I am pleased to have an opportunity to introduce the Second Stage debate on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2015 in the Seanad. The primary background to the Bill is the package of measures recently approved by the Government to deal with problems being observed in the housing market. I note that the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 which is another component of this package has just been passed by the other House and will now go for signature. The housing package which is entitled, Stabilising Rents, Boosting Supply, followed on from extensive engagement between the Minister for Finance and me, as well as our colleagues in various Departments. It encompasses a comprehensive range of measures to improve the operation of the private rental sector, tackle increasing homelessness and support increased housing supply. The rent stability measures in the package which are primarily intended to give greater protection to tenants in the private rented sector are being progressed separately in the Bill I have just mentioned, the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012. All of this follows on from the unprecedented €4 billion package for the provision of social housing in the period to 2020 which I announced earlier this year.
While the provision of new social housing and the enhancement of the operation of the private rental sector are essential to help to counteract homelessness and provide tenants with greater certainty with regard to security of tenure and the level of rent that is applied, boosting housing supply is also critical if we are to address our overall housing problems. The current shortage of housing supply is unquestionably one of the most pressing and challenging priorities currently faced by the Government. It is particularly acute in Dublin where demand for housing well outstrips supply. There are increasing issues in Galway, Cork and other areas. This shortage of supply has consequential knock-on effects for house prices and rents and has a negative impact on thousands of households throughout the country.
The housing package announced last month contains some important measures to help to address the housing supply shortage problem. It introduces a targeted development contribution rebate scheme to support and make more economically viable the delivery of affordable starter homes in Dublin and Cork. These homes will be required to be completed and sold in 2016 and 2017. The housing package also provides for the Ireland Strategic Infrastructure Fund to offer financial support for the provision of housing-related enabling infrastructure in large-scale priority development areas. These measures are in addition to previous actions, including the 26% reduction in development contributions in the Dublin area. The legislative changes enacted in the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015 will allow these development contribution reductions to be applied to certain unactivated planning permissions. The same Act provides for reductions in the Part V obligations that are imposed on developers in providing social and affordable housing. It is estimated that this will reduce housing costs by up to €10,000 per housing unit. The suite of actions already being implemented under the Government’s Construction 2020 strategy aim to restore the wider construction sector and increase activity in that sector generally.
Two further elements of the housing package announced last month which are designed to increase housing supply require legislative underpinning and are incorporated in the Bill I am presenting today. The first of these measures will ensure planning authorities do not seek requirements above the national standards set out in ministerial planning guidelines issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, for example, in relation to apartment standards. The second measure will streamline the arrangements for the making of modifications to strategic development zone planning schemes which are commonly known as SDZs.
I would like to set out the main provisions of the Bill before us for consideration today.
The Bill contains seven sections which propose to amend sections 28 and 34 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, as well as Part IX of the Act, as follows. Section 1 provides for the necessary definitions. Sections 2 and 3 provide for amendments in connection with ministerial planning guidelines issued to planning authorities.
Section 2 amends section 28 of the Planning and Development Act relating to the issuing of ministerial planning guidelines to planning authorities. Section 28 currently provides that planning authorities shall have regard to ministerial guidelines in the performance of their planning functions, such as in the determination of planning applications and the adoption of development plans. The amendment elaborates on this by introducing a new power whereby the Minister may, within the section 28 guidelines, expressly state specific national planning policy requirements to be applied by planning authorities or An Bord Pleanála, as appropriate, in the exercise of their functions. Therefore, the content of guidelines will distinguish between advisory or general commentary on the one hand and specific requirements that must be mandatorily applied by planning authorities.
This amendment is a critical underpinning to revisions that will shortly issue to replace the current 2007 apartment standard guidelines which will contain specific new requirements for minimum apartment sizes, the number of lifts per number of apartments, car parking provision, floor to ceiling heights, the provision of dual aspect apartments and so on with a view to ensuring their consistent application. Such new revised guidelines would represent a change in national planning policy which should accordingly, on foot of this amendment, be implemented by planning authorities in the determination of planning applications and the adoption of development plans. The amendment will also enable future revisions to any other current guidelines such as development management guidelines and sustainable residential development or to new planning guidelines that may be developed to be expressed and applied in a clearer manner and will improve consistency and certainty in the planning process generally by distinguishing in policy terms between matters to be determined locally and by national policy.
Section 3 further underpins this approach by addressing a number of supplementary amendments required to section 34 of the Act of 2000 relating to the granting of planning permissions by planning authorities. The first amendment in this section will require planning authorities to expressly consider any specific national planning policy requirements arising from section 28 guidelines issued by the Minister in the determination of planning applications.
The second amendment provides, for the avoidance of doubt, that where such guidelines and the standards or provisions of a local development plan differ, the national planning policy as reflected in ministerial guidelines shall prevail and take precedence. This amendment will, for example, preclude the adoption by local authorities of their own local standards, thereby preventing a multiplicity of approaches throughout the country, and will require local authorities to comply with the national guidelines issued by the Minister of the time.
The third amendment in section 3 is aimed at streamlining the assessment of applications seeking modifications to existing planning permissions in respect of multi-unit housing developments, primarily apartment block and duplex type developments, on foot of the issuing of new or revised apartment standard guidelines by the Minister of the time. The amendment will restrict the assessment of any such planning applications to the modifications proposed for the purpose of complying with any new guidelines and so that the whole previously granted permission and the question of the suitability of the development for housing as already determined is not reopened. In the case of internal changes only, for instance, in relation to an apartment block, arising from new or revised apartment standard guidelines and where there is no materially significant change to the external structure of the development, the amendment precludes the right of third party appeal.
Sections 4 to 6, inclusive, amend the existing provisions of the Planning and Development Act of 2000 relating to strategic development zone, SDZ, planning schemes. Section 4 amends section 169 of the Act of 2000 relating to the procedures to be followed in the adoption and approval of SDZ planning schemes. SDZs are set by Government order and designate areas which are considered to be of economic or social importance to the State. Following designation, planning schemes setting out objectives for specified development in designated areas are drawn up by prescribed development agencies, which may include a local authority, in respect of the designated areas concerned and are subject to public consultation procedures before being submitted to the elected members of the relevant planning authority for adoption.
The experience has been that all SDZ planning schemes which have been approved by planning authorities to date have been appealed to An Bord Pleanála for final determination. Under the current section 169 provisions, An Bord Pleanála can only make modifications to an SDZ scheme where they are considered to be minor in nature and are, therefore, unlikely to have significant effects on the environment or on a European site designated under the habitats or birds directives. Where An Bord Pleanála considers that the scheme requires modification of a more material nature, it is effectively required to uphold the appeal and refuse the modification, requiring the re-commencement of the overall SDZ planning scheme process under section 169 if the relevant planning authority or development agency wishes to pursue the scheme with the proposed modifications.
Section 4 amends the current section 169 provisions to provide that An Bord Pleanála can, as before, approve an SDZ planning scheme with modifications of a minor nature. However, under the new section 4 provisions, An Bord Pleanála will now also be allowed to approve the SDZ planning scheme with a modification or modifications which would constitute a material change to the scheme provided that such modification or modifications would not constitute a change in the overall objectives of the scheme concerned. These new arrangements would mean that where modifications of a material nature are considered necessary by An Bord Pleanála on appeal, the relevant planning authority or development agency responsible for bringing forward the scheme would not have to recommence the whole SDZ planning scheme process.
The proposed new procedures insert considerable checks to ensure that where proposed modification or modifications of a material nature to an SDZ planning scheme may have significant effects on the environment, An Bord Pleanála shall require the planning authority to undertake a strategic environmental assessment as per the EU SEA directive, an appropriate assessment as per the EU habitats directive, or both such assessments in relation to the proposed modifications; undertake a full public consultation on the proposed changes, including the forwarding of the proposed changes to prescribed bodies, publishing notice of the proposed changes in local newspapers and putting them on public display for a minimum of four weeks; and following the public consultation, prepare a detailed report for submission to An Bord Pleanála for its consideration. Where An Bord Pleanála makes a determination to make a modification constituting a material change to an SDZ planning scheme, it shall approve the scheme with the modification and notify the relevant planning authority or development agency accordingly.
While these revised procedures for the modification of planning schemes will take some time, having regard to the built-in public display and public consultation timeframes, they will still save considerable time in the making of a modification or modifications deemed necessary compared to having to recommence the overall SDZ process again. This process can take up to two years under the current provisions based on previous SDZ planning schemes and can lead to significant delays in the progression of SDZs with consequential delays in the provision of housing and other commercial development.
Section 5 inserts a new section 170A into the Planning and Development Act to provide for a new more flexible process for the amendment of an already approved SDZ planning scheme. As indicated, this is not possible under the current SDZ provisions where any amendment to a scheme requires the commencement of the overall SDZ planning scheme process once again. The new provisions in section 5 will allow a planning authority, on its own behalf where it is promoting an SDZ scheme or on behalf of a development agency promoting an SDZ planning scheme, to make an application to An Bord Pleanála for an amendment to a previously approved SDZ scheme which may be in the course of being developed. Such a request may be in respect of modifications which are minor in nature or, though material in nature, meet certain specified criteria and do not affect the overall objectives of the scheme. The new provisions would in effect allow for amendments to an already approved SDZ scheme, as determined by An Bord Pleanála, following procedures along the lines of those contained in section 4, as stated - involving the undertaking of a strategic environmental assessment, an appropriate assessment or both, as required along with mandatory public consultation, but which would take a considerably shorter time than the current procedures requiring the commencement of the overall SDZ process again.
Section 6 is consequential on sections 4 and 5 and proposes the replacement of the existing section 171 of the 2000 Act relating to the revocation and amendment of SDZ planning schemes with a new section 171. The new procedures relating to the modification of SDZ planning schemes are provided for in sections 4 and 5 as outlined. Consequently, section 6, inserting a replacement section 171 in the 2000 Act now only provides for the procedures relating to the revocation of SDZ planning schemes.
Section 7 contains standard provisions relating to the Short Title, construction and collective citation.
Members will agree that this Bill contains a number of fundamental and important revisions to the Planning and Development Act 2000, emanating from the Government’s housing package, Stabilising Rents, Boosting Supply, which are necessary to support increased housing supply which I presume everyone in the House would support.
As I have outlined, the amendments to sections 28 and 34 of the planning Act strengthen the status of aspects of ministerial guidelines to planning authorities to ensure their consistent application, particularly in relation to the proposed issue of revised apartment standard guidelines, throughout the country and will require local authorities to comply with the national guidelines. This new provision will particularly apply in the first instance to revised apartment standard guidelines which I propose to issue shortly. Even allowing for some reductions in the minimum floor areas as are applied by some local authorities, the revised guidelines will still ensure minimum floor sizes which will be among the most generous in Europe.
In addition, the amendments to the Part 9 provisions in relation to SDZ planning schemes will streamline the process for making modifications to such planning schemes which are not yet approved and are going through the approval process, as well as to planning schemes which have already been approved, thereby bringing greater flexibility in relation to the modification of SDZ schemes than is possible at present.
SDZ planning schemes are, by their nature, large projects where the proposed development works can take a number of years to complete. They also contain a significant number of residential units and the timely delivery of SDZs in the Dublin area is critical to underpinning future housing supply.
These SDZ streamlining proposals will also complete action 24 of the Construction 2020 strategy aimed at revitalising the construction sector and bringing on stream housing units at a faster rate than at present. Accordingly, I commend the Bill to the House.