Commencement Matters

Planning Issues

I call Senator Heffernan.

Before I begin, am I precluded from mentioning names in a Commencement debate?

Yes, you are.

Fair enough. I just wanted to clarify that before I started.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan. My matter is fairly straightforward in that I ask that a response be given to a resolution that was passed by Limerick County Council in November last. As far as I am aware, Limerick County Council has received no response at all from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. It is not acceptable, when councils pass motions and they are forwarded to the relevant Ministers, that no official response comes back to them. It shows a disregard for the work of elected representatives, in particular county councillors, if the Minister in charge is going to ignore them.

I will give a brief history of the particular complaint. I am calling for an independent investigation in regard to a couple of planning matters. To be clear from the outset, the applicant himself does not dispute the fact that he was refused a planning application; that is fine and is accepted. What is in question here is the manner and the method whereby that application was allowed to proceed. There is a perception that there was maladministration on the part of Limerick County Council when it was dealing with the applicant, in that he was left to go too far along a stage with the application while the planners seemed to be of a view that it was never going to be approved in the end. The argument the applicant is making is that, under the guidelines as set out by the former Minister, Mr. Dick Roche, in 2007, if something was going to affect the outcome of a planning decision, the applicant should be made aware of such a problem at the pre-planning stage. The whole argument of this applicant is that this procedure was not followed. This is not about the outcome and it is not the case that he was going to appeal to An Bord Pleanála. He agreed with the outcome. It is just his feeling that it should not have gone so far.

This matter has been brought to the attention of the Office of the Ombudsman. I am not sure if it was properly picked up that the guidelines as set out in 2007 by the former Minister do not seem to have been followed. All the members of Limerick County Council, of all parties, to my knowledge, are in agreement that an independent investigation should take place because they feel there was certainly maladministration when it came to these particular applications. I would like to hear the response from the Department to the resolution that was unanimously passed by Limerick County Council back in November.

Although the Cathaoirleach has ruled it is not appropriate to mention names on particular planning matters, it would be fine to give the matters privately to the Minister of State, if he wanted her to investigate it properly, as she may need the extra information.

I think the Department is well aware of the matter.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am taking this Commencement matter for the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly.

Under section 255 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has certain investigatory powers in regard to the review of the performance by planning authorities of their functions under the Act.

These powers are, however, restricted to the review of the organisation and of the systems and procedures used by planning authorities in relation to their functions. They do not extend to the review of individual planning applications.

Under section 30 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, the Minister is specifically precluded from exercising any power or control in regard to any particular planning application with which a planning authority, including An Bord Pleanála, is or may be concerned. Section 224 of the Local Government Act 2001 enables the Minister to authorise a person to prepare a report for him or her regarding any matter arising in relation to the performance of functions by a local authority.

I understand that the matter raised relates to a planning applicant who has complained about the handling of two planning applications by Limerick County Council in relation in particular to pre-application consultations entered into by the person concerned with the council. I further understand that the person in question complained about the council's handling of his planning applications to the previous Ombudsman, who did not find any maladministration by the council in this matter, and that this decision was upheld on appeal. I also understand that the Ombudsman, as an exceptional matter, granted a further review of the case, following which the previous finding was upheld. The person subsequently made a further complaint to the current Ombudsman who found that while there were some failings on behalf of the council in this case, these did not constitute significant maladministration.

I am satisfied that the matters complained of have been already comprehensively investigated on a number of occasions by the Office of the Ombudsman on an independent third party basis and, consequently, I am satisfied that no further investigation of the matters which were the subject of the complaints is required.

I take on board the Minister of State's reply. Many people have provided sworn affidavits in this case, including elected representatives and people who represented the applicant in his consultations at pre-planning level. This is not about the final planning decision. It is about what occurred prior to it. The point being missed by the Department and the Ombudsman is that the guidelines as set out were not followed. That is what the applicant is saying and what Limerick County Council elected members believe, and for that reason tabled the motion referred to.

I understand this matter does not come within the remit of the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, but I would urge that the Department reconsider the matter in light of the precedent that has been set in County Donegal whereby some applications, in terms of irregularities regarding planning decisions, are being looked into by a third party appointed by the Minister. I believe a similar approach should be taken in this case because it may be that this is not an isolated incident and that there are other people who have suffered similarly as a result of pre-planning meetings not having adhered to the regulations as set out in the previous Act.

If I understand the Senator correctly what is at issue is not the decision on the planning application but the pre-planning process. Pre-planning meetings are often open to interpretation in that while one person says one thing, another person hears something else.

I have dealt with some planning applications and put a lot of store in pre-planning meetings. I would always advise people to attend pre-planning meetings, but I advise that the pre-planning meeting is not the actual planning process. I am interested to know why, for example, the applicant did not go to An Bord Pleanála. I will outline another avenue that could be pursued. The Senator referred to elected members. The elected members might like to debate such a matter in the chambers of the council in order to examine the guidelines, but perhaps that already happens.

I would like to draw the Senator's attention to political interference in planning applications. It is something we accept is not done in this country any more. Political interference in planning applications led to a lot of tribunals, and long drawn-out tribunals. I think sometimes a local solution to a local problem is a better idea. I shall convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister. It may be a wise course for him to speak to the local authority again. As stated in the report, the Minister is not allowed to investigate individual planning applications.

Community Development Projects

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The local area improvement scheme was introduced last year by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. To be fair, the Department operates many such schemes in conjunction with local authorities. I am not sure how much was made available for this scheme, but I think it was €7 million. It equipped the local authority with small budgets so that it could engage in a co-operative fashion with local community groups in an effort to make the environment cleaner and improve public areas. The scheme proved successful in Clare because it enabled Clare County Council to enter into partnership arrangements with community groups that improved public areas in a way that the council would not necessarily have had the resources to do. The budget that Clare County Council got would have worked if it had been spent on one project. Instead, it decided to split up the funding and distributed grants, as far as I am aware, to community groups. As a result, the council got a much greater bang for its buck. The scheme has been great.

I do not believe there has been an announcement of a follow-on scheme for this year. Given the fact that the scheme was so successful last year, I urge the Minister to announce a similar scheme for this year.

I thank the Senator for raising such an important scheme, of which I am a huge supporter. I thank him for providing me with the opportunity to address the House on the success of the public area enhancement scheme.

As the Senator is aware, in March of last year the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government announced that a sum of approximately €3 million would be made available to local authorities for a dedicated public area enhancement scheme.

Following on from the success of The Gathering in 2013, towns and cities across the country were hoping for another successful tourist season in 2014. Last year was a challenging year for local authorities in terms of managing their public spaces due to the exceptionally inclement weather conditions experienced. In light of this, the Minister announced that additional once-off funding was to be provided to support the efforts of local authorities to maintain and present their public areas. The Minister was conscious that this effort would maximise the economic benefits that would result from increased visitors to towns, cities and counties and enhance the overall experience of those visitors.

The public area enhancement scheme supported community efforts by providing grant funding to local authorities for the purpose of enhancing public areas before and during the summer tourist season. The scheme provided funding for such work which was additional to that provided in 2014 in local authority budgets.

The provisional grant to local authorities under the scheme was conditional upon 25% matching funding being provided by the local authorities themselves. While funds were provided to city and county councils only, town and borough councils were also assisted in their efforts to improve and enhance their public spaces by the respective county councils.

The Department was not prescriptive in the works to be undertaken. Suggestions included the provision of additional support for initiatives such as local tidy towns committees, improvement works to public parks and recreational walking areas, cleaning and tidying of older graveyards, and cleaning and making safe derelict buildings. Local authorities were asked to undertake works in co-operation with local community efforts, wherever possible. The scale and variety of work undertaken by councils demonstrated the success of the scheme, with all local authority areas benefiting from the enhancements.

As the scheme was conceived in response to the extreme weather experienced in 2014, it was designed to be a once-off intervention. The question of whether the scheme may have a role to play in the future will be kept under review by the Minister, having regard to the needs that may arise and the available resources.

It was probably wishful thinking on my part to hope the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, might come here today and announce a new scheme.

One should always follow one's dreams.

I appreciate the Minister of State's response and her support for this very useful scheme. It would be nice to see it being run again this year.

I have some additional information which may be of benefit to the Senator. I will give it to him before I leave the Chamber.

Housing Provision

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. While she does not have full control over the Department's housing policy, her role as Minister of State with responsibility for rural development means the issue is very much on her agenda. We all agree there is a very serious housing problem in Dublin, which is having a knock-on effect throughout the country. While my question relates to a story which emanated in the media at the weekend as to how many units of housing it will be possible to build in the very near future in our capital city and a dispute between the Department and media outlets, I am asking the Minister of State to acknowledge that this is a crisis which requires a solution. I have repeatedly expressed the view in recent years that we do not have a housing policy in this country. We clearly have a policy for the construction industry and a policy to regenerate the role of developers. Some of those developers have been tripping in to meet the Minister for Finance in recent times, which reminds one of the politics of the Celtic tiger era. However, we do not have a clear, distinct set of proposals to house the more than 100,000 people throughout the country who are in urgent need of new accommodation.

The story in the Sunday Independent at the weekend was disturbing. It referred to an e-mail from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to the Department of Finance which contained an admission that there was a deliberate attempt being made to spin the numbers. The e-mail stated: "We have been spinning that there is sufficient land with planning permission/zoned for housing circa 46,000 housing units across four Dublin LAs but the reality is that this figure includes land not yet zoned for housing." We need clarity as to exactly how much land is available in the short term for housing units in Dublin. In addition, we need clarity as to how the Government intends not just to get the land zoned and obtain planning permission but how the houses are to be built.

The mortgage and debt crisis in this country is very profound and it feeds into the housing crisis. The latter represents the greatest crisis facing the country, with more than 100,000 families seeking housing. It is greatly remiss of us politically not to respond to it more robustly. The nation continues to face economic difficulties and will do for some time. I first entered local government politics in the mid-1980s when the country was in the midst of a profound economic depression.

I can only speak for Cork County Council at the time, as can the Leas-Chathaoirleach, where hundreds of local authority houses were being built per annum and, presumably, thousands across the country, because it was part of then Government's housing strategy. We need such a strategy again. One of the aspects I want the Minister to reflect on, which my colleagues and I in the new political movement Renua have been talking about, is that as of today more than €100 billion in Irish pension funds is invested abroad. Can we attempt to devise a scheme to bring some of this money back into our country to provide housing for the people? That is an issue on which we need to reflect. We certainly need new thinking, new solutions and new ways of investing to deal with the housing crisis, as we cannot wait five, ten or 15 years to provide housing for these families. We all know the social knock-on effects arising from inadequate housing.

The Minister of State will be aware from her constituency work that rent allowance in all its formats and mortgage subsidies are still being paid, so taxpayers' money is being spent, but it is not being well spent. We need a new attempt to define a national housing strategy. I have sought this debate in the House in the past six months and I hope we can have it in the near future. However, today I am asking for clarity. When one Department official is telling another that deliberate spinning is taking place, that is not a positive starting point. Let us get a true picture of how bad the situation is, and let us plan to make it better. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's observations. I acknowledge that she cannot make up policy on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly. I watched the Minister on television last night, but he did not reveal any new information. We have to take this problem seriously because it is ruining lives, livelihoods, families and communities across the country.

I thank the Senator for raising this very serious matter. I would point out, as he has done, that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, is directly responsible for the social housing strategy. This gives me an opportunity to congratulate the Minister, with whom I work closely, on the determination with which he is pursuing the social housing strategy.

As the Senator is aware, housing supply, public and private, is one of the most significant challenges and priorities currently faced by the Government. In this regard, the Government has set out a range of actions in the Construction 2020 strategy to support expanded housing supply and, in the social housing strategy, has set aside some €4 billion to deal with social housing provision in the period to 2020. The lack of supply of private housing is particularly acute in the Dublin area, where demand well outstrips supply, with consequential effects on house prices and also rents.

To put the issue in context, at the peak of construction activity in 2006, more than 93,000 houses were built nationally, of which just under 20,000 were built in Dublin. Further to the economic and banking crisis, activity declined very sharply. Only around 11,000 housing units were completed nationally in 2014, of which 3,268 were in the Dublin area. There is undoubtedly an urgent need to increase the level of housing supply, particularly in Dublin, in order to return to a market equilibrium whereby supply equals demand, having regard to the increasing population and changing household formation trends.

To help address these issues, and further to the publication of the Government's Construction 2020 strategy for a renewed construction sector, the Dublin housing supply co-ordination task force was established last year with a particular focus on addressing supply-related issues in Dublin. This includes the monitoring of trends in new housing developments, as well as the identification of any obstacles - including the provision of key infrastructure - to the bringing on stream of viable and market-ready developments. One of the first actions of the task force was to analyse the stock of planning permissions and zoned land for housing developments in Dublin.

The first report of the task force, which is available on my Department's website, concluded that across the four Dublin local authorities, approximately 21,000 housing units already had planning permission, equating to three years' supply, which permissions do not have any infrastructural constraints. The task force further reported that an additional 25,000 new homes are considered permissible on existing lands which are zoned for housing, and which do not have any infrastructural constraints. Both of these figures are subject to change as planning permissions are lodged and granted. Given a predicted housing requirement of approximately 7,500 new homes per annum over the coming years, as identified by the Housing Agency, the position is that there is sufficient land with planning permissions, and-or zoned for housing, to meet the predicted requirements for the next six years in the Dublin area.
The data on Dublin housing supply as published by the Dublin housing supply co-ordination task force is the most recent and up-to-date information available. A further analysis of zoned lands with infrastructural constraints has been undertaken by the task force with a view to ensuring that further supply comes on-stream during that follow-on period. The task force has recently submitted a second report to my Department focusing on this issue and the Minister will give due consideration to its conclusions in consultation with his Government colleagues.

That is a very comprehensive response.

It is comprehensive in reiterating the position that is known to us already-----

I will allow the Senator to ask a supplementary question.

Will the Minister of State take back to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, my profound concern that we are failing to acknowledge the fact that tens of thousands of people are awaiting social housing and private housing and that simultaneously, there are thousands of vacant accommodation units across the country? There appears to be no joined-up thinking on finding a solution to these problems. We do not have the investment capacity to build, in the short term, the number of social and affordable houses required. I referred earlier to the local authority politics in which both I and the Leas-Chathaoirleach were involved in the 1980s. It was a long time ago in one sense, yet at that time councils availed of schemes such as housing finance agency loans, share ownership loans and local authority loans and were exceptionally proactive in providing social housing. There is a profound lack of imagination, new thinking and new ideas on how to solve this housing crisis. We can argue about the statistics, whether 30,000 or 46,000 units are ready to go, but the problem is that nothing is happening and houses are not being built in the volumes required. A new national plan is needed. I repeat my request for a serious, in-depth debate on a national housing crisis here in Seanad Éireann, where at least some degree of serious reflection is allowed, in the near future. Let us all work together to bring an end to the misery of the people who are waiting in endless queues for housing and who are living in substandard rented accommodation. We are all paying a high social price for that.

I do not think that needs a response. Both the Minister of State and Senator Bradford have put their cases well. The Senator has asked the Minister of State to bring the issue back to the Minister, as I am sure she will.

General Practitioner Services Provision

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. While the question was directed to the Minister for Health, it is not at all inappropriate that it is being taken on his behalf today by the Minister of State, because of her remit with regard to rural development and rural areas. While it is not directly under the aegis of her Department, one of the newest challenges facing rural Ireland is for rural communities, towns and villages, to retain their GP services. This is a relatively new phenomenon.

According to my information, the HSE is experiencing chronic difficulty in filling vacancies where GPs have retired in 30 to 40 towns and villages in various regions throughout the country. In itself, this reflects a change of emphasis which we have seen manifested in other areas. A GP practice is no longer necessarily a vocational pursuit. Rather, it is often viewed as a career. These days, it must stack up as a business and a sustainable proposition, it must be feasible, and it must meet the demands and lifestyle expectations of people and families.

In particular, I wish to raise with the Minister of State the anxiety and alarm developing in my county, County Laois, due to the ongoing process and the length of time it is taking to find a GP replacement for the village of Borris-in-Ossory. The incumbent, Dr. Seamus Fitzgerald, a long-serving practitioner who has given sterling, loyal, committed and dedicated service, is retiring of his own volition. I wish him a happy, healthy and lengthy retirement. The process to replace him commenced as far back as last November. I am heartened to learn that there have been a number of expressions of interest. Indeed, perhaps up to four qualified candidates were interviewed for the competition to replace the incumbent, Dr. Fitzgerald. However, the vacancy looms large and will arise within a week's time at the end of March.

I hope the Minister of State will have a positive reply today to the effect that the Borris-in-Ossory vacancy has been resolved and successfully addressed by the HSE. In that context there is a wider issue that needs to be considered by the Minister for Health when he is negotiating the GP contract with GPs and the Irish Medical Organisation. A new trend is developing whereby new and younger doctors and practitioners are no longer willing to embrace general practices in smaller towns and villages throughout rural Ireland. As I have said, up to 40 vacancies exist at the moment, and this will accelerate unless it is addressed. With respect, this needs to be addressed by ensuring that the rural practice allowance is restored and that it is sufficient to make the practice attractive, feasible and sustainable. Moreover, we need to address the terms and conditions being sought from GPs, including the rents sought for the clinics they use in these town and villages. Towns and villages such as Borris-in-Ossory are not as lucrative as larger urban areas in the city of Dublin and so on. It is my understanding that the HSE is looking for an extortionate rent of €25 per square metre from the new GP for the clinic in Borris-in-Ossory. This is punitive. It is not consistent with the current market value and it puts a great strain on any doctor trying to provide a dedicated and committed service in Borris-in-Ossory and its extensive hinterland.

I thank Senator Whelan. I am taking this Commencement debate on behalf of the Minister. Senator Whelan raises an important issue. Given my role as Minister of State with responsibly for rural affairs, I can see why there are grave concerns in rural parts of Ireland where these situations may arise. The HSE is committed to the provision of high-quality general practitioner services through the general medical services, GMS, contract for GPs. GMS GP posts are filled in line with HSE human resources recruitment guidelines. Periodically, challenges can be experienced in respect of the permanent filling of GP posts. In areas where this challenge is experienced, every effort is made by the local HSE management to ensure the provision of GP services to all GMS patients.

The retiring doctor in Borris-in-Ossory advised the HSE of his intention to resign from the GMS scheme in November 2014. The GP practice is a single-handed rural practice with a GMS panel of approximately 830 patients. The GMS panel was advertised by open competition and interviews took place in late 2014. Two people applied, and both were placed on the panel following a successful interview. Both successful candidates, however, declined the offer of the position. The position was subsequently re-advertised by open competition in early February 2015.

Interviews took place in the first week of March 2015. The HSE has engaged systematically with two successful candidates based on their panel position and I am happy to state that the first placed candidate has accepted the position and will commence work as soon as possible, something I know the Senator will welcome.

While GP numbers are keeping pace with overall demographics, this does not always prevent shortages occurring at local level. GPs once qualified, tend to work for existing GP practices or as self-employed contractors and are free to decide where to establish their practices. Isolated rural areas and deprived urban areas, very often with limited private practice opportunities, may sometimes find it difficult to attract GPs to fill vacant posts, a point the Senator mentioned.

The HSE is actively seeking to address this issue with medical organisations with a view to developing practical measures, including reorganising lists with existing doctors in local areas and through the adoption of a more flexible contractual arrangement which would encourage young GPs to work in such areas. The Department of Health and the HSE are currently in discussions with the IMO about the introduction of flexible or shared GMS contracts. The possibility of extending the current GMS GP retirement age from 70 to 72 years of age is also being considered.

The introduction of shared GMS contracts would provide more family friendly working arrangements better suited to the increasing number of female GPs, thus making it more attractive to pursue working within the GMS. Under the programme for Government, it is intended to develop a new contractual framework for GPs which will be more suited to current needs and will facilitate the planned development of primary care services. Substantive discussions on a new GMS contract will commence shortly with the IMO. Mechanisms for encouraging GPs to set up practices in rural and urban disadvantaged areas will be considered, as appropriate, in the context of these discussions. In the meantime, where GMS GP vacancies arise in an area, the HSE will take the necessary steps to ensure that continuity of service to GMS patients is maintained.

I acknowledge and thank the Minister of State for a positive and constructive response. It is heartening and positive news for the people of Borris-in-Ossory and surrounding areas that the HSE has managed to secure a replacement and that a new GP will take up duty imminently. I welcome that. However, it would be easier to recruit GPs to rural areas and other communities which are not as attractive for those setting up new practices if the criteria were more favourable and supportive of young GPs. The rural practice allowance for GPs needs to be reviewed, revised and reintroduced to areas where it has been withdrawn, such as in Borris-in-Ossory. It is scandalous that the funding has been withdrawn in this instance and others where it would help to make practices more viable, attractive and sustainable.

The Minister of State has responsibility for rural affairs and development and has an important role to play. One of the cornerstones of the viability of any village or rural areas is a GP practice in order that families can feel secure and safe and have recourse to such a service. Without it, the sustainability of a rural community is undermined. Will the Minister of State lend her voice and support to this issue? The criteria being applied by the HSE to practices such as that in Borris-in-Ossory are punitive, such as the rent it is seeking for the use of the HSE facilities and clinic there. The rate is €25 per sq. m, which the price for prime real estate. The clinic is not located in Dublin, and not everywhere is thriving in the same manner as the capital or is as prosperous. There is a strong case to be made for the HSE in this instance and others to waive the rental costs, at least in the first few years, in order that a practice can become established, take root and become committed, dedicated and viable for people in communities such as Borris-in-Ossory. The HSE needs to make a better effort and promptly review the criteria it applies.

I am glad to hear it is part of an overall review, but time is of the essence because the Minister of State and her Government colleagues, including the Minister for Health, are facing an ongoing challenge across the regions of rural Ireland to fill vacancies for new GPs as they arise.

I thank the Senator. I think he has made his case. Does the Minister of State wish to respond?

I assure the Senator that I will certainly take his case on board. I understand from my work in the rural affairs brief that the family GP is the very fabric of rural life. We will take this very important issue on board and we will refer it to the Minister for deliberation. I thank Senator Whelan.

I have been listening with great attention because the area I represent is probably one of the most remote in Ireland. I know what it is like to try to keep GPs in places like Castletownbere and Schull.

Yes, it is very difficult.

Sitting suspended at 12.45 p.m. and resumed at 1 p.m.