Business of Joint Committee.

Apologies have been received from Deputy O'Sullivan and Senator Cannon.

The minutes of the proceedings of the meeting on 30 June 2009 have been circulated. Are they agreed? Agreed.

Several issues have been brought to my attention regarding our agreed provisional schedule of meetings for the summer recess. Next week we will deal with the prohibition on turf cutting and the compensation payments. We will meet people from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who deal with the raised bogs and the turfcutting area. People have seen advertisements in the newspaper recently about the compensation. This is a good opportunity to bring in officials familiar with this area because many members are interested in it.

Could we get them to bring factual information on the numbers who applied for that scheme in 2002?

Is the Deputy referring to the turbary rights?

Yes, the purchase of the bogs because many have not been paid even though everything was in order. The Chairman is probably aware of this problem.

I met a group of interested parties in my office two hours ago.

I have had the same meetings particularly in south Longford. The Chairman comes from an area where there is a great deal of peat production. It is a serious problem and it is unfair to those people who signed up, sold and transferred their property but are not being paid. We might get factual information on that issue.

I will ask for information.

There is no point in their coming and talking about the scheme without giving us factual information.

That is the meeting scheduled for 2 p.m. on the appointed day next week.

We had suggested that on 8 September we would deal with listed buildings.

Can we have some information from the Department with responsibility?

With responsibility for what?

The Department responsible for the preservation of the bogs and heritage areas.

They are coming in next week.

Are the officials coming in?

Yes. That is the purpose of the meeting next week.

That is all right. I thought we were to hear from other people.

No. People from the Department are coming in.

We said at the previous meeting that we would meet on 8 September to deal with listed buildings and we have invited Department officials and An Taisce to that meeting. On 15 or 22 September we will deal with the Housing Finance Agency. We received some correspondence after our last meeting from the Private Residential Tenancies Board. Deputy Lynch indicated that there was some correspondence about which we should hold a meeting.

I thank the Chairman. Two items of correspondence came in, one from the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers, IPAV and one from Threshold, seeking a meeting with the committee. The IPAV request follows comments made by the Irish Property Owners Association, IPOA, at the last meeting. I suggest that we get this onto the agenda as soon as possible, given the nature of the comments and the request by the IPAV.

Does the Deputy want to do that this month?

Yes, if we can.

The only possible date is the last Tuesday of the month, 28 July. Are people available? We can schedule a meeting as long as there will be a quorum. I will not be here but let the meeting proceed.

I will not be free then.

Are members interested in meeting on that date? Will we agree to have that meeting with apologies from a few of us.

It depends on the agencies. It has been indicated to me that both will be available.

Comments were made by the agencies and they have sent us valuable correspondence. If members want to meet them they can do so. I will send my apologies but we will proceed at 2 p.m. on that date. Is that all right for the members who want to be here? The Vice Chairman and I will be absent but——

We could meet earlier in the day.

I will not be here. If it suits people to meet on Tuesday morning I have no problem with that. The committee could meet at 11 a.m. Is that agreed for Tuesday, 28 July with Deputy McCormack to chair the meeting? Agreed. The meeting will be over by lunchtime.

The first meeting in September is to deal with heritage matters. While I welcome and support the declaration of Clonmacnoise as a world heritage site it creates a problem for landowners within a certain radius of the site. There is a proposal to have a blanket ban on development which would sterilise that land. People who live within a radius of between ten and 15 miles of Clonmacnoise are concerned about their freedom to farm and to develop. We need clarification on that issue. I would appreciate if that could be put on the agenda for the September meeting.

Does the Deputy want to do this by way of correspondence or by inviting somebody in here?

Maybe we should invite someone who can clarify the situation.

We will write to the Department. We have all seen correspondence on the world heritage site status. We will ask the Department about its implications.

It is in the Chairman's constituency and borders on mine.

I suspect that the Deputy is closer to it than I am.

We all accept that things are not as good as they were, especially in the building trade. Several people have approached me, as I am sure they have approached other members too, about developments initiated in the past eight or nine years where nothing has happened for the past three or four years. This suggests that the developers have trousered profits and left the developments unfinished. That is not acceptable. I have all the sympathy in the world for people who run into trouble because that can happen and has happened. In certain cases they have simply abdicated their responsibilities. The relevant local authorities will take those estates in charge and Seán and Mary citizen will have to fund their completion. I would like to invite officials from the Department and the Minister to come here in September to discuss planning enforcement. What is happening is wrong. I am sorry for those who got into trouble but these are people who made good money, put it into their pockets and walked away from their responsibilities.

In two different counties houses were built that were so bad that the buyers had to vacate them and rent accommodation with no come-back from the developers, one of whom was driving around in a very large car. These situations must be addressed. It is up to the members of this committee to address the problem because what is happening is very wrong.

I support the Senator's point about the unfinished estates which are becoming obvious around the country in rural towns and villages. The builders have opted out, the estates are not finished and the tenants and owners are in serious trouble because footpaths and lighting are not in place. While there is a regulation that when they are finished, they are taken over by the local authority, that cannot be done under the present legislation. This must be addressed.

I have no axe to grind but young couples have paid good money to buy homes in estates that were not finished. It was not today or yesterday that the developers walked away from those estates, it happened four or five years ago, during the good times. There is no case to be made for them, they abdicated their responsibilities.

We will put that on our agenda for September.

That is a matter for local authorities. Some people in the local authorities are not doing their jobs because the completion of the estate would be a condition of planning permission. The enforcement order would kick in if it was not completed and I know of local authorities around the country that are taking legal action against developers. When they get a solicitor's letter, it is not long before they act. Negligence by local authorities may be the main factor in the majority of cases.

There is probably blame on all sides but planning enforcement is a matter for the local authority. I cannot say to what degree it is being pursued but in some cases it is not.

The issue of unfinished estates will be on the agenda for September.

While discussing Clonmacnoise, can we raise other issues relevant to similar developments in other counties?

Only one development is being proposed as a world heritage site.

I know but a number of sites have been designated as having world heritage status and some them are not being maintained as they should be. The officials should be invited here so we can ask about particular sites.

The same officials are probably responsible for all sites.

I have been approached by Dr. Maureen Gaffney, chairman of the National Economic and Social Forum. The forum would like to meet us in September to present a report it is compiling on the interface between the political, official, voluntary and community sectors in the delivery of public services. We must agree a date to discuss this report. Much of it relates to local government and Dr. Gaffney feels our committee would be useful in dealing with this. We will try to arrange a mutually agreeable date in September.

The Fine Gael Ard-Fheis is scheduled for 7 and 8 September and that may prevent its members from attending. We have suggested a meeting to address the listed buildings issue on 8 September but the conference is on that day. A number of members of this committee are also on the Committee of Public Accounts and a request has been made that the two committees meet closer together to make commuting easier during the recess. The next scheduled PAC meeting is not until 17 September anyway.

The listed buildings meeting is taking place on 9 September.

The Labour Party is holding its conference on 9 and 10 September.

Fianna Fáil is holding its Ard-Fheis the following week. Would people prefer the previous week? Instead of meeting on 8 September, because both Fine Gael and the Labour Party have their conferences that week, and Fianna Fáil the following week, we will meet on 1 September at 2 p.m. We will hold the meeting with An Taisce and the Department on listed buildings forward to 1 September.

The AMAI conference is taking place in September and I am willing to attend on behalf of the committee.

Is this a new travel proposal? We will try to accommodate that. The chairman of the committee of Oireachtas chairmen, Deputy Noel O'Flynn, has stated that after this no further money is available for any travel for the remainder of the year.

As I was unable to attend the previous meeting, an item of correspondence from the Comptroller and Auditor General was deferred. I am aware from the correspondence that under the present legislation it is not possible to ensure the Comptroller and Auditor General can investigate the annual reports and accounts of the Dublin Docklands Authority, which was requested by this committee. That seems strange, although that is what the Comptroller and Auditor General says. Would it be appropriate to ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, or the Minister for Finance, or both of them, to consider including the Dublin Docklands Authority within the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General?

That is agreed. Item 493 of correspondence was deferred, an extract of the minutes of a meeting of Galway County Council which gave rise to a presentation to us on the effect of excessive designations of the future development of Galway. Does Deputy McCormack want to consider that further?

Did we get a reply from the council?

We received a short letter to say the council wanted to discuss excessive designations with us. We asked the council to clarify what it meant.

Was the correspondence from the executive or from the members?

The original correspondence was from the senior executive officer. We will give the correspondence we have received so far to the Deputy and will consider it at the next meeting.

Item 514 relates to a reply to correspondence received by the joint committee that it forwarded to the Environmental Protection Agency for comment. There is a detailed report and I suggest we note the correspondence.

The next item is a policy research paper on climate change from the European Urban Network and we note that. The next item is the European World newsletter, a European think tank on policy, and we note that newsletter. The next item is a newsletter on environmental matters from Globe International, which we also note.

The next item is the annual corporate responsibility report, "Business in the Community of Ireland — Corporate Responsibility". It is item No. 518. We have all the documentation here. I suggest we note the correspondence as I do not see anything specific in it.

Item No. 519 is from the Oireachtas Library research service: committee secretariat protocol 2009. We note the correspondence. Item No. 520 is in regard to a helpline for householders regarding bat roofs. It is a press release from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and we note it. Item No. 521 is a ministerial press release on the launch of an electronic planning system and we note it.

On that issue, a report was published yesterday by the Ombudsman in regard to planning and the cost of photocopying services. That report warrants a debate here and I ask that it be facilitated at a future date.

I saw that report. I note the vast variations where some local authorities charge up to €5 for photocopying some sheets of paper. How do we handle that issue? Should we ask the Department? There is no point in Emily O'Reilly coming in to tell us what she has found.

No, but perhaps guidelines should be issued to the various local authorities.

Would the Deputy like us to write to the Department arising from the ombudsman's reports expressing our concern at the variation in practices, inconsistent approach from local authorities and asking them to consider adopting an agreed standard approach?

I read the report this morning. The information that caught everyone's attention was the €5 charge for the photocopying of an A4 sheet. In the event of a weighty application, the cost of photocopying same would almost be the price of a deposit. The real issue is that some local authorities are better than others at getting the applications up on-line where they can be viewed. Some will get the whole application on-line where one can see the different documents. Some may give the information as shown on the site notice, which is a summary of the application while others will provide very little information, such as the PP Number. Following up on what Deputy Bannon has said, to give some direction to that meeting, I assume we would have to look at the targets set for local authorities to become IT efficient in this area.

The opening paragraph of document No. 521 states that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has today, 1 July, launched a new policy for e-planning. We will ask the Department to forward a copy of the policy. We have just received the press release but not the details of the policy. All we have seen is a one-page press release. The Deputy is correct. We all know the situation and how large an EIS can be. Most consultants bring the EIS in on CD to the local authority but the local authority cannot download it because it is not allowed do so under e-planning rules and has to print off the copy. If somebody needs a copy, he or she has to take a photocopy of the hard copy, notwithstanding the fact that the electronic disc is sitting in the local authority and cannot be accessed. We will ask for a copy of the policy document issued by the Minister and referred to in his press release because we have not seen any details. We will take the issue from there.

Item No. 522 is a European water newsletter and we note it. Item No. 523 is a list of proposals for EU legislation and decisions taken at the Joint Committee on EU Scrutiny and we note it. Item No. 524 is the Irish Human Rights Commission bulletin and we note it. Item No. 525 is the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the local government fund accounts 2007. One copy is supplied and is available to the clerk. We will put it on our work schedule for future consideration. A short annual report is produced on the local government fund, the main item of which is the motor tax income from local authorities and the Exchequer funding to local authorities. We will put that matter on our work programme for future consideration.

Item No. 526 is an EPA report entitled Strive: Innovation for a Green Economy — Environment and Technology and we note it. I think all Deputies have seen that document. Item No. 527 is the Combat Poverty Agency annual report 2008 and we note it. Item No. 528 is a letter from the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers commenting on the presentation last Friday by the Irish Property Owners' Association. Item No. 529 is from Threshold on the same topic. We have agreed to invite them to our meeting on 28 July, so we have dealt with both those items.

Item No. 530 is a press release on the future management of the former Irish Steel site at Haulbowline — Cork Deputies please note — and we note it. Item No. 531 is a ministerial press release on a consultation document on proposed amendments to Part M of the building regulations which deals with access for people with disabilities, and a technical guidance document for a final round of publication consultation and we note it.

Item No. 532 is data on a county by county basis, as requested by this committee, at our meeting on waste management on 27 January in regard to businesses registered with local authorities and self-compliers under the packaging legislation. That is very interesting. I will refresh members' memories on this issue without looking at the documentation. Members will recall that all businesses have a legal obligation to deal with packaging material, for example, boxes, cartons and so on. Most businesses register with Repak and that fulfils their obligation and Repak enter into a financial arrangement with the company. However, there is a second option, that is that a company can register with the local authority and make its own commercial arrangements in regard to packaging material without dealing with Repak.

Some months ago we asked for a list of all those companies that have registered with the respective local authorities. Members got an e-mail about this last week. We are concerned that companies are not registering with local authorities or Repak. This is the first report that has been produced at our insistence. Every time we asked, information was not available we now have a report. The most common name in all local authorities is Supermacs. It is the only one registered in Laois and several other counties. Some of the larger counties have several businesses but obviously Supermacs nationwide has decided to register separately with the local authorities. It pays €500 to deal with registration and then it is obliged to submit the tonnages of repackaging materials it disposes of and then it makes its own separate commercial arrangement but with whom I do not. I suggest we forward the list to Repak because Repak will now know who is registered with the local authorities. I am informed that the Department made 2,000 waste packaging visits last year to different businesses throughout the country and it is currently conducting a pilot study in seven local authorities to check compliance with the packing regulation for businesses.

We have also received some circulars: F33 2009, Submission of Statements and Declarations under the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999, relates to candidates for the local elections; L5/09, Water Services Investment Programme; and LG(P) 11/2009 — Peace 111 and INTERREG sanction of posts.

Members will recall at our meeting with the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland in February that we considered the possibility of a statutory role for local authorities in monitoring radon and devising a radon protection strategy for their constituent areas. Have members considered the replies? The document has been submitted. Members have probably looked at the report in respect of their own local authority. Have members a view on this issue?

I am concerned that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has admitted there is a serious problem in some parts of the country. As we are all aware, after cigarette smoking, radon gas is our second biggest killer, through lung cancer. More than 200 deaths annually are attributable to exposure to radon gas. Therefore, the incidence of high radon gas levels is a serious issue. Parts of the country are more affected by it than others. Our clerk wrote to most local authorities about having designated radon gas officers. The findings of the subsequent report showed that there was a weakness among local authorities in that to facilitate a reply to the request the manager's name was given as the radon gas officer in many cases. In many local authorities throughout the country the manager does not have a role in this area. If one were to ask managers about that, they would confirm that.

Figures from the World Health Organisation indicate that the number of Irish people who die from this cancer causing gas is well above the global average. We have one of highest radon gas levels in Europe and the sixth highest in the world. It is a cause of concern for people that we have one of the highest radon gas levels in Europe and that issue needs to be addressed. We all are aware of the high increase in the number of people dying from various forms of cancer, particularly lung cancer. It is not only people who smoke who suffer from this dreadful disease.

There needs to be greater awareness of this issue within the Department and among the people. The Department should run a campaign to heighten awareness among the public. The relevant figures are available. More than 90,000 homes are at risk of exposure to this gas throughout the length and breadth of this country and the risk is worse in some areas. In the south Longford area where I live this issue is a serious problem. The rate of the radon gas levels is well above 20%. Many areas throughout the country are badly affected by radon gas. A monitoring system should be put in place. There is an onus on the local authorities to organise that and that needs to be dealt with.

We received responses from the local authorities on foot of meeting the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland. The committee has assembled the responses received. I suggest that we pass the information the committee has assembled to the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland rather than to the Department. The institute intends to have meetings on this issue and to prepare recommendations on the issues Senator Bannon mentioned.

The reply from some of them is very poor.

Some of responses are very poor. Some of them have owned up and said that they do not have the necessary resources and they only check their own council houses.

What we suspected when we decided to write to the local authorities has been more or less confirmed. Local authorities are inconsistent in this respect. There is anad hoc approach to this issue. Addressing it depends on the priority each local authority manager decides to give it. That seems to be the position from the responses we have received. I agree with the Chairman’s recommendation that we would pass on the information we have collected to the institute. It should also be passed on to the Department because there is a need for clear guidance on this issue to be given to the local authorities. There are some good models of practice. In Mallow, Cork County Council has instigated a good model of addressing concerns about radon gas. The Department needs to issue a guideline to all local authorities to ensure there is an obligation on them to prioritise this issue, especially in those areas that Deputy Bannon said are exposed to higher levels of radon gas. I suggest we pass this information to the institute and to the Department, but I would like to hear back from the institute on its recommendations based on the responses we have received from the local authorities. I am sure the institute would consider there are weaknesses in this respect and I would like to hear its view on that.

The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland has suggested a multi-agency approach by the HSE, the local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is required to address this problem. Funding is probably the greatest barrier to addressing this issue. I suggest a copy of the responses should also be sent to the Minister for Health and Children.

Deputy Bannon mentioned the points I intended to mention. I compliment the Chairman and the officials on the preparation of this document. It is a valuable document containing useful information, even though it is not as conclusive as we would like it to be. We should have a debate on this issue. If we were to highlight different counties where we consider the responses to it are inadequate, so be it. I concur that we should send the document to the various agencies for their comments.

I come from a county where the incidence of radon gas is very high and it is especially so in the north Cork area. Considerable work has been done by Cork County Council and it has a model in place to deal with this issue. It is a satisfactory model for residents, the only issue is the cost factor, which has to be paid for by many residents in some areas. Shanballymore, which is a small village, had an acute problem of high radon gas levels, which has been sorted out. The committee should examine the model used by Cork County Council. I support what Senator Coffey said.

We should request comments from those to whom we send this information. I note from responses we received from Mayo County Council and Cork City Council — both of which counties geographically have high limestone basins which is related to this issue — that they clearly indicate that there is no national strategy to deal with this issue. Mayo County Council suggests that the planning enforcement units of local authorities may become specialised in this area. Ms Valerie O'Sullivan, the director of services for Cork City Council wrote that she noted that the joint committee was considering a recommendation to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that local authorities be given a statutory role in monitoring radon and devising a radon protection strategy for their administrative areas. However, she went on to ask if a recommendation should not be more appropriately made to the Minister for Health and Children and such a role more appropriately assigned to the Health Service Executive with responsibility for such a role assigned to a consultant radiologist with a physicist and a chemist as part of a support team. She also said that if local authorities were to carry out this new function, she considered that such staff may need to be recruited to the local authority service.

Regardless of Cork City Council's response, there is an issue that the HSE has a role in addressing this problem and that specialised staff will have to be taken on board by some authority, whether it is the HSE or the council. In light of the restricted financial resources available, there will not be an appetite for any Government agency to take on board extra work unless additional finances are allocated for it or there is a specific restructuring of the local authorities. I endorse what Senator Coffey said about our requesting comments on the information.

This discussion has highlighted a problem we all recognise with elements of the public sector, that of the inflexibility that exists and the tendency to pass the buck. I suspect when the McCarthy report is published and 20,000 jobs are to be removed from the public service, we will see people scrambling to take on jobs that were not theirs in the past. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

The best model of practice in place that we have noted from the responses is the Cork County Council model of practice in Mallow. Could we ascertain how much that model of practice has impacted financially on that local authority? Could we ask that local authority for such an assessment? We need to then pressure test that model against other local authorities. Addressing this issue comes down to the priority managers give it, but their approach to this issue is tooad hoc and disjointed. We are reneging on the public we are meant to serve by not having a proper system in place. Somebody needs to grasp the nettle. It is clear that nobody is doing so at present. As Deputy Dooley said, people are passing the buck on a serious and important matter the gravity of which should be of more concern to people.

I suggest that we forward the document to the institute and ask it to prepare a report and recommendations on this issue based on its expertise. We will ask it to examine the Cork City Council model as one that could be used in local authorities in other counties. We will also send a copy of the document to Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Health and Children.

The concern of the committee about this issue needs to be highlighted.

We have only started the information gathering process.

The committee's concern that the approach of local authorities to addressing this issue is disjointed and inconsistent should be highlighted.

The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland has done considerable work in this area. I have received correspondence on this issue on behalf of tenants and residents in my area. This institute has be to the fore and its input has been evident not in the town of Mallow in north Cork but in the villages around it.

We will send the document to the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and request it to prepare a report on it.

We need to create awareness of the issue. Radon gas monitors are relatively cheap to purchase and they should be available for purchase or rent. People should be alerted to this fact.

We will proceed on that basis. The last item before taking the main item of today's business concerns a follow through on previous correspondence. I wish to read out part of a short letter from An Bord Pleanála. Members will recall the issue of a landfill at Usk in County Kildare. Planning permission had previously been granted by An Bord Pleanála and there was a judicial review which the local residents won. We wrote to An Bord Pleanála to ask what costs it incurred in losing the judicial review. I will read two paragraphs from the letter which was sent to this committee, because there have been developments on it. The letter, dated 16 March, was to the clerk of this committee from An Bord Pleanála. It states:

Your letter requests details of legal costs paid by the board in relation to the quashing of the board's original decision on the development proposal of the Usk landfill, County Kildare. The costs to the board in this case were as follows: total costs paid to the applicants, Usk and District Residents' Association legal representative, was €157,000. This included payment for a solicitor, senior counsel, junior counsel, environment and planning consultants, and VAT. The board's direct costs which were discharged through the board's solicitors, was €64,000. The total payments amounted to €221,850. As stated in my letter of 10 December 2008, this case was redetermined by the board on 30 July 2008. The board is currently defending its latest decision in judicial review proceedings in the High Court. [This is their second decision on this matter]. I hope this adequately answers the question.

My information is that the matter has now been decided. The outcome of the judicial review was dealt with last week and for a second time An Bord Pleanála has lost another High Court judicial review concerning the same project. That is because the local residents' committee took the board to court and has beaten it twice. That is alarming because the cost of the first review was over €221,000. One must ask what kind of management there is in An Bord Pleanála. Having lost a judicial review, it redid the process and lost the second judicial review also. In the meantime, the residents are footing the costs of all this. They will probably succeed in getting their costs, but I want to write to An Bord Pleanála asking it for an update on the current position, to confirm what I understand happened last week. I also wish to discuss the issue of costs and explain how this can happen twice concerning one particular development.

Two matters arise from that. One is the nature of judicial reviews having to go to the High Court in the first instance, which is a very expensive process. Last week, when dealing with the Conveyancing Bill we moved home repossession orders from the High Court to the Circuit Court. There might be a need to examine a less costly venue to deal with such judicial reviews. Second, in this case An Bord Pleanála seems to be playing double or quits with taxpayers' money. They are going back to see if they can get off the hook.

Are members happy that we should write to An Bord Pleanála?

In September or October, we usually invite representatives of An Bord Pleanála to discuss the board's annual report. Perhaps we can put this on the agenda.

I would like to get the information in response to this specific query concerning the second judicial review. Is that agreed? Agreed.

After all that, we will now move on to item No. 3, which is the main item on our agenda today, concerning farming for the conservation of heritage at the Burren. We will be joined by the BurrenLIFE Project team. We will suspend for a moment while our guests take their seats.

Sitting suspended at 2.54 p.m. and resumed at 2.55 p.m.