I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley.
Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009: Second Stage.
I am pleased to bring the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 before the Seanad. If there is one clear point to be made about planning, it is that planning is about people, not buildings. Good planning can bring enormous benefits to individuals and communities. It allows them to prosper and develop in the long term. It ensures good quality homes are provided as well as areas where industry can thrive. It ensures that facilities are in place, from shops to schools and public transport.
It is often forgotten that people are also the first victims of bad planning. People are left in poor quality housing without the facilities they need and deserve. They are left travelling long journeys in congested traffic to their work places. They are also left most exposed to the ill-winds of economic recession.
Bad planning can be even more cancerous and can eat into the very fabric of our economy. The bad planning and overzoning we have seen in Ireland in the last decade played a significant part in our current economic recession and fuelled the property bubble. Fields that should have been left to the cattle were rezoned and then sold on for gargantuan profits to developers who borrowed heavily to buy them. We are dealing with that legacy now. Communities, especially in the commuter belt, which saw enormous growth without the necessary infrastructure, are now suffering most from the recession. We are now dealing with that legacy. National and regional planning guidelines were ignored, and in many areas we had uncoordinated development, which in turn caused environmental, transport and infrastructural problems that will cost tens of millions of euro in taxpayers money to resolve. We are dealing with that legacy too.
Planning is an issue that truly affects all of us in many aspects of our daily lives — our modes of travel, the way we power our homes and places of work, the delivery of clean water and the delivery of high quality and environmentally sustainable economic and social infrastructure. For all these reasons, I have taken a hands-on approach to improving the planning system since I took office. I introduced a suite of guidance on sustainable residential development and the integration of schools provision with the planning process. New guidance is in preparation in respect of local area planning and flooding and controlling development along national roads. I introduced new regulations last year to encourage the uptake of cleaner and cheaper energy from renewable sources in the industrial, business and agricultural sectors by providing exemptions facilitating a greater penetration of renewable technologies in these sectors. I have taken a strong stance with certain local authorities by issuing directions requiring them to amend their development plans where these have included excessive or inappropriate zonings. Indeed, the problems highlighted by this latter issue have been a strong motivating factor for me in developing this planning Bill.
I have long believed that if we can achieve greater certainty and innovation, and introduce greater participation at the forward planning stage, the vast majority of the planning issues that we face as a society, such as overzoning, inadequate provision for public transport, community infrastructure and amenity, and fluctuations in house and land prices, can be addressed and corrected. The zoning of land through the development plan or local area plan processes is the basic decision that determines the quality of individual planning decisions on the ground.
The lessons of the very recent past have shown that we are suffering from inappropriate and chronic overzoning. Instead of a virtuous circle of zoning decisions being taken for the common good and translated into improving the quality of people's lives on the ground, in some cases we have witnessed greed taking primacy over need when it came to planning. The evidence is there for all to see and it is a damning indictment of our system.
As I stated in my recent contribution to the Second Stage debate on the NAMA Bill, it is no coincidence that our commuter towns are now suffering the most from the economic downturn. These are the towns where house upon house was built and field upon field rezoned but little or nothing was provided by way of community facilities or amenities. This is not my vision for sustainable communities. Scatterings of estates that are poorly linked by transport, distant from schools and dependent on transport by car must become a feature of our past. Sustainable, high-quality living communities are what this country needs to assure its development and competitiveness in the future.
There can be no doubt that, aside from the reckless banking practices which have been shown to have been so prevalent in our financial system, reckless zoning practices and soft touch regulation in our planning system have contributed in equal measure to the property boom and bust. The planning system has acted as a critical enabler for property speculation whereby the value of land was inflated beyond all reason by little more than putting a colour on a map. It is these zoning decisions, made on the basis of who you knew rather than on any proper planning justification or need, which have in no small part led us to where we are today, where very many of our citizens find themselves in negative equity and our banks cannot function in extending credit to businesses together with the long-term costs to society and future generations. It is for this reason that the Government will introduce an 80% windfall tax on all zoning decisions as part of a package of measures to ensure this will never ever happen again. The planning system could be described as being at best passively negligent or, at worst, actively complicit in the economic travails in which we find ourselves today. I am providing clear leadership on this issue and the strong action to deal with the problems I have mentioned is contained in this Bill.
The purpose of the Planning Act 2000, as stated in its Long Title, is "to provide, in the interest of the common good, for proper planning and sustainable development". Before and since I have come into office I have had representations made to me expressing serious concern about how the system can be abused to prioritise private interests over the common good, often to the detriment of sustainable development. I have the greatest respect for the people in planning departments across the local government system who have managed to deal professionally, fairly and effectively with the large increase in the number and complexity of planning applications over recent years. I do not want their labours contaminated by that small number of people who use the planning system for their own gain.
I intend to strengthen further the wider ethical framework for local government. The Green Paper on local government examined the operation of the regime at local level and concluded that greater coherence could be brought to its operation. The White Paper which I intend to publish shortly will present a set of measures in that regard. I am also preparing a Bill to provide for a directly elected Mayor of Dublin in 2010. I intend to use this Bill to introduce statutory protection for whistleblowers in the local government system, building on the approach introduced in many other areas of the public service.
The Bill ranges over a number of areas in the planning code. There are three Parts which contain 36 sections. I would now like to refer in some detail to the main provisions.
As I said, a sound development plan is the key to ensuring good planning at local level. Decisions taken at the development plan stage affect all other planning decisions. A key element of the zoning reform is the introduction in section 5 of the Bill of a requirement for an evidence based core strategy in development plans which will provide relevant information on how the plan and housing strategy are consistent with regional planning guidelines and the national spatial strategy. The location, quantum and phasing of proposed development must be shown, as well as growth scenarios, details of transport plans and retail development and proposals for development in rural areas. This more strategic approach to zoning will allow development to take place at the right time and in the right place and will allow the State to plan for the provision of infrastructure with much greater certainty. This is key to the economic renewal agenda.
Requiring tighter management of land zoning and ensuring the location and quantum of land zoned for development are in line with regional and local targets for growth over the period of the plan will help local authorities to prioritise the provision of their own infrastructure and services for those places most likely to be developed during the plan. We will have an evidence based rationale for future development: what needs to be done, where it should be done and why it should be done.
Where the amount of zoned land in an area far exceeds the likely demand, as quantified in the core strategy of the development plan, I encourage local authorities to consider using the existing down-zoning provisions in the 2000 Act. Alternatively, the development plan needs to make it clear that zoned land will be serviced and prioritised in local area plans, following a sequential approach, that is, developing within and out from existing urban areas using public transport corridors as far as possible. Development on "excess" zoned land will be regarded as premature until the need to develop such land is established in the core strategy of a future plan.
This section also provides that development plans will contain mandatory objectives for the promotion of sustainable settlement and transportation strategies in urban and rural areas, including appropriate measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This mandatory objective recognises the crucial role local government plays in tackling climate change and builds on other initiatives I have taken in this area.
Section 6 provides for the scope of submissions and observations on development plans to be much more strategic in nature. The development plan-making process will be more transparent and move away from being distracted by proposals for zoning particular land parcels to a more strategic land use planning approach. As a general approach, I am strengthening the status of regional planning guidelines and the role of regional authorities in the preparation or variation of such plans. Development plans will have to be consistent with the relevant regional planning guidelines and regional authorities will be required to make submissions to planning authorities on the key issues which the regional authority believes should be considered in the preparation of a draft development plan. The ongoing review and update of the regional planning guidelines to be finalised in the middle of next year will be crucial to giving effect to this new legislative requirement.
Sections 7 and 8 dealing respectively with the making and varying of a development plan include a requirement that the manager's report should address separately the issues raised by the Minister or the regional authority and that the report must include appropriate recommendations in relation to how these issues are to be addressed. This recognises the Minister's responsibility in law for the planning system and, in relation to the regional authority, its role in ensuring regional planning issues are given due consideration in the shaping of the development plan.
I have listened closely to criticism regarding the introduction of new land zonings late in the development plan process without consultation. The existence of such a device in law is not appropriate and does not accord with the principles of fairness or transparency. I am changing the Act in order that the introduction of zonings late in the process without consultation will no longer be permitted. All land zonings will now have to be the subject of public consultation at plan-making stage or in a draft variation of a development plan. This is crucial from the point of view of ensuring public confidence in the zoning process.
Material amendments to draft development plans and variations to development plans will require the support of two thirds of the total number of members as opposed to a simple majority, as is currently provided for. Decisions on development plans, one of the most fundamental powers available to elected members, must involve the majority of the members. Similar provisions are also introduced under section 11 in relation to the local area planning process.
Section 10 provides that the mandatory population threshold for preparing local area plans is raised from 2,000 to 5,000 persons. The preparation of local area plans is resource intensive, involving consultation with both the elected members and the general public. Such resources are best used where an area is likely to undergo significant development on a greenfield site or redevelopment on a brownfield site. However, it also provides that the discretionary threshold for the preparation of a local area plan will be where the population is between 2,000 and 5,000 and where the relevant area is to be subject to large-scale development within the lifetime of the plan.
To ensure local area plans are comprehensively linked with the city or county development plan which are reviewed every six years, the lifespan of local area plans is increased to ten years, although where a local area plan is no longer consistent with the city or county development plan because the development plan was reviewed or varied, there is a requirement to vary or review the local area plan within one year. There is also provision made for the phasing of development within a local area plan, as provided for within a development plan, particularly given that zoning objectives are provided for in a local area plan on foot of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2002.
Section 12 provides explicitly for the link between regional planning guidelines and the national spatial strategy. Under the Bill, regional planning guidelines shall be set within the policy framework of the national spatial strategy, including its population targets which are updated from time to time.
Sections 13 to 16 strengthen the status of regional planning guidelines in relation to development plans and also strengthen the role of regional authorities in the preparation or variation of such plans. Section 13 provides that a development plan must be consistent with the regional planning guidelines in force for the area to help achieve coherence between the hierarchy of forward plans.
Regional authorities are, through sections 14 to 16, inclusive, given an explicit role in pre-draft and draft development plan preparation. They are also given a role in the variation of a development plan. The key aim is to ensure consistency and coherence between local planning and regional planning guidelines. Sections 14 to 16, inclusive, also set a broader perspective for the areas to be covered in the regional authority's observations report. These can include co-ordinating development objectives across local authority boundaries and for the strategic infrastructure requirements within a region to ensure regional priorities are being delivered.
Section 17 provides that a planning authority must demonstrate, by way of a statement when preparing and making a draft development plan, how it has implemented the policies and objectives of the Minister contained in guidelines issued under section 28 of the principal Act. Equally, as the case may be, planning authorities must detail the reasons such policies and objectives were not implemented. This will bring much greater clarity to how key guidelines prepared at national level in relation to, for example, sustainable expansion of small towns and villages or the development of wind farms in scenic areas are being dealt with at local level.
Section 18 deals with the complex and sometimes controversial area of ministerial directions under section 31 of the Act. I have used the powers available to me as Minister under section 31 of the planning Acts on a number of occasions to address issues of inappropriate and excessive zoning and directed local authorities to make the necessary changes to their development plans to bring them into line with national policy. Planning decisions at local level cannot fly in the face of wider regional and national interests, especially those agreed and endorsed by the Government.
For the sake of consistency, I am extending the ministerial powers to issue a direction to include local area plans, in which many zoning decisions are now made by planning authorities. I am also introducing new consultative arrangements for section 31 directions. Once the Bill is enacted and where the need arises to use these powers, a proposed or draft direction will be issued in the first instance to seek local views before a final direction is issued. These new processes take account of the recommendations of the joint committee in its March 2009 report. Section 18 also provides for a discretionary provision for the Minister to appoint an independent inspector to review the manager's report prepared on foot of the public consultation on the proposed direction.
Section 19 amends the principal Act to align the voting requirements on a motion deciding to grant permission for a proposed development that would materially contravene the development plan with the new voting thresholds for material amendments to draft development plans set out in section 7. I will give further consideration to this matter in advance of Committee Stage.
Section 20 proposes an amendment to section 35 of the Act to allow a planning authority to refuse permission where the applicant has carried out a substantial unauthorised development, including a development with no permission whatsoever, or has been convicted of an offence under the planning Acts, subject to certain conditions. Section 21 amends the principal Act by providing for the extension of cost recovery to pre-application and scoping requests related to environmental impact assessments for strategic infrastructure development cases under the Seventh Schedule of the principal Act, in addition to cost recovery in cases that proceed to full application and determination by An Bord Pleanála.
The amendments in section 22 are designed to remove any legal impediment to e-planning. To avoid doubt, the principal Act is amended to prescribe that a planning authority is authorised to display planning application documentation on its website. A further amendment provides that contact telephone numbers and e-mail addresses provided by or on behalf of the applicant will not need to be published. Recently, I encouraged planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála to make greater use of information technology in processing planning applications and appeals. This can enhance the level of service provided for users of the planning system, whether as applicants or as members of the public, and bring efficiency savings to planning authorities and statutory consultees. My Department is such a consultee in respect of heritage issues and we have developed pilot projects whereby planning applications can be referred to us electronically.
Section 23 amends the principal Act to provide for the extension of permission for a period of up to five years in circumstances where substantial works have not been carried out but where there are commercial, economic or technical considerations beyond the control of the applicant that substantially militate against either the commencement of development or the carrying out of substantial works. I will examine this issue further on Committee Stage.
Section 28 amends the principal Act to empower An Bord Pleanála to reduce the quorum for meetings from three members to two on the recommendation of the chairperson that such a reduction is necessary to ensure the efficient discharge of the business of the board.
That is interesting.
I am sure it is. The amendment aims to improve the throughput of An Bord Pleanála and secure a higher compliance rate with the statutory objective period of 18 weeks for appeals.
Section 29 provides for an increase in the maximum fine to €5,000 for a summary offence under the planning Acts and an increase to €1,500 in the maximum daily fine for a continued offence.
Section 31 amends section 180 of the principal Act which provides that a housing or residential estate be taken in charge by the planning authority in certain circumstances on foot of a request from a majority of the owners or occupiers. The Law Reform Commission’s report on multi-unit developments recommended that it should be owners of units only who would have the right to determine whether the estate was taken in charge. This amendment implements the commission’s recommendation.
Sections 32 and 33 amend sections 182B and 182D of the principal Act, respectively, to provide powers for An Bord Pleanála to recover costs at pre-application and determination stage in respect of applications for electricity transmission lines and strategic gas infrastructure. Section 34 modifies certain provisions of section 212 of the principal Act as they relate to the functions of the planning authority regarding the development of land. The amendment is intended to extend the scope of the powers of planning authorities to allow them to take action to secure the creation, management, restoration or preservation of a site of scientific or ecological interest. Similarly, section 36 amends the Transport (Railway Infrastructure) Act 2001 to provide An Bord Pleanála with powers to recover pre-application and determination costs in respect of applications for railway orders.
At this stage, it is appropriate to signal some of the amendments that I intend to table on Committee Stage. Building on the action that I took last year to close the legal gap in planning applications for retention permission for developments that should have been subject to environmental impact assessments, EIAs, I intend to introduce specific provisions on Committee Stage that will remove the possibility of retention of unauthorised developments that should have been subject to EIAs, other than in exceptional circumstances. Allied with these amendments, I will also revoke the current seven-year time limit within which enforcement action may be taken in respect of unauthorised developments that should have been subject to EIAs.
The European Court of Justice has ruled against Ireland for our failure to implement and adequately transpose into law elements of the birds and habitats directives. It has become necessary to integrate the requirements of these directives into planning law. Two central issues need to be addressed. These are the screening and assessment of proposed land use plans and development proposals for their potential impact on European nature sites for the protection of birds and other species and habitats, collectively known as Natura 2000 sites, and measures to protect species of flora and fauna protected under Irish law from disturbance and destruction as a consequence of development. I am confident that the proposed reforms to be introduced on Committee Stage will address the recent European Court of Justice judgments against Ireland in this regard. I also intend to make proposals to provide for the mandatory objectives in development plans for the protection and listing of undisputed rights of way.
The necessary work is under way to integrate better the foreshore consent processes within the planning processes under the planning Acts in anticipation of the formal transfer of the foreshore functions to my Department. The initial focus is on integrating the foreshore consent process for major infrastructural projects with the consent process under the Strategic Infrastructure Act.
The Bill is about better enabling us to deliver competitive and dynamic cities, towns and regions which will help to improve our quality of life in economic, social and environmental terms and contribute towards the vision of a sustainable future for all. It will strengthen transparency, openness, democratic involvement and public participation in the planning system. More focused land use strategies will also result in a more efficient use of taxpayers' money by allowing the State to target investment in essential infrastructure and services more accurately. I look forward to engaging on Committee Stage on these provisions and Government and Opposition amendments which I hope will be constructive and helpful.
I will not be able to stay, as I have a committee meeting to attend. However, I will stay for a period. I do not know how Senators can bear the heat in the Seanad.
It is roasting.
Yes. There is probably too much heat being used.
It is self-generating.
It is like wearing a cardigan made by my granny.
It is warm in here.
I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the Minister and his officials to the Seanad for the initiation of an important Bill and debate. While the Bill has been recently publicised by the media, it was also publicised prior to this summer's local elections.
This comprehensive Bill addresses the important matters of planning and development which will have a significant impact on how the country and communities will develop in the coming years. It is our job as an Opposition party to analyse, comment on, contribute to and debate the many contents of the Bill.
I acknowledge at the outset the Minister's sentiment that it is important we have good and sustainable planning. The Bill proposes to reform various aspects of the Planning and Development Acts from 2000 to 2007 and while I acknowledge there are some positive aspects to the Bill, to which I will refer, we in the Fine Gael Party have some concerns with regard to other aspects. We believe some undemocratic centralised control elements are being introduced to the planning area by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister. We are also concerned, and the Minister alluded to it towards the end of his contribution, that the Bill is incomplete and that he intends to add many more sections and amendments. I suspect the Bill will be heavily amended by the time it reaches Committee Stage in this House and before it goes to the Lower House. We would have preferred a more complete Bill to debate here at the earliest possible stage. I understand there are many complexities to the Bill and that it is comprehensive but I want to record that view at the outset.
The Minister referred to lessons being learned and the legacy we have inherited from development plans in recent years. We all accept there are lessons to be learned but where elements of corruption exist, and there was and is elements of corruption in the planning process, the Fine Gael Party fully supports the idea that it should be exposed, rooted out and has no hand, act or part to play in the proper planning and development of our communities.
We must also learn from the recent property boom and the mistakes made in planning decisions and developments but I remind the Minister that was propagated by his partners in Government, Fianna Fáil, where we saw an explosion of property development due to ill thought out and unsustainable Government policies. The Government and local authorities were happy to propagate that development boom at an unsustainable rate due to the huge income from property related taxes such as capital gains tax, stamp duty, VAT and development levies.
The Minister will be aware that local authorities have become seriously dependent on the income generated from development levies and we can now see the huge deficits local authorities are running in their current budgets because of the economic and construction slowdown. In other words, we put all our eggs in one basket for the past ten or 15 years and local authorities have become over-dependent on that income. They have prepared budgets in recent years based on this income and now that it has dried up we can see the cupboard is bare and the way services and local authorities are suffering. That is obvious to all. The infrastructure that was being developed is now at a standstill. While I expect the Minister to absolve himself of all blame for that, and this Bill may be his attempt to correct the problems created, I suggest the Bill is probably too little too late.
I do not want to go into the National Asset Management Agency debate but I am sure this Bill will have serious implications for lands taken under control by NAMA. We talk about transparency but it is important the implications of NAMA on zoned lands that will be taken over by NAMA are transparent and put into the public domain as soon as possible for all to see, whether it is the communities, the banking sector or whoever but more importantly for taxpayers because zoned lands that have not been developed and which are better suited to feeding cattle will be affected by the NAMA legislation and indeed this Bill.
On the Bill, section 5 is important and provides that evidence-based core strategies will be the fundamental basis of the way we inform our new development plans, but how perfect is the evidence we are expected to use? I am reliably informed by sources that the statistics used by the Department are up to 10% out of kilter with the statistics on population trends. I do not know whether that is right or wrong but if the statistics are incorrect, it could seriously distort any future development plans. Regardless of the plans that are developed under this legislation, and I urge the Minister to focus on this area, it is essential that the information used as the fundamental framework based on population trends is correct. The statistics must be treble checked because if we intend to invest in infrastructure and set out development plans based on that information, it is essential that it is correct at the outset and beyond any doubt if development plans are to have the full support of the entire society.
Regarding the evidence based core strategies, it appears that a hierarchy is being established not only nationally but now also within counties and cities with regard to the way they will develop. Will that hierarchy be fair? Will it limit existing towns from developing and attracting new businesses or industry? Will towns suffer because under this legislation future development plans will be lower down the food chain, so to speak, within their county? Will towns suffer because they will not have the support of the Department or council officials because they are not seen to be important enough? Many towns and villages have not seen the benefits of the Celtic tiger or major development and they feel they have been left behind. I am concerned that as a result of this legislation they will be left behind in law because they will not benefit from any future incentives to attract business or development. There is a concern around that area. Every individual and, by extension, every community and town can aspire to developing to their full potential without being limited by a hierarchal type of planning process. Fine Gael has concerns in regard to that particular area. This Bill will limit the development aspirations of towns and stymie some development in areas where development is needed to regenerate towns and villages.
I am interested to hear the view of the Fianna Fáil representatives on this because I am aware that they, like Fine Gael, have councillors elected in all communities throughout the country. I appreciate the Green Party does not have the same levels of representation in towns and villages. In fact, in the main the Green Party reflects the views of dwellers in large urban cities to a large degree, and I do not say that lightly. That is a fact of life from someone who comes from a small rural village. Much of the time I do not hear the views of the ordinary people I live among being reflected by the Green Party. I would be interested to hear what the major party in Government has to say.
I will give the Minister one example. I come from a small town with a population of less than 2,000. It is the fourth largest town in County Waterford. The town has always had a development plan every five years but under this legislation we are being told there will be no requirement on the local authority to have a local area plan because the population is under 2,000. That has been studied by planners throughout this country, the British Isles and the world because Portlaw, where I come from, is a planned industrial town built by the Quakers where an industry was set up and all the social fabric the Minister alludes to in the legislation such as educational institutions, societal institutions, industry and housing was built within a period of 20 years.
The industrial site in this town became a brownfield site because it degenerated through neglect, and it remains a brownfield site of over ten acres in the middle of the town, fully serviced and accessible. It is all very well to bring in legislation that is high in aspirations and ideas but to date legislation and planning has neglected towns and villages like Portlaw. The Department officials and the county councils have turned a blind eye to dereliction, neglect and contamination on that site for over 25 years. It is in the middle of a town in a zoned area with all the water services, roads, footpaths and lighting leading into it but it has lain derelict for 25 years with no interest whatever from Department and council officials. Only for the councillors in that area, it would have been forgotten altogether.
Let me outline another example, the seven-villages sewerage scheme in Waterford, a project in which the Minister's Department is directly involved. The seven villages, which are long established, have all the social services to which the Minister alludes. They are among the villages and towns in the two thirds of the country that are not in the commuter belt and they include Cappoquin, Stradbally, Kilmacthomas and Ardmore. They have been awaiting a foreshore licence for over seven years so their sewerage infrastructure can be installed. The reason for the delay is the unnecessary bureaucracy in the Departments and it is not because of councillors' decisions or bad planning. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources have all held responsibility for foreshore licences, yet none of them is dealing with them or issuing them. As a consequence, the infrastructural development of seven villages is held up. We are trying to develop them in an integrated, sustainable way but, for seven years, they have not even been able to put water services in place. This is a question of bureaucracy, not of bad planning by councillors or local authorities.
It is important that we highlight both sides of the planning debate. It is not just a case of bad planning decisions on the part of councillors but of bad management of local authority areas by Department officials, the Government and local authorities.
Let me outline an example from a local authority adjacent to my own. I and the Minister are aware of a town in respect of which recommendations were made by town council managers and officials to zone flood plains for commercial development. This is on public record. It was not the councillors who were promoting the zoning but the officials. Therefore, it is not only on the councillors that we should be homing in.
Let us consider sections 7, 8 and 19, under which two thirds of councillors will be required to vote in favour of motions to sanction or materially contravene development plans. While I honestly do not know how frequently these motions arise or how often they are voted on, I suspect they are not as frequent as the reasons for introducing this legislation would suggest.
The Minister states this Bill will strengthen local democracy. However, I argue it will weaken the power of local councillors, who are elected directly by the people in the communities in which they live. They are accountable to the people and must put themselves before the electorate every five years. This Bill provides for new arrangements for adopting county and city development plans whereby two thirds of the majority of the council will be required to pass a plan or make a material contravention or change. My concern in this regard is that a rump can develop within a council whereby a small number of councillors can band together to halt a genuinely good development plan. This gives more power to a minority grouping within a council. Surely this measure is not improving local democracy.
If the Minister is concerned about the formulation of development plans, he should consider the Fine Gael proposal that was in the party's local election manifesto. It stated a register of lobbyists should be set up and be publicly accessible in local authority areas. Thus, elected members and council officials would be required by law to register any lobbying by developers or landowners regarding zoning issues. That would bring considerable transparency and accountability to the planning process and the creation of development plans.
In the Minister's recent contributions in the Dáil on NAMA, he has apportioned unfairly much of the blame for the property boom to councillors on the basis of decisions they made. I do not like this impression because there are other reasons the property boom occurred in the manner it did. The very fact land is zoned does not necessarily mean it can be built upon. It must obviously be subjected to stringent technical criteria during the planning application process, and a recommendation must be made by professional planners before a final decision is made by the relevant county or city manager. A decision can be appealed through An Bord Pleanála, if necessary.
Where large-scale housing developments did take place, more cohesive social infrastructure should have been developed in parallel. I acknowledge that this Bill attempts to address the social deficit attaching to large-scale developments.
Rather than restricting the powers of the councillor, the Minister could have examined ways to increase transparency and accountability in the local authority planning process, which includes planning departments, planning officials and elected members.
Section 10 increases the threshold in respect of which local authorities are obliged to develop local area plans. The relevant population is being increased from 2,000 to 5,000. Local authorities are being directed to leave smaller towns and villages without local area plans and without local democratic consultation and drafting. It seems towns with a population of 5,000 or more are those that the Minister wants to micro-manage centrally from his Department. The national spatial strategy has never been approved by the Oireachtas and has had no legal status up to now. Targets were established under the strategy without any strategic environmental assessment, which type of assessment should be required in respect of any basic large-scale development or development plan.
There are genuine concerns regarding the statutory power this Bill will transfer to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister. Any new development plan or local area plan will be required by law to conform with the national spatial strategy and the regional development plans.
Every community, local authority area and city has unique strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, any development plan must identify these and address them, and it must exploit any strengths and potential. This Bill attempts to have a uniform type of development that conforms with national and regional plans. One size does not fit all and every town is not the same.
The national spatial strategy, when first introduced, was a document for guidance and co-ordination for State agencies and local authorities with regard to the priorities in the national development plan. When the strategy was drafted, there was no proper analysis or public consultation and there was no opportunity to comment on its content when introduced by the Government. In essence, it was a diktat from central government on how our country should develop. To date, the national spatial strategy has had no legal status and, as far as I know, it was not approved by the Oireachtas.
Under the Bill before us, the national spatial strategy, which was originally a guidance and co-ordination document, will be compulsory under law. Local authorities will be required by law to conform with its content and direction. The problem we have with this is that, whatever the merits of the national spatial strategy, there is nothing stopping the present Minister or any future Minister from redrafting a new one without proper local consultation or democratic accountability. The new strategy would remain, in law, the fundamental framework for any development plans adopted subsequently by local authorities. This is essentially an attack on local democracy. The strategy is simply a development plan handed down directly from central government, from the Department and Minister, and has the statutory status to require local authorities to conform with it.
The Minister referred to section 18, in respect of which the Minister had to get involved directly with county development plans in a number of local authority jurisdictions. He is fully entitled to do so as Minister. As a member of the Oireachtas joint committee, I listened to submissions from both sides expressing displeasure over the Minister's intervention. I am glad to say he has taken on board the need for further consultation at an early stage in the formulation of development plans where he feels they do not conform with the guidelines.
In Mayo, all parties represented in the local authority decided unanimously to adopt the county development plan. We must all accept local democracy and listen to what representatives are saying. The Minister intervened in this case but I felt the way he and his officials dealt with the matter was a bit heavy-handed. It could have been handled better. He is attempting to address this issue by way of the reference to a consultation process in this Bill.
Rural Ireland has always been inhabited. Our planning model is not the same as that in Great Britain where people tend to live in small hamlets, towns and villages. I would not like to see the day when we decide to emulate the British planning policy. Reference is often made to forced urbanisation. It seems this Bill will go a long way towards forcing urbanisation. It will require local authorities, when developing their plans, to establish population targets and trends and establish subsequently a hierarchy of settlement areas within individual counties. It is essential that these population trends and statistics are perfect before we develop plans based on that information.
There are some very good measures contained in the Bill, including enhanced e-planning and on-line planning applications. The legislation clarifies issues in that regard and ensures full information will be available to the public on-line, which is welcome. The position on the taking in charge of housing estates is also clarified. We have all seen the difficulties with unfinished estates for people around the country. I welcome the clarification to the effect that local authorities can take in charge housing estates and that they will have the power to refuse planning permission where an unauthorised development has taken place. That is very welcome.
I have outlined many of my concerns and those of my party but I do not want to sound too negative. There are good elements to the Bill and this is a good time to review the planning process because of the changes in our economic circumstances and the legacies to which the Minister referred. I do not disagree with cutting the number required for a quorum from three members to two in An Bord Pleanála, although it will not achieve a lot. As referrals to the board have slowed significantly, they should be dealt with properly.
Sections 24 and 25 deal with public infrastructure, schools and transport services integration. We agree with any measure to improve integration in all these areas. We also welcome the increased fines where people are in breach of planning laws.
At this early stage, the Bill is incomplete. From what I have heard from the Minister today, it will be heavily amended on Committee Stage. We agree with much of it but disagree with parts of it for the reasons I have outlined. In the main, we are concerned that it is a Bill to manage planning processes in local communities at a national level in a Department controlled by the Minister of the day.
Senator Hannigan has a pressing appointment and, if the Leas-Chathaoirleach and the House agree, I am prepared to defer to him. I will speak after him.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I thank Senator Glynn for his very gracious actions. I welcome the Minister and, as I must leave, will summarise my remarks. We welcome the Bill which is a fair attempt at improving the existing legislation. We acknowledge that it seeks to clean up the mess left behind by successive Governments.
I strongly welcome the incorporation of provisions dealing with greenhouse gases. The climate change debate, incorporating as it does the complexities surrounding the reduction of emissions and a move towards sustainable living, can seem very far removed from the experience in towns and villages across Ireland but it is at this level that real changes must be made. I have no difficulty in supporting provisions that will incorporate the promotion of sustainable and environmentally progressive practices into development plans.
Section 31 deals with the taking in charge process and it is good to see it included. I am glad to see an attempt being made to deal with the issue of multi-unit developments, an issue about which I have been speaking for some time in the House. We are glad to see action being taken on that issue. Residents in estates across the country will welcome the introduction of this legislation.
I reserve the right to table amendments at a later stage but in broad terms, we welcome the legislation and look forward to Committee Stage. I again thank Senator Glynn for allowing me to speak before him.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire agus fáiltím roimh an Bille seo. I welcome the Minister and the introduction of the Bill. I would not be telling the truth if I said I was happy with all of the provisions of the Bill because I am not. The Minister would need to be the good Lord himself to bring forward a Bill that would find satisfaction on every side of the House, even the Government side.
One very pleasing aspect is that the Bill has been initiated in the Seanad, which is appropriate and important, given that the vast majority of our electorate are locally elected members of county or borough councils. I was nominated to stand for this body by town councillors.
The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 is part of the Government's commitment to having a smart economy in Ireland. I welcome the stab in this direction. The Bill also provides a framework for sustainable economic renewal.
Reference has been made to corruption in the planning system and it is important to refer to it again at this stage. There may be a misconception that this corruption only involved local and national politicians but it did not. Some officials were also involved, as has been proved conclusively. I would welcome any measure to eliminate corruption. I never had any problem in supporting zonings I thought were correct but which may not have found favour with officials. Officials are not always right but they are not always wrong either. Neither are local authority members always right or wrong.
The Bill introduces a number of key changes to the planning code with the principal aim of supporting economic renewal and promoting sustainable development. I hope it will bring to an end bad planning which has led to a deterioration in the quality of life for a number of people living in estates without facilities, schools or proper public transport services.
The new legislation will give the Minister of the day a greater legal role in the making of local authority development plans. Although the Minister has left, I have already made this point to him. I would be concerned about any measure that would in any way reduce the powers of locally elected members. Planning is mainly local under the auspices of a local authority; therefore, a locally elected member who is directly answerable to the electorate is the most appropriate person to make plans in that regard. I will comment further on this issue when the Minister is present.
There were zoning decisions made by certain local authorities which did not find favour with the Department or the Minister; they did not find favour with me either. In many local authorities it is Senator Coffey's party which is dominant and has a primary role in the preparation and bringing forward of a county development plan.
That was not always the case.
I said we were not always right or wrong.
There was control exercised from Dublin also.
I referred to that issue also. I have no problem in putting my cards on the table face up and it is a pot I hope to win.
There will be consistency between a local authority's development plan and the national spatial strategy with regard being had to regional planning guidelines and ministerial directives such as those issued to a number of councils. Senator Coffey has indicated one county council where the development plan had the support of the entire membership, which raised questions regarding ministerial directives. A Minister would have his or her view and locally elected members would have theirs and we do not always have to agree. At least when we discuss problems, a measure can be employed to solve them.
The Bill seeks to ensure development will take place at the right time, in the correct place and at a suitable pace to allow for the provision of necessary infrastructure. A major change to the planning process is that under the new Bill, two thirds of councillors, instead of a simple majority, will have to approve the county development plan. I will have to think about this. I am always conscious of the powers of locally elected members. The Minister might look at this provision again to see what can be done about the matter.
The Bill will also ensure that the powers councillors possess will be exercised in a responsible way in accordance with good planning practice. It will further ensure that public officials will discharge their responsibilities in an appropriate and lawful manner. Anything that can be done to eliminate the type of behaviour that has occurred in recent years must be welcomed.
The Bill will see an end to the type of bad planning that has led to a deterioration in some people's quality of life. I refer to those who live in estates which do not have facilities such as schools and from which there is a lack of access to proper public transport. I have been accused of being anti-developer. I wish to state, without apology, that I am opposed to bad developers. I am no friend of anyone who receives planning permission to proceed with a development in a particular area and who walks away without discharging his or her responsibilities. It is taxpayers' money which is used to complete estates long after developers have trousered the funds they were paid and bolted. That should not be the case.
In circumstances where appropriate infrastructure is not provided, planning permission should not be forthcoming. I have always held this view. When I was first elected to Westmeath County Council in 1979, the late, great Gerry L'Estrange of the Fine Gael Party and I cosponsored a motion to the effect that anyone who defaulted on the terms of a previous planning application should not receive planning permission in the future. At the time, there was no law in place to support our viewpoint in this regard. However, we were trying to send a signal to those intent on proceeding with housing developments in Westmeath that their activities would be closely monitored.
The Bill will require that in order to ensure greater transparency, amendments of draft development or local area plans which have been the subject of public consultation may only be changed in minor respects. I support public consultation. Westmeath County Council, of which I was a member for almost 25 years, has always discharged its responsibilities in this regard, and rightly so.
Under the new procedures in the Bill, the Minister is endeavouring to play a greater role and to take on greater responsibility. However, he should be extremely cognisant of the role of locally elected representatives.
Someone has his or her mobile phone switched on the in House.
I do not know whose phone it is, although it may be mine. I apologise.
We must protect the powers of locally elected representatives. However, I accept that the Minister is trying to ensure that such representatives discharge their duties in the proper way. I support him in that regard.
I am not satisfied with the way in which enforcement orders relating to planning matters are being applied. In some instances, they are not being applied. I am aware of a case where a shed was converted into living quarters. This structure was connected to the water and sewerage systems without, to my knowledge, the approval of the local authority. However, the ESB refused to connect it to the local grid. As I understand it, the relevant local authority and An Bord Pleanála have refused planning permission on two occasions but the enforcement order has not been put into effect. If a law is in place, it must be implemented.
I do not know why we bother introducing laws. Ireland is the best country in the world for introducing laws but it falls down in respect of enforcement. The Derelict Sites Act is not being enforced. There are many eyesores in rural areas and in villages, towns and cities. The legislation relating to dangerous buildings is also not being enforced and this has an impact with regard to the safety of communities.
The terms of the planning guidelines are in line with the Government strategy outlined in Building Ireland's Smart Economy: A Framework for Sustainable Economic Renewal. The current planning regime is based on the Planning and Development Act 2000, which consolidated and modernised our system, and the national spatial strategy, which was launched in 2002. Regional authorities have been responsible for regional planning guidelines since 2004. Development plans and local area plans are made by planning authorities.
The issue of over-zoning is one of the reasons for the introduction of the Bill. In the era of NAMA, it is clear that we need planning strategies that are much more focused. A "Prime Time" programme on this issue discovered that a town in my county has zoned enough land to cater for local needs up to 2069.
That is what the Minister said but it is not true.
There is no doubt that in some instances planning and zoning practices are inconsistent with national, regional and local planning guidelines.
The Bill aims to increase efficiency and improve the performance of An Bord Pleanála by up to 60%. That is a welcome development. The statutory quorum of the board is to be reduced from three to two people. I do not agree with this because it could result in deadlock. If there are three people involved, there is, at least, the chance that a majority decision might be reached. If it takes two thirds of a council to approve a variation, I fail to see why the quorum relating to An Bord Pleanála is being reduced. That is not a fair way to proceed and I ask the Minister to reconsider the position in this regard.
In view of the fact that there has been a decrease in the number of planning applications, surely the volume of work will automatically be reduced. As a result, the output of An Bord Pleanála should be substantially increased without there being a need to interfere with the quorum necessary to allow meetings to proceed.
The Bill also allows for the extension of planning permissions for a further five years. This provision is welcome, particularly in view of the slump in the property market. I am aware of a case where, in 1996, an application was granted in respect of a material contravention. However, the person who owned the property was suffering from the early effects of Alzheimer's disease and was not in a position to make a decision on the matter. That is a great pity because there is an existing need in the local area which could be addressed if the planning permission to which I refer were extended.
Planning must allow towns, villages, cities and rural areas to develop. Rural development is extremely important. Members are aware of schools that have closed because local populations have declined. They are also aware of instances where local GAA and soccer clubs have been obliged to amalgamate because they cannot muster enough players to field teams. Post offices and churches have been obliged to close as a result of the declining number of people living in particular areas.
Rural areas are extremely important. There is a view prevalent among certain people — a member of my county council said this at one point — that one-off housing developments are a blight on the landscape. I was born and bred in the country. I live in a town but I am very proud of my country origins. It is important to have reasonable development in rural areas because this helps to sustain the population in those areas.
There are many more comments I could make but I will wait until Committee Stage to do so. I agree with much of what is contained in the Bill but I am sure the Minister and others will bring forward amendments to address the concerns I have raised.
Ba bhreá liom tosú le fáilte a chur roimh an Aire. Bille tábhachtach atá sa Bhille seo. Cuirim fáilte roimhe agus roimh an cuid is mó de a bhfuil ann. Measaim go ndéanfaidh sé maitheas. Bhí an ceart ag mo chomhghleacaithe a dúirt go bhfuil sé ró-dhéanach ar bhealach, mar go bhfuil an-chuid dochar déanta cheana féin maidir le cúrsaí pleanála. Bhí mé an-tógtha le línte ar leith ó óráid an Aire a léirigh cé chomh dona agus ar chaitheadh le cúrsaí pleanála sa tír seo le blianta anuas. Mar shampla: "Fields that should have been left to the cattle were rezoned and then sold on for gargantuan profits to developers who borrowed heavily to buy them." A later example from the Minister's speech is when he stated: "The planning system could be described as being at best passively negligent or, at worst, actively complicit in the economic travails in which we find ourselves today."
It is sad that a ministerial speech must contain such lines. While the truth of such lines cannot be denied, how sad it is that in the midst of our prosperity, we lost sight of the essentials of good management. I listened with interest to the comments of my colleagues thus far, including those just made by Senator Glynn, but no one could state there was wise stewardship at either national or local level in recent years in respect of planning matters. No one could state that the common good was foremost in the minds at all times of politicians and policymakers. While I do not deny that good and ethical people were doing their best within the system, no one can state that the events of the past 15 years or so represented a triumph of the common good over petty individual interests. All Members know what went on.
For example, in 2004 I was canvassing for a friend who was running in the local elections. I will not reveal for which or any party the person in question was running. I recall being highly struck by and feeling angry about my experiences, having spent a day knocking on doors not far from here in a new suburban part of Dublin. When a door was opened, I found myself looking into a person's living room because in some cases the new houses that had been built did not even afford people the dignity of a hallway. Consequently, one found oneself looking into the living room of a house. In another case, I remember that to drop in a leaflet, I was obliged to climb a rather steep flight of concrete steps to access the front door of a house. I found myself wondering whether the people who planned this arrangement gave the slightest consideration to persons with disabilities or to young mothers with buggies. It was quite clear, even on the basis of that brief and superficial experience, that the common good of ordinary people was not at the top of the list of priorities. I remember wondering whether this was a failure of legislation, whether there was an absence of effective building regulations or whether such building regulations were flouted. It was difficult to assess how things had come to that pass.
One has the Bacon report of 2000 to thank for a particular vision. While there was an economic argument for higher density housing, I question whether the same attention was paid to people's need for quality of life and amenities. I acknowledge that some steps have been taken in recent years towards correcting this but Ireland certainly is far behind other countries. I think of the Netherlands as one possible example in which high density housing was achieved without losing sight of individual needs. My experience, then and subsequently, of poor quality planning and of unacceptable forms and styles of development made it clear to me that what was needed was careful legislation, as well as enforcement of whatever standards were identified. This also applies to architects because development at any level requires careful regulation of practitioners and, in this regard, the continued existence of unqualified cowboy architects, for example, is a source of concern. This matter may continue to require attention.
This Bill, with its emphasis on sustainable development and evidence-based planning, is to be welcomed by the House. In particular, the provisions that provide for increased transparency and for information in development and local area plans constitute a welcome step, as does the increased majority that now is required on the planning authority to make material amendments or variations to plans. This Bill addresses the thorny issue of the balance between planning on the one hand and the market on the other. This need for balance is manifest in the debate on the amount of land to be zoned for development. As Members are aware, excessive zoning leads to unsustainable development and weakens the capacity of the local authority to provide infrastructure. Equally, however, a shortage of zoned land pushes up the cost of housing and drives less well-off house buyers into less than optimal locations. When I refer to less than optimal locations, I mean places that are far from population centres.
I am proud to state that I come from east Galway, a rural part of Ireland, from which the Minister of State who is present, Deputy Áine Brady, also comes. I am sure we both are very fond of it and the protection of a sustainable rural way of life is a matter about which I feel strongly, as does the Minister of State. However, this way of life can only continue to exist if one maintains population centres that support the essentials of living, that is, shops, churches, post offices and even pubs. Section 24 allows the wider application of development levies to support broadband roll-out or flood relief and both sections 24 and 25 assist school building. Consequently, I welcome this provision regarding developers' levies, which provides for an extension of the potential application of the funds to come from such levies in favour of much-needed amenities.
On the question of school building, I refer to the McCarthy or an bord snip nua report. The only aspect nua about it is that it is the second such report. However, the idea of cutting is not new. I gather that an bord snip nua proposes saving approximately €25 million through the amalgamation of rural schools. While recognising the parlous state in which one finds the public finances, as someone who came from what was at first a two-teacher and later became a three-teacher school, I view such recommendations with concern. I believe rural schooling must be supported and that one must ensure the creation of that sustainability of population that will support student numbers and thus, by definition, support teacher numbers and school viability. This Bill and the wider sustainable planning ethos it supports is a welcome step forward in this regard.
Another element of the Bill which is to be welcomed is the new focus on the reduction of greenhouse gases. When local authorities create development plans, they must include a section on how climate change can be addressed with particular reference to man-made greenhouse gas emissions. This of course will have implications, which sometimes might be controversial, for issues such as one-off housing and so on, as well as the relationship between housing and transport. In general however, this initiative is to be greatly welcomed. Climate change-based reform is often misunderstood and it is easy for naysayers to promote the idea that reform is an urban agenda forced on rural communities. Elements of this Bill rebut that argument by giving local authorities a clear role in addressing climate change at a local level.
I refer to my earlier point about sustainable communities. The link between development and transport links is important. Greater availability of public and shared transport is good for both rural communities and the fight against climate change. This is related to the welcome, if belated, recognition of the importance of the national spatial strategy and the necessity to pay attention to its recommendations rather than the lip service we have seen thus far. This can be ensured by replacing the phrase "shall have regard to" with the much stronger "shall be consistent with". The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government courted controversy earlier in his term by overturning the county development plans of Mayo and Monaghan. The new consultation procedure contained in this Bill will ensure that issues such as this can be resolved in an affable manner and at an earlier stage of the process, without ignoring the fact that planning has national as well as local repercussions.
Notwithstanding the many positive elements of the Bill, I had some reservations about the provisions of section 28. This reduces the quorum for some meetings of An Bord Pleanála. I noted Senator Glynn's comments on this matter. An Bord Pleanála has a hard-earned reputation for being a champion of planning excellence. I was initially concerned on hearing the quorum was to be reduced, especially given that the rationale for the reduction was efficiency. I am glad to see that the Minister has struck a balance. It will be of some consolation to Senator Glynn, who worried about what might happen in the event of a tied vote, that the reduced quorum of two will only apply on occasion and is subject to some control. Decisions that are contentious and result in tied decisions can be resolved by the board in a meeting with the traditional triumvirate present.
I refer to planning permission and the possibility of the five-year deadline being extended. No doubt there are sound economic and financial reasons for this. We can contextualise it by reference to the important work proposed to be done by NAMA and the need to keep the market value of properties sufficiently high. This is a controversial area in which a balance must be struck and there are good grounds for saying that in some cases it would be desirable to extend the period of planning permission by a further five years.
I welcome this Bill as a step forward for sustainable planning in our State. In many areas, we face the threat of rural depopulation, a shortage of employment due to the lack of regard to spatial concerns and the continuation of behaviour that damages our fragile environment. This Bill is a step towards addressing these concerns and is to be welcomed.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an-chuid atá sa Bhille. Maidir le tábhacht na tuaithe, is minic go mbíonn díospóireacht ann ar chaomhnú shaol na tuaithe ar thaobh amháin agus polasaithe pleanála ar an taobh eile. Tá gnéithe sa Bhille seo a thugann réiteach agus a thuigeann an tábhacht a bhaineann leis an dá rud le chéile, go háirithe athrú aeráide agus an dualgas ar údaráis áitiúla go mbeidh plean acu i dtaobh astaíochtaí carbóin mar pháirt den phlean forbartha. Tá sé furasta bheith ag rá nuair a bhíonn daoine ag plé caomhnú na timpeallachta go bhfuil agenda na cathrach á bhrú ar lucht na tuaithe. Is léir go bhfuil dualgais agus ról anois ar údaráis aitiúla dul i ngleic leis an bhfadhb maidir le hathruithe san aeráid. Tá nasc tábhachtach idir forbairt agus acmhainní iompair agus nasc eile idir caomhnú na timpeallachta agus caomhnú shaol na tuaithe.
Tá mé sásta go bhfuil an tAire ag cur leis an leas is feidir a bhaint as an cháin a leagtar ar lucht forbartha maidir le rudaí eile ar nós broadband a chothú in alt 24 agus 25 den Bhille.
Thar aon rud eile, tá mé sásta gur luadh na scoileanna anseo. Bhí mé buartha nuair a léigh mé an méid a bhí scríofa ag an mBord Snip maidir le ciorruithe ar scoileanna beaga le €25 milliún a shabháilt. Mar dhuine a d'fhreastal ar scoil náisiúnta a bhí beag, tuigim go bhfuil tábhacht ag baint le scoileanna tuaithe. Is breá an rud go bhfuil an leathnú amach anseo in alt 24 agus 25 den Bhille, a thugann deis úsáid éagsúil a bhaint as an cháin a ghearrtar ar lucht forbartha.
Tréaslaím leis an Aire agus leis an mBille agus tá mé ag súil leis an chéad chéim eile.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, who is listening to the very fine contributions of everybody. That is how it should be at this stage of the debate. This is a very important Bill and I am glad it is being introduced at this time because it will have a huge impact on how we will develop. It is timely in light of the economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. I am also glad it has been initiated in the Seanad for the simple reason that most of us were county councillors and understand the workings of a development plan, how the drafting process begins with local consultation and how it moves through every stage before it becomes finalised. I am very pleased to listen to the debate and to many of the points made by the Opposition, particularly by my colleague from Waterford, Senator Coffey, to which I will refer; I am big enough to lend praise when it has to be given.
Planning is about people and the common good must come into play. We must examine where we went wrong in recent years. Was it developer led rather than planning led? Was there bad management? I am not saying there was or there was not; I do not know enough to do so. However, a perception exists that things were not right during recent years and that was what created the property bubble and the commuter belts, as a result of which we have huge suffering. People live in houses which were very badly designed. One walks into a house and can hear all the activity in the next house, including conversations. Something went wrong with the various professional bodies and people involved in planning. We did not get it right professionally. I am not stating that any particular person is to blame but something went wrong. As a county councillor I could see this was happening, as I could in recent years as a Senator.
I am glad we are introducing an amendment to the 2000 Act to ensure this will never happen again. We need a hands-on approach and the Minister spoke about his core strategy, which is that the development plan and housing strategy must be consistent with the planning guidelines and the national spatial strategy. That is a wide statement but a simple one. It means that at policy level, whenever a plan comes up for renewal the national spatial strategy and the regional guidelines will be taken into account.
I am concerned we have become more urbanised in our thinking in recent years. We have many ghost towns throughout Ireland; they are lovely during the summer months but come October and November there is nobody there. There are no houses being built as families cannot build houses on their local farm, the public houses are closing because of the laws on drink driving and we also have an issue with rural transport. My vision is that we would have activity throughout Ireland. I do not want to be urbanised or ruralised; I want Ireland to prosper. My Ireland is one where all small towns prosper.
I am delighted to support Senator Coffey who spoke about seven villages in Waterford which I know very well. For years they have been crying out for a village sewerage scheme but nothing has happened. I do not understand why it is not activated. People are trying to build houses. The post offices and public houses are closing in these areas. Derelict sites exist everywhere. We have golden opportunities to upgrade our little seaside villages which have beautiful scenery but suffer from neglect. This must be taken into account when planning.
The Bill states that a population of 5,000 people is required for a local area plan, an increase from the requirement of a population of 2,000. The concept is great but what will happen to an area that does not have a population of 5,000 people but which wants a little development plan for the area? Is this urbanised thinking? Is this for a big development scheme of 500 houses? It is not for two or three houses in a small site or for where one wants to create employment by establishing a business in an area and so it is zoned for industry. I do not know enough about this but I am asking questions.
I am concerned about the majority rule for development plans as two thirds of county councillors will now be required. The role of the councillor is very important and councillors do great work. However, many of them have another job and if they have to be there for a plan to be passed by two thirds we may never have a plan passed. People objecting may form a group and the two thirds majority would not be reached. I am in favour of ensuring we have proper planning in an area, adhering to the regional guidance plan and looking after the little people but will it be possible to get development plans through with the demands on county councillors? Most county councillors want to be there to vote on development plans; it is one of the most important roles of a county councillor and is very important to them.
I will deviate and raise the issue of An Bord Pleanála, which may not be relevant to this discussion but perhaps it should be. This is with regard to the relationship between banks and developers and I will use the example of the Ballsbridge site which cost €379 million funded by bank borrowing. The question that needs to be asked is whether banks took planning considerations into account when making lending decisions to developers. Should banks be lending money where there is no hope of getting planning permission? We need to discuss these issues at policy level because the perception is that local authorities send out the wrong signals to developers leaving An Bord Pleanála to overturn or amend planning decisions on appeal. In a case where a local authority rezones land and grants planning permission because a developer obtained a large amount of money to buy that land why would An Bord Pleanála turn it down if the planners had stuck to the regional guidelines and national spatial strategy and followed all of the necessary examples? An Bord Pleanála plays a major role at policy level in large development schemes. There are many examples of land being worth less because planning permission was turned down and it is about to go to NAMA. An Bord Pleanála should have a larger role at the earlier stages of these developments. Let it come in at the end when there is an objection for other reasons. Why would it object if one has adhered to the planning guidelines? If an inspector's report states a planning application adheres to the guidelines, why should An Bord Pleanála turn it down? Why send an inspector to vet a development when his or her word will not be taken?
Why is the number required for a statutory quorum being reduced from three members of the board to two? Is it to speed up the processes involved? I welcome the provision for the extension of planning permissions for five years where a development cannot be completed in the time stated.
I welcome the Bill and have no doubt there will be many debates about its provisions on Committee Stage. I am concerned about certain provisions. At all costs, powers should not be taken away from county councillors. They are doing a great job and have good knowledge and experience of local issues such as broadband services and transport infrastructure which can assist the planning process.
I agree with Senator Coffey on the lack of water and sewerage schemes in many Waterford towns. These are ghost towns in the winter, a problem which should not have been allowed to happen. Rural as well as urban development is needed. We cannot become too urbanised. This is all about Ireland, not urban areas.
While some aspects of this legislation are worthwhile, overall, its timing is a joke, akin to shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. It would have been useful during the property bubble, as the Minister referred to it. While Senator Coffey outlined Fine Gael's position on the legislation, I want to raise the issue of councillors being criticised by the Minister. I welcome Senator Ormonde's endorsement of county councillors. As Members elected by county councillors, we are acutely aware of the work they do. The Minister went to great lengths to say how much he respected those involved in planning departments across the country. However, he never spoke about how hard working many local authority members could be.
During the debate on NAMA the Minister spoke about the local authority in Athlone. Senator Glynn was quick to point out that there was enough land zoned in Athlone to cater for local needs up to 2069. The Senator plucked that figure from nowhere because I certainly do not have divine knowledge of how land will be developed and used in Athlone. I hope we will have more responsible and less reckless lending than in the past. The Minister criticised Athlone, even when his party was most welcome there at its conference. I was gobsmacked when he asked if the Mullingar accord had brought about a fair deal for the people of County Westmeath and their families. I was a member of the local authority when the national spatial strategy was first mooted. Athlone and Mullingar were given the welcome status of gateway towns. It is not that you are not welcome, a Chathaoirligh, but political involvement meant Tullamore had to be included. It was important that the three main population centres in the region were connected. The Minister claims everything must come back to the national spatial strategy. We must bear in mind, however, that the plan has never been approved by the Oireachtas. Where the Minister is coming from just beggars belief.
The national spatial strategy recommended that enough land be zoned to meet developmental requirements. This was at a time when the population of Mullingar had increased by 18% and Athlone by 22%. While I agree with the Minister's criticisms about the way development has occurred, he did not comment on the Westmeath county development plan in the way he commented on those for counties Mayo and Monaghan. How dare he criticise our county, particularly when one recalls the shenanigans in the Dublin area with the Ray Burkes, Liam Lawlors and Frank Dunlops of this world, members of the party with which the Minister is now in government?
No names, please.
I am referring to honest to goodness councillors who until recently were not paid very well. They have worked tirelessly for their communities to develop proper infrastructure, amenities and water schemes, all for the greater good.
The Minister spoke about the need to have sound development plans in place with proper water schemes, cycle paths, schools and so forth. While I appreciate this, what about the provision of resources for such services and amenities? There are wonderful hotels and quality housing estates in Athlone but no sewage treatment plant. Raw sewage is still pumped into the River Shannon. The Minister then has the cheek to lecture us about how Athlone councillors have carried on their business. The blame must be laid firmly at the door of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for not providing moneys for water services infrastructural projects.
The Minister referred to the taking in charge of housing estates, as provided for in section 31. It is important councils take in charge housing estates. In Athlone several housing estates require expensive improvements to lighting, water and sewerage schemes, footpaths and roads which would involve a massive cost for the council. How will the local authority find the moneys to put these housing estates right and take them in charge? In an ideal world that would be the right thing to do. Of course we should take them in charge but we need the money. The Minister, however, did not say where that would come from. He spoke in a broad general way.
He suggests that the manager report on the development plans and address every single issue. I do not know what happens in his local authority. Was he ever a councillor?
This must not have been the way in his time or perhaps he was asleep. In our local authority the manager addressed every issue and amendment. The same applied to the local area plans. He would have come back to the council with a report on every issue. Everything, that the Minister aspires to in the Bill, such as recycling and transport, has been included in our development plans. We went to great lengths sometimes going through the plans for six and seven hours to ensure we were happy with them.
The idea of reducing the quorum in An Bord Pleanála from three to two beggars belief. I do not know why the Minister is doing that. In my simple reckoning if three people sit around a table the process is more transparent. I look forward to hearing on Committee Stage why the Minister has come up with that idea.
I am really upset by the Minister's comment that Athlone is the tip of overzoning iceberg which contributed massively to the housing and development bubble. He also referred to 45 towns and cities around the country. I do not know why he lays the blame fairly and squarely on Athlone when one considers what went on around Dublin and the cosy cartels between bankers and Fianna Fáil in the tent in Galway. These are Deputies with whom the Minister fraternised and with whom he is working in government. The idea that he would lambaste councillors to the extent that he is doing is outrageous.
There are aspects of this Bill with which I agree. We all need proper planning. Renewable energy, which is so close to the Minister's heart, is very welcome. The part of the Bill dealing with offshore energy is very important. Wave power is the way forward and we must comply with the request for windmills in amenity areas. I also agree with the proposal to penalise people who apply for retention when they have already built houses or extensions that they should not have built. While I agree with many aspects of the Bill, it is incomplete and the Minister said he needs to table many amendments. For that reason Fine Gael cannot support it on this Stage. House prices increased 250% between 1996 and 2006. What is the value of a house, agricultural land or zoned land now? It is ridiculous to be debating this legislation now. It should have been introduced two years ago.
In answer to the Senator's question as to why we are discussing this Bill now, all legislation needs updating and there are some provisions in the Bill which are most welcome, such as section 23. I have come across several couples who received planning permission in recent years but whose economic circumstances have changed, for example, one or both spouses may have lost their jobs, such that they cannot go ahead with the development of their houses and their planning permission runs out. In rural Ireland if one's planning permission runs out there is no guarantee that one will get it back as planning codes and restrictions tighten. Many couples are paying off mortgages although in effect they own only fields with no value. That is why the provision in section 23 which amends the 2000 Act is most welcome.
This ties in to NAMA because, amazingly, the Government will end up owning a great deal of property, some of which has planning permission but which it is not economical to develop. If the permission runs out, however, the value of the land will disappear. For the Government to re-establish value on the land it would have to seek planning permission at enormous cost in architects' fees and levies and so on. That provision is most welcome. The rub, however, is that couples have already lost value in their property where the planning permission has run out and need to seek permission to re-establish value and build a house in the future but may not get the permission.
This Bill was published last May and had it been passed then, some people would have been able to apply for an extension of up to another five years under section 23 without having to go through the entire planning permission process. The Government will also take over planning permission that has run out and will have to spend millions re-applying for permission. I have written to the Minister to ask him to backdate the legislation, if not in the interests of those couples who cannot develop their land and see its value disappear, then in the Government's self-interest so that it does not have to apply for planning permission on properties it will own or take charge of through NAMA. I will table an amendment to backdate the legislation. The Minister has said he wants amendments. All Bills can be improved before being enacted.
I am also concerned about the siting of mobile telephone masts. This Bill is the ideal place in which to regulate for this. There was a problem in Annascaul when Tetra, through Eircom, wanted to place a mobile telephone mast in the middle of the village. There is growing evidence from the European Environment Agency, EEA, about the dangers of mobile telephones and masts. Although the council said that the mast should not be sited in the middle of the village and that there were alternative sites, An Bord Pleanála ruled in favour of Eircom, the mobile telephone mast and the service provider, as it always seems to do. In Kerry there is a 1 km rule for the siting of mobile telephone masts near schools, hospitals or residences. I have asked for a version of that rule to be implemented. It took years to establish the link between smoking and cancer. If a similar link is proven with mobile telephone masts it will be incumbent on the Government to take account of what the EEA calls the precautionary principle. It would have to establish a principle whereby all mobile telephone masts would be situated as far away from the population as is practical. This was the case in Annascaul where alternative sites were available. However, An Bord Pleanála's plan states the committee numbers can go from three to two. God knows what would happen if they disagreed. They would probably end up tossing a coin.
We must look at this issue because it is unsustainable. Mobile telephone companies seem to be getting away with a great deal of irregular behaviour by putting communications devices on existing masts without applying for planning and subsequently applying for retention.
A councillor in Galway, Jim Cuddy, raised the issue of how landowners can have their lands rezoned from development to amenity without being notified. I realise there is a process but surely we could bring it about that where land is being rezoned, as is proposed in parts of the Bill, there would be a right to be informed correctly and with due process. We could amend this point.
Increasing numbers of agricultural buildings could be used for small enterprises as distinct from light industry — I am not talking about a mini version of Harland and Wolff. We could try to get those going in rural areas where, because farm buildings are involved, planning issues would not apply and there could be a simplified non-bureaucratic process. God knows we are great at red tape in some cases but this could be done in a way that made it as easy as possible and we would create jobs at this time when we need them. Councillor Pat Doran in County Wicklow raised that idea. There are great ideas being put forward from local people who deal with planning regularly. This is especially so in the case of rural planning.
Banks have a role to play too. Where a couple is forced to sell their property which contains a residency clause stating it cannot be used as a holiday home and that the buyer has to prove a need to live in the area, if that couple, who may be in County Louth, for example, intend selling their property to a person from Dublin offering €300,000 to buy it and commute to work, the council can refuse to allow that purchaser to buy the property on the basis that they live in Dublin and do not need to live in Louth. The bank will then repossess the house, that same person from Dublin can go to the bank and say he or she was trying to buy the house but the council would not allow the sale because of the residency clause attaching to the owner of the property, and the bank, which might have loaned only €225,000, will ask for €250,000 in return for calling it a day. The problem is that the original owner of the property will then be at a loss because of being unable to sell it on the open market although it appears the bank can sell it to whomsoever it wishes.
At this time banks should not have any advantage over an individual who is trying to maximise their price in selling the property into which they have put their heart and soul but on which, because of financial reasons, they cannot maintain the mortgage. A person may not be allowed to achieve market value because of the residency clause. I ask the Minister to take into consideration in the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill that rather than the residency clause being specific to named individuals, it would just be a residency clause and the person who would take possession of the property would have to have it as his or her principal private residence and that it would not be subject to the €200 levy which we have now established.
There is natural justice involved in this. If banks can repossess houses to which residency clauses apply and sell them to anyone, and councils say they can do so, how is it that the people who owned the properties originally are not allowed to achieve maximum value because the residency clauses apply and restrict those to whom the houses can be sold? My main concern is that when a bank takes over a property on which its loan is €225,000, all it cares about is covering the debt. The bank does not care that a different buyer might have offered €300,000 but did not qualify under the residency clause. This situation leaves the person with the debt and who was subject to the foreclosure at a significant financial disadvantage. The last thing with which I would wish to be associated is maintaining a financial advantage for banks because they have proven themselves unworthy of it.
This is a timely Bill. Senator McFadden pointed out that it is too late but I entirely disagree. There are many provisions which are very necessary at this time. My main emphasis concerns section 23 which we might backdate to allow a person to apply for an extension to his or her permission period without having to go through the entire planning process again.
With the permission of the House, I wish to share time with Senator Norris.
Certainly. I assume that will be six minutes each.
I do not need six. I shall take Senator Quinn's leavings.
I was so impressed to hear yesterday that life expectancy in Ireland is 80 years for children born today that I raised the matter on the Order of Business. Life expectancy in other parts of the world, for example, in southern Africa and Niger, is only 50 years. We have a much longer life expectancy. We are not top of the world — the Japanese are some years ahead of us — but we are nearly there.
I mention this because I believe urban planning should promote an active lifestyle so that we can give ourselves a healthy life in the future. This Bill calls for local authorities to show how their future planning strategy aligns to national and regional policy and how the provision of land for residential development aligns with population projections. That is where I am coming from.
As obesity levels increase in Ireland we must pay more attention to how our planning strategy impacts on the amount of physical activity in which we engage. We have not done enough in this regard or given enough attention to it. There have been numerous studies into this area but one report in 2007 by the World Health Organisation highlighted evidence of the link between physical activity and health and the need to create opportunities for active living in urban environments. I do not see much sign of that in the Bill in which the subject is only just mentioned.
There are some extraordinary statistics. Physical inactivity causes an estimated 600,000 deaths per year in Europe and leads to a loss of 5.3 million years of healthy life expectancy per year due to premature mortality and disability. The WHO study argues that several characteristics of the residential environment such as access to physical activity facilities, land use mix, active transport opportunities and perceived safety in the neighbourhood, have an impact on people's physical activity levels and, therefore, on their life expectancy. Increasing obesity rates are a serious public health concern not only in this country but around the world, especially in the western world. Lack of physical activity is a major determinant of the modern disease of obesity. Although the importance of where a person lives has been recognised to be linked to how much of an active lifestyle he or she leads, there is still a lack of integration when it comes to urban planning. This is a vital subject and one that must be promoted in any new planning strategy. This Bill, which is aimed at a wide area, including the rezoning of land for commercial development, should take other factors into account. It does not take sufficient account of healthy lifestyle.
We must ensure more access to sports facilities close to homes. This is fundamental to promoting activity, especially but not only in children, while public facilities must be within walking distance for older people. We have all visited towns and areas where it is very attractive to go out and walk or participate in sports. We have seen others where such spaces have not been allocated. We must stress the importance of developing physical and social environments which are conducive to physical activity and healthy exercise. I would like to hear the Minister's views on this and to see if it is possible to include these measures in the legislation. If not, perhaps they could be included elsewhere.
Physical activity, its link to diseases and its interaction with urban planning are not addressed nearly enough in the Bill. I hope to table an amendment or introduce a separate Bill so that specifics are set out when a town is planned. For instance, there should be a specific amount of land dedicated to healthy living. That may be vague but healthy living is a good enough term. Incentives should be provided for developing vacant and run-down areas into green and-or open spaces. We must ensure our future planning strategy is based on quality of life. It must allow access to work, school and shopping but also encourage people to exercise and participate in sport and provide facilities to do so. Exercise has been proven in the past to be beneficial in countering health problems. In the future, we could solve many health problems which we had in the past and relieve some of the stress on our health service in the future. This would be a win-win situation. We can win by ensuring we have healthier living and, therefore, a less costly health service. I believe this has not been taken into account. I would like to see it taken into account, either in this Bill or in similar legislation.
I thank Senator Quinn for allowing me to speak in his time. Planning matters are very important, particularly as they impact on housing. The Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, has been in the House on a number of occasions dealing in a progressive manner with housing developments. We have had very interesting and useful debates.
I am not as big a fan of An Bord Pleanála as some of my colleagues. It should be subject to criticism. It has made some very bizarre judgments in the past. I would be concerned were we to allow serious major decisions on planning with really significant implications to be taken by a meeting attended by only two people. Such decisions affect people's lives and livelihoods, welfare and social circumstances, and they affect the environment. Two people should not make such decisions. Three is already a pretty small number.
There are certain things in the Bill of which I strongly approve. I compliment the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Gormley. We hear much in this House about how marvellous local authorities are. I do not share that unalloyed enthusiasm. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, made a significant contribution to this area when he reversed decisions in counties Monaghan and Mayo. In Monaghan there had been gross overdesignation creating an enormous area around the town multiplying the population without any provision of services.
There has been mention of flood relief schemes. In human terms, one must sympathise with people who are in difficulty because their homes have been flooded. In certain areas, such as Clonmel, people have suffered from this sort of thing for many generations. However, we are still allowing people to build on flood plains. Why should the taxpayer be forced to rescue the victims of developers who build, with planning permission, on areas where they should not build? That is quite extraordinary. I hope the Department will follow the lead given by the Minister in addressing this issue.
I am glad some of the recommendations of the Law Reform Commission are to be implemented. There is one in particular of which I heartily approve. Power is to be given to planning authorities to refuse planning permission where the applicant has previously carried out a substantial unauthorised development or has been convicted of an offence under the planning Acts.
One of my colleagues referred to unqualified architects. I think that situation was addressed in a Bill in the last year. During the debate on that Bill I instanced a situation which arose around the corner from my home where a man, who is a scoundrel, described himself as an architect. No one could stop him. He had a series of 18th century houses which he had completely desecrated. He was convicted of planning violations in the front of a house while on the very same day was given permission by the planning authority to do even worse things at the back. That is one of the reasons I do not respect An Bord Pleanála. I am glad this power is given and I ask the Minister and his officials to supervise it and ensure it is clearly enacted. This is the kind of thing which gives planning a very bad name.
Another person submitted an application for a development of town houses near me. They were very beneficial as they protected the back aspect of some of the houses. Someone from the area objected and delayed the entire development. The objector talked about the impact on, essentially, my house. The town houses were not within an ass's roar of my house. The whole development was stymied and the scheme was redrawn. I am living with the new development but it is not half as good as the first one. It is outrageous that planning authorities can intervene because of some nosey parker and that as a result of the planning process one gets a less good development. That is crazy.
I endorse what Senator Quinn said about fitness. The development for schools is very good news. Section 25 is to provide for the possibility of a supplementary development contribution scheme to help finance the provision of new schools that might benefit a particular community or area. I will not hold my breath in the present financial circumstances but at least the power is there. There is also reference to the creation, management and restoration of sites of scientific or ecological interest.
The Bill is a compendium which addresses a series of things. I looked through it to see if there was any reference to railways. I am in favour of anything that makes our planning efficient, clear and fair, respects the environment and the ecology and leads to sustainable development. When I was a member of the Joint Committee on Transport I discovered that we are miles behind countries like Spain. In that country it was possible to develop a metro system because the planning laws had been adjusted to secure rights to land underneath houses and it was not necessary to go through endless and fractious compensation tribunals. I see nothing about this in the Bill. Perhaps I missed it. If not, can we continue to promote the development of railways? One of the areas where planning has an impact is in the provision of public transport.
Last weekend, I spoke to a meeting of the House's favourite group, An Taisce. I told them the paint almost comes off the ceiling in the Seanad when An Taisce is mentioned because Members are all gung ho in favour of one-off housing development in the countryside. I told them I have been telling this House that An Taisce warned about this matter. Were its members not right? Planning permission has been given for houses with no provision for services or consideration of water pollution. Instead of a knee-jerk attack on groups like An Taisce that sound a warning, we should be trying to take into consideration their legitimate concerns regarding our planning legislation.
I knew Senator Norris would fill the time allotted to him.
I apologise. I did not think I would.
The Senator did.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá cúrsaí pleanála thar a bheith conspóideach sa tír seo agus tugann éinne a bhíonn ag plé cúrsaí pleanála faoi deara go bhfuil freagraí ag teastáil ar an-chuid de na socruithe atá déanta in áiteanna éagsúla. Tá súil agam go gcabhróidh an Bille seo maidir le daonlathas áitiúil agus go mbeimid sásta éisteacht le daoine áitiúla ag a bhfuil an t-eolas maidir leis an gceantar. Caithfimid smaoineamh freisin ar chúrsaí eacnamaíochta mar, chomh maith le dea-phleanáil, tá siad thar a bheith tábhachtach agus tá sin i gceist sa Bhille.
Planning is controversial. One can accept that a part of the controversy may emanate from the fact that someone is not happy to have received a refusal, even a deserved one. It is important that much of the mystique of the planning code be lifted and that logic be attached to the decisions. Several times, I have visited locations where planning had either been granted or refused. Finding logic in the refusals proved difficult when permission was granted for something else that seemed more questionable. I will bow to professionalism and accept that we might not fully understand the intent, but that argument can be stretched too far and local knowledge, common sense and an area's social and economic requirements could be ignored. In this regard, I hope the Bill, which deals with economic renewal and sustainable development, will achieve the right balance.
Every Member knows of instances in which economic opportunities were obstructed because someone opposed a development for obscure reasons. I am prepared to be generous and admit that some arguments concerning a development's potential for economic renewal were not sustainable. However, one could attribute much more than sense to many objections. I have heard of cases in which objections emanated from 50 or 60 miles away. One could argue that we are all entitled to consider the totality of our environment, but there is more than that involved. We must confront the perception that rural Ireland is only a single, large picnic area that people from urban Ireland can visit on Sundays and say is wonderful to visit without realising that the lives and livelihoods of others depend on those areas.
I welcome the greater legal protection for ministerial orders. In many cases, such orders in respect of one-off rural housing need not have been issued because they have been ignored, although not in all counties. That last reverts to the point on contradictions. While I do not want to use the privilege of the House and be unfair to any profession, people in some cases are determined to oppose the ministerial guidelines.
Tens of planning officers have come from abroad. While they are welcome and have received their respective countries' professional and academic qualifications, an awareness of traditional Irish planning and development values is required. Often, this awareness is not a part of their training. I am sure they have much to contribute, but it might be a good idea to bring county managers and planning officers together for a seminar or conference to discuss what the Government is trying to achieve through the Minister's guidelines. Sometimes, they are left too open to interpretation. If the local planning authority does not show goodwill and have a positive attitude towards such guidelines, they will usually be ignored.
The main question concerns the Bill's task of achieving economic renewal while ensuring sustainable development. I am not sure whether balancing the books is possible through legislation alone. If the Government makes its desire evident and dots the i's and crosses the t's where its ambition is concerned, finding a mechanism to achieve a balance would be worthwhile.
Looking for scapegoats in any issue is easy. While I do not intend to look for them, An Bord Pleanála has considerable power and a question mark could lie over the manner in which its board is appointed. People who have been a part of a debate, such as the Irish Rural Dwellers Association — I declare an interest, as I am a member of that body — should be represented on An Bord Pleanála. Such bodies represent the whole of the country in terms of rural planning and requirements, yet they are not represented on the board. Often, those on the board come from the professions. Therefore, the difficulties I have mentioned concerning local knowledge, requirements and traditions, all of which are important, are being perpetuated. That the board does not represent such people is a snub which has been noticed with a great degree of hurt. An Bord Pleanála should be examined in this respect.
I can understand the Bill's recommendation that the quorum for a meeting of the board be reduced from three members to two, given the amount of work involved and the requirement for speedy decisions, but it will sound alarm bells with people who have questions to ask of An Bord Pleanála. These questions do not relate to matters of integrity or fulfilling duties, but we must attend to these issues if we are to negate the types of controversy arising. To suggest that the required quorum for An Bord Pleanála can now be two instead of three means the Minister is putting the decision process into the hands of two people. I query that and ask that we get some explanation in that regard.
It is vital that we assist people who want to build their houses and live in rural Ireland. I have seen more cases than I have seen days in the week where the next generation of a family with their own farm could not get permission to build a house. I ask the Minister to consider two issues. First, we used to talk about rural Ireland dying and the empty homesteads but people now have a confidence in rural Ireland and they want to live in those areas. We need only consider the social aspect of it in terms of a young married couple with children living on the same land as their parents. The parents, who are the grandparents, can help look after the children and the young couple can look after their grandparents as they get older which means there is less need for hospitalisation and nursing home care. We are also helping the young couple who must go out to make a living, pay their mortgage, etc. There are too many refusals of planning permission for reasons that are obscure and we must have the courage, wisdom and, above all else, justice to help those people. If the Bill has anything in it that will do that, it is most welcome legislation.
I commend the previous speaker on his concluding remarks about the redevelopment of rural Ireland. Senator Ó Murchú presented a picture of how issues could be improved in rural Ireland by virtue of proper planning policy development and rural sustainability. Most of the debates on planning matters in this House in recent years have focused on the difficulties faced by many people in rural Ireland in obtaining planning permission. I appreciate there must be guidelines and rules and regulations in place but as far as ministerial directives will apply I hope the Minister will use those to ensure rural Ireland will remain alive, that the practice of refusing planning applications in rural areas, which has become prevalent throughout the country, is investigated and addressed and that we will aspire to ensure the majority of people who wish to build their homes on family land holdings or neighbours' land holdings will be facilitated. As Senator Ó Murchú said, it is a win-win situation from a planning, development and social perspective and that is something we must ensure is at the heart of this legislation.
Notwithstanding that concern and doubt, I welcome the Bill brought forward by the Minister because it allows us an opportunity to speak on the significant issue of planning and development. The debate on planning and development can sometimes be philosophical but the end result is bricks and mortar. It is something we must get right and change to address the new problems facing the country.
I welcome the fact that we are debating the legislation in the Seanad. As with the previous legislation which got major attention in the Seanad, namely, the nursing homes Bill, I hope Members will get the opportunity to have a serious input into this legislation and make the changes we believe are necessary.
The Minister said that if there is one clear point to be made about planning it is that planning is about people, not buildings. I agree with that. It is about people, not development plans or planners. We must try to approach the issue from that perspective. There is an equation we must balance. We need rules, regulations and guidelines but we also need flexibility and common sense.
We are told that as a result of this development, and it sounds right, there will be closer alignment of development and local area plans with the national spatial strategy. That is a good starting perspective but in regard to another aspect of the work of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, namely, waste management, we have national plans in place. We have a national waste management strategy but virtually every local authority throughout the country has its own plan. In some counties landfills are being provided, others are involved in waste reduction while some are considering incineration etc. Within the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government's remit of waste management we have a national strategy but across the Twenty-six Counties of the Republic the Minister appears to have 26 different strategies. If we are to have a national strategy on planning and closer alignment between national and local plans, there must be an enhanced level of co-operation and one side of the equation must know what the other is doing because what is good planning in one county is generally good planning in another county.
One of the difficulties we as local politicians in particular and county councillors in general have faced is that planning developments granted permission in one county appear to be the sort of development which is turned down in another county and in some cases it is difficult to explain to neighbours in adjoining parishes the reason what is acceptable in townland A is not acceptable in townland B. If the Minister is to have this closer alignment it must work in practice as well as theory.
The ministerial directions are necessary but on the other hand the proposal is being introduced by a Minister from the Green Party, a party which talks about having powers devolved at local level wherever possible and having the decision-making process done locally rather than nationally. In that sense, we must try to ensure we are cautious and careful in regard to ministerial directions. The planners, the local politicians and the national politicians representing County Cork are probably the best people to try to put together a worthwhile planning policy for County Cork. While occasionally there may be a need for ministerial directives we should in so far as possible try to have the decision-making process applied more frequently and effectively at local rather than national level.
If there is an area where ministerial directives could be helpful it might be in regard to design guidelines. Those of us who were involved politically at local authority level are aware that even within a county a house design which is deemed acceptable to one planner may be deemed inappropriate by another planner. Arising from those difficulties in County Cork a number of people, myself included, had some success in getting the county planning people to put together a design booklet which has worked very well and is a good general guide to the type of house that is and is not acceptable. If the Minister wants to be hands on in regard to directions, he could do some work on the question of design guidelines to ensure there is something reasonably standard across the country, obviously taking into account the various geographical considerations etc. It can be difficult for us to explain the reason a type of house in one county is desirable while in another that same type of house might not be even considered. If we could remove those anomalies that would be welcome.
I note the Bill deals with the inefficiency or otherwise of An Bord Pleanála. There is a clear role for An Bord Pleanála but I would be concerned by the idea of slimming down the number of personnel at An Bord Pleanála level required for decision making, as some of my colleagues have said. The more people involved in taking the decision at An Bord Pleanála level, the better. All of us will be aware of a minimum number of cases whereby the board will overturn the decision of its own inspectorate. That causes major difficulties and confusion and in so far as access to information is available, planning applicants are able to obtain the full file of their own planning decision and read the comments, views and thoughts of the planners, engineers and council manager. We do not have the same access to An Bord Pleanála comments and reports and considerations. It would be helpful if the file on each An Bord Pleanála decision was made fully available to the applicants in order that we could discover exactly why each decision was made.
Although we will be referring to the issues raised by the Bill in much more detail on Committee Stage, let me refer to the wider distribution of development levy moneys. This may not be as important a question in coming years as it has been in the past few. We hear evidence from council colleagues across the country indicating a substantial drop in the number of planning applications. I, therefore, presume the amount of development money available to local authorities will be slimmed down for quite some time.
Upon the introduction of the levy, there was general satisfaction at the concept of moneys being spent in the local community from which the levy would be extracted. I refer to individuals who had to pay €5,000, €10,000 or €15,000 in planning charges or levies for their houses. At least, they were consoled somewhat by the fact that the money would be spent in their own local council areas. I hope the moneys collected through the levy will be spent locally on the improvement of local services and that they will not be used to replace other council budget allocations. We will try to tease this out further on Committee Stage.
Let me address the refusal of planning permission in cases where a developer has a history of unauthorised development. I have heard the comments of some of my colleagues in this regard. Where a developer has a track record that is less than admirable, it is appropriate, necessary and welcome that county managers and planners have the authority to take this into account when making a decision. A problem will arise where the developer is not a sole trader and where the development is being sponsored by a company. Company ownership can be changed and it is not always possible to apply the law as it is meant to be applied. Company personnel make-up will change and new companies will be formed. Where a group of people has a track record of poor development or failing to comply with regulations or planning conditions, this should be taken into account by the local authority when considering planning applications.
I welcome the provision on the taking in charge of estates. This matter was of great concern during the local authority election campaign some months ago. Every second or third estate across newer towns had not been taken over and issues had to be addressed, generally by the developer. The Bill will put in place new regulations on the taking in charge of estates. However, the other side of the equation involves trying to ensure sufficient pressure will be exerted on the developer to allow the development to be taken over in co-operation with the local authority.
We will return to all these issues. The Bill is substantial and I welcome the fact that the Minister is introducing it. There are many issues on which we want to reflect but planning and development are important. We have made many mistakes in recent years and the Celtic tiger brought out the worst of greed in many of us. Our planning laws need to reflect not only the new reality but they must also set better and higher standards for planning and development. The Bill will play a big part in that regard but it will require change. Members on both sides will be asking the Minister to amend some of the sections and listen to their proposals.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, who is responsible for housing. It is interesting that we were both on Roscommon County Council dealing with planning issues and county development plans. It is nice to be discussing today a new Bill that incorporates many measures which I believe will be supported by most Members of the House. Given the involvement of the Minister, Deputy Gormley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, I believe that where there are reasonable requests for amendments, there is no reason they will not be considered seriously in the House.
The Minister and the Minister of State have developed their Department very well. Deputy Gormley, as leader of the Green Party, is achieving a lot within the Government and would not achieve much out of it. That he is Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is an indication that the trend will continue. We all hope the Green Party-Fianna Fáil Government will continue with the support of the former members of the Progressive Democrats and other Independents. The Government is facing very serious difficulties but it has the capacity to deal with them led by the Taoiseach.
I circulated to all councillors nationally a request for their input into the Bill and received quite a number of submissions. I am not being personal in stating Councillor Orla Leyden sent me a very detailed document on the issue based on seminars she and I attended and further meetings with councillors. Councillors regard the issue as very important and have expressed reasonable and very well researched opinions on the legislation.
The Minister of State is aware that broadcasting masts should be located at least 100 m from a residence and 500 m from a school, for example. At present there is no such legal provision. This provision is mainly included in county development plans but is not referred to in any planning Act as such. It remains a local preference rather than national policy, which is why Roscommon County Council turned down the application for the erection of a mast at Oran outside Roscommon. It was to be located 30 m from a residence, contrary to the policy outlined in the Roscommon county development plan that stipulates masts should be a minimum of 100 m from a residence. An Bord Pleanála overturned this decision because of the national policy to roll-out emergency services Tetra radio infrastructure. There is nothing in the planning Bill stipulating the minimum distance from a residence. That is why the Bill presents an opportunity for the Minister to consider the whole question of broadcasting masts. We accept there is a need for infrastructure but it does not really suit to place masts beside private dwellings, schools and hospitals.
We could consider the circumstances that obtain where an individual continues to apply for planning permission after being turned down. I believe there is a provision in the Bill in this regard which should be examined very carefully.
Many Senators have commented on section 23 which is very worthwhile, particularly in the present climate. It inserts the following phrase in the principal Act: "On application to it in that behalf a planning authority shall, as regards a particular permission, extend the appropriate period by such additional period not exceeding 5 years ...". This is an essential provision. The Minister of State has been very conscious of this and has made submissions thereon. He has heard many cases on the matter.
The provisions are very open and it is up to a local authority to make a decision based on the merits of individual cases. The Bill is urgent and Committee Stage should be taken very quickly. While we can debate all the issues involved, we cannot afford to spend too long on Committee and Report Stages because the Bill must be considered in the Dáil as quickly as possible and passed. Consider the case of applications being finalised and in respect of which the five-year period in which work should commence is due to end in December, for instance. I have advised clients that they will have to make substantial efforts to ensure work is commenced on their sites before that month. The Bill refers to the circumstances that will obtain if substantial work has been commenced before the expiration of the appropriate period sought to be extended. This should be examined very carefully. It is a well worded section of the Bill and there is not much room for many amendments thereto.
Will the Minister of State indicate the timeframe for consideration of the Bill in the House? If it is debated for a very long period, people could be affected detrimentally.
Section 31 deals with the taking over of estates through a majority of the qualified electors who are owners or occupiers of the houses involved. This could be a retrograde step as the people living in an estate, and long-term residents in particular, should have a say. Landlords may not necessarily have the same involvement in an area as some tenants, so that issue should be considered.
There is a proposal to amend the current exemption given to forestry development, when the development is providing, maintaining or improving a road which is not a public road or is providing access to a public road. Where the road serves forestry and woodland, planning permission will now be required.
There is also a question relating to zoning, with section 6 dealing with types of submission or observations regarding review of a development plan. Some councillors have expressed views on that. Sections 7 and 8 deal with rural housing, which is very important. The Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, has been very supportive of housing in rural areas, as he comes from a rural area himself. I come from Castlecoote and there have been tremendous developments there of one-off housing in rural areas. The Minister of State has seen his area going down over the years but now many houses are being built which bring families into the area and have kept schools and shops open etc.
A balance is required but my experience in general with Roscommon County Council has been particularly good. It takes each case on its merits. Where developers have not completed or carried out their duties in a development, their permissions will have to be refused. There is a provision in this Bill where developers have not completed their developments or carried them out properly.
There is opportunity in getting this Bill through the Oireachtas. Generally, many amendments are proposed or even required. For example, some people have concerns about the quorum for An Bord Pleanála being reduced to two members, as they feel it would be a better approach to have three people as a quorum. That is a matter of judgment. The taking in charge of estates is very worthwhile, and we have fought such cases locally and been successful in having estates taken over by the local authority. It is essential for estates to be taken over by local authorities and in fairness to our own authority, where residents have indicated their majority support for taking over estates or where councillors have made a case on their behalf, it has been done.
I commend the Minister, Deputy Gormley, and the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, on this vital legislation. Section 23 is the kernel of this Bill because as a result of the current economic downturn, developments may only go ahead in two years when the economic climate improves. The officials can check this but I believe that where people have paid contributions, they will not have to renew that contribution for planning permission; in essence, what was paid as a planning charge will stand. This will allow developments to take place when economic circumstances change.
This is a very pragmatic view taken by the Minister of State, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, and the Government. I appeal to all sides of the Houses to allow this Bill go through as quickly as possible. There may be minor amendments and other issues can be dealt with in further legislation. This legislation deserves the full support of the House and I commend it to the House. I thank the Minister of State for coming here to listen to the views of Senators.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. I concur with much of what Senator Leyden has said and I compliment the Minister on publishing and bringing the Bill to the House. The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 is not the complete document or perfect, however, and changes are required.
On this side of the House we would welcome any efforts made to enhance the planning process. In this Bill the Minister has brought forward a number of initiatives to bring about change to planning and development in this country. A buzz phrase from the past five or six years has been the creation of sustainable communities and the support of economic renewal.
I am disappointed the Minister, through the Bill, has questioned the role, integrity and responsibility of county and city councillors. We must examine the role and responsibility of county councillors, along with planners, in the effort to build a core planning strategy in any local authority area. As Senator Paudie Coffey said in his remarks, one size does not fit all and each county, town and city has a unique development plan which is a blueprint for the future.
Power in county councils cannot be diluted. Members opposite understand the importance of county councillors in the election process as well as I. I am worried this Bill will erode the powers of county councillors. Are we to say today that local democracy does not really matter and the centralisation of the planning process is what the Minister, Deputy Gormley, is proposing? If this Bill is passed as it has been presented, will the Minister allow the centralisation of the planning process in a "one size fits all" manner, taking away the voice of the local councillor? That would be the wrong move.
I absolutely agree that in some cases, the planning culture that prevailed was not good and ran contrary to good governance and sustainable development. As Senator Bradford rightly stated, the combination of the lure of the euro and greed meant people went berserk and lost sight the overriding principle of what communities should be about. The Minister was correct in saying that bad planning "can be even more cancerous and can eat into the very fabric of our economy".
We are dealing with the legacy of bad planning and the cosy relationship between the Minister of State's party and developers.
That is not true.
I know the Minister of State does not agree with me because he is embarrassed. He should be.
I am not embarrassed.
Communities, in our commuter belts and urban areas in particular, have been let down by Fianna Fáil-led Governments over the past 12 years, which the Minister of State knows well. We are now at the edge of the precipice, partially because of the relationship which Fianna Fáil had with developers. Not all developers are bad but if we are serious about creating sustainable communities and good planning, we must consider the role of local councils and their councillors.
Officials do not always get it right and as a result planners must be held accountable. There should be a relationship between city and county councils, planners and people applying for planning permission. Devolution of power is the way forward. Senator Coffey spoke about dissidence in councils with regard to other proposed changes.