Business of Joint Committee

The first item on today's agenda is the minutes of the meeting of 21 September last, which have been circulated. Are the minutes agreed? Agreed.

The Irish Tyre Industry Association had been invited to make a presentation at today's meeting. Regrettably, its key officials are unable to attend due to a prior commitment in the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, the association would like an opportunity to appear before the committee as soon as possible. Is it agreed to set a new date for such a meeting, given that today did not suit the association from a business point of view? Agreed.

The next item on our agenda is correspondence. Some items of correspondence have been held over from earlier meetings. I understand that members are anxious to revisit certain items of correspondence, statutory instruments and circulars which were not dealt with comprehensively at our last meeting due to time pressures. Members are free to discuss them on this occasion as we reach them. The first item of correspondence is a departmental briefing on pyrite, which is an issue that has been raised by Deputy Terence Flanagan. I propose that we keep the issue on our work programme. Is that agreed?

We need to do more than keep it on our work programme.

We should bring in HomeBond and the group that represents those who are affected. This has been going on for a long time. I understand the court proceedings with one of those involved have reached a logjam. Neither the Department, the Construction Industry Federation nor HomeBond seems to be able to cater for the problems of these people. I suggest we should invite representatives of HomeBond, in the first instance, to address the committee about what is happening.

Is that agreed?

I would like to expand on what Deputy Hogan has said. In light of the number of ghost estates and derelict estates throughout the country, this would be an opportune time to invite HomeBond to address the joint committee. I would like to know how HomeBond will stand up to the stresses of the report that is to be published by the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, in the next week or two.

Would the Deputy like that to be included on the agenda when representatives of HomeBond attend a meeting of this committee?

We will agree to invite HomeBond to come to a meeting at an early date. The next correspondence is a response from the office of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the committee's request for a "softly, softly" approach to be adopted in relation to the cessation of turf cutting on designated raised bogs. Have members had an opportunity to examine the response? Do they want more time to consider the matter?

Does the Chairman refer to the western——

Yes. It is about the cessation of turf cutting in designated areas. I know we have discussed the topic on several occasions.

At a previous meeting, we suggested we should bring them in at some stage.

The turf cutters were at a previous meeting.

More importantly, we should bring in some departmental officials to see what is happening to the representations that were made by the turf cutters who attended a meeting of this committee.

We have much to discuss with the departmental officials when they come in here.

There are different aspects to the issue.

There are two or three items to be considered.

They are on our list. We will discuss the work programme shortly.

The next correspondence is a reply from the office of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to a letter sent by the committee. The reply informs us that the Department cannot allow people to create access on to public roads without planning consent. As I recall it, that issue arose during the Committee Stage debate on a Bill. An amendment was tabled to try to deal with the issue of people having to get planning permission to open roads into forests. The legislation was passed by the Oireachtas. Many members raised queries about the matter. The Department has written to us to clarify the amendment that was discussed. The amendment does not meet the request of the IFA, which addressed this committee specifically on that topic. That matter was dealt with before the summer.

The next correspondence is a letter from the private secretary to the Secretary General in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which sets out the basis and requirements for the designation of special areas of conservation. This may be relevant to our meeting with the people from County Mayo. We also can hold it over until the scheduled appearance before the joint committee of representatives of the Department. The next item is detailed briefing material from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government regarding the designation of Lough Carra, Lough Mask, Lough Conn and Lough Cullin as special protection areas. As it is on the same topic, we can hold it over. The next item also is a related issue and is a request by board members of the West Regional Authority, based in Galway, to appear before the joint committee to discuss the cessation of turf cutting. We have agreed to include that item in the work programme.

The next item is a response from the Minister relating to the eligibility criteria for registration in the statutory register of architects. This is the Architects' Alliance issue. If this issue is ongoing, do members simply wish to note it?

They all want to know when Deputy O'Donoghue intends to introduce his Bill.

Exactly. The answer for the present should be that legislation is before the House.

They will need more than that, as I imagine we will wait for a while for it.

All right. The next item is from the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny and I note that nothing has been referred to this joint committee. The next item is from Barry Britton Design. This also is in connection with the legislation on architects that has been promised by Deputy O'Donoghue and which is before the House.

The next item pertains to statutory instruments. Statutory Instrument No. 561 of 2009 is about derelict sites in urban areas. Statutory Instrument No. 405 of 2010 is the commencement order for the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010. I understand that Statutory Instrument No. 451 of 2010 already has commenced. Members may wish to consider or be briefed on Statutory Instrument No. 406 of 2010, Planning and Development Regulations 2010.

On the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act, concerns were raised in the Chairman's absence at the last meeting to the effect that a large portion of this legislation was passed without real discussion or debate. It was agreed that the joint committee would be provided with an explanatory memorandum on the Act in its totality.

That has arrived in the correspondence. Moreover, word has been received that the legislation was not printed because there is a problem with its translation section. However, we have received it as part of our correspondence and the clerk will be happy to recirculate it as it is an important item that could get lost in the middle of everything else. We will recirculate it.

While I am open to correction, I understand that over the summer period, an order was made whereby responsibility for the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act has shifted from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the Minister of State with responsibility for planning.

Correct.

That is important and I am unsure whether everyone is aware of this. It constitutes a major shift in governance and it would be interesting to hear the reason for such a change and to have the Minister of State who now is responsible appear before members to discuss the explanatory memorandum at some stage.

I am quite happy to request that. The Minister of State in question is Deputy Cuffe. He is the person who dealt with the legislation and we will include that in our work programme. The aforementioned statutory instruments all pertain to the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010.

In addition, the following circulars have been issued since the summer. Circular SHIP 2010/16 of 3 August is on demand for social housing support and vacant units issued by the social housing division of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Quite a few circulars have been issued on housing issues. Circular PHS 02/2010 of 22 July contains regulations for the private rented sector. I will go through the circulars on housing. Circular SHIP 2010/17 pertains to the housing action plan, while circular SHIP 2010/18 concerns arrangements for the implementation of the land aggregation scheme.

I refer to circular PSSP 4 — 2010 on development plans. During the passage of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill, members warned that settlement and the population cap the Minister was prepared to put on various settlement hierarchies in the context of local area plans and county development plans were not straightforward matters. I understand that circulars are being issued to the regional and local authorities to have their plans reviewed to take account of the new Act. There now is confusion about the population targets that have been set for the hierarchy of settlements. I seek clarification in the context of this circular. It should ascertain whether the Department has circulated population targets to each local authority in the context of its settlement plans and to take account of the population sizes of each urban settlement and rural area. If so, it should supply them to the joint committee.

Second, there is great confusion about the circular regarding the implementation of the taxation of goods vehicles and adapted vehicles. Each local authority appears to interpret it in a different fashion. An irate person contacted me today in respect of his jeep. Heretofore, he has had no difficulty in taxing it for its primary purpose, as up to now the specification was that the vehicle's primary use was for business. However, the new provisions are much more specific and such a vehicle must be exclusively for business use and not for private use at all. The person in question was told to go home, register for VAT and then return. I am sure every member has a similar experience but clarity is required in this regard. It should not simply be a question of the Minister stating that gardaí will look over their shoulders at something else while such vehicles pass by.

On the planning guidelines issue, the committee will write directly for information from the Department and will take matters from there on its receipt. Does Senator Coffey wish to comment on the aforementioned circulars?

Yes. Some of them came up at the last meeting of the joint committee and some members requested that this issue be brought back before this meeting. The circular about which I am most concerned is the one instructing local authorities to cease any new building projects for social housing. I am unsure of the circular's precise reference number. This constitutes a major shift in policy that requires more thorough analysis and debate. I certainly believe that while an overhang of vacant properties in the private markets exists, such a one-size-fits-all policy may not be in the best interests of all parts of the country. Not all local authorities have the huge overhangs that obtain in the commuter belt areas, Dublin city and the larger urban areas. Were they to be obliged to comply with a cessation of the construction of social housing units, it would have an impact on the housing lists in such local authority areas. This appears to be a huge shift away from the State being engaged in building social housing to the private sector and the voluntary agencies. This must be explained to this joint committee and members must debate it with the Minister and officials concerned. Perhaps members also could take views from local authorities, if possible, because this marks a major shift in housing policy. I acknowledge it mainly is due to the overhang but one must make allowances for local authorities to have the capability to build where necessary and this circular does not appear to allow them to so do.

That is agreed.

I revert to the issue raised by Deputy Hogan on the taxation of commercial vehicles. I consider it to be a hullabaloo about nothing and advocate a clear-cut circular, as suggested by the Deputy. A person who requires a vehicle for his or her business should be able to use it to go to church or to mass or to do some shopping. If people do not have a business, then this tax cannot be applied to their vehicles. A private retired person without a business cannot be taxed.

Another issue I have raised previously concerns high-powered tractors that one sees drawing gravel from sandpits, thereby putting licensed hauliers at a disadvantage. Such tractors are high-powered, can load up and draw as much as they wish and may be seen drawing bales of straw and hay. However, although they are taxed at an agricultural rate, to all intents and purposes they are commercial. Although genuine hauliers must have a certain load level on their trucks and so on, these people have no such confines and this issue also should be examined.

We will ask for a clarification note on the issue of the use of high-powered tractors on roads for non-agricultural activities to ascertain the position.

As for the housing circulars, I refer to the arrangements for the redemption of the Housing Finance Agency for the transfer of lands from local authorities to the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency. While I have read about the latter a few times, I do not know who owns or runs this new company or who its chief executive is. We must invite the Housing Finance Agency and the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency to attend to talk to us about these matters. There seems to be quite a policy shift in respect of some of the unfinished estates. The policy seems to be not to build any more houses. If it is not a case of there being empty houses, the rental accommodation scheme and long-term leasing are to be considered.

I am glad the Chairman brought that up because I was going to suggest that, under our work programme between now and Christmas, this would be a priority issue. It was presented over the summer as a book-balancing exercise for local authorities so the assets on their balance sheets would look positive. However, as the Chairman and Senator Coffey indicated, the implications are much wider. Bearing in mind that the process is in train, Sligo County Council voted yesterday morning on lands being transferred. It is urgent that we be briefed on this and that we obtain a better understanding of what is happening.

We definitely need to deal with the issue of housing urgently as part of the work programme.

The rest of the circulars concern allowances for the Chairman's work and business support unit, quarterly staffing returns and the retrofitting of local authorities. That is the end of the circulars.

Before we stop discussing correspondence, could we have an update on our most recent correspondence to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, asking him to attend a meeting of the committee to discuss the recommendations in its report on the severe weather. The Minister's earlier response to this committee was that he has facilitated the committee and has been before it many times. His main visits have been at his own instigation, be it in respect of the introduction of statutory instruments or the introduction of legislation. We have requested the Minister to come before the joint committee to discuss its business on a very limited number of occasions. I would be grateful if the clerk could tell us the number of times he appeared before it and the Select Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. This would give us an accurate reading as to how co-operative the Minister has been with this committee.

I have a note here and I will circulate it. It flowed from the response. I will work from this year backwards. The Minister attended the joint committee on 2 March to deal with the management of severe weather events. He attended select committee hearings on several occasions, including in respect of the carbon fund and the Stockholm Convention. He appeared before the joint committee once this year. In 2009, he appeared at the joint committee on 3 March regarding the planning and development regulations and appeared once before the select committee. In 2008, he appeared before the joint committee on 18 June, 24 June, 1 July and 7 October. He made a number of appearances before the select committee in that year. He did not attend any meetings of the joint committee in 2007. There were quite a few meetings involving the select committee but very few involving the joint committee.

Once a year, I suppose.

We will circulate that.

Is the Chairman proceeding to the work programme?

Has there been an update on our request that the Minister appear before us to discuss the recommendations of the report?

No, we have had no further communication.

An estimate of the average cost of attendance of two members at the elected members' seminar in Roscommon from 15 October 2010 to 17 October 2010 has been circulated. Is the estimate agreed? Agreed.

On a general note, the committee has incurred significant expenditure to date this year and the Chairman of the Working Group of Committee Chairman has indicated that only travel absolutely essential to the work of the committee will be sanctioned in future.

Let us proceed to the work programme. It was agreed at the last meeting that we would discuss items such as the annual report of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and ask Dublin City Council to discuss the Covanta contract for the Poolbeg incinerator. It was agreed to invite the West Regional Authority before us to outline its views on the cessation of turf-cutting and invite the National Parks and Wildlife Service to discuss special protection areas. I ask members to volunteer topics. We will make a note on them and revert to the matter at the next meeting.

Deputy Lynch has a question on the National Roads Authority. I will let him deal with his end of it. One will remember that representatives from the National Roads Authority and the Department of Transport were before the committee to discuss the change in the functions of the authority in respect of local government. I understand the remit has been extended to the procurement of works at local authority level regarding minor roads and special works schemes. I refer to schemes that would normally have been carried out by the direct labour gangs of local authorities. The projects are now to be contracted out through the NRA and it is suggested this may have a serious impact on the outdoor staff in 2011. We need clarification on this. I received a query on this from a councillor in Kerry. The councillor indicated that there is much concern among the outdoor staff over the likely impact of the decision on employment in 2011. The traditional pattern was that small works would be carried out directly by the staff. The NRA was supposed to deal with regional and national roads but now seems to be poking its nose into the local fund. I want clarification on this.

We will ask the NRA about this.

I recall the NRA appearing before the committee. Its document was the shortest briefing document I received since I became a member of this committee — a page and a half long. This reminds me of the Seamus Heaney poem "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing."

There are a number of issues that the NRA needs to discuss at this meeting. In some parts of the country there are joint county and city development plans in respect of which the NRA has lodged objections. There are questions with regard to its roll-out of its own infrastructural plans. Questions arise as to how this is impeding or assisting business stimulus and other development programmes. I support Deputy Hogan's request that we ask the NRA to appear before us as soon as possible.

Should we ask for a briefing note from it first? We may receive clarification. That topic was raised at the Committee of Public Accounts just last week. It is one of the points frustrating this committee.

This committee, which deals with the environment, heritage and local government, had asked that all circulars being issued to local authorities be sent to it. Departments other than the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government were issuing circulars to local authorities relevant to the work of local government, which is relevant to our committee. We had asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to ensure that all circulars being issued by Departments to local authorities would be sent to his Department because it is the parent Department for local government. The Minister refused to do that and said he would write to each Minister and ask him or her to tell each Department to write to this committee if it was issuing a circular to a local authority. We wrote to the Minister stating we found that unsatisfactory and that we would monitor the situation.

It now transpires that, in regard to the type of topic mentioned by Deputy Lynch, circulars are being issued by the Department of Transport and perhaps the NRA to local authorities that directly affect local authority business, which is relevant to us. We are not receiving the circulars although we have a raft of circulars here. The Department is not co-operating satisfactorily with this committee to ensure it is informed of the circulars received by local authorities. Perhaps we will raise this again with the Minister. There is proof that the system the Minister proposed to put in place, which I was dubious about from day one, does not work. It was never going to work. There is an element of laziness.

When we made our request of the Minister, he stated that the information in question laid before the House was in response to a parliamentary question that had been tabled, and that he had informed the House by that means. That is the height of nonsense. A Minister saying he is laying information before the House by means of a response to a parliamentary question means that either the parliamentary question has been prompted or that it is very much going to be a case of hit and miss.

We will write to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the NRA and the Department of Transport on that issue.

We are proceeding to the work programme. Are there topics for consideration?

There is no doubt that what the NRA is trying to do is impinging on personnel in local authorities. Each local authority should have a minimum number of outdoor staff to attend to essential maintenance and repairs. That was not the case last winter. Kildare County Council did not have the staff last year to undertake this work. While earlier this year it took on 14 temporary staff these were laid off a week or so ago. While the cost of retaining these staff until Christmas is in the region of €100,000 and the money is available to do so they were laid off. I fear that people at the bottom rung of the ladder such as general operatives will be penalised by local authorities in favour of the National Roads Authority.

Much of the work currently being done by local authorities should be contracted out because we are not getting value for money for it. While a certain amount of staff are needed we could get better value for money if this work was contracted out.

I agree with Deputy O'Sullivan that a certain amount of work should be contracted out, in particular work on major stretches of road affected by the bad weather. In my area I have seen an overseer and a man with a digger and truck out filling potholes on 50 to 100 metres of road. This work could be contracted out thus leaving the local authority staff free to fill potholes on the back roads and laneways. This is not happening. Councils continue to take on staff even though there is an embargo in place. It is always a person higher up in the echelons of the council rather than a general operative or clerical officer that is taken on, which is unfair. It is a long time since Meath County Council took on people to maintain our roads yet, they have been able to recruit at the grade VI, VII and VIII levels. I am sure this is happening countrywide.

An Bord Pleanála should be invited in again. Its delay in terms of decision making is unfairly holding up many good projects which could provide employment. Also, too many decisions by An Bord Pleanála are being appealed. While a decision on an application is required to be made by a specific date it often seeks an extension followed by another extension. People are being penalised and held up by An Bord Pleanála which is unfair. I am sure every member has received representations on this matter.

Yes. We will invite it to come, as soon as possible.

The Poolbeg issue has been raised. The joint committee needs to focus on the wider national waste management strategy, in regard to which there appears to be a great deal of confusion. A number of regional waste management plans appear to be in existence. Is it possible to invite to attend the joint committee those responsible for those waste management plans to give their view on how they have progressed. Many of these plans have been up and running for several years. We need to know if they are feeding into the national strategy. If not, they should be abandoned. I would like to hear from the County and City Managers' Association if they are responsible for these plans. We could then invite in the Department officials and the relevant Minister to discuss how these plans are relevant to the national waste management strategy. Currently, there are two parallel strategies and a great deal of confusion in this area. It would be helpful if the committee could clarify this issue in the best interests of the public.

Last year, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, said he was preparing a document — a Green or White Paper — on the review of local government proposal adopted in 2000. I would appreciate if the joint committee could get an update from the Department on better local government and in regard to the stage the Minister is at in terms of his review of local government.

A problem has arisen — it varies from county to county — in regard to the extension of planning permission. There are regulations which some local authorities abide by and over which there are question-marks with regard to others. This issue needs to be examined.

The issue of world heritage sites and their impact was mentioned. We need an update on this issue. There is a great deal of misinformation in particular in respect of areas being sterilised. This is an issue of concern to people in certain parts of the country. I am sure the Chairman is aware of the position with the Clonmacnoise site. We are approaching November again, the month of the severe flooding last year. We need a report from the local authorities in the Shannon catchment area on the actions taken by the OPW to prevent a recurrence of the conditions caused by the severe weather last year and which destroyed the livelihood of many people in the run up to Christmas.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is that of the electoral register and the safeguarding of electoral integrity, something which we all have an interest in. We are, at maximum, 18 or 20 months away from a general election although one could be called fairly soon. For this reason, we need to put that issue on the agenda. The issue of unfinished estates was referred to earlier. We need an update on the derelict sites issue. There is a great deal of dereliction owing to the number of unfinished estates. The joint committee should examine this issue and inquire whether some of these dilapidated properties will come under the Derelict Sites Act 1990.

On derelict sites, I have noticed rows of buildings which are becoming derelict where bricks have fallen off the chimney stacks and landed on the footpath in a town. The local authorities are now moving to close off sections of footpaths because they are concerned that if a person is hit by, say, a brick while walking on the council footpath the council will be accused of not providing a safe pathway on which people can walk.

Is that not covered by the dangerous buildings Act?

I do not know.

I believe it is.

We will request a note on that matter. I have noticed that councils are fencing off parts of footpaths.

That has happened in Mullingar. The reality is that there are derelict sites and deserted buildings right around the country. When the local authority applies pressure under the derelict sites or buildings legislation planning applications are lodged and when refused are never again taken up. This has been going on for some time. This happenedad nauseam in relation to one famous site in Mullingar. It is an issue that needs to be addressed.

I will request an update on that matter.

The issue was raised last year by Deputy Johnny Brady in the context of a problem he experienced in a town in County Meath. At that time we requested information on the number of prosecutions by various local authorities around the country.

We got it last year.

We got it from only some councils.

We will review the information we received and if it needs to be updated we will update it.

Perhaps we could invite in our friends in the tyre industry who fell off the fence today.

We will request that they attend the next day.

In regard to the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, while I do not know the experience of other members, it is my view that the organisation is not working properly. I am aware of a case in which a termination was signed on 14 December 2006 but the case did not come to court until May this year.

Did the landlord terminate the tenancy?

Yes, although effectively the PRTB terminated it. It took almost three and a half years to take the case to court where the judge found that the order presented by the PRTB was fundamentally flawed. Since the ruling was made, no one from the board has contacted the landlord, despite e-mails being sent and telephone calls made. This case has been ongoing for almost four years during which time the individual in question, who has a mortgage on his property, has not been paid rent.

Is the tenant still in the property?

Is rent being paid?

No, rent has not been paid for four years. I am aware of similar cases, although they did not take as long as the case to which I refer. We should invite the PRTB to come before the joint committee to explain the position. The system is not working.

The Private Residential Tenancies Board is on the list.

The Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, has been indicating for the past 18 months that he is undertaking a review of the Residential Tenancies Act, the legislation establishing the PRTB. He has also indicated that changes to the operation of the PRTB would require amending legislation. A first step would be for the Minister of State to indicate when changes to the Act will be made.

We will include a reference to the Minister of State in that regard.

An Bord Pleanála was mentioned. We will ask when its 2009 report will be published. It should have been published by now given that we are approaching the end of 2010. Once it is published, we will arrange to have representatives of An Bord Pleanála come before the first meeting thereafter. We will follow up this matter.

May I raise one final matter on the work programme?

Early last year, perhaps in April, I wrote to the joint committee regarding the e-voting machines. I understand Senator Coffey has also written to the joint committee on the matter. Requests were made to view the machines. Recent coverage indicates that some of the nesting spots for the machines could have been better thought out. I understand, for instance, that there is a retention order on one of the storage depots. Given that some of the machines have been moved to a central location in Mullingar, perhaps members no longer need to view the machines. However, I would welcome an opportunity to receive a progress report from the working group which was established shortly after the Minister announced that the machines would not be used.

That is agreed.

The e-voting machines should be used again. I have experience of them and they were a great success.

I concur with the Deputy.

Is a tour of Bord na Móna establishments included in the work programme?

We planned to arrange such visits in counties Offaly and Kildare before the summer but were unable to do so. We will keep them on the work programme.

I will summarise the points that have been made. We will ask representatives of the tyre industry to come before the joint committee. They were unable to make today's meeting because several of them were abroad on business. If the 2009 report of An Bord Pleanála is published, we will arrange to have a delegation come before the joint committee immediately thereafter.

The joint committee adjourned at 4.15 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 19 October 2010.