The main purpose of this Bill is the setting up of a planning appeals board to deal with appeals, references and other matters arising under the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1963. All parties are agreed that it is desirable that the political head of the Department of Local Government should be relieved of responsibility in relation to appeal decisions in an area as controversial as land development. The National Coalition's 14-point programme contained a pledge to set up independent machinery to deal with planning appeals. Accordingly, the present Bill was one of the first to be introduced in Dáil Éireann after the Government came into office. Over the last two years, the Bill has been discussed in great detail in the Dáil and now includes a substantial number of amendments made in that House.
Apart from the provisions setting up the appeals board, the Bill contains a number of other provisions in relation to the operation of planning control at central and local level, including provisions strengthening enforcement procedure and provisions designed to improve some of the more positive powers in the 1963 Act. Account has been taken of the views of local authorities and of the many other bodies who made submissions to me. I feel, therefore, that the Bill goes a long way to remedy defects which have come to light since the 1963 Act came into operation and provides, for planning authorities and the general public, a sound basis for future progress in the area of physical planning.
This is a complex piece of legislation and I do not propose to comment on the individual sections, at this stage; these are adequately covered in the explanatory memorandum circulated with the Bill and can best be discussed on Committee Stage. I would, however, like to bring to the notice of Senators some of the main provisions of the Bill and what they aim to achieve.
The main provision is the setting up of An Bord Pleanála, an independent body to be chaired on a full-time basis by a judge of the High Court or a former holder of judicial office. The board will take over the appellate functions of the Minister for Local Government in relation to appeals, references and other matters under the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1963. Detailed provisions relating to the board are set out in the Schedule. Articles 4 and 7 respectively deal with the appointment and terms of office of the chairman and ordinary members of the board while articles 6 and 10 provide that in the event of the chairman or an ordinary member being removed from office, a statement of the reasons for removal must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.
Physical planning does not, of course, operate in a vacuum and while I would stress the independence of the board in relation to the manner in which they carry out their function of deciding appeals and references, they must keep themselves informed on matters of public policy which could be relevant to planning and development. Experience in dealing with appeals shows that they frequently raise issues relating to national policy or development objectives, for example, achievement of the housing, industrial development, roads and sanitary services programmes, and conservation, environmental protection, airport and harbour development. A major purpose of planning control is to secure the implementation of such policies and objectives. Provisions in sections 5, 6 and 31 of the Bill cover this area. Section 5 requires the board to keep themselves informed of the policies and objectives of public authorities, planning authorities and the Minister for Local Government, while section 6 empowers the Minister to issue general policy directives to the board. Any such directives must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and the provision does not, of course, enable the Minister to issue a directive to the board in relation to any particular appeal or other case coming before them for decision. In order that there can be a two-way flow of communication, section 31 enables the board to make submissions to the Minister, either on their own initiative or at the Minister's request, in relation to planning matters.
It is my aim that the board shall come into operation as soon as possible after the passing of the legislation. I should stress, however, that before an actual transfer of functions can be made, a great deal of administrative work will have to be done and various new regulations will have to be made. Moreover, if there is to be a smooth transfer of functions, with minimal disruption of the work of deciding planning appeals, it will be necessary for the board to have some time to prepare for the task. Section 14, which transfers appeal functions to the board, will not therefore come into operation until "the appropriate day"— a day fixed by order under section 45. To facilitate the smooth transfer of functions, provision is being made in section 21 (3) to enable the board to make interim arrangements for the use of services which my Department can supply, for example, staff and accounting services.
The Bill provides for a number of changes in the existing appeals procedure. To discourage frivolous appeals, provision is being made for a deposit of £10 to be lodged with an appeal; on determination of the appeal, the deposit will be refunded unless the board consider the appeal is vexatious and direct the deposit to be forfeited. A further provision in section 18 will enable the board to deal expeditiously with any appeal or reference which, in their opinion, is vexatious or is being unnecessarily delayed by any party. And the regulations proposed under section 20 will allow the board greater flexibility in dealing with the details of appeal cases.
With the increased rate of development in recent years and the growing interest of the public in environmental and planning matters, appeals have been running at nearly 4,000 per annum or about 10 per cent of all applications for planning permission. It is no longer practicable to ensure that every appellant who demands an oral hearing will get one, unless we are prepared to accept very extensive delays. The board are, therefore, being empowered to refuse an oral hearing except where a direction to hold one is given by the Minister. A person whose request for an oral hearing has been refused by the board will, however, be able to apply to the Minister for such a direction to the board. It often happens that the issues in an appeal are clear but the decision is held up by a request for an oral hearing, sometimes to the detriment of the appellant himself. Where an application for an oral hearing is refused and the applicant considers an oral hearing is essential, a remedy is being provided. Accordingly, I have no doubt that in considering applications for oral hearings, the board will use their discretion reasonably and weigh the advantages which may result in any particular case from the holding of a hearing.
In an effort to improve the position at local level in regard to planning applications, I have introduced a number of new provisions and also provided for amendments of certain sections of the 1963 Act. Provision is being made, in section 29, for the "withering" of all existing planning permissions five years from the date of the coming into operation of the section and, in the case of permissions granted after that date, five years from the granting of the permission. The section does not have a retrospective effect and extensions of time may be given in particular cases. There are safeguards to ensure that developments which are substantially completed are not left unfinished and that conditions attached to a permission must be complied with unless the planning authority issue a waiver notice in that regard.
To encourage the resolving of difficulties by discussion at local level, I am making provision in section 39 for an amendment to section 26 of the 1963 Act, whereby the time for considering an application can be extended where the applicant gives his consent in writing. And in that section also, I am including a provision under which local planning authorities will be enabled to seek revised plans, and so on, relating to a particular development and to deal with the case on the basis of such plans.
An area where many problems have arisen in the operation of the 1963 Act is in the enforcement of planning control. In response to representations and suggestions made to me by planning authorities, residents' associations and other interested parties, I have introduced new provisions which should strengthen substantially the powers of planning authorities in this area. Section 25 will enable planning authorities to overcome problems which have arisen in securing the provision and maintenance of open space in housing estates in accordance with the terms of the relevant permission. To discourage unauthorised development or use of land and to protect trees and other features which are required to be preserved in accordance with the terms of a planning permission, section 26 enables a "warning notice" to be served. Failure to comply with a "warning notice" will involve substantial penalties.
A further strengthening of the position in relation to unauthorised development is contained in section 27. This provides that the High Court, on the application of the planning authority or any other person, whether or not the person has an interest in the land, may prohibit the continuance of any unauthorised development or use, or where development is not being carried out in accordance with the terms of the planning permission, direct that it should be so carried out. In addition, maximum penalties for non-compliance with enforcement notices under the 1963 Act are being increased by section 38: the maximum fine will now be £250 with a maximum of £50 per day in the case of a continuing offence. The legal advice available to me is that £250 is the maximum penalty which can be prescribed while retaining the offences within the category of "minor offences" which can be dealt with by the courts in summary manner.
The protection of the environment is a wide field in which many agencies are necessarily involved. As Senators will recall, the Wildlife Bill was recently passed by this House and a Water Pollution Bill has recently been introduced here. These two measures will expand considerably the powers available to preserve and improve environmental standards. Environmental policy is and must continue to be an overall policy and I consider that it would be neither practical nor realistic to attempt to make one Minister solely responsible for this wide area. What we need is effective co-ordination and I have set up machinery to achieve this. The physical planning system itself can, of course, make a significant contribution to environmental protection and, therefore, the planning authorities have a crucial role.
A number of specific provisions in relation to environmental planning were included in the 1963 Act and I am expanding these in the Bill. Section 39 contains a number of these amendments. It enables regulations to be made which will require, in the case of certain major developments, submission of an environmental impact study with the relevant application for permission. It also provides that conditions to reduce or prevent the emission or the intrusion of noise or vibration may be attached to planning permissions. And it includes such conditions, and conditions relating to air pollution, among those in respect of which a planning authority will not be liable for compensation. A new section is being provided to cover the making of special amenity area orders in order to encourage planning authorities to consider the making of such orders, to simplify the orders themselves and to enable the Minister to direct that an order be made. The law in regard to the making of conservation orders is also being modified having regard to the provisions of the Wildlife Bill.
Before completing this general review of the Bill, I should like to refer to the provisions in sections 32, 33 and 34 relating to pecuniary or other beneficial interests in certain matters. The provisions as originally introduced related only to local authority members because it was hoped to deal on a more general basis with the position of officials and others. The sections were debated at length in the Dáil and, to meet suggestions made by Deputies, I introduced amendments on Report Stage extending the provisions to board members and other persons in so far as the matter could appropriately be dealt with in the present Bill.
Briefly, the requirements of section 32 cover the making of a declaration of any interest in land, any business of dealing in or developing land and any business, profession or occupation which relates to dealing in or developing land. Planning authorities and the board will keep registers of such interests and these will be available for examination by the public. Failure to comply with the requirements of the section will be an offence with a penalty of up to £250, or six months' imprisonment, or both. The requirements to be met where a person has a pecuniary or other beneficial interest in a planning or land acquisition matter coming before the board or a planning authority are set out in section 33, while section 34 contains supplemental provisions in regard to the taking of proceedings and disqualifications arising from conviction. Since planning is an area where decisions can involve considerable amounts of money and where people engaged in the implementation of planning control can be subject to considerable pressures, I see the provisions in the Bill as more in the nature of a safeguard for public representatives and officials than an imposition, they should help to preserve those concerned from any taint of personal suspicion in regard to decisions involving the development of land.
In the course of this Bill's passage through the Dáil I endeavoured to meet as many as possible of the suggestions put forward there. I feel we now have a comprehensive and worth-while piece of planning legislation, and I have no hesitation in commending the Bill to the House and asking for its early enactment.
May I conclude by repeating what I said in the Dáil when introducing the Bill? If any worthwhile amendments are put forward by any side of the House I will be only too glad to consider them. I believe the function of Parliament is to ensure that the best possible legislation will emerge at the end of discussions. Finally, with reference to the question of the declaration of interest, that is there as much to protect the characters of people in public life as it is to ensure that somebody who wants to be smart in public life does not get away with it. We have had, unfortunately, in the past wild allegations made, both in the media and otherwise, against people when no proof whatever was subsequently produced. In order to ensure that this sort of thing will not continue it is necessary for us to have in a Bill such as this the type of sections which have been included.