I thank the many Senators who made contributions on Second Stage of this Bill and Members generally for their attendance over the course of the debate. I note the matters raised, both today and during previous debates, and I will reflect on the contributions made by Senators in the context of progressing the Bill through Committee Stage.
It remains my intention to have this Bill enacted at the earliest opportunity and I hope we can work constructively through any issues arising from it. As I stated when presenting this Bill to the House, the principal driving force behind the legislation will continue to be the need to strengthen the statutory provisions for the planning process. Planning is about people and a sound development plan is key to ensuring good planning at a local level.
The more strategic approach to zoning and the accompanying checks and balances set out in the Bill will allow development to take place at the right time and in the correct place. It will also allow the State to plan for the provision of infrastructure with much greater certainty. This is key to the economic renewal agenda. We must learn from and not repeat the mistakes of the past. All land zonings will now have to be the subject of public consultation at the 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.
I will now refer to some of the matters raised by Senators. The contributions dealt with a wide range of issues and I will endeavour to deal with as many of them as time permits. I welcome the positive comments on the core strategy and the focusing of land use strategies. Senator Coffey correctly made the point that the evidence in the core strategy must be based on high-quality up-to-date information from a reliable source.
Under this Bill, all new city and county development plans must include a core strategy, which is a high-level summary description of the key statistics and priorities underpinning the development plan, with examples being expected population growth, housing and retail needs, the amount of zoned land and priority locations for development investment over the six-year plan period. It is the touchstone against which future development decisions in the city or county can be tested as being consistent with national and regional policy. These data are gathered not by my Department but by local authorities from a range of national, regional and local sources, and they provide the most up-to-date context for the plan. I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Coffey that these data must be of the highest calibre.
The core strategy should help councillors and key stakeholders to assess the needs and priorities for their area and will provide the framework for deciding on the scale, phasing and location of new development having regard to existing services and planned investment over the coming years. By adhering to the core strategy which will derive many of its forecasts and targets from the regional planning guidelines, local councils will be able to assess for themselves whether new proposals are appropriate and consistent with the core strategy and therefore make more informed decisions on zoning, housing development and other investments.
I am endeavouring to ensure the right decisions, for all the right reasons, are taken at the earliest stages of the development planning process, thus empowering local democracy to take full account of local, regional and national policy in the bests interests of the people it serves. The measures in this Bill will strengthen local democracy and accountability, which is one of my key objectives in accordance with the ongoing process of local government reform and the White Paper on local government, by maintaining this fundamental power at the heart of local government within a clear planning framework.
Under this Bill, planning authorities will now have to demonstrate intentions by way of statement when preparing and making a draft development plan and when outlining how it is to be implemented. They will not just have a regard to the policies and objectives of the Minister contained in ministerial guidelines issued under section 28 of the planning Acts. Equally, planning authorities must detail the reasons such policies and objectives would not be implemented. That should help ground national policy within the local context and minimise the instances where I am forced, as Minister, to intervene in the development plan process and use my powers of direction under section 31.
A number of Senators raised the issue of diluting power in county councils and the issue of allowing the centralisation of the planning process in a one size fits all manner. The opposite is my intention and I wish for ministerial guidance to be implemented to ensure development is sustainable, properly planned and tailored to the needs of the people.
I will turn to the issue of the inspector's report. Senators Ormonde, Bradford, Buttimer, Coghlan and Doherty raised the issue of the board overturning its own inspector's recommendations. Since the establishment of An Bord Pleanála in 1977, planning legislation has clearly assigned final responsibility for decisions on planning appeals to the board and not to inspectors making reports and recommendations to the board. In considering decisions on planning appeals, the board must consider all submissions on the file together with its own inspector's report and recommendation. It must reach its own conclusion on the matter in line with proper planning and sustainable development of the area.
If the board does not follow the recommendations of the inspector, the board must be satisfied that the facts of the case support its decision. Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, the board must also give the reasons for the decision and specify various reasons for not accepting the inspector's recommendations.
Concerns were expressed about reducing the board quorum of An Bord Pleanála. The board has a crucial role in providing an independent appeal mechanism for planning cases and in processing strategic infrastructure in other cases. Delivering on the high number of cases in recent years while incorporating all elements of environmental assessment and public participation has been challenging, and the unprecedented level of case intake in recent years led to a backlog and a deterioration of the board's ability to decide cases within an 18-week statutory objective.
The backlog was mainly at board level, given that a quorum of three board members was required to decide all cases. I propose to assist the board in achieving efficiencies of operation by providing for a reduction in the current statutory quorum from three members to two. This relates to the determination of certain classes of routine cases. This amendment aims to improve the throughput of An Bord Pleanála and secure a higher compliance rate within the 18-week statutory objective for appeals at no additional staff cost.
The chairperson or deputy chairperson of the board will have the power to recommend which cases are suitable for a reduced quorum. If there is a meeting with a quorum of two that is evenly divided on a vote, the matter will be referred to a meeting where the quorum is three. I will examine both these issues further on Committee Stage.
A number of Senators expressed concerns about the increased threshold for mandatory preparations of local area plans. It will go from 2,000 to 5,000 persons. The clear intention in the Planning and Development Act 2000 was for local area plans to be prepared for the areas requiring regeneration or which were likely to be subject of large-scale development. Some planning authorities are coming under significant resource pressure to prepare local area plans for relatively small areas which meet neither of these criteria but for which a local area plan is required owing to scale of population. As local area plans involve considerable technical analysis and public consultation and are thus resource intensive, it is considered more helpful to provide updated and more realistic thresholds for their preparation. However, the need for close alignment between development objectives and zoning of the local area plan with the development plan core strategy and regional planning guidelines is also addressed in this Bill.
To ensure local area plans are comprehensively linked to the city or development plan, which is reviewed every six years, the lifespan of local area plans is to be increased to ten years. Where the local area plan is no longer consistent with the city or county development plan, for example, where the development plan has been reviewed or varied, there is a requirement to vary or review the local area plan within one year to bring it into line with the higher level plan. Provision is also made for the phasing of development within the 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.
I note the concerns of Senators Ormonde and Coffey, especially regarding urbanisation. I stress that it will continue to be the case that a local area plan may be prepared in respect of any area which a planning authority considers suitable and, in particular, for those areas that require economic, physical and social renewal outside of areas where a local area plan is mandatorily required. It will continue to be the case that locally elected councillors can decide on the need for a local area plan for particular areas.
Senator Coghlan raised the point that it appeared most planners in towns, counties and in An Bord Pleanála were urban planners and that there were no rural planners as such. Students attending planning courses in UCD, DIT and UCC are drawn from all over the country, both urban and rural areas. In all three courses the curriculum covers both rural and urban planning issues. Senators may be interested to note that my Department has employed planning students as summer researchstagiaires in recent years and that the majority of these students have come from rural backgrounds, from counties Cork, Limerick and Galway.
Senators Daly, Leyden and Paddy Burke, among others, raised issues regarding the duration of planning permission. The Bill provides that planning permission may be extended where substantial works have not been completed but the planning authority must be satisfied that there were considerations of a commercial, economic or technical nature beyond the control of the applicant which substantially militated against either the commencement of development or the carrying out of substantial works. While I will examine this issue further on Committee Stage, I can tell Senator Burke that this has absolutely nothing to do with the NAMA legislation. I have been asked about this by Opposition party Members because their constituents obviously have been raising the issue repeatedly with them, given the volume of questions I have had to answer on it.
The location, phasing and servicing of zoned lands have to be considered carefully in the context of our current economic and environmental circumstances. 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 will help local authorities to prioritise the provision of their own infrastructure and services.
Material amendments to draft development plans will require the support of two thirds of the total number of members rather than a simple majority as currently provided for. Decisions on development plans must involve the majority of members. I welcome the support of a number of Senators for this amendment to the planning Acts. However, concerns were raised by some Senators that this amendment would allow a small number of councillors to band together to halt a development plan and also that the size of the majority proposed should be right. Senator Coghlan, in particular, wished to know the reasoning behind this provision. At present, a 75% majority of the elected members is required to approve a planning application which is deemed to be in material contravention of the development plan. Even if such a majority is achieved, the underlying zoning is not changed. Only the specific proposed development is granted permission. On the other hand, a simple majority, not of the fulll council but only of those attending a particular meeting, is required to change a zoning in a development plan or local area plan which could have significant long-term effects on an area. This lower threshold is hard to justify.