The main background to this important Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 is the Final Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments, otherwise known as the Mahon tribunal, which was published on 22 March 2012. The Bill is therefore primarily intended to give legislative effect to the planning-related recommendations of the tribunal report, providing for the establishment of a new independent office of the planning regulator, OPR, the statutory underpinning of the proposed new national planning framework as a successor to the 2002 national spatial strategy, and other updates to the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, that are necessary to deliver greater transparency, efficiency and integrity in the planning system, including giving legislative effect to all further planning-related recommendations of the Mahon tribunal report.
As outlined, the main overarching objective of the Bill is to provide for the establishment of a new independent office of the planning regulator whose key functions will be the following: evaluate and assess local authority development plans, variations to development plans and local area plans during their preparation, including proposals on land zoning; make statutory observations and recommendations on the content of such plans and strategies, as appropriate to the relevant local authorities and regional assemblies, with a view to ensuring that the plans or strategies set out an overall strategy for the proper planning and development of the area concerned which is consistent with national and regional policies and objectives; undertake reviews of the organisation and systems and procedures used by planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála in the performance of their functions under the planning Acts; and undertake research and conduct programmes of education and training - including for elected members and officials of planning authorities - to underpin the principles of proper planning and sustainable development. The core key function of the OPR - evaluating and assessing local plans and regional strategies - will also enable the regulator's office to make recommendations to the Minister on exercising the pre-existing ministerial direction powers under the Planning Act to ensure that a plan or strategy sets out an overall strategy for proper planning and sustainable development for the area concerned.
The establishment of this new office to oversee the development plan process and the planning system generally will add another layer of sophistication to the institutional arrangements within the planning system with a view to ensuring that the overall integrity of the system is preserved and, where possible, enhanced. In this regard, it is important that we learn from past well-reported experiences in the planning system, which gave rise to the establishment of the Mahon tribunal, and that we endeavour to ensure that they are not repeated in the future.
A properly functioning planning system is absolutely critical to the ongoing development of all parts of the country and to ensuring that development takes place in accordance with the principles of proper planning and sustainable development, namely, that development takes place in the right locations, in the right way and at the right time to meet the needs of people while simultaneously protecting the many qualities of the natural and built environment. That is the primary purpose of the planning system and, accordingly, it is important that the highest standards are applied by, and adhered to, at all times by all parties engaged in the planning system including planning authorities, public bodies, the construction and development sector, professional practitioners, private interests and the general public in the interests of the overall common good. A well-functioning planning system which responds to the needs and demands of society will also be critical to setting the proper planning basis for many of the actions in Rebuilding Ireland, the Government's Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness, as well as for the national planning framework and the associated ten-year national capital investment plan, both of which are quite topical at the moment and due to be published in the coming weeks.
The planning system impacts on many aspects of our daily lives and therefore we need to ensure that it operates in the manner intended so that it can deliver quality in planning outcomes. The proposed establishment of the OPR, as recommended by the Mahon report, represents a fundamental reform to the planning system and that is why I regard this as an important Bill.
The Bill contains 36 sections and four Parts in total and, together with four Schedules, sets out the necessary provisions to give effect to these measures and related matters. I will now turn to the sections and Parts of the Bill in more detail. Part 1, sections 1 to 3, inclusive, contains standard provisions dealing with such matters as the Short Title, commencement, interpretation, and provision for expenses.
Part 2, comprising section 4, provides for an extensive amendment to the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, by inserting a new Part IlB therein to provide for the establishment of the office of the planning regulator. That is the most significant part of the Bill. This new Part, comprising the insertion of new sections 31K to 31AX into the Act of 2000 contains four chapters which provide for preliminary and general office of the planning regulator matters, the arrangements relating to the establishment, organisation and staffing of the said office, the powers relating to the evaluation and assessment of plans and strategies by the regulator, and the review of the performance of planning authorities, including An Bord Pleanála, by the office of the planning regulator.
As Part 2 of the Bill relating to the establishment of the office of the planning regulator is quite extensive, I will summarise what it proposes. The new chapter I of the OPR provisions, namely, preliminary and general matters - comprises just one section, namely, section 31K - to provide for definitions of terms used in this Part. New chapter II, relating to the establishment, organisation and staffing of the OPR includes new sections 31L to 31AL which provide for standard organisational and operational-type issues normally associated with statutory bodies, for example, for the chief executive of the office to be known as the planning regulator, who shall be responsible for the performance of the functions and the administration and business of the office.
The functions to be performed by the office of the planning regulator are as follows: evaluate and assess development plans and strategies and make statutory observations and recommendations on them; conduct research and arrange education and training programmes on planning matters; review the performance of An Bord Pleanála and planning authorities; make observations as it considers appropriate to the Minister on planning legislation, planning guidelines or ministerial directions; and perform any additional functions as may be assigned to it and specified by order.
Chapter II further outlines standard operational type requirements relating to the office, including the independence of the office of the planning regulator in carrying out its functions. It outlines that the regulator has to have regard to Government policies and objectives as well as other specified matters in the performance of its functions and the review of the organisation systems and procedures used by the office of the planning regulator in performing its functions. It outlines the appointment and terms of office of the planning regulator, with any such appointment to be approved by Government on the Minister's nomination, as well as the appointment of up to three directors to assist the planning regulator in the performance of the office's functions.
It further outlines: the appointment of staff, the remuneration of staff and the establishment of a superannuation scheme for staff; the payment of grants by the Minister to the office of the planning regulator out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas for the purpose of meeting its expenses; the keeping and auditing of the accounts of the office of the planning regulator; the preparation of an annual report, also providing that the planning regulator may be called before the relevant Oireachtas committee; the provision of services, premises, equipment and other resources as necessary for the office to perform its functions; and the adoption of a code of conduct to be followed by the office of the planning regulator and its staff.
Chapter III provides further detailed elaboration on the primary functions of the office of the planning regulator - the evaluation and assessment of development plans and regional strategies - which is provided for in new sections 31AM to 31AR. Section 31AM provides for the office to evaluate and assess development plans and variations to development plans at all statutory stages of the plan-making process to ensure the development plans and regional strategies, as made, address relevant legislative and policy requirements.
Section 31AN provides for consequential provisions whereby the Minister either agrees or disagrees with the notice or recommendations from the office of the planning regulator and the procedures to be followed in such instances. For instance, where the Minister does not agree with the recommendation of the regulator, the Minister in turn will be required to explain the reasons for such disagreement, lay such reasons before the Houses of the Oireachtas and publish them on the Department’s website. All this is in the interest of increased transparency in the local authority development plan process generally. Sections 31 AO to 31AR provide for similar detailed procedures relating to the evaluation and assessment of local area plans and regional spatial and economic strategies.
Chapter IV on the review of planning functions includes new sections 31AS to 31AX. Section 3IAS provides that the office of the planning regulator may, where it considers it necessary to do so, conduct a review of a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála in respect of the systems and procedures used in the performance of their functions and may on foot of such review recommend that the Minister issues section 28 guidelines, a section 29 policy directive, or a directive under subsection 255(2) of the Planning Act to the authority concerned. Alternatively, on foot of such a review it may recommend the appointment of a commissioner under subsection 255(4) to take over the functions of the planning authority concerned.
Supplementary to section 31AS, section 31AT empowers the Minister to request the office of the planning regulator to undertake a review of the organisation and the systems and procedures used by a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála in the performance of their functions where the Minister is of the opinion that the authority concerned may not be carrying out its functions in accordance with the Act, where it is not operating in compliance with guidelines, directives and directions issued; may be applying inappropriate standards of administrative practice or otherwise acting contrary to fair or sound administration of its functions; may be applying systemic discrimination in the performance of its functions; may be operating in a manner whereby there is inappropriate risk of corruption in the conduct of its functions; or may be operating in a manner whereby there are serious diseconomies or inefficiencies in the conduct of its functions.
Sections 31AU to 31AX outline the procedures to be followed by the office of the planning regulator on the examination of complaints made by any person to the office of the planning regulator about a planning matter, including, where considered warranted, the referral of the matter and any related documents to one or more of the Ombudsman, the Standards in Public Office Commission, the Garda Síochána, or such other State authority as may be prescribed.
Part 3 provides for a number of miscellaneous amendments to the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, primarily relating to the development of the national planning framework and addressing other Mahon tribunal planning-related recommendations, including providing for a legislative basis for the development of a national planning framework, NPF, as a successor to the national spatial strategy. It also provides for the following: the NPF shall be adopted for a period of between ten and 20 years and be reviewed every six years; national strategic development requirements shall be identified in the framework; public consultation shall be undertaken with regional assemblies, local authorities, An Bord Pleanála, prescribed bodies and the Northern Ireland Department for Regional Development in the development of the framework; the framework shall be subject to the provisions of relevant EU environmental directives, including public consultation; and the Government shall submit the draft of a new or revised framework for the approval of the Oireachtas before it is published, and shall have regard to any resolution of the Oireachtas in the ultimate finalisation of the national planning framework.
The remaining provisions in Part 3 of the Bill largely emanate from remaining Mahon tribunal planning-related recommendations; specific actions required to be implemented under the Government’s Construction 2020 strategy, a document that Senator Paudie Coffey was involved in formulating; and a number of amendments already made during the earlier deliberations on the Bill in the Dáil to provide for further streamlining and enhancement of the planning legislation in general. These include: provisions for enhanced transparency in the planning process requiring the publication of submissions on local area plans and development plans, as well as the chief executive’s report on such submissions on the website of the relevant planning authority; the forwarding of any proposed grants of planning permission which would contravene materially a development plan or a local area plan to the relevant regional assembly for observations; and the removal of an overlap between development contributions for water infrastructure being paid for through planning permission conditions to local authorities, and to the separate collection of water infrastructure charges by Irish Water, with section 15 clarifying that any reductions in respect of development contributions as provided for in the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015 can only be availed of in the case of houses that have not been rented, leased, occupied or sold. It includes the following: the provision of legislative underpinning to facilitate the introduction of eplanning, with the online submission of planning applications, appeals and associated fees; the provision of legislative underpinning for An Bord Pleanála to set fees for appeals by property owners against the application of the vacant site levy; and the provision by planning authorities of data or information for databases or national planning systems as may be specified by the Minister, for example, for use on www.Myplan.ie, the Department’s public information website on development plans, local area plans etc.
It also provides for the payment of reduced or no fees, instead of the current €20 fee, by elected Members when making submissions on planning applications, and the noting of such representations on the relevant planning file. It would require planning authorities, when considering applications for planning permissions, to have regard to previous developments by a developer which have not been satisfactorily completed and previous convictions against the applicant on planning permissions, while also enabling planning authorities to refuse applications for planning permission taking account of such past failures.
Other provisions contained in the Bill include that planning authorities will be enabled to refuse planning applications where persons have previously operated under a particular company name and left estates unfinished and where they subsequently apply for planning permission for a new development under a different company name. Planning authorities will be required to process developer proposals in respect of compliance conditions relating to planning permissions within a specified timeframe. Developers will be required to undertake mandatory pre-application consultations with the local planning authority in respect of specified larger developments before being allowed to submit a planning application. It provides for further measures to assist in combatting land-hoarding, including giving planning authorities the possibility of applying a lesser period than the existing standard five-year default period when granting planning permissions and for the streamlining and tightening up of the procedures relating to the taking in charge of housing estates by developers.
Part 4 contains section 15, which amends section 33 of the Water Services (No. 2) Act 2013 to provide that Irish Water, in preparing a water services strategic plan or capital investment plan, shall have regard to proper planning and sustainable development in line with any development plans made under the Planning Act, in particular with the core strategies of such development plans. This amendment is primarily intended to ensure that water services infrastructure will be provided by Irish Water where it is needed in accordance with the provisions of local development plans and core strategies.
The remainder of the Bill comprises a number of Schedules for the purpose of making a series of miscellaneous and consequential amendments to the Planning Act arising from the provisions in the preceding parts of the Bill.
I will bring forward a number of further amendments on Committee Stage in this House primarily relating to extending the remit of the office of the planning regulator to oversee aspects of transport strategies as proposed by Fianna Fáil in the Dáil deliberations, aligning the timing for the making of development plans with regional, strategic and economic strategies and further miscellaneous revisions to the Planning Act which my Department is still examining.
I have outlined in some detail the main purpose and provisions of this comprehensive and wide-ranging Bill. I thank Members on all sides of this House for their involvement here today and in the weeks ahead. It has taken about two years for this Bill to go through the other House so it is important we facilitate it as quickly as possible for all the good planning reasons in this and for sustainable planning reasons. I think all sides of the House will agree that this Bill is aimed at delivering a number of fundamental, important and necessary revisions to the Planning and Development Act 2000 arising from the final report of the Mahon tribunal in 2012. In particular and as I have already indicated, the establishment of the independent office of the planning regulator will introduce a further institutional layer of sophistication and oversight of the planning system. The establishment of this new office to take over the function of evaluating and assessing local development plans and regional strategies, to oversee generally the operation of the planning system, and to conduct reviews of operation when considered necessary is aimed at ensuring that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. The planning system is operated in an open, transparent and impartial manner in the interests of the common good. Accordingly, I commend this important Bill to the House and look forward to a constructive and fruitful engagement with Senators in their further deliberations on the Bill, as has been the case with the previous planning legislation we brought through the House.