports. They are noted.

On the Housing Finance Agency and in light of the difficulties of those on medium and low incomes in accessing credit, could we invite the Housing Finance Agency to come before the committee to explain how it can be more flexible in its arrangements with the local authorities to make funds available?

Then can we agree a meeting on that general topic with the Housing Finance Agency to discuss affordable housing and Part V? There are many houses out there under Part V agreements entered into with local authorities.

We can also ask the Housing Finance Agency about the 0.5% increase and the interest charges it is proposing for shared ownership loan applicants.

The principal reason is access to funds.

Can we agree to have a meeting on that topic in the near future as it relates to young people trying to get into the housing market for the first time and any role the Housing Finance Agency can play through local authorities? Agreed.

No. 208 from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government concerns statutory instruments on building regulations and the energy performance of buildings. The correspondence is noted. No. 209 relates to environmental newsletters. The correspondence is noted. No. 210 on the topic of public health concerns re former steelworks site at Haulbowline, County Cork, is the reply to a letter sent from this committee at the request of Deputy Stanton some time ago.

What is the position on that issue?

Perhaps somebody from Cork wishes to comment. Is Deputy Lynch satisfied with the response or will he seek an update down the road?

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak on the Haulbowline issue. As I understand it, the Department has commissioned White Young Green to carry out a report on the matter. That report is due to be finalised sometime in September. We would all wish to see publication of the report as soon as possible but the substantive issue is the content. The report will come before the House in the next couple of weeks and every member of the committee, irrespective of whether they come from the Cork area, will be interested in its findings.

We note the correspondence and await further developments on that matter. No. 211, re Mayo county development plan, is a letter requesting meeting to discuss planning directives. I think most Members of the Oireachtas have received that letter.

Councillors McGuinness and McDonnell have been in contact with every one of us. I think we should give them an opportunity to make a case at this forum and let us see whether they are in conflict with national or regional guidelines from the point of view of Mayo County Council. We have nothing to lose by listening to their views because this could be repeated in many other local authority areas during the process of adopting the development plan throughout the country. It could be an interesting discussion in the context of the role of local authority members and the role of the Minister in adopting the plan and the national and regional guidelines that must be adhered to.

Mayo County Council has spent hours and hours on its county development plan and has been reasonable in its approach to the amendments to the original draft plan. I would support inviting members of the council to meet the committee and make their case, particularly with regard to rural housing, the main aspect on which they differ from the Minister. Where all conditions are satisfactory, they make a reasonable case, not only for County Mayo. It can be applied to every local authority throughout the country.

I support the proposal that they address the joint committee. Local government is extremely important and if anything is done to diminish its powers, good cause and reason should be shown for it.

When I was first elected to a local authority in 1985, I was told the most important meetings to attend were the budget meetings and meetings on the adoption of the county development plan. During the years local authorities have had to deal with a number of plans such as regional plans, the national development plan, area plans and so forth. It is important that we invite the councillors from County Mayo to discuss their concerns. A number of councillors in other parts of the country have similar concerns about planning officers and other personnel in local authorities. There is a great deal of confusion.

We will hear the views of the councillors and the Department will then have to make a decision on the issue, which is most important for elected local representatives. Ultimately, the elected representatives are the people's choice and it is important that their views are heard. They are not unreasonable. They must go before the electorate every five years to secure a fresh mandate. I wish elected local representatives were listened to more often because they have a commonsense approach to the development of their counties.

We all received letters from these two councillors and I have no problem with inviting them to appear before the committee. The problem for the committee is whether we will have to invite councillors from every other council afterwards, rather than inviting a representative body such as LAMA. It could be Meath County Council next week, followed by Donegal County Council or Cork County Council. I am simply advising that we be careful.

I support inviting the councillors; I do not care if we have to invite councillors from every county. There are serious issues relating to planning and this is the forum in which they must be discussed. New planning guidelines are constantly being introduced and while we are still involved to a certain degree, it is councillors who are taking stick from those who are experiencing difficulties with planning. As this is the place to discuss the issue, I support the proposal.

I support the proposal to invite the councillors from County Mayo. After all, they are the first councillors to seek such a meeting and I am not worried about the consequences down the line from that point of view. Perhaps we will learn enough from the County Mayo councillors to enable us to deal with the queries from other councillors also. This will set a precedent in the matter.

Everybody supports local government; it is interesting to hear the Government members being so supportive of it. One of my big regrets is that the abolition of the dual mandate stopped liaison between the Oireachtas and local councillors. It was beneficial to have Members of the Oireachtas on councils when development plans were being drawn up and it was equally important that Oireachtas Members would have council experience when dealing with planning and environment legislation. Only now are we seeing the error that was made in abolishing the dual mandate. We opposed it at the time. If Members of the Oireachtas were on councils, we would not encounter these serious problems because the information a Member of the Oireachtas could bring to the council from the Oireachtas and from the council to the Oireachtas when dealing with matters relevant to the local authorities would be invaluable. That does not happen now and it is regrettable.

I acknowledge the concerns of Deputy Johnny Brady. He is right in that we do not want to invite in every local authority. That is not the intention. However, I expect we will learn the core issues, which will affect every country from Mayo County Council. I hope we will not need to invite in any other local authority. There is an opportunity for us to see from where the Department is coming and why the local authority finds it difficult.

I read the letter from the councillors and I understand the point. They said the Minister's directive raises some fundamental questions. We do not have a copy of the directive. Before I hear from anyone, I want to write to the Department asking for copies of the development plan, the directive from the Minister and asking what changes he made, although it will not give us the reason. None of us know the details of what we are talking about. I would like to get the facts on what was done. We could talk about rural housing for a week but achieve nothing.

The first county to which this happened a year or two ago was County Laois. The Minister made major changes to its county development plan. He was 100% right and the local zoning was 100% wrong. It is possible the Minister was right and the councillors were taking a local, popular line. The councillors might or might not have been right. We need the facts on what was done before we talk about it.

Where does that leave the proposal made by Deputy Phil Hogan and seconded by——

We will invite in the group but we will write to the Department first to get a copy of the directive about which we are talking.

It is in the Oireachtas Library.

Then the clerk will be able to circulate it to the committee members. I have not seen the directive.

I am anxious to hear from Mayo County Council because if one or two local authorities have stepped beyond the line that does not mean the other local authorities should be punished. It is a question of whether one cuts down the orchard or sprays the disease. We should hear from the people concerned. I do not believe it has implications down the line, nor should it have. I can identify with what Deputy Johnny Brady said but we should hear from those concerned. It might be pushing the boat out a bit far in terms of local authority members' powers. I would be concerned about that.

We will agree to invite a delegation of councillors but I want a copy of the directive circulated to committee members and the changes made to the plan so we can see what was done. Are we talking about asking the local authority members and not officials or planning officers? In fairness to council officials, it would put them in an invidious position to oppose the senior officials in the Department.

The officials did not adopt the plan.

It was the councillors. We will write to them and arrange a suitable date. In the meantime, the committee secretariat will circulate the details of this directive, which is causing the problem.

Will the Chairman clarify how many councillors we will invite?

Four. The letter came from a Fine Gael councillor and a Fianna Fáil one. Let them sort out the make up of the delegation. We will not fight over whether it is three or five councillors but we will suggest four.

If the councillors have an adviser, will he or she be allowed to address the committee?

If he or she does not speak in the council chamber, he or she should not speak here.

That is fair enough.

That is my instinct. Advisers can advise councillors but they do not speak in the council chamber.

I have no doubt those councillors will be well able to look after themselves.

I think they will be.

The next item is No. 212 regarding a payment dispute between Kildare County Council and contractors. It is a letter from the Local Government Management Services Board stating that it has no role in the matter. Deputy James Bannon and Deputy Michael Fitzpatrick might have a comment to make on this.

We must take this a step further. We have been told the Local Government Management Services Board has no role in the matter. The last paragraph of the correspondence of 15 August concerns me. Deputy Michael Fitzpatrick has raised this issue on several occasions. We need to bring in the Accounting Officer from the Department to account for and make a statement on this issue.

The committee was informed on the previous occasion, 23 July last, that no limit exists on the funding a local authority can spend on arbitration. I want to know, once and for all, whether such a limit exists. Local authorities throughout the country are starved of cash for various projects such as sewerage, water and local improvement schemes, county road grants and housing. This year there is a shortfall in the housing allocations to several local authorities. Sewerage schemes have been delayed, especially in the smaller towns and villages.

I want to know who sanctions the money spent by councils on arbitration because it is an issue that is never discussed by councillors. This is an issue that should concern us as public representatives. It is one that concerns many councillors who have raised it with me from time to time. I want to know which Department sanctions this money because there seems to be a bottomless pit of funding available for arbitration cases. We sought the information at the previous meeting and were told that in the case of housing, conciliation talks are taking place with 16 local authorities, and that is not the end of the problem.

There should be some criteria to gain access to this funding for arbitration. Is the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, with which we are dealing today, given advance notice of any money required by a county council for arbitration? We should know also who carries out the risk assessment in all cases. We should know as well the basis on which, and the period during which, money is paid to a local authority when it takes a case to arbitration. We all are very much aware of the shortfall in funding to local authorities.

It is a matter that needs to be addressed. I propose we invite the Accounting Officer of the Department to our next meeting and have a special meeting to deal with this issue. It is a problem, not only in Kildare but in 16 or 17 other local authorities, and it needs to be addressed. When cutbacks are occurring across the board, services should not suffer at the expense of funding being squandered on arbitration and conciliation.

I raised this matter originally. At that time I was speaking about a specific company which was involved with Kildare County Council. I want to leave the name of the company out of it altogether.

It is wrong that where small companies have been contracted to do work for local authorities and a dispute arises, the councils appear to have an endless supply of money to go through all the procedures and employ all the professional people, be they barristers, solicitors or the Revenue Commissioners. They will do everything possible to beat the small developer or contractor.

In the case to which I referred, I was interested in protecting jobs and not losing them. The actions of my local authority, Kildare County Council, in approaching this issue were high-handed. I am not saying the company concerned was right or wrong in its claim to the council, but the way in which the council handled public funds was wrong. At minuscule hearings the council had a range of professional advisers, some of whom were brought in from outside the county, while the other party arrived on its own with no one to assist it.

Deputy Bannon is correct. We need to find out the exact source of this money and who authorises and pays it. If it comes from central government, the committee should recommend that channel of funding be cut off from local authorities. They should do as any other organisation or person does; fight cases with their own funds, not those of central government.

This was mentioned at our previous meeting and there may be other correspondence on the matter. We agreed we would bring in the Accounting Officer, the Secretary General of the Department. I doubt any local authority would do this without clearance from the Department at all stages. I have a note here that we have already contacted the Accounting Officer, who has offered to appear on 21 October, which is Tuesday, our normal meeting slot.

It would also be helpful if we could get a list of county councils granted payments for arbitration and conciliation purposes over the past three years. We should have that information here.

Does the Deputy mean payments to local authorities?

The Accounting Officer will have that information on the day he comes to the committee.

Somebody should table a parliamentary question in the meantime and bring the information to the committee clerk. If we do not receive the information in response to our parliamentary question, we will ask for the information to be available on the day.

We had a meeting with An Bord Pleanála and it was to come back to us with further information. It is important we have the information in our possession on the day.

On a related issue, is there a possibility we can find out how much has been paid by local authorities to legal representatives for legal advice? It seems that nowadays councillors can hardly go to the toilet without getting legal advice. It is disgraceful, the amount of money being paid for legal advice.

I agree and it is never an item in the Estimates. The legal advice is buried under 100 different headings and one never sees the figure for legal advice.

The poor relation in the process of seeking legal advice is the elected Member. If Members want legal advice they must pay for it. This is a legislative void that should be addressed. If a councillor or group of councillors want to challenge something the manager, director of services or any other council official does, they must find the money while the manager or any member of his staff have carte blanche. That should not be the case.

Is it agreed we will ask for the information covering the past five years? Agreed.

We should ask for details of payments made to fund arbitration.

We will write that letter and see what response we get. They may say there is no specific breakdown, but we will chase the issue.

It should be a public matter in the case of named projects in any Department.

We will only deal with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I am sure the HSE would have another list, but we will stick with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Is that agreed? Agreed. We will meet the Secretary General on this issue on 21 October.

The next item is No. 213 and concerns the Chief Fire Officers Association, CFOA. We have a reply from the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, following earlier correspondence from the CFOA following the meeting we had some time ago with people connected with the fire service in Bray. Committee members should note this. Currently, there are three investigations under way as a result of the Bray fire tragedy. We should ask the Minister for a copy of the findings as soon as they are available. We can send a copy of the Minister's reply to the chief fire officers concerned so they will be aware of it.

The next item is No. 214 and concerns a strategy statement from the Simon Community and a request to meet the joint committee to discuss strategy. How do members want to deal with this?

I propose we take up that invitation for a meeting with the group.

We will set an appropriate date.

What about Focus Ireland?

Is there a letter from Focus Ireland or is the Deputy making a suggestion?

If homelessness is the issue under discussion, we should deal with it all at the same meeting.

Is there an association dealing with homelessness?

The Simon Community and Focus Ireland do most of the work.

They are the two main groups.

The next item is No. 215, a strategy statement for 2008-2010 from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. This is noted. The next item is a report on the recent European policy on green policies from the Friends of Europe. This is also noted. The next item is the Combat Poverty Agency's annual report. All Deputies will have received a copy of the report and it is noted. The next item is a consultation paper from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on noise issues. This is noted and if members wish this can be raised at a future meeting.

The next item is a request for a meeting with the committee on the occasion of the visit by the President of the European Parliament and asking members to attend the meeting on 7 October. The committee has already scheduled a meeting with the Minister on 7 October. I suggest we meet the President of the Brussels Parliament on the same day for 45 minutes before the meeting with the Minister. Is that agreed? Agreed. We will meet the visitor for 45 minutes before the regular meeting on Tuesday, 7 October.

The next item refers to planning regulations from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which I suggest we note. It refers to exempted developments.

I wish to comment. Members might recall that this was quite a protracted discussion. The key issue under discussion was the proposal by the Minister that there would be no public notices as is the case with a standard planning application. This is the point I made to him in the afternoon. The correspondence received from the Minister has reinforced the point I was making that afternoon. I am not sure what point he was clarifying because the point I made to him that day is what he has stated verbatim in his reply. The Minister's correspondence to this committee states that the public will not be aware of an exempted development existing in their area and because there will be no site notice, they will not be able to examine that development to see if it is within the scope of the exemption.

The second factor is that a school can build an extension — even though he outlines it here — which will have traffic and other implications for the locality. While the school extension may be a welcome factor, the local authority will not be cognisant of any traffic or pedestrian difficulties which will be created. The fundamental aspect of any planning application is to create co-ordinated development — whether exempted or non-exempted development. However, this is still a problem as a consequence of the statutory instruments the Minister put to the House. I do not know the reason for this correspondence from the Minister because all he is doing is reiterating the mess he has already made.

There are no further comments. I understand the point made by the Deputy about notices on exempted developments. If I build a back kitchen which is an exempted development, should I put up a notice?

These are particular new exempted developments. With respect, Chairman, I think we take a precautionary approach. These are not porches or back kitchens——

Some of them are just solar panels at the back of a house.

No, they are not. This is where a school can increase in size by up to one third——

Some of these exemptions relate to——

They are solar windmills. They are areas of compost deposits of 1,000 sq. m. This is not a back kitchen or something the size of a tea chest; these are substantial developments which can now be built under exemption. I suggested to the Minister at that time that a notice should be posted to the effect that the development was an exempted development and so allow the community to ensure the development was actually within the scope of what is deemed to be an exempted development.

Is the Deputy referring to developments on public or private land?

In any context there are a number of substantial developments which are exempt. There was a bias or prejudice towards energy efficiency developments. While we can argue the merits of this one way or another, the size and scope of these developments are significant. Up until recently they needed to go through the entire planning process. At the last meeting it was suggested local communities, residents, businesses, etc. should be informed that an exempted development was to proceed in their area in order that they could monitor it to ensure it remained within the scope of the exemption. In this situation we have an exempted development without any provision for public notification which undermines the system of due process and good planning guidelines.

Many developments are exempt. A notice is erected when planning permission is sought. The Deputy is suggesting that even though planning permission is not being sought, a notice should still be erected.

There was very limited scope for exempted developments up until this summer, which included porches and back kitchens. They were small developments in private residences. However, the Minister introduced a statutory instrument which was passed by the Dáil without debate. Such is the nature of statutory instruments. The issue was brought to the attention of this committee and points were raised regarding the weakness in the system. We are not talking about a back kitchen or porch in which one might place a flowerpot. These are substantial windmills with associated system issues. If a school were to increase capacity by one third, which would be welcome in the provision of education, it would impact on matters such as pedestrian access and result in an additional number of motorists. If two classrooms were added, 40 additional cars may need to drive down the cul-de-sac leading to the school each morning. A local authority needs to take cognisance of such matters when a school plans such an extension. On my reading of the Minister’s correspondence there is no longer such cognisance.


I will make a comment on the windmills mentioned by Deputy Lynch. He may be talking about private windmills to service a house that are exempt. They would be about the same size as a telegraph pole or an ESB pole. If we were to do what the Deputy suggests, it would mean every ESB pole would require planning permission. I have seen private windmills. I understand they can produce 6 KW of energy which is more than enough to service any house. I hope in time they will be able to sell it back to the grid. Erecting something 40 ft. high does no more harm than a telegraph pole.

I suggest members review the list of the exempted items, which is far greater. In fact I believe that stuff is already exempt. They are substantial windmills. Biomass locations of 1,000 sq. m are included. An area of 1,000 sq. m. is several times the size of this room. Meat and other waste material can now be accumulated not only without the need for planning permission but even without an environmental impact study. A person can have a biodegradable site without carrying out an environmental impact study because of the exemptions provided for.

Environmental impact assessments are only required for large projects.

I would consider 1,000 sq. m.——

It is only 30 yd. by 30 yd., which is not large.

Perhaps in some constituencies that might not be considered to cause a difficulty. However, in any urban constituency with a residential population this is a very big issue and the stench would carry over several parishes.

The last line of the letter from the Department states that if the committee wishes to get additional information on any of these matters, it will be happy to arrange a further briefing. Do the members of the joint committee want further information on any or all of the sections mentioned in the letter?

I wish to help the Chair to conclude this debate. We do not need to drag it out. The issue has been concluded.

It has.

It was concluded when the Minister brought the exemptions through by means of statutory instrument.

It is done.

There is no scope for further debate. The decision has been made.

Perhaps we can invite some officials to attend a meeting of the joint committee to clarify the situation.

They have already been here.

They verified the point I made at the last meeting of the committee. If one reads the correspondence——

There was a Minister present at the meeting in question.

The Minister, Deputy Gormley, was here.

We did not get into——

Perhaps the Chairman should circulate a list of the exemptions Deputy Lynch is talking about.

Yes, I think that is necessary.

It should be circulated to everyone.

We will circulate it again. I understand that some of the issues raised in the letter are quite substantial and others are less so. We will ask the officials to spell it out further. We can come back to it again.

The Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service has written to this committee to seek the views of members on the annual output statements and the value for money policy reviews. I ask members to consider the matter. We may put arrangements in place at a future meeting.

It is an ongoing matter.

The committee has received an invitation to travel. The revised agenda for today's meeting that was issued to members included an invitation to travel to the 95th annual conference of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland, which will be held in Sligo on Thursday, Friday and Saturday next. The conference is within the remit of the committee. I propose that we should agree to send somebody to it. Are members interested in attending the conference? Senator Glynn has already expressed his interest. Is anybody else interested in attending? Is it agreed that Senator Glynn will attend the conference on behalf of the committee? Agreed.

As we discussed at our meeting of 1 July 2008, the joint committee has been asked to send a representative to a conference on homelessness, to be held in Cardiff on 13 and 14 November next. Deputy Bannon has indicated his wish to represent the committee at the conference in question, which is being organised by the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The committee has also received an invitation to attend a conference on European environment policy, to will be held in Maastricht on 23 and 24 October next. Are members interested in representing the committee at the conference, which will focus on working groups, negotiations and current agendas? Perhaps we will circulate the invitation again in advance of our next meeting. We have plenty of time to consider the matter.

If Deputy Bannon is back from Cardiff, he will go again.

The final invitation to travel relates to a councillors' training seminar on energy efficiency, heat recovery and energy recycling in domestic dwellings. The seminar will take place in the Mannin Bay Hotel in Ballyconneely, Clifden, County Galway, from Friday, 19 September to Sunday, 21 September next. The subject matter of the seminar, energy recycling for domestic dwellings, comes under the remit of the committee. Are any members interested in representing the committee at the seminar?

What about Deputy McCormack?

Perhaps Deputy McCormack and Senator Glynn will attend the seminar.

It will take place between 19 and 21 September. I will give the Deputy a copy of the invitation. I understand that Deputy Christy O'Sullivan is also interested in attending. Is it agreed to send three representatives to the conference? Agreed. The normal travel arrangements will apply. As there are no other items under the heading of travel, we will move on to the main part of today's meeting, which is a presentation by the Irish Agrément Board on domestic waste water treatment services, to be followed by a question and answer session.