Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

When the debate adjourned last week I was making a point about planning enforcement. I stated that when a planning application is granted with a number of conditions, condition No. 1 is always as follows from Fingal County Council:

The development to be carried out in its entirety in accordance with the plans, particulars, specifications, and information lodged with the application, save as by the other conditions attached hereto.

If only that were true because in many cases it is not. What if, as in many cases, the developer takes a chance and does something that he has not proposed in the hope of getting away with it? In many cases nobody notices and he gets away with it. What happens if a near neighbour notices? The process is that the matter should be reported to the planning enforcement section of the local authority. When a report and complaint are made, an inspector is sent out to investigate and write up a report. On foot of this report the enforcement officer makes a decision either to pursue the developer or issue warnings etc., which may result in the developer applying for retention. From the complainant's point of view this is positive as he or she can then lodge an objection to the retention application and may appeal to An Bord Pleanála if retention is granted by the local authority.

However, the enforcement officer may decide it is only a minor infringement requiring no action. This is a regular occurrence. There is no appeals mechanism available to a complainant in such circumstances and in those cases the developer gets away with it. I have observed the enforcement officer's decision may be influenced by a lack of staff. From his or her desk in the county hall it may appear to be a minor matter but it may be a very serious matter for the neighbours concerned. If the affected neighbours have not objected to the planning application in the first place, because in the absence of the infringement they had no difficulty with the application, they cannot appeal to An Bord Pleanála. Enforcement officers have too much power in this specific regard leaving the process open to abuse.

This matter must be addressed in the interest of democracy in the planning process. I have not yet decided how to address the issue but I may table an amendment on Committee Stage. Perhaps it should be open to anyone complaining about non-compliance with a planning condition and where an enforcement officer has rejected the complaint, to make an appeal to An Bord Pleanála. An amendment to the Bill might suffice.

I refer to a typical case with which I am familiar. The developer includes a specific proposal in a planning application. At additional information stage he is asked to remove it as it is not in keeping with the houses on either side. He does as he is requested by the planner and is subsequently given permission. He then goes ahead and does it anyway. The neighbours on either side complain but to no avail because the enforcement officer decides it is of no major significance. The complainants then have nowhere else to go. The planning law must be changed to allow some kind of an appeal in cases like this.

I ask the Minister of State and his officials to give serious consideration to this point. The Minister of State may not regard this as a significant issue but from my first-hand experience I know it is.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. Planning applications and approvals have been on an upward and downward spiral in recent years, as a recent survey inThe Irish Times confirms. The newspaper carried out a survey of ten county councils and found a sizable fall in the number of applications made in the past three years. The figures supplied to The Irish Times by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government showed that in 2008 there were 62,906 planning applications lodged, compared to 91,654 in 2007 and 97,226 in 2006. The number of applications varied in county councils in different parts of the country.

Although it is a rural county in the north west, my county, Donegal, had one of the largest number of planning applications lodged in any county or city council in the country. There has been much development and many sites would have been approved from 2005 or 2006 onwards. Many of these developments did not go ahead and as a result, the people involved now have the option of proceeding with the development or seeking an extension of planning approval. I will refer to this matter later.

I am very pleased the Bill is before the Oireachtas and progressing through the Seanad. It is an important Bill. Its objectives include the support of economic renewal and the promotion of sustainable development. One of its aims is to bring into closer alignment the national spatial strategy, the regional planning guidelines of the regional authorities, county development plans and local area plans. This should facilitate closer working between the Minister, his Department and all the respective agencies involved.

I wish to refer to several sections of the Bill, including the one dealing with An Bord Pleanála. One aim of the Bill is to improve the throughput and performance of the board. The provision to give effect to this aim is intended to secure a higher compliance rate with the statutory period of 18 weeks. In other words, a decision should be taken by the board within 18 weeks, or approximately four and a half months. There is no question but that the board is taking significantly in excess of six months to make a decision on a sizable volume of applications. This is unacceptable from the point of view of objectors and, more importantly, that of developers, especially in cases involving large-scale developments that may create employment in an area, whether hotel developments — although there are not too many such developments at present — or other job creating developments.

I note section 28 proposes to reduce the quorum at meetings of An Bord Pleanála from three to two. While I welcome the objective of trying to increase the throughput, I hold some reservations about reducing the quorum from three to two. The board is made up of ten members. If it cannot have at least three members present at all meetings, we should review the membership, not necessarily the membership of the organisation, but perhaps the individuals on the board from certain organisations. If they cannot attend board meetings, the matter should be reviewed, rather than reducing the quorum to two. I appreciate the reduction from three to two only relates to decisions of a minor nature such as those on smaller applications. Nevertheless, I hold some reservations and concerns about the matter. Some of my colleagues in county councils, for example, some councillors in County Donegal, have raised this matter cautiously also and they hold concerns about the matter. I seek more information on it but I welcome the objective of the legislation and the recognition that reducing the timeframe of the board to administer applications needs to be dealt with.

I refer to other issues related to the Bill, including the recognition of the refusal of planning permission in cases in which there has been previous unauthorised development. Currently, the planning authority or the council can refuse permission on the basis of past failures to comply, having regard to certain information, and if it is satisfied the applicant is not in compliance with the terms of previous permissions. It may form the opinion that there is a real and substantial risk a development may not be duly completed in accordance with the terms of planning permission and that permission should, therefore, be denied. This is contained in section 35 of the principal Act of 2000. The non-compliance referred to in section 35 of the 2000 Act must be substantial in nature. Under the Bill, the planning authority will have new grounds on which to rely in forming the opinion that planning permission should not be granted. These include where the applicant has carried out a substantial unauthorised development or has been convicted of an offence under the Act. I welcome this measure because there are rogue developers who have, heretofore, gone from development to development without completing a previous one. I am aware of several such developments in my constituency in which developers have finished up, sold on the houses but have not completed the estates or complied with the planning conditions in terms of finishing green areas or providing facilities for kids. Such developers move on to the next development and the local council cannot do much about it. I welcome this section of the Bill but trust the word "applicant" refers to the individual, not the company, because an applicant could go and form a new company and apply for planning permission under that company's name. It is important permission is related to the individual rather than the company. I trust the Minister of State will note this point.

Another measure I welcome relates to a matter I raised on the Adjournment with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, that is, the extension of planning permission. I welcome the proposed amendment to section 42 of the 2000 Act by its replacement with section 23 of this Bill. Until now, to have planning permission extended substantial works had to be carried out on developments. In the recent climate this has placed a significant burden on individuals, whether young couples with planning permission for one house or small developers with planning permission for several houses. I know of one such case in which the applicant is negotiating with Donegal County Council to purchase the houses for letting to local authority tenants. However, there is an insecurity in the sense that the time allocated for permission is running out and no substantial works have taken place on the site.

Section 23 states "the authority is satisfied that there were considerations of a commercial, economic or technical nature beyond the control of the applicant which substantially mitigated against either the commencement of development or the carrying out of substantial works pursuant to the planning permission". It is important that very clear guidelines are issued to local authorities in respect of this section and I am confident this will be the case. I welcome the measure, as it is a major step forward that an individual, for example, a developer of a shopping centre or hotel, can seek a five year extension. We all know of many young couples who cannot proceed because they cannot obtain finance for their development. Such persons cannot go on site and section 23 would allow them to obtain a five-year extension.

The Bill may not be enacted until the new year. It is going through the Seanad and from here will go to the Dáil but it may be January or February before it is enacted. I recommend that consideration be given to respection for a period of six months in respect of this section. If that were applied, the measure could date back to six months prior to the enactment of the Bill. The Minister of State should consider this proposal.

I wish to refer to two other issues in respect of planning and development plans. The new Bill does not take any consideration of objectors to planning applications. I refer to counties such as County Donegal in which there are large volumes of holiday homes. I have spent hours dealing with individual applications for local people and while the planning authority might be satisfied to grant permission, owners of holiday homes object and often such objectors forward the application to An Bord Pleanála. People should be obliged to pay a high fee if they wish to object to a development that does not interfere directly with their permanent or principal place of residence. If possible, this suggestion should be considered in the context of this Bill. While it may need to be considered as part of future legislation, it is a matter of grave concern to many local people who live in areas in which there are large volumes of holiday homes.

While the other issue to which I wish to refer also relates to planning, I understand it may be coming down the tracks through other legislation. I refer to the issue of access to national roads and, in particular, the difficulty being experienced by individuals living in close proximity to national secondary roads. The legislation does not distinguish between national secondary and national primary routes and the National Roads Authority is objecting to all applications for access to a national secondary route. A clear distinction must be made between national primary and national secondary routes. While my understanding is that this issue is being dealt with by the Departments of Transport and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, I would appreciate an update on the issue from the Minister of State.

This is great legislation, which I welcome. I have raised a number of issues for consideration and it would be excellent if this were possible.

I also welcome the Minister of State and acknowledge the work he personally is undertaking on the rental sector. New regulations are being introduced and far greater interest is being shown in that area, which is to be welcomed. However, the purpose of this debate is to focus on the Bill. I wish to raise a number of points, to which I would appreciate a response from the Minister of State.

The first point pertains to the change to the definition of what constitutes a majority in a council chamber for the passing of development plans and council legislation that will influence how planning decisions are made. The Bill proposes that the majority in this regard should be increased from a straight majority to one of two thirds. The Minister should reconsider this proposal because it opens up the possibility of a group of councillors who object strongly to the development plan or planning legislation having the ability to stop the enactment of such a plan or legislation. Such a group could be drawn from across all parties or from within a particular party and their opposition could be based on the principles upon which the entire plan is conducted or a limited part of the development plan.

Obviously, we live under and operate in a democratic system. If a simple majority of the electorate is good enough for the election of people to council chambers or most other chambers in Ireland, why is such a simple majority not good enough for the passing of a development plan for a local authority area? I raise my concerns in this regard specifically to emphasise that it opens up the opportunity for a development plan to be blocked or stalemate if a small number of council members are opposed to it. Consequently, the possibility might arise that development plans might not be passed by local authorities because they are unable to find the significant majorities the legislation will require. I fail to discern how this could be in the best interests of the operation or implementation of development plans or in the best interests of effective local government.

My second point relates to a point on which Senator Ó Domhnaill touched, the proposal in thie Bill to authorise the broadening of grounds upon which planning permission might be refused to an applicant. The helpful briefing on the Bill indicated that under section 35 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, local authorities already had the power to refuse planning permission to applicants if their previous planning history made it likely that a new planning permission received by them might not be enacted in the manner in which the local authority would wish. The Law Reform Commission report of 2008 which commented on this area indicated that up to that point, this legislative provision had never been used by any local authority. This appears to be a highly sensible provision to have in our laws. If a person has a serial history of breaching the planning permission he or she has received, this history should be considered in any future planning application for permission he or she seeks. However, before Members engage in strengthening or changing the criteria upon which planning permission may be refused, surely they should consider the law that has been in place for the past nine years to ascertain how it can be made to work more effectively. I refer, in particular, to the fact that it never appears to have been implemented.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government publishes many statistics in respect of implementation of the planning laws by local authorities. I am particularly familiar with its work on the quality of rental accommodation and the manner in which it is provided every year by local authorities. Perhaps this could be considered for this aspect of the planning laws. Before strengthening or changing what is in place — I do not necessarily oppose such changes — Members should ask a more fundamental question regarding the reason the existing law is not being implemented as it appears to be a useful legal provision that would do much to drive compliance with the terms of planning permissions already granted.

The third point which has been touched on by other Members pertains to the change this legislation makes in reducing the statutory quorum for An Bord Pleanála board decisions from three to two. I question the reason for this change, given that many decisions made by An Bord Pleanála are extremely important and have a significant effect on the communities upon which the decisions are made. Reducing the number of involved in such decisions from three to two appears to be more likely to lead to compromise decisions being reached as opposed to decisions that are in the best interests of planning law and the community who depend on such decisions being made. As Senator Ó Domhnaill noted, if three people are not capable of coming together and making the correct decision, surely the composition of the board should be revised and its operation examined rather than reducing the number involved in such decisions.

A fourth point to make in respect of this legislation is that it broadens the definition of the number of areas in which a local authority can take an area in charge. It appears to do this in two ways. First, it moves away from defining the area of land as multi-unit dwellings. Second, it appears to change the definition of those involved in this decision from people who are voters to those who are home owners. Both changes appear to be worthwhile but before Members engage in making such a decision, a more important question to be asked is whether the local authority will have the money to run and regulate properly the new areas they might be asked to take in charge. In all cases, I would be supportive of a decision by a community to move away from being regulated and run by a private body to an environment in which it was regulated and looked after by the local authority. That seems to be a good thing to do but we already know that local authorities are severely strapped for cash. Asking them to care for more land and dwellings, without having the money to do so, is a bad idea. In addition to the decision that land be taken in charge, we should put in place the funding mechanism required to ensure a city or county council will have the money to do the job well. The Bill does not appear to answer the question.

The Bill refers to broadening the use of development levies in order that local authorities can spend the money on school provision. This is a great idea. The Bill also refers to broadband provision but these are areas in which the local authorities have no competence. Responsibility for the planning and provision of schools lies with the Department of Education and Science. The Bill will broaden the definition of the use to which development levies can be put to give local authorities the ability to spend money in these areas. We should examine transferring responsibility for where and how schools are built from the Department of Education and Science to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and local authorities. The latter will have the best idea of future population trends and what is happening with development. If they have the option of spending more money on this, they should have responsibility to make the bigger decisions.

There is a gap in the legislation. A number of agencies have been set up and they operate at times outside the planning environment in which most people must deal. The prime example is the Dublin Docklands Development Authority which has the ability to initiate planning decisions and planning permissions in a way that is very different from how the vast majority of decisions are made. That seems to be the wrong thing to do and we are now paying the price. I want to see agencies being roped into planning law with which the vast majority must comply. Even if it takes longer for planning decisions to be made and more people must become involved, it seems the additional time spent on these decisions is a small price to pay to ensure they are properly made and cannot be challenged in the future. This is a matter the legislation should examine.

I welcome the principle of the Bill. When the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, spoke on the Bill, he stated:

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.

I concur with what he said and it is an important point. As someone involved in public life, planning in rural areas has been close to my heart for 25 years. At some stage we must grasp the nettle. Planning in rural areas is a quagmire, loaded with flawed policy and inconsistencies. As a public representative and a former member of a council for almost 19 years, some 80% of my time was taken up making representations on such matters. There has been, unfairly and unjustly, prejudice against people living in rural areas and participating in the parishes and communities in which they grew up, which they cherish and love. In this case I refer to genuine local needs, not someone from Dublin who is moving to the Sheep's Head Peninsula or Connemara. I am talking about local people who want to acquire a site from their uncle, aunt, father or brother. Unfortunately, when I spoke to colleagues as a Deputy and as a Senator, I noticed that the position varied from county to county. In some counties the system is much easier. Isolation will be further compounded by the impossible position of young couples seeking to obtain planning permission and live in rural Ireland. The position varies from area to area, which is most unfortunate.

I am not much of a racegoer and was never at the Galway races or in the tent. I might have been at the races in Killarney or Listowel once or twice. At the Aintree Grand National meeting great race horses and jockeys negotiate a very difficult course which includes Beecher's Brook, the Elbow and the other fences and jumps about which we hear so much. From my experience, I would have as much chance of obtaining planning permission in parts of rural Ireland as I would of surviving the Aintree Grand National course riding an ass or a donkey. It is a terrible system under which one must beg with planners but each planner differs from the next. One must also speak to the engineers but in the case of some 60% of the planning applications eventually approved, I had to beg the county manager to bend the rules. I am not talking about big developments but places such as the Mizen, Sheep's Head and Beara Peninsulas. People should be able to live in their community, if they wish. That is why I quoted the Minister's comment that planning was about people.

In Crookhaven, at the end of the Mizen Peninsula, almost 90% of houses are holiday homes. I recently dealt with a person who could not obtain planning permission, despite the presence of holiday homes. A few years ago an American who visits every three years objected to a local man and his wife who had one child receiving planning permission on the Sheep's Head Peninsula. The school in the area, Rushnacahara, had 13 pupils. I asked the county manager to visit the site, although he should not have had to do so. I explained that if the population were to drop further, the school would close. The American was listened to all the way up the line, including by An Taisce, whereas the local couple who had received a site from the man's brother could not receive planning permission. The county manager was in the area on a Sunday morning and facilitated me by examining the site. This is typical of the cases I have encountered during the years. It is absolutely crazy.

Some regulations come from national Government and others from the European Union but we are hampered by the rules and regulations dealing with special areas of conservation and scenic landscapes. Parts of Ireland have been spoiled and damaged by bad planning. I would consistently like to see good planning. If family members want to live in the community in which they grew up rather than in a city 70 or 80 miles away, whether they play football or hurling, they should receive preferential treatment. Trying to obtain planning permission is like trying to pull a tooth from a duck. It is a waste of resources. I have spoken to people in other political parties who spend 80% of their time in county hall dealing with applications for planning permission instead of important issues of policy for the county. They must hop from one planner to another to try to resolve rural planning issues.

The Minister of State comes from a rural constituency and I ask him to address the matter. I am emotive about it because I have put so much time and energy into it but I do not see the position changing or improving. Huge, rushed developments have been constructed in towns and villages in my area, some of which will be taken over by NAMA, while others will remain an eyesore. Very few applications are for rural one-off houses, in respect of which a couple has obtained a site but cannot proceed further. In this regard, I want to make it quite clear I am 100% supported by groups such as Macra na Feirme, Irish Rural Link, the IFA, the ICMSA, the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, the ICA and many other country groups that have made this point from time to time.

It is an absolute wrong and injustice that An Taisce has any involvement with one-off rural planning and I make this point very forcibly. I have made it previously on national radio and on RTE television. I do not state that An Taisce should be abolished. It was established in the early 1980s and I believe the Minister at the time was Dick Spring. His motives were honourable and it has a role to play. However, at present An Taisce is obliged to be notified of all planning in rural areas throughout Ireland.

I have been in politics for 25 years and I could not name two members of An Taisce in west Cork. However, consistently it shoots down planning applications because once An Taisce puts its name to an objection the county manager shivers and quakes. There is a serious bias in An Bord Pleanála — I state this in public — in favour of An Taisce and against local people. I am not discussing the wealthy American, Dubliner or German who comes in with loads of money and wants to build in the Sheep's Head or Mizen Peninsulas. I have no truck with them and good luck if they get planning permission. However, there seems to be a huge difficulty with local people. Legislation should be changed to make the situation such that An Taisce has no role to play in rural planning. Such a role was never intended when it was first established.

An Taisce certainly has a role in protecting our heritage and I give it that but there is a lack of transparency, whether it be in west Cork, west Kerry or Donegal. It is not fair that members of An Taisce in west Cork object to developments in Donegal, Mayo and, on one occasion, a golf course in Clare. On another occasion, people from Mayo — I do not know who they were — objected to a mast in the village of Leap in west Cork. The people there had no reception for some RTE stations — I am not discussing Sky or any other such channel — and building the mast was held up for seven or eight years. The objectors were listened to. I am not sure whether the issue of those who object to planning applications for spurious reasons is covered in the Bill but we should examine it. We must seriously examine whether an American who comes to the Sheep's Head every three years for three weeks or somebody from the Beara Peninsula who is retired and from another jurisdiction can object to a fish factory in Donegal or a golf course in Clare.

The Bill has some very salient features and in that regard I compliment the Minister of State but it does not address the real issues facing rural Ireland. Sustainable development is mentioned and I know from coming from a peninsula, having been born on the Sheep's Head Peninsula, that there is a decline in population in the Kilcrohane western end of that area of 30% over three census figures. That gives an indication of decline. Almost 90% of Crookhaven is made up of holiday homes. The locals who want to raise their families there, whether they are involved in fishing, cheese making or are small farmers, have to jump through all types of hula-hoops.

I can recall only very rare occasions when somebody was awarded planning permission holus-bolus with the conditions within the two month period. Those occasions are the exception to the rule. Inevitably permission is either refused or deferred for further information. All types of road blocks are met and one planner varies from another. The lack of consistency and guidelines in rural planning is an absolute disgrace. The Minister of State might well state the issue is at local authority level but I do not agree with that. I have spoken to Members from other counties who——

Senator O'Donovan has one minute left.

I wish the Leas-Chathaoirleach would give me another half an hour.

I spoke to representatives from other counties who stated that the situation varies from county to county. I will move from the issue of one-off housing but I am sorry to do so because I could write a thesis on it.

In his speech here on Second Stage the Minister referred to wind farms. I suggest to him that a big lacuna exists in this area. I support the concept of wind farms in principle and I have always held that wind energy is necessary. However, a very difficult situation arose in my area where the local authority granted planning permission to a wind farm but there were protests and shenanigans about the 15 km line to the grid. Eventually, the developer was forced to put the line underground. Some people state that is not economically viable.

I cannot understand why a local authority does not deal with the granting of planning permission for a wind farm at the same time as dealing with its connection to the national grid. It is a very obvious point as in places such as west Cork or Kerry the grid lines run one way or another. When the line from the wind farm in west Cork was being planned objections were made. When the local community came together and suggested putting the line away from houses and over mountain areas the local authority disagreed and routed it in such a way that in two instances the line came within 50 m of dwelling houses were youngsters lived. I am not sure how many kilovolts it carried but it was a large amount as there were 18 turbines on the farm. This type of planning annoys the public as it lacks common sense.

I am sorry I have been negative but I want to make the point that we have not got to the core of the issue on rural planning. Perhaps the day should come when rural planning should be vested, as it was at one time, with the executive of local authorities and councillors should be left out of it. It is a heartache and a headache and it has been a stressful issue for me over the years. I have not been a member of a local authority since 2003 but councillors tell me they still have the same headaches. This is not only in west Cork but across the board, including in Kerry, Galway and Clare.

If I could succeed on something today it would be to ask the Minister of State to address the fact that objections, An Taisce's involvement in rural planning and delays with An Bord Pleanála are very frustrating for people in rural Ireland and to trickle this down to local authorities. It is almost a question of turning off the lights in parts of west Cork and forgetting about them because they face Becher's Brook every which way they turn. It is also frustrating for planners and county managers and they should have something else to do rather than spending hours, days and weeks dealing with planning applications. It is like Lanigan's ball; I step in, you step out, we step in together and then fall out over it. It is a pure mess. I am being more than sincere and emotional about the issue.

I wish to share time with Senator Pearse Doherty.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Finneran. He is a distinguished past Member of the Seanad. We cannot avoid putting this Bill in a proper context and stating what is not that palatable about it. Effectively, it is a Soviet-style takeover of micro-planning by the Minister, Deputy Gormley, and the Department. It is a communist operation; it is a centralisation of planning power and micro-planning. It is wrong and should not happen. The great challenge for Senator Cassidy and his colleagues in the Seanad is to consider joining us in voting against the Bill on Second Stage. They know from their involvement at local level and from being rooted with so many councillors throughout the country that it should be voted against.

I will go through the Bill in more specific terms and substantiate my opening remarks. An amendment to a draft development plan and variations to a development plan will require the support of at least two thirds of a local authority. That is undemocratic. It stops the normal majority system from functioning in a local authority. While it could be argued that it copperfastens it, it will work as an undemocratic and blunt instrument and I disapprove of it. A two thirds majority is also required for the local area plan and to grant planning permission for developments that would materially contravene the development plan. We are getting rid of majority voting and a means of expressing the public will and the wishes of the democratically elected members of councils. That is a disturbing development.

The Minister plans to extend his power so that he can issue directions on local area plans. Traditionally, the departmental guidelines had to be taken into account in planning decisions, which was reasonable and right, but the guidelines have now been put on a much stronger statutory footing, and evidence must be given by the local authority that it took into account and interpreted the guidelines and that its planning is consistent with them. It is a nice way of saying that the local authority has no discretion. Effectively, that will be the outcome. A council must issue a statement, when making a draft development plan, detailing how the policies and objectives of the Minister contained in the guidelines have been followed and, equally, why they have not been followed. That gives a whole new status to the guidelines, which were instructive and were taken heed of in the past but are now becoming diktats from on high.

The provision under which the mandatory population threshold for preparing local area plans is raised from 2,000 to 5,000 is disturbing for our rural representatives and for much of the country. It is stated that the optional threshold for local area plans is between 2,000 and 5,000. This effectively institutes a bias towards the larger population centres and will stop the development of smaller areas by preventing the development of sewerage systems and other infrastructure so that they can never grow. I am not being flippant when I say that Senator Cassidy and his group will need to reflect considerably on this before they decide how to vote. It is a disturbing diminution of democracy and of the wishes of local communities. The fact that a small area with a population of up to 2,000 could have had a local area plan in the past was important because it gave it the potential to grow and conferred it with its constitutional and natural right to exist as a small community. This is a disturbing development.

Under the Bill, development contributions can be used to fund new infrastructure such as school sites, broadband provision and flood relief works. I do not have a difficulty with that on principle, unless it is used as an excuse for central funding in these areas and drains the local authority of resources. However, it is a case of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. There was an opportunity in Celtic tiger times to accumulate moneys that could have been used to build schools in major population centres where large estates had been built. The instrument would need to have retrospective effect because the money will be hard to access. The provision is of little relevance in a modern context. However, the principle is not wrong as long as the local authority will not be denuded of money.

A residential estate can be taken in charge by a local council in certain circumstances on foot of a request from the majority of owners or occupants. That is an acceptable proposition in cases in which estates need to be taken in hand by the local authority. There is now a difficulty with some estates not being properly finished and builders not being able to access credit or capital to allow them to finish off estates. There are many unfinished estates throughout the country, so this is a major issue. Much thought and imagination will need to be used to resolve this.

The provisions which almost give the Minister's guidelines legal standing, so that local authorities must explain why they are not implementing them, is wrong, as are the requirement for a two-thirds majority is wrong and the failure to allow local area development plans for areas of small population up to 1,700 or 1,800 people. These all represent a Soviet-style centralisation of power. It is Stalinism in an Irish context. It reflects a philosophy among the Government that only the big population centres matter. It will deliver services to these centres to obtain economies of scale but the wishes of people who live in dispersed communities will be diluted. That can hardly be right.

I wish to comment on the point made by Senator O'Donovan. This cannot be echoed often enough in the House. Nobody should interfere with the right of an individual — a young person, a farmer's son or a son of any other local person — to build a house on the family's farm or lands, within normal guidelines and with proper sewerage and so on. This should not be diminished.

The fact that the Government was accruing a surplus of income from willy-nilly developments and extra housing during the Celtic tiger years, and that it allowed unwieldy and perhaps improper developments in places, cannot now become a reason for diminishing democracy, removing local area plans, removing the role of the local councillor, imposing guidelines and bringing in an impossible majority voting system. The Green Party may have two thirds majority voting within its own party but it cannot be transposed to local authorities.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir O'Reilly fá choinne a chuid ama a roinnt liom. Caithfidh mé a rá nach aontaím le mór-chuid den méid a bhí le rá aige. Déanfaidh mé mo chuid phointí féin.

I could talk at some length about planning as it is an area that has exercised me as a councillor and Senator. I will not be voting against Second Stage of this Bill because new legislation is required in the area of planning, although I do not believe this is the finished article and I will be proposing amendments on Committee Stage. I would like to have the opportunity to do that, and voting against the legislation would not allow us an opportunity to reshape it.

I am approaching this from the point of view of someone who lives in a rural area which is designated a town. I support rural housing. I listened to the Minister's assertion that we have enough housing land rezoned to last us until 2075. This is absolute nonsense. It is technically true, but it does not stack up. Planners use this time and time again. In an area such as my own — the Derrybeg-Bunbeg area in County Donegal, in which the town is designated under the county development plan — houses can be built at eight to the acre, but in reality, nobody will build at this density. It can be done but it will not be. All land zoned within that area — every hectare of it — would need to be built upon to provide the figures the Minister continues to put out.

The other problem with the figures is that the infrastructure is not in place. The council has just rejected a proposal to build a shop unit and two apartments in the centre of the town. It cannot be progressed because there is no sewerage scheme in the town. That is replicated right across the State. We need to get real.

I welcome the provision allowing the extension of planning permissions. The amendment proposed is quite cumbersome, specifying that the authority must be satisfied either that there have been substantial works or that works could not be carried out for commercial, economic or technical reasons. I would like to see definitions in this regard. If a person has planning permission to build a house but has not built it because he or she cannot get a loan from the bank, what will be required? Will he or she need to provide all the paperwork, including bank statements and so on, which will tie up the planners as they go through them, simply to prove we are in a recession? The process could be made simpler. The idea is right but let us not tie people up with an entirely new application which takes eight weeks to process and requires that an agent be employed to lodge the paperwork.

The principle of development contribution schemes for schools is worthwhile but I disagree with its application because, as other Senators have noted, the buck is being passed to local authorities. Contribution schemes are excessive in some areas and they represent a major burden for rural self-build projects. As the schemes are not covered by mortgages, individuals must bear the costs by themselves. I am opposed to widening the schemes because the Exchequer should fund site acquisitions for schools.

An Bord Pleanála is a very contentious body. It has recently made interesting decisions on two major infrastructure projects in County Donegal, the Stranorlar-Balleybofey bypass and the 100 kV power line project for the west and south of the county. The board approved the 100 kV line despite the inspector's recommendation that it be rejected, whereas it rejected the bypass in the face of the inspector's recommendation for approval. I am concerned that two or three people in the board's offices in Dublin can overturn the plans made by road designers and council planners and thereby throw their projects into chaos. It took the board two years to make these decisions, which is another problem.

We can use planning to support Irish language communities. The Irish language and the Gaeltacht ought to be added to section 4, which requires that local development plans take cognisance of housing. I understand why the population threshold for local area plans is being increased from 2,000 to 5,000 in light of the pressures involved in delivering such plans, but this is unfortunate because they are the best way to provide planning. I would like the threshold to remain at 2,000.

I support the requirement for a quorum of two thirds of local authority members. I have experience of councillors making terrible rezoning decisions without considering planning needs. The two thirds requirement will force councillors to be more considerate in their decisions and allow smaller parties and individuals to raise their concerns.

According to the legal opinion we have received, council takeovers of estate management can only be initiated by owners. However, some owners may not want local authorities to take over their estates before construction is complete or because they are awaiting planning permission on other projects. A provision should be included in the Bill whereby the residents of local estates can lobby local authorities to enter discussions with owners on a management takeover.

Senator Ó Domhnaill spoke about the new regulations which prohibit developments adjacent to national primary and secondary roads. This has landlocked people across a massive area of County Donegal. This issue has been raised for many years with the Departments of Transport and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and it needs to be resolved immediately. I share the Minister's concerns regarding road safety and turning points but we need to be imaginative in finding a solution.

I will not be voting against the Bill on Second Stage because I believe it can be improved through amendments on Committee Stage.

I welcome the introduction of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009. I shall address specific sections of the Bill before making more general observations.

Section 7 recommends that material amendments to county development plans require the support of two thirds of the total number of councillors as opposed to a simple majority. As this will involve two thirds of all local authority members rather than of those who are present, I suggest that a simple majority should apply to the making of plans. However, I agree that a majority of two thirds should be required for variations to or contraventions of a plan.

Sections 14 to 16 strengthen the status of regional authorities in the preparation of county development plans. While it is acceptable for regional authorities to make submissions regarding the preparation of development plans, the final decision must rest with local authority members. It is the Minister's intention to allow a regional authority to insist that local authorities act in accordance with its recommendations when plans are prepared or amended. The status of regional authorities must be clarified to ensure the powers of local authority members are not diluted.

Section 20 provides that a planning authority may refuse planning permission where an applicant is substantially non-compliant with a previous permission. The intention of the section is well-founded but how will it deal in practice with an applicant who applies for planning permission in somebody else's name or where a new company with the same directors as a non-compliant company is established to make a new application? It is simple at present to avoid the implications of this section.

One of the most important provisions in the Bill is the extension of time for existing planning applications, especially given the current credit and financial constraints faced by young couples. If a young couple's planning permission runs out over the remaining months of this year, will they be covered in terms of extending the five-year period? I commend the Minister on this extension which allows people time to breathe. Where somebody has already gone to considerable time and expense in making a planning application, would he or she qualify for an extension from a local authority?

In the counties surrounding Dublin and other cities, rural villages which originally had populations of only 400 people — I have in mind a village in my own county — may have been expanded by several hundred houses. New schools are required in many instances. The bishop in my county has very generously provided a site for a new school free of charge but funding is required from the Department of Education and Science. Developers who in the good times sold properties for high prices should pay a ring-fenced development contribution to the infrastructure needs of the additional population. Planning fees could include provisions for building extra classrooms in existing or new schools. They could also address demands for community centres. In most areas, community centres that have been built with funding and support from the national lottery would be in serious trouble were it not for the Gaelic Athletic Association. A development charge should be levied to fund community centres. Without a place to communicate, young boys and girls will not have anything to do. Community centres are also used for other purposes, including meetings for parents.

Once a sewerage scheme is completed in a village, there is nothing to prevent development and developers will appeal refusals to grant planning permission to An Bord Pleanála on that basis. Everyone is then allowed to build 50 or 100 houses. While County Westmeath has not experienced the same level of excessive development as County Meath and other counties closer to Dublin, over-development had commenced in towns such as Kinnegad and Killucan. In Rochefortbridge, hundreds of houses were built despite the fact that the town did not even have an automated teller machine, ATM, to allow people to withdraw cash using their bank cards. Local people expect the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Education and Science to fund the necessary support services. While we should acknowledge that developers have made a significant contribution to the economy in the past 20 years, they should be required to make a contribution towards funding schools and community centres in areas under development.

On the proposed area plans, I accept that the national spatial strategy hubs and gateways should take precedent for development and welcome provisions on areas with populations of up to 2,000 and 5,000. However, I also support the right of sons and daughters of local people to build a one-off house in family plots or gardens, many of which are one acre sites provided with council cottages. Permitting such development allows people to be close to and look after their parents in the later years of life. In return, the parents baby-sit and mind their grandchildren during the working day. This makes for good, wholesome family life in rural areas. We must ensure nothing interferes with the rural quality of life to which we, in rural areas, have become accustomed. In the main, I welcome the Bill and seek its passage through the House. I thank the Minister for introducing it.

I welcome the Minister. While I am in favour of some aspects of the Bill, I do not support other provisions because they are not logical. I hope the Minister will introduce amendments on Committee and Report Stages and I have no doubt the legislation will change significantly during its passage through the Houses.

The Minister has all but blamed councillors for the economic downturn. While councillors zone land, planning permission is granted by county managers. Section 140 powers, under which a county manager may be directed to grant planning permission, are seldom used. For this reason, county managers are to blame for many of the bad developments around the country because they are effectively the chief planning officers of the councils and local authorities. Councillors draw up a plan on which submissions are made by objectors and supporters, including council officials. In recent years, the Department has intervened at the final stages of some area plans. Councillors who draw up area plans are not the cause of our financial problems.

To take the Minister's logic to its conclusion, the more land that is zoned, the greater the availability of development land and the lower the price for sites. If the number of acres of zoned land is reduced, as proposed, the price of development land and sites will increase. The Minister's plan envisages that land will only become available on a phased basis. Surely this will increase the cost of development and zoned land because the amount of development land available will decline. If the amount of zoned land is reduced, we will return to the old days when restrictions were imposed on development land in Dublin.

I note the Minister has extended the validity of planning permissions for a further five years. I presume his decision is connected to the establishment of the National Asset Management Agency which will acquire many of the loans for these developments. Without planning permission, the sites in question would be worthless. While I do not have a problem with the proposal to extend planning permissions for five years, I expect the Minister to make alterations in certain cases where the proposed developments reflect poor planning.

Does the Senator want me to remove the provision? I have been receiving representations from the Opposition on this issue for some time.

Slight changes could be made to some of the proposals.

A few years ago, the Fine Gael Party tabled a motion on construction standards on the basis that properties were being built without insulation, particularly in Dublin. As a result of the Fianna Fáil Party's decision to vote against the motion, a large number of houses were built using cavity blocks and do not meet insulation standards. If planning permissions are to be extended for a further five years, I hope the Minister will table an amendment providing that properties built on the basis of such permissions must be insulated and stipulating what type of block must be used.

Another problem with the Bill is that it establishes a hierarchy among towns. The national spatial strategy designated gateways and hubs which will be allowed to grow at the expense of smaller towns. The Minister indicated that area plans will not be permitted for towns with a population of less than 2,000. This means they will not be prioritised for sewerage and water treatment facilities and will never be given priority if there is a hub town in the local area because its population is expected to increase to a specified number within a specified timeframe.

Figures from the Central Statistics Office show the population is not increasing. Population growth in many hubs and gateways has, therefore, ceased. What provision has been made for transport facilities in towns and villages with a population of fewer than 2,000? How will access points from these smaller centres to the larger gateways and hubs develop? If the population of these smaller towns does not increase, transport services will not be viable and eventually shops, pubs and other outlets will close.

In our county development plan we have area plans for villages, as well as towns with a population of up to 2,000. A population of 2,000 is quite a sizeable town. It may not be considered so in Dublin but in a rural areas it is a considerable size for a town which provides a lot of facilities such as schools, gaming facilities, shops and supermarkets. Some towns of that size are a hive of activity. Many towns have experienced difficulties in getting extensions to water and sewerage treatment units over the past number of years, but under the plan the Minister has put in place they will have that problem for many years to come until the hub in their area grows to the size of population required by the Minister.

I note the Irish Independent on 10 October 2002 stated councillors zoned enough land in the country for 3 million extra people. That is nearly double the size of the population. The article discusses each county in great detail. It states my county has done enough planning for more than 7,000 extra houses. There are plans for 92,000 additional houses in Donegal, 10,500 in Sligo and 20,000 in Waterford. If that type of zoning exists, surely it is not a great priority unless the Minister makes provision for putting some of the land back into agricultural use. I do not know if councillors, landowners or the county managers would instigate a situation whereby the land would revert to agricultural use.

I welcome some aspects of the Bill. There are some good aspects to it. The Minister must examine the proposed 80% windfall tax. An 80% tax would be an absolute disaster. There would be no commercial activity and nobody would do anything. If a person has a site or piece of land to zone but 80% of the value will go the taxpayer, he or she will sit on it and will not do anything. It beats me why the proposed tax is so high. I advise the Minister if that provision stays in the Bill there will be no activity in terms of rezoning land from agricultural use to commercial or housing use.

It is proposed to change the adoption of a county development plan from a simple majority to a two thirds majority. I have heard various Senators speak on the issue and have dealt with a considerable number of county development plans over the past 25 years while I was a member of town and county local authorities. Councillors put in a significant performance in the adoption of a county development plan. It takes an awful lot of their time and energy, as well as that of the staff of local authorities. It is never a simple thing to get a county development plan passed. In this Bill the Minister says in some cases eight people may well have more power than 16 people. Why would a smaller number have the right to hold up the adoption of a county development plan? As we are in a democracy, surely the majority should rule. It is not always easy to get a majority of a local authority to pass a development plan. It is an area which the Minister should re-examine and it should go back to a simple majority. I have a number of other things to say on the Bill but I will hold them until Committee Stage.

I welcome the Minister. I have not had the pleasure of being here for most of the Second Stage debate. While I am familiar with some of the provisions of the Bill, I want to use this opportunity to make a few general points on planning.

I am from the north west, namely, the gateway city of Sligo. I am very focused on the issue of balanced regional development. The wish for those of us who live on the western seaboard is to be able to live and develop the provision of the services we would like there and not have to have travel an unreasonable distance to secure the kind of administrative and various other services one would have the benefit of in the larger cities.

In that context, the spatial strategy has been a document we have selectively dipped in and out of. When we were doing something as a Government over recent years which fitted in with the strategy we would say it was in line with the spatial strategy. More often than not, when it did not, we did not mention it.

Sligo has been a major beneficiary in terms of decentralisation programmes from 1989 to more recent years, which has been very successful. When we last visited the issue of decentralisation we should have focused exclusively on the nine gateway centres. Like in the United States where, for example, heavy industry is located in Detroit, medical services and devices are in Chicago and so on, we could have a critical mass of activity and develop our nation along these lines in a strategic way. The hubs would feed off the gateways and the smaller villages and towns, such as my colleague, Senator Burke, mentioned would, in turn, feed off them. In a more general sense, the national spatial strategy needs to be examined in a more strategic fashion and in a cross-departmental, joined-up way. All policy and not just planning should feed into that because heretofore we have been far too selective about it.

One of the main issues I have, to which I briefly alluded, is that we in the west live there and do not wish to preserve it solely as the weekend destination of the urban dweller. We want to live there, have our services there and have due cognisance taken of that. I am cognisant of the need to have not a free for all but I am equally cognisant of the fact it is possible to achieve the objectives the people of the north west want, while upholding rules and sustainability.

The right to object is something which has always bothered me. If somebody is based in Dublin and wants to take a view on a dwelling home to be built in Enniscrone in County Sligo, I have a problem with such a person having the right to object. It is problematic. Such a person is not doing a service per se, particularly if a family wants to build a home within reasonable design guidelines. I do not feel one should have the right to object in such circumstances. I would like the Minister to examine the issue.

I am also conscious of an issue which emerged last week, that is, the EU ruling that we were in breach of certain standards in septic tanks. It was mentioned that we would have to have a licensing system for them which I am not against in principle. It is a good idea and we will have to assess septic tanks which are already in place all over the country. Many will have to be replaced. Following the ruling last week there is a lot of fear that a significant cost will be involved. It costs between €4,000 and €8,000 to replace a septic tank. As we prepare this law for next year, will funds be put in place to help people who cannot afford that but who may be in breach of the ruling because they have an older septic tank? They want to be compliant with the law but do not have the means to do so. As with the other very worthwhile grant schemes, which the Minister has presided over in terms of insulation and so on, could funds be set aside to ensure families throughout the country in rural Ireland who are being served by substandard septic tanks or waste water systems are helped?

I want to mention briefly the role of An Taisce. While it does some very good work and I support many of its schemes, one of its senior officials said to me it was its intention to close Sligo Airport. I do not wish to come down on either side of a planning application by the airport to extend its runway. I take no view on it. It is a frightening statement from a senior official in An Taisce. This is a gateway town under the national spatial strategy and I am sure the Minister will reaffirm that issue. To say there is an intention to close Sligo Airport is extremely shocking. If that is the perspective of a senior official in what is a good organisation — An Taisce does good work — I would have concerns about it being a prescribed organisation. A senior official would be in a position to steer that particular organisation down certain routes and with certain agendas.

On Committee Stage there will be various opportunities to get into the meat of the Bill. I welcome the extension for planning permissions but the idea should not focus on the amount of work done. What do we define as work? I am aware of a planning application worth millions of euro, and it will not be subject to NAMA, which Senator Burke has mentioned. Is five years enough or is there a possibility to introduce common sense to some of these cases? Some of the applications might need seven or ten years.

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.

A concluding time was ordered that was possibly too short for the Minister.

What I can do is——

I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to extend the time allowed by ten minutes to allow the Minister to conclude.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Accordingly, the proposal in the Bill is to have a two thirds majority for material changes after the draft plan has been placed on display. The two thirds requirement does not apply to approving the draft plan before it is placed on public display. As I stated previously, one of the key objectives of the Bill is to strengthen local democracy and accountability in accordance with the ongoing process of local government reform to be pursued in the forthcoming White Paper on local government. The increased requirement for two thirds support for material amendments to draft development plans is appropriate, as the development plan forms the blueprint for development within a planning authority area.

I turn now to the question of community gain. The Bill amends the principal Act to provide for a wider definition of public infrastructure and facilities to reflect newer infrastructural requirements. Having regard to the sustainable communities agenda and other policy developments such as the developing areas initiative, the wider definition of public infrastructure and and facilities will, if needed, provide local authorities with greater flexibility to use development levies. This will allow the levies to be spent on a broader range of items such as flood relief works, broadband provision and school sites, matters raised by many Senators.

Senator Quinn referred, rightly, to the relationship between planning policy and promoting healthy lifestyles. Under existing planning legislation, planning authorities' development plans must include objectives for the following: integration of planning and sustainable development of an area with social, community and cultural requirements for the area and its population; and the preservation, improvement and extension of amenities and recreational amenities. Statutory planning guidance such as the guidelines I published, namely, "Guidelines for planning authorities on sustainable residential development in urban areas — cities, towns and villages — 2008" and "Guidelines for planning authorities on design standards for apartments 2007", has been provided for planning authorities which reinforces the need to provide adequate open space and recreational facilities, particularly for children, and in designing new residential development they should prioritise cycling and walking and minimise the need for private cars. The residential development guidelines recommend integrated housing and public transport development which minimises the requirement for car use and proper footpath and cycleway access for new developments. They also recommend direct walking and cycling routes to local facilities such as shops and schools and set quantative open space standards for active or passive use within developments. The guidelines can be assessed on my Department's website.

Legislation and guidance provide the framework and tools for planning authorities to make provisions in their development plan for policies to positively address obesity and support general healthy lifestyles for people of all ages. My Department is represented on the task force on obesity within the remit of the Department of Health and Children and will continue to play a full role in cross-departmental initiatives in this area.

A number of Senators made reference to derelict sites. The Derelict Sites Act 1990 provides for the acquisition of such sites by local authorities to enable them to require the execution of works on such sites by the owners and, in certain circumstances, to execute works on derelict sites at the expense of the owners and to provide for other matters connected with matters aforesaid. My Department is in the process of updating the list of prescribed areas under section 21 of the Act which allows local authorities to propose areas for prescription as urban areas for the purposes of the Act. The areas are prescribed by way of a statutory instrument. Following its enactment, the local authorities may impose levies on the owner of the site. The levy is based on the value of the land. The imposition of levies on the owners or occupiers of the lands in question is to encourage the owners or occupiers to remove the lands from dereliction.

Senator Glynn referred to the issue of legislation on dangerous buildings not being enforced. Building regulations generally apply to the construction of a new building, the extension and material alteration of an existing building and material change of use of an existing building. Where a building control authority considers that construction works or a change of use within the scope of the building regulations may give rise to a risk to the health and safety of persons who may be in or about the building or works, it may apply to the High Court or Circuit Court under section 12 of the Building Control Acts 1990 and 2007 for an order requiring the following: the removal, alteration or making safe of any structure, service, fitting or equipment, or the discontinuance of any works or the restriction or prohibition of the use of the building until any of the above requirements has been effected. Enforcement of the building regulations is the responsibility of the 37 building control authorities.

Senator Norris raised the issue of flood plains. In September 2008 my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Deputy Martin Mansergh, and I issued for public consultation draft guidelines for planning authorities. These guidelines, entitled The Planning System and Flood Risk Management, are aimed at ensuring a more consistent, rigorous and systematic approach to incorporating flood risk identification, assessment and management in the planning system and building upon its long-standing acknowledgement in the legislation as an important planning issue. Submissions received on foot of the consultation process are being considered by my Department in conjunction with the OPW with a view to finalising and publishing the statutory guidelines by the end of the year at the latest.

Senator Norris also made the point that the development of Spain's metro system was possible because planning laws had been adjusted to secure rights to land underneath houses. The Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006 introduced a streamlined planning consent procedure for strategic infrastructural developments and amended the rules of compulsory acquisition to provide that the value of any land lying ten metres or more below the surface shall be taken to be nil unless it can be shown to be of greater value by a claimant.

Allied to this, the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 will amend the Transport (Railway Infrastructure) Act 2001 to provide An Bord Pleanála with powers to recover costs in respect of applications for railway orders. The applicant pays principle is the basis for the payment of costs under the strategic infrastructure Act. Applicants are currently required to pay costs associated with the development consent process as determined by the board. The development consent application fee of €100,000 is offset against these costs and the developer pays the balance as applicable.

The costs to date on some major projects have been significant. The board does not recover any of the significant costs it incurs in dealing with cases that do not proceed beyond the pre-application stage. The board must strike a balance between offering continual improvement in pre-application consultations for those cases that are truly strategic infrastructure and funding the costs associated with the pre-application consultation service it provides. The Bill provides for the recovery by An Bord Pleanála of its costs associated with the pre-application stage. Such costs can be offset against the formal application fee for those cases that proceed to be determined by the board.

Senators also raised a number of issues relating to developers' performance, including the matters of unfinished estates, the provision of bonds as security relating to the completion of essential works on estates and measures to refuse permission to a developer with a history of non-compliance with previous permissions. In early 2008, my Department issued policy guidance on taking residential developments in charge, emphasising the importance of a proactive role for local authorities in ensuring, in so far as they can, that residential developments are completed properly by developers to the standards set out in the planning permission. Planning authorities were urged to ensure they attached appropriate conditions to planning permissions, including conditions regarding bonds and phasing of developments, inspected the developments during and after construction and took early enforcement action if appropriate.

Concerning bonds, the guidance stated that the amount of security and the terms under which it is required to be given must enable the planning authority, without cost to itself, to complete the necessary services, including roads, footpaths, water mains, sewers, lighting and open spaces, to a satisfactory standard in the event of default by the developer. It was also stated that the condition must require that the lodgement of the security be coupled with an agreement that would empower the planning authority to realise the amount of the security and that the bond must be of sufficient duration to allow time to inspect the development after the expiration of permission and still call it a bond if necessary.

Section 35 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 introduced the concept of the refusal of planning permission because of the applicant's non-compliance with a previous planning permission, but this refusal was subject to the consent of the High Court. The Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006 amended this provision by reversing the burden of proof. Now, the planning authority can refuse permission in such a case and the planning applicant must apply to the High Court if he or she wants to have that decision reversed.

I am broadening and strengthening the circumstances under which a planning authority can refuse planning permission to include instances in which an applicant has carried out an unauthorised substantial development or has been convicted of any offence under the planning Acts. I am confident that this provision will facilitate the greater use of section 35 by the planning authorities which should make for a culture of greater compliance with the planning controls.

Senator Cummins highlighted the issue of vehicles being used to display advertising on roadsides. If a vehicle is left in one location for long periods and is in use as an unauthorised advertising structure, it is difficult to see why it should be exempt from planning enforcement. The erection of unauthorised advertising structures other than road traffic signs is regulated, as the Senator should know. A licence is issued under section 254 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 for a structure on, under, over or along a public road. Planning permission under section 34 of the 2000 Act is required for signage on private property. My Department is preparing statutory guidance with the Department of Transport and the National Roads Authority, NRA. It is intended that the issue of road signage and the practice of parking large truck trailers off the road as a means of advertising hauliers will be addressed in these guidelines which I hope to issue in draft form for public consultation early next year.

A number of Senators referred to the national spatial strategy which is designed as a 20-year strategic document and has been endorsed by the Government. In the context of the Bill, the ongoing review of the regional planning guidelines, which translate the strategy's principles into concrete objectives and have been adopted by each regional authority, will have a major influence on how future development plans are drafted, thus improving local and regional responsibility and accountability for ensuring all parts of the country develop in a sustainable manner.

The issue of what constitutes a draft development plan was raised by Senator Walsh, for whose contribution I was in attendance. The short answer is that the manager is tasked with preparing the draft plan in accordance with any directions given to him or her by the council. The council is free to make any amendments to the draft which then goes on public display.

I am greatly encouraged by the generally supportive and constructive contributions by Members on Second Stage and I look forward to dealing with the detail of the Bill on Committee Stage. I thank Senators for their contributions.

Question put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 35; Níl, 15.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Butler, Larry.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Corrigan, Maria.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • de Búrca, Déirdre.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Hanafin, John.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • McDonald, Lisa.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Norris, David.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Brien, Francis.
  • O’Donovan, Denis.
  • O’Malley, Fiona.
  • O’Sullivan, Ned.
  • O’Toole, Joe.
  • Ormonde, Ann.
  • Phelan, Kieran.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.

Níl

  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Cannon, Ciaran.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • McFadden, Nicky.
  • O’Reilly, Joe.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Regan, Eugene.
  • Twomey, Liam.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Paudie Coffey and Maurice Cummins.
Question declared carried.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 10 November 2009.