Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016: Committee Stage (Resumed)

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English, to the House.

Debate resumed on amendment No. 34:
In page 46, to delete lines 26 to 29, and substitute the following:
“(8) The government shall submit the final draft of the National Planning Framework together with the Environmental Report and Appropriate Assessment Report for the amendment and approval by each House of the Oireachtas, and only after that approval can the National Planning Framework be considered to be on a statutory footing.”.
(Senator Fintan Warfield)

The amendment relates to the national planning framework and it calls on the Government to ensure that a vote is held in the Seanad and the Dáil before the document is placed on a statutory footing. I will call a vote on this amendment when it is appropriate to do so. If the vote falls I would like to return to the matter on Report Stage. This is because of legal advice that has been given to the housing committee.

Amendments Nos. 34 and 35 are to be discussed together. My amendment No. 35 proposes that the Government shall submit a draft of the revised or new national planning framework, together with environmental report and appropriate assessment report for approval by vote of each House of the Oireachtas before it is published. This is important. There can never be enough communication when it comes to government.

There needs to be transparency and communication. This was not the experience of the public or anyone outside the Fine Gael Party when it came to the national planning framework. I am proposing an amendment today that seeks to strengthen the Bill. It will ensure that never again can a Government set up a stall in rural Ireland and launch a document advertising its wares without proper discussion in this Parliament. The Fianna Fáil Party proposes this amendment so that no matter what national planning framework ever again comes to this Parliament, it cannot go through without a vote in the Dáil and in the Seanad. I will be looking for the Minister of State's support in this. There was a lot of disappointment over what happened with the national planning framework. Many people I spoke to were very disappointed. This national planning framework has a massive impact on people's lives, whether it is through quality of life, job creation or transport. This is about people's lives and it is important that nothing else can happen again unless it is voted through the Seanad and the Dáil.

I want to speak in support of the amendment but I want to hear what the Minister of State has to say first. There was an expectation that the Houses of the Oireachtas would approve the national planning framework. I want to say from the outset that I am supportive of the framework in total. It is an amazing and positive document. I have attended two conferences where I have seen the Minister of State's officials, whom I compliment, give presentations on this to local elected members. They had a really good engagement and conversation. They were the two most important sessions at these councillors' conferences that I have attended in the past few years. It is important to acknowledge the work of the Minister of State's officials. I want that to go back to them. They are on top of it and fully understand it.

This is a plan, like Rebuilding Ireland. It is a good thing for people to commit to a plan and set down objectives. We all want prosperity and for our country to be developed and planned in a proper and sustainable way. We all want to bring the economic benefits across the island of Ireland. It is a good document. In the absence of anything else, it is exceptionally good. However, I do think there was a genuine expectation. It might be helpful if the Minister of State shared with us whether he has seen the legal advice provided to the joint Oireachtas committee. He may be aware of it and may or may not have seen it. He might comment on it if he wishes. I think it is appropriate to comment. He might also state whether the Department and Government sought advice on it. They had a very impressive launch down in Sligo and I know they were keen to get on with it. The Minister of State is also keen to get on with this legislation. I do not think there is any point in revisiting history but there are lessons to be learned on all sides about how this expectation came about and why it did not happen. The Minister of State might share with us his knowledge on these question if that is appropriate.

I think we had a lengthy discussion on this amendment previously but I will do a little bit of recapping. I accept what Senator Boyhan has said. Some genuinely had an expectation that there would be a vote on this. We were very clear, certainly in the discussion in the Dáil when this was referred to committee. What the committee was doing on behalf of both Houses of the Oireachtas was bringing forward the submission and suggestions for the Government to act on, which we did. We were very clear in the Dáil at that stage, last October, about the process. That was the time for the Oireachtas to have its say on that, on behalf of both Houses, and we were quite clear on it. I do accept that some genuinely had expectations. However, others did not but have wanted to approach things differently in the more recent couple of months. I am disappointed in that. I accept people who are genuine and genuinely thought this. Others are just using the system for a different debate, which I am disappointed about because this is a very serious decision on behalf of the country. It is planning up to 2040.

To Senator Murnane O'Connor, I have to say that having spent the last two years working with the guys in the Department who are working on this probably for the last three or four years, we all take this job very seriously. That is why we are looking to 2040. We understand it is about people's lives and understand the seriousness behind it. We have taken our job very seriously here. We have gone out of our way to make sure every Department and agency, any community and anybody who wants to be involved in this has been involved in it. Their thoughts and concerns, I would say, have been quite well represented with all the different changes. We went to the regional meetings and local authority meetings. I believe there has been a lot of consultation. We accept and believe how important this is to people's lives. While we might not agree with the Senators' amendments and the process they want - there is a reason for that which I will go through - we recognise how serious it is. A lot of work was put into this plan by many people.

This has not happened in the past for whatever reason. It involved every Department and Government agency to bring everybody on board. We are trying to ensure real genuine long-term planning for this country which was not been done in the past. I am disappointed the Senators do not necessarily recognise that but I understand that for different reasons, different things have happened.

I do not propose to accept amendments Nos. 34 and 35 relating to the adoption of the national planning framework as tabled by the Sinn Féin Senators and Senator Murnane O'Connor, respectively. The objectives of the national planning framework are fundamental to the achievement of long-term economic, social and environmental sustainability. A more balanced distribution of population and employment growth is considered essential to safeguarding the economy's growth and potential, as well as pre-empting the risk that economic growth would be seriously constrained by congestion costs. Through the national planning framework and as part of the ten-year capital investment plan, it is intended that the different regions' capabilities and strengths will be boosted to manage future population and economic growth over the next 20 years, catering for an extra 1 million people, and an additional 650,000 jobs and 500,000 more homes.

Following its publication, we need to get on with implementing the framework and translate the broad principles into regional and local actions, supported by co-ordinated and prioritised investment at central and local levels. A formal vote on the final planning framework was never envisaged under this legislation. I accept some Senators genuinely thought it was. It was intended all parties would have a formal opportunity to discuss and have an input into the drafting process. This has been facilitated through a motion approved by both Houses of the Oireachtas last autumn, referring the draft national planning framework, published last November, to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government for its consideration and to submit a report to the Minister. The committee met and sent a formal submission on behalf of both Houses of the Oireachtas. I assume every Senator had an opportunity to feed into that. As a Minister of State, I attended that committee, as well as the rural affairs committee, on this draft. The intention of the process was always clear. This was accepted and it went through without being opposed in the Dáil.

The Bill has two key provisions in this regard relating to submitting the draft framework for the approval of both Houses before it is published and the Government having regard to any resolution or a report from the Oireachtas in finalising the framework. We have been faithful to both of those commitments in the Bill despite the fact that, as yet, it has no legal standing. We have carefully listened to and taken on board many of the issues raised on all sides of the Houses. Having devoted a significant amount of effort to managing and integrating views from across all parties into the final document, there is an urgent need to finalise and adopt this framework and its complementary ten-year capital plan. This will mean strategic planning and infrastructure investment can be undertaken to meet the pressing needs of our growing and resurgent economy, as well as wider society. To further delay this extensive process for political debate would deny citizens the implementation of the plan they need. In addition, there will be further opportunities to elaborate on the national planning framework at regional and local levels through the subsequent regional spatial and economic strategies, the preparation of which has been going on in each of the different regions and which will be completed by the end of 2018 and, ultimately, in city and county and development plans.

If one engages with local authorities, they want this process under way. Local authorities are due to complete their development plans. It is best that all of those plans will be aligned to the regional strategy and the national plan. They want clarity around this and have asked us to get on with it. It is a pity the legislation got delayed in this House. It started nearly two years ago and it is still not finished. It would be wrong to delay planning for our country for another couple of months. It was hoped the national planning framework would be in place at the back end of last year but we are seven months behind. I would be disappointed if votes were used in this House which will not achieve what they hope and will just delay the planning framework. I am not sure what the motives involved are when I consider the consultation we already have had. I am not sure the people the Senators represent would be grateful for this.

The amendment proposes that the national planning framework can only be placed on a statutory footing once the Government submits the document, together with the environmental report and the appropriate assessment report for the amendment and approval by each House of the Oireachtas. If the intention of the proposed amendment is about putting the document published by the Government on 16 February last on a statutory footing, then it is unnecessary. This is because, having regard to the provisions of section 2 of the Act, there is an existing mechanism for legally recognising the status of the national planning framework. My Department has already written to local authorities and An Bord Pleanála advising them of this fact. If the national spatial strategy was mentioned in the end, the meaning of section 2 is such that those references have now been replaced by the national planning framework. The Act refers to the spatial strategy of 2002 or any replacement documents. The national planning framework is the new spatial strategy. It assumes that position and is on a statutory footing.

More generally, it is regrettable that Sinn Féin put down this amendment to draw back the document published by the Government on 16 February last and which has been subject to extensive public consultation for a retrospective vote and presumably alteration. As parliamentarians, we need to think about such a move carefully. If the amendment were passed and the rug was pulled from under the national planning framework, what do we say to the thousands of people who have already made submissions and are satisfied the Government has listened to finalise the document on a fair and balanced basis? Most people accept it and the follow-on regional plans were fair and balanced. There is a great danger the amendment would be seen as an attempt to subjugate the consultation process already undertaken in good faith and before legislation is processed simply for political purposes without considering the practical effects such a vote would have, notwithstanding the fact that the document has to be finalised long before this Bill will have legal effect.

We need to think carefully about the full legal and practical effect of this amendment in terms of the EU environmental law requirements it will bring down on all our heads. Further legal advice is required from the Attorney General's office but it would appear that the amendment would have the effect of making Dáil Éireann the competent authority for the purposes of considering and approving the environmental report under the strategic environmental assessment, SEA, directive and the appropriate assessment under the habitats directive. Moreover, if, subsequent to a vote, the document was to be amended, then the Members of Dáil Éireann would be drawn into a complex legal and scientific area that may have a whole series of unintended consequences regarding scope to make or amend policy. For example, many Members might want even more flexibility than exists already on one-off housing. It would be likely that an appropriate assessment would become problematic from a habitats perspective, triggering complex legal mechanisms for which we will be responsible. It will not be the officials or experts who have worked on this for years.

Our job is as legislators and to provide oversight. Every Member has a different agenda. While that is fine, putting that into a national framework for every town, village and area we represent will not end up with the good planning Senators often talk about. There is a process there for a reason and that is what we are trying to buy into. This legislation is about putting the whole process around formulating future national planning frameworks on a proper legal footing. We have done this to the spirit of the law. That is what Mahon asked for. Mahon did not ask that Dáil Éireann would vote on every decision which comes with a massive planning framework document. The experts are planners. Some Members might have some planning training but we are not all experts in it. If Senators believe they are the right ones to make all planning decisions, then so be it. However, I am not sure that is the right decision for this country when it comes to planning decisions. Senators should reflect on these amendments. They should put politics to one side and look at what we are trying to achieve with this. A review is proposed after six years. On Report Stage, we can examine having that review earlier. These amendments are not a wise move. I understand the intentions behind them but I am not sure they have been fully thought out from a planning point of view. Senators should bear in mind these amendments would put all planning decisions involving environmental and other directives on legislators who already have other legislation to deal with. The Government believes in consultation on this plan and has done so with it.

That is why we had the process, which will continue.

There is a regional aspect to this and all the different political parties are very much involved. I, as Minister of State, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, before him and our officials have travelled around the country meeting anybody who wants to discuss this matter. We have a full open-door policy. We have discussed it at regional meetings, council meetings, open forums, etc. Niall Cussens and others from the Department have attended many events. It is a fully open-book approach, as required under the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal. That is what we are trying to do. If someone doubts that, he or she should say it now. I assure Senators that this is the case, particularly as I have been around the country discussing the matter. No question was left unanswered. The final document reflects the views raised with me at those meetings and at Oireachtas committee meetings. We have a balanced document but, again, the regional involvement can also add to that or change it as much as possible. Senators should bear the latter in mind when pressing these amendments. If they want to discuss the matter further at a meeting prior to Report Stage, I have no problem doing that.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive contribution, which is of great interest. Everybody is trying to achieve a proper regional structure. As part of that, we need a democratic and answerable structure which is not necessarily there within the region. I am only raising this with the Minister of State now because he raised it. The ratio of elected members to the number of people who inhabit an area is grossly unequal. For example, Fingal has 92,000 people per member of the regional authority. I would like to hear the Minister of State give a commitment to rebalance the democratic structure in this regard at some stage.

The NPF targets are welcome but the metropolitan area strategic plans for the four local authorities in Dublin will be drawn up by a 38-member regional assembly. As a result, the vote from Longford will be equal to that from Dublin, even though we are dealing with a metropolitan area strategic plan. There is an enormous democratic deficit in that regard in light of the fact that 60% of the inhabitants within the four Dublin local authority areas will only have 47% of the representation.

Within local authorities in the past, we have seen coalitions of different people voting for different plans, resulting in no democratic answerability. There are four local authorities and three metropolitan area strategic plans. I have tabled an amendment to rebalance the position. In light of what the Minister of State said, can we take a serious look at the democratic deficit in the regional assemblies, especially within the area of which I have experience? I was a member of Dublin City Council from 1999 and I served on the regional assembly.

(Interruptions).

I apologise; I thought I had turned my phone off.

We accept the Senator's apologies.

It is always my intention to turn it off before I come into the House. I again offer my apologies.

I ask the Minister of State to give some kind of commitment on rebalancing the democratic deficit in this area, sooner rather than later. Perhaps he might come back on Report Stage. There is an urgent need to address the democratic deficit in the greater Dublin area and in many other areas. A small area in Dublin for which the former Dublin Docklands Development Authority had responsibility creates 9% of the country's GDP. However, many of the local authority members from the greater Dublin area will be sidelined because once the metropolitan area strategic plan is passed, the four local authorities will be obliged to consider it in creating their development plans. The metropolitan area strategic plans will be decided by a very small number of regional members who have no natural affinity with those plans, which relate to Dublin, Cork or wherever. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

Like Senator Boyhan, I am a member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government and I attended all the meetings. I wish to address the plans for my area. I recognise and appreciate the work that was done. The national planning framework has a massive impact on people's lives. It relates to development plans in local areas. Having a vote here is crucial. There was a misunderstanding regarding what happened when the national framework was launched. We had a big launch. We all need the national framework because it frames our counties, cities and towns. It is crucial for Oireachtas Members to have a vote. I cannot understand the Minister of State's suggestion that it might delay the process. It is part of the Department's remit to do this. I ask the Minister of State to explain how Oireachtas Members having a vote could hold it up. It is all about working with people throughout Ireland. We need to ensure the excellence of this national planning framework because it will have a massive impact on people's lives. For years, I worked on development plans in my local authority and I can see the important part they play in people's lives. We want this done right. I know the hard work that has gone into developing the plans.

As I said on the previous occasion, 1,000 is a very small number of submissions. I know the Minister of State has travelled throughout the country. Is he concerned about the small number of submissions?

I ask the Minister of State to come back to me on my amendment to insert the words "by vote" so that the Dáil and Seanad can have a say on this.

Contrary to what the Minister of State said, I certainly do not consider myself a planning expert. However, I am keen to point out that I do not believe the Bill is entirely faithful to the spirit of the recommendations from the Mahon tribunal.

If the Senator wants me to elaborate on that, I can sit down with him and go through it. We have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that it is. The Bill was introduced on foot of the recommendations of from Mahon tribunal. I would be happy to engage further with the Senator on that matter.

What about a stand-alone planning regulator?

A planning regulator's office is to be set up. As I have said in both Houses, at the moment the process would be that any directives or changes would come through officials in the Department and through me, as Minister of State. The regulator will assume that responsibility and will make recommendations to the Minister. There will be a formal process, which is removed from politics, to do that. The final decision will then come before the Houses. If the Minister of the day does not take on board that advice or does not follow the direction the planning regulator, who will be independent of these Houses, suggests, then he or she - it is me at present - will be obliged to explain to both Houses why a different route is being taken.

That is a very democratic process and it could not be much clearer. We believe it absolutely honours the spirit of the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal. If the Senator disagrees, I would be happy to sit down with him and the officials and go through it word for word. We believe we are doing that because we want to do it. This legislation was drafted by planners who are outside politics and who recognise the importance of having a transparent and clear planning system. Through the Bill, we are trying to achieve good quality planning. We have good quality planners who might not always have been allowed to do their job properly. This legislation allows them to do their job properly. They are very much behind that and the Bill respects that. If the Senator doubts that, I am happy to tease it out with him. We have had many debates in both Houses and I know he cannot attend them all. I am very confident that it honours the spirit of the Mahon tribunal recommendations. If he does not want to take my word for it, we can sit down with officials and talk him through it.

Senator Murnane O'Connor is asking for Members to have the opportunity to vote and amend. In other words, she is telling all the Members of both Houses that they can become planners and can suggest having houses here, there and everywhere. There would be the opportunity for all sorts of complicating things to come in, which could lead to delays. That is fine; we can go through them all without a problem. However, it is a three-year consultation document. If she wants to try to repeat that on the floor of the Houses, that is what she will get and God knows how long that could take. I do not believe that is a good way to develop a planning document on behalf of the country.

That is what I am saying, namely, the process proposed by Senator Murnane O'Connor is not ideal. One of the recommendations was to give a statutory footing and I have explained that it has got statutory footing. On the other complications around the EU directives, I am happy that the Senator would spend time with our officials to tease through all of those. While I do not think it will enhance the process, if the Senator believes it will, I am happy for her to sit down with us to tease it through. If she convinces us we are wrong, we will look at changes. I am happy to make a compromise with her in regard to the review, if that makes it easier for her. I accept she might feel that six years is a long time away. We all thought we would be aligned with these two processes. I am happy to engage with her, although this does get into very technical planning and environmental law, which is not really the job of the Members of the Houses but of the planning Department. That is all we are saying. If the Senator thinks differently, that is fine, and if she wants to talk it through with the experts who have to deal with this on a daily basis as their job, they will be happy to explain that to her as best they can.

I believe the Minister of State is reading my amendment wrongly.

Senator Humphreys also has amendments which deal with this issue. His point about the imbalance is recognised, certainly for the mid-east local authority areas. We will look at that and while this legislation is probably not the appropriate place to do that, there are other mechanisms by which to do that. I have engaged with the Dublin Chamber of Commerce around this and have reflected what Senator Humphreys is saying. The mechanisms include ways of calculating that might not be right either, but there might be a more appropriate place to deal with that. I will discuss it with Members later. However, we recognise that this can be adjusted. Having been a councillor and an area councillor, and given most Members have been councillors as well, we all know that, very often, local municipal areas make the main development decisions and recommendations for their areas, and that happens at regional level too. Nonetheless, I accept there could be strengthening to make sure the voices are strong enough on each side. We are happy to look at that and while it is not really for this Bill, there is a process in place to do it.

I am provoked to speak. I am looking at the Oireachtas Library and Research Service's summary of the work of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government and how this went to the Parliamentary Legal Service and was teased out. I want to acknowledge the work of the Oireachtas Library and Research Service team for what is a very comprehensive report on the Bill in the Bills Digest, which is available to all in the Oireachtas Library, and for always being independent. I want to quote two or three sentences from the report:

[T]he Mahon Tribunal stated that a new post of Independent Planning Regulator should be created and that the Minister’s powers of enforcement should be transferred to this Office...

The Mahon Tribunal recommended that the enforcement power of the Minister to issue directions to planning authorities compelling them to alter local forward planning documents should be transferred to the Office of the Planning Regulator. The General Scheme proposes that the Office of the Planning Regulator should instead assess local plans, and then issue recommendations, with the final decision and power to issue directions resting with the Minister...

The Committee is of the view that ultimate power in this regard should rest with the Minister, who is democratically elected and accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas...

I believe the relevance of the Bill as published is the interesting point. The Bill mirrors the general scheme in that the final decision and power to issue directions continues to rest with the Minister. In fairness to Senator Warfield, that is the point he was trying to make. There is a difference, albeit a subtle one. Nonetheless, the Minister of State has made a good case and he is democratically elected by the Houses of the Oireachtas. I do not think we should get hung up on everything Mahon said. He said a lot of good things but he recognised, and I would like to think the Judiciary and tribunals would always acknowledge, the work of the Oireachtas. There is a subtle difference but I believe this is positive and that we have to move ahead.

I want to clarify the point. The Bill states: "The Government shall submit the draft of the revised or new National Planning Framework, together with the Environmental Report and Appropriate Assessment Report for the approval of each House of the Oireachtas before it is published.” I simply propose to add the words "by vote" after "approval". The Minister of State's version refers to "approval by each House" whereas I simply want "approval by vote of each House". There is some confusion. I am not asking for a vote on each thing and I would not do that. I know how hard everybody has worked on this plan and I know we need a plan. However, I believe there is some confusion. I simply want to add the words "by vote". I want a commitment from the Minister of State on this. It is not that we are looking for a vote on all things as I would not do that. As the Minister of State said, we have to work with the planners and I know there was a lot of public consultation, although the uptake was very small at only 1,000 submissions. My amendment refers to the only vote in the process, which is just before it is published.

There were probably a lot more than 1,000 submissions if we take all the different parts of the consultation and the advisory groups and chambers of commerce that fed into that. Many groups came together to make submissions representing a number of people. As the Senator knows, it is only when one goes to the regional level and county level that more people will be involved, and we know there could be 700 or 800 submissions on a development plan.

People have complained about the launch. We had a big launch at the start of this and nobody complained, and there was a big launch at the end, which is not really the end, rather it is only the end of stage one. We genuinely want people to get involved in this process. If we wanted to hide away a planning process and be sneaky about it, we would have no launches and nobody would be making any submissions. We had the launches and went everywhere we could, to all the different regions, to make it clear to people that we want their involvement and that this is their plan, not our plan, given this Government will not be there forever and I am sure someone will get us out some day.

The Government has a few years yet.

It is not the Government of the day's plan; it is a long-term plan for this country that we want everybody to buy into. We genuinely wanted that. I was there at the start of it. We went to students and told them they should be involved as it is for 20, 30 and 40 years. That is what it is about. If we do not have launches and ask for engagement, we will not get that engagement. I hope we will get much more engagement at regional level and local level down the line. There will be difficult decisions at local level but I think this will help make the right decisions for the country, which is what we are trying to do.

I understand what the Senator is saying on the concept of the vote. The legislation recommended a vote on the draft, and the Government of the day would make changes and then make a final decision. As I said before, I am not convinced we would ever get to the end of any plan. If the Action Plan for Jobs was brought in and had to cleared at the final stage by both Houses of the Oireachtas, I am not sure that, six years on, we would be at only 6% unemployment. I genuinely believe that. At the end of the day, governments have to make a final decision. The draft legislation comes to the Houses, the changes are recommended and there is a process in place. We went through all that with the committee. Many of the changes that came through were actually recommended by the committees, and I attended both committees. If one goes back through all the speeches and recommendations, one will see this reflects the committee members' views. I believe we have honoured that.

I understand what the Senator is suggesting but we will end up amending and amending and we will still be here in two years time, and we will need a plan for 2045 at that stage. That is what happens and we have to face facts in that regard. The process has to come to an end and it is the Government's job to make a final decision after all of the consultation. That is what the legislation reflects. I have been involved in planning a long time and I believe this is the right way to do it. I have seen other national planning frameworks where, as a councillor, I had no say and, even as a Deputy, there was one occasion where I could not get my hands near the document. We have gone a long way to get this right. This legislation copperfastens the process to make sure it will always be done right, given there will be different Governments coming and going. This is to put a process in place which means national planning frameworks go through a certain process and are dealt with right, and everybody can be involved. To me, that is right and I believe it should be enough to put the Senator's mind at ease.

In light of all he has heard, is Senator Warfield pressing the amendment?

I am pressing amendment No. 34 and I also reserve my right to resubmit it on Report Stage.

The amendment has been seconded.

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 13; Níl, 17.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • O'Sullivan, Grace.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • Warfield, Fintan.

Níl

  • Burke, Colm.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Lawless, Billy.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • Ó Céidigh, Pádraig.
  • Richmond, Neale.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Gavan and Fintan Warfield; Níl, Senators Paudie Coffey and Gabrielle McFadden.
Amendment declared lost.

I move amendment No. 35:

In page 46, line 28, after “approval” to insert “by vote”.

Amendment No. 35 has been discussed with amendment No. 34.

Amendment put:
The Committee divided: Tá, 16; Níl, 18.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Boyhan, Victor.
  • Conway-Walsh, Rose.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Higgins, Alice-Mary.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
  • Swanick, Keith.
  • Warfield, Fintan.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.

Níl

  • Burke, Colm.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Hopkins, Maura.
  • Lawless, Billy.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McFadden, Gabrielle.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Sullivan, Grace.
  • Ó Céidigh, Pádraig.
  • Richmond, Neale.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Daly and Jennifer Murnane O'Connor; Níl, Senators Paudie Coffey and Gabrielle McFadden.
Amendment declared lost.
Section 8 agreed to.
Section 9 agreed to.
NEW SECTIONS

I move amendment No. 36:

In page 47, between lines 3 and 4, to insert the following:

“Amendment of section 28 (Ministerial guidelines) of Principal Act

10. Section 28 of the Principal Act (as amended by section 2 of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act of 2015) is amended by deleting subsection (1C).”.

This amendment proposes the deletion of the power for the Minister to issue binding directions without consultation. This power was inserted in the Act in 2015 at the request of the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, and was used to establish maximum housing standards upon which local authorities cannot improve. This is an unacceptable situation. The amendment would not affect the long-standing powers in the same section 28 to make guidelines and issue directions following consultations, and would allow greater flexibility and ambition in the planning process.

The amendment by Senator Grace O'Sullivan is similar to the amendment previously tabled by Deputy Eamon Ryan on Committee Stage in the Dáil. We had some debate on the matter then. I opposed the amendment then and my position has not changed. That was a good while ago, early last autumn. This amendment relates to section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, which provides that planning authorities should have regard to guidelines issued by the Minister in the performance of planning functions, in the determination of planning applications and in the adoption of development plans etc.

However, section 28 was amended in 2015 by the insertion of a new subsection (1C), which elaborated on the original provisions by introducing a new power whereby the Minister may, within section 28 guidelines, expressly state the specific planning policy requirements to be applied by planning authorities or the board, as appropriate, in the exercise of their functions. In regard to the content of guidance, this provision enables a distinction to be made between advisory and general commentary on the one hand and specific requirements that must be mandatorily applied by planning authorities in the performance of their planning functions on the other. This provision was critical in underpinning the revisions to the 2007 apartment standard guidelines, which issued in early 2016 and contained specific new requirements that must be applied to planning authorities concerning minimum apartment sizes, the number of lifts per number of apartments, car parking provision, floor-to-ceiling heights, the provision of dual-aspect apartments etc., thereby ensuring their consistent application by planning authorities.

These new advisory apartment standard guidelines issued under section 28 represented a change in national planning policy, which must now be implemented by planning authorities in the determination of planning applications and the adoption of development plans. The inclusion of the relatively new subsection (1C) in section 28 of the 2000 Act further enables future revisions to existing planning guidelines and allows new planning guidelines to be expressed or applied in a clearer manner. It will improve consistency and certainty in the planning process generally, by distinguishing in policy terms between matters to be determined locally by planning authorities and national policies set by the Minister of the day. There have been examples in the past where planning guidelines have been differently interpreted and implemented by planning authorities, giving rise to inconsistencies in approach on various issues. The new provision inserted in 2015, enabling the Minister to require planning authorities to mandatorily apply specific planning requirements, will help to overcome inconsistencies in approach by the planning authorities in the performance of their functions.

I must oppose the proposal by Senator Grace O'Sullivan to delete the provision. I understand why she has made the proposal but the reason we made the change a few years ago was that historically, we had seen the guidelines not being followed in some cases and we had to deal with that. I hope the Senator understands why I cannot accept her amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 36a:

In page 47, between lines 3 and 4, to insert the following:

“Amendment of section 21 (Power to Make Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy) of Principal Act

10. The Principal Act is amended in section 21(3) by inserting the following paragraphs after paragraph (b):

“(c) In the case of a regional spatial and economic strategy for one or more parts of a region pursuant to a direction under paragraph (a), only members of a county council or city and county council elected in accordance with this Act for the local electoral areas situated in a planning authority covered by the strategy, collectively comprise the assembly membership for that area for the purpose of the performance of reserved functions and collectively shall be known as ‘area strategic plan members’.

(d) In the case of a regional spatial and economic strategy for one or more parts of a region, the plan shall be considered only by the area strategic plan members elected from planning authorities covered by the strategy and be adopted by resolution, with or without amendment, within such time limit and in accordance with such conditions and requirements, as may be so prescribed.’’.”.

This is a key amendment and a key democratic element. The new metropolitan area strategic plans are a welcome addition, as they strengthen Ireland's regional government in addition to the need to implement national planning frameworks, NPFs. The Minister of State and I spoke at length about this and about the democratic deficit relating to these amendments. Once the plan has been made, it must be transposed into the development plan. As I would prefer not to put this to a vote, I will give the Minister of State an opportunity to revert to me on this and will probably table the amendment again on Report Stage. There is, however, a real deficit in this area. This would be a key strategy, especially in regard to our capital city. As I pointed out in private discussions, members from Longford will have an impact on the four Dublin authorities, with 60% of the population and 47% of the representation rights. I would welcome the Minister of State's contribution and reply after that.

I have received a number of representations from Dublin city councillors on this matter in particular. I thank Senators Humphreys and Ó Ríordáin for raising it. While I do not want to pitch a situation between representation of urban and rural areas, the Senator makes some really valid points and I thank him for the engagement and for sending me some briefing notes on it. Dublin City Council is particularly concerned about it. I would like to hear what the Minister of State has to say. He should give it due regard. It is an issue that needs to be addressed and the real point is this democratic deficit.

All along we have been talking about the need to empower local government in this planning process and to remember that local city and county councillors are elected by the people to represent them. They can be removed from office. They are closest to the community and they know more about planning issues than most. Yes, we want a professional planning system that is beyond reproach. I agree with the Minister of State and his officials in their efforts in that regard. We have to rely on the professionalism of the professional planners, but let us not get too removed. Let us bear in mind that city and county councillors have a huge amount of experience and knowledge. I am constantly reminded by city and county managers, or chief executives as they are now known, that they are always amazed by the local knowledge which people have. When one lives in a community and walks every nook and cranny of it, one knows everything and notices everything. One has a feel about a place and about how it ticks and how it operates. That gives great continuity. Local government is changing rapidly, particularly in terms of staff turnover and staff experience. The Minister of State should give very serious consideration to this democratic deficit and the associated issues. He might not have a complete answer today but there are very valid reasons to do so. Large numbers of Dublin city councillors have made representations to me on that matter.

We touched on this earlier when discussing Senator Humphreys's amendment. I know he had to step out so I did not give the full answer at the time. I appreciate and understand the reasons and logic behind these proposed amendments. We have had some direct engagement with Senator Humphreys. I thank him for that. We have discussed this and I understand where these amendments are coming from. We have also had engagement with some of the councillors from within the city at the regional meetings. They also would have flagged this with us at an earlier stage. Likewise, Dublin Chamber of Commerce was in with us recently to discuss some of its concerns about the Bill's effects. I know it is also working closely with the Senator in that respect.

While I understand what those proposing these amendments are getting at, they are unnecessary as the relevant provisions in section 62 of the Local Government Reform Act 2014 provide appropriate mechanisms for regulating the number of members appointed to regional assemblies through the establishment order process. We do not believe we need legislation on this issue. I understand why the Senators want to put these provisions in legislation, but there is a mechanism which can deal with them.

In addition, there are some other changes included in the formula of this amendment which we do not think would work. I am happy to go through them, not to be critical, but just to point out some of the changes which we think the amendment could lead to. The Senators can bear that in mind as we go forward with the discussion. We can engage further with Members if need be. We are happy to do that. This legislation might not be the appropriate place for these provisions, but I understand why people want to achieve this balance.

Senator Humphreys's amendment specifies a formula for determining the number of appointees to the regional assemblies in order to change their internal balance of power in favour of the large local authorities. This is an important policy shift which would require further amendments to both the primary and secondary legislation. It is also meant to get representation based on population trends. For example, under present arrangements the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly has 38 members, the Southern Regional Assembly has 33 members and the Northern and Western Regional Assembly has 25 members. This includes the regional assembly members appointed to the Committee of the Regions.

Based on the 2016 census, if the numbers of members of the regional assemblies were altered in accordance with the ratio of one member to 55,000 residents, as in one of the proposals being put forward in the amendment, then the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly would have 42 members, the Southern Regional Assembly would have 29 members and the Northern and Western Regional Assembly would have 15 members. I am aware that the Senator proposes a minimum of 18 members and a maximum of 45 members for the regional assemblies. I will come to the issues raised by that proposal in due course. The amendment also proposes a number of complex alterations to the legislation. I will work through each part of the amendment in order if that is what people want me to do. I am happy to do that.

Under the Local Government Act 1991 (Regional Assemblies) (Establishment) Order 2014, SI 573 of 2014, no local authority appoints fewer than two elected members to the regional assemblies. Reducing this to a minimum of one, as the section 43(4A)(i) proposed by the amendment provides, while implementing the ratio of one elected member to 55,000 residents, as set out in the proposed section 43(4A)(iv), would leave some areas with a single representative at regional level, particularly in the Northern and Western Regional Assembly. Furthermore, in the Northern and Western Regional Assembly the Senator's proposals would create a situation where representatives from three local authorities, namely, Galway, Mayo and Donegal county councils, which currently account for ten out of 25 members on the regional assembly, would form a majority of eight out of 15, outnumbering the representatives from Roscommon, Leitrim, Sligo, Cavan, Monaghan and Galway city. Raising the number of members from 15 to the proposed minimum of 18 might also ameliorate the imbalance caused by the arrangements proposed by the Senator, but it is unclear under the proposals how these supernumerary numbers would be distributed. Again, I am just pointing out some of the difficulties with the amendment. I am sure that these can be looked at and debated.

There is a reference to "electors" in the proposed section 43(4A)(ii) but elsewhere in the amendment reference is made to "residents" and to "population resident". The terminology used in the amendment is inconsistent. In addition, the language in section 43(4A)(ii) does not propose a ratio for numbers of electors to elected members. It is also the case that the size of the electorate is generally proportional to the size of the resident population and therefore the relative proportion of electors to elected members across local authorities would not be expected to differ significantly from the ratio of residents to elected members.

On the proposed section 43(4A)(iii), in practical terms and based on analysis conducted by my Department, the complex proposals set out in this section of the proposed amendment would not appear to make any difference to the numbers of elected members on regional assemblies, if implemented. Based on our calculation, when rounded to the nearest whole number there would be no change in the proposed numbers of regional assembly members if ratios of representatives to residents are made to fall within the plus or minus 10% range proposed. It is therefore unclear what this part of the proposed amendment is intended to achieve.

On the proposed section 43(4A)(iv), it is unclear which local authority it is proposed that members be added to or removed from should a regional assembly's membership fall outside the range of 18 to 45 members, as proposed in this section. The Northern and Western Regional Assembly, for instance, would have 15 members under the ratio set out in the proposed amendment. This would be raised to 18 as per the proposal but it is not clear how the three extra representatives would be allocated in a manner which is fair to all.

To conclude, I am opposing this amendment for the reasons I have outlined, although I am willing to engage further on the issue with a view to examining, if required, the composition of the assemblies. To clarify, we are willing to engage on the issue with a view to examining whether it is necessary to alter the composition of the assemblies through the appropriate legislative mechanism, which is the establishment order, rather than this planning and development Bill. The Senator might want to engage with us further on that issue between now and Report Stage. We have already had some brief discussions. I know that the efforts here are genuine. It is hard to get amendments fully right when tabling them. We recognise that there is a deficit there and we are willing to work on it through the appropriate mechanism if Members would agree to engage with us on that issue.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply, including his reply to amendment No. 47a, which has been ruled out of order.

I meant to say that at the start.

I appreciate it. I do not say that lightly. It was quite a comprehensive reply. I do not particularly want to press this amendment because there are difficulties in drafting detailed amendments on this issue and in respect of the impact on other legislation. However, there is an enormous difference, for example, between Fingal, which has 98,000 residents to one representative, and Longford, which has 21,000 residents to one representative. In the South Dublin County Council area the ratio is 92,000:1 compared to Offaly where it is 39,000:1. There is a really significant democratic deficit in this respect.

There is also a really significant concentration in respect of planning and the development of these regional metropolitan area strategic plans, of which there are three. I believe these are a key part of the overall strategy. I will move the amendment on Report Stage. I will not press it this evening.

I ask the Minister of State to engage with me between now and Report Stage on bringing forward something that would allow for rebalancing in respect of the three new metropolitan area strategic plans. Speaking as a Dubliner, a proud Dub, it is very difficult to tell councillors that they have a minority input and say in respect of a major economic strategic plan for their areas, which then has to be transposed into their development plans. One can be anxious when one is in a minority. Councillors from those three areas have unique understandings. The Minister of State has talked about professional planners, but the councillors themselves know the issues on the ground. They know what is needed in terms of density. When people speak about strategic economic zones within Dublin, the four local authorities know exactly where they are. They know what the densities are. They know the level of strategic planning which needs to be done to enhance them as engines for the economy.

As I stated, 47% of the population will have 60% of the representation. The majority of those who will vote on what will go into a development plan for these areas have no direct connection with them. We do not have to look back too far to see the implications of this approach. We had, for example, coalitions of councillors on Dublin's northside from the large parties which voted for unpopular decisions on the southside and vice versa. We also saw what happened in Fingal.

The amendment provides a mechanism for the strategic zones. We must ensure that those who make decisions are answerable to their electorates. Currently, elected representatives in one area, for example, Longford, who make decisions regarding development in other areas, for example, Cork or Dublin, are not answerable to electors in the affected areas. They often do not understand the intricacies of the zones. I will withdraw the amendment if the Minister of State undertakes to engage with me on this issue before Report Stage. We need a timetable to rectify the democratic deficit in this area.

I agree with previous speakers. We are all aware of the importance of the national planning framework. It highlights the importance of development plans for areas and the need for balance. We should recognise the role played by councillors and their impact on people's lives. It is important to speak to the various groups and organisations and the Minister of State will speak to them again. We want fairness and all areas must be represented equally.

My officials and I will be pleased to engage with Senator Humphreys on this issue. While we have discussed the matter already, we will be happy to discuss it further. We recognise what the Senator is trying to achieve with his amendment in providing for a new mechanism. We may bring the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, into the conversation because the issue straddles two sides of the Department. Given that various proposals are being developed and discussed with a view to bringing them to Government, this is an opportune time to have a conversation on this issue. We will engage before Report Stage and I will examine the matter again in that context. I recognise that the Senator is genuinely seeking to address a problem. However, the issue is one of finding the right mechanism and providing for it in the right place, which is what we will do.

To respond to Senator Murnane O'Connor, we all recognise the role councillors have in this area. Councillors were very much involved at various levels and we met them. They are the ultimate decision makers on local development plans and are also involved in regional and national development plans. They make the final decisions and must face the people before Members of the Oireachtas do so. Most of us were councillors at some point and will have engaged in the process of drawing up a development plan. I played a serious role in this matter and enjoyed it. This does not mean we do everything perfectly but we try to do what is right. The best planning is to have councillors make an input to local development plans and at regional and national level, working with expertise in planning departments. The legislation provides for a balanced and transparent planning process. The end result should be top class planning backed up by investment from taxpayers.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 10 agreed to.
SECTION 11

I move amendment No. 37:

In page 47, between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following:

"(2) Section 34 of the Principal Act is amended by inserting after subsection (2):

"(2A) A planning authority shall, unless a derogation from the provisions of the Water Framework Directive has been granted, refuse permission for any project which may cause a deterioration of the status of a body of surface water or where it jeopardises the attainment of good surface water status or of good ecological potential and good surface water chemical status by the date laid down by the Water Framework Directive.".".

The amendment is designed to reflect the findings against Germany in the European Court of Justice in case C-461/13 of 2015 regarding compliance with the water framework directive when conducting river widening and activities which could cause a deterioration of the status of a body of surface water or where it jeopardises the attainment of good surface water status or good ecological potential. Ireland is required to achieve this objective through the planning system and my amendment proposes to place this requirement in primary legislation.

The amendment would have the effect of inserting a requirement in the planning code that planning applications be refused where the development proposed would be contrary to the water framework directive because it might cause a deterioration of water quality or the status of a water body and thereby jeopardise attainment of good chemical status of water, as required under the directive. While the amendment is genuinely well-intentioned, I oppose it because the water framework directive 2000/60/EC is already given general effect in section 1A of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. More specifically, the directive is also given effect in the context of the forward planning functions of planning authorities by way of section 10(2)(cb) of the principal Act, as amended, relating to the content of development plans.

I draw the Senator's attention to the commitment given by the Department in the publication, Public Consultation on the River Basin Management Plan for Ireland, 2018 to 2021, to prepare a high-level guidance document for planning authorities on the relationship between physical planning and river basin management planning for the purpose of the development of river basin management plans under the water framework directive. I will publish the river basin management plan for Ireland later this year.

Given the integration of the requirements of the water framework directive at a more fundamental level in the planning Act, it is unnecessary at this time to make this amendment. It would also be premature to do so pending the completion of my Department's work on the river basin management planning guidance document to which I referred. As well as receipt of feedback and guidance on this area from the European Commission, the recent judgment in case C-461/13 is still being closely examined by the Commission and member states as to its implications and the Department and Government are engaging in this process. The discussions are not yet complete.

While I understand the objective the Senator is trying to achieve, the amendment is slightly premature and unnecessary given that negotiations following the recent judgment have not yet concluded. I ask the Senator to hold off on the amendment. Other planning legislation will be introduced in the Houses later in this year and the Senator may wish to reintroduce an amendment at that point. In our view, the Department will be able to address the matter the Senator raises in a different manner.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 38 not moved.
Section 11 agreed to.
Section 12 agreed to.
SECTION 13

I move amendment No. 39:

In page 49, after line 38, to insert the following:

"(2) Section 38 of the Principal Act, as amended by the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010, is amended by inserting the following new subsection after subsection (1A):

“(1B) Prior to the Planning Authority giving its decision in respect of a planning application, the applicant shall disclose any donation of any amount in monetary terms or other form to any political party or individual representative in any county council or to a member of Dáil Éireann that was made prior to the planning application and this information shall be made publicly available by the Authority.".

The amendment proposes a further measure to enhance transparency and prevent a repeat of the corruption and negligence investigated by the Mahon tribunal. I do not propose to speak at length on the amendment, which proposes that applicants disclose donations, in monetary terms or other forms, to any political party or individual. I see no reason to oppose the amendment and I encourage Senators from across the House to support it.

The amendment relates to the disclosure of political donations made by planning applicants in monetary terms or other forms to elected representatives or political parties and the making of such information publicly available. This is similar to an amendment proposed by Deputy Boyd Barrett on Report Stage in the Dáil, which attracted Sinn Féin support. Other amendments were introduced in this area on which we had a general discussion.

I acknowledge that the amendment is based on one of the planning-related recommendations of the final report of the Mahon tribunal. I see the merit of the proposal, which is primarily related to increasing transparency in the planning system. In this regard, issues relating to political donations generally are addressed in the standards in public office legislation and the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012, which was enacted on 28 July 2012 and significantly enhanced the openness and transparency of political funding in Ireland, thereby addressing many of the issues that were central to the recommendations made on political finance in the final report of the Mahon tribunal, and also in the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999.

During the debate on this matter in the Dáil, I indicated that my officials would explore the possibility of inserting some provision or reference regarding political donations in the planning legislation.

This is currently being undertaken but will require the obtaining of legal advice.

The legal advice may well say that the matter of political donations is already sufficiently addressed in the legislation that I have just mentioned and consequently there is no necessity to have a specific provision in the planning code. That is the discussion we had on the floor of the House. We felt that it was best dealt with in the Acts it was in but there was a strong case made on the floor of the House, and again tonight by the Senator, that we should have some reference to it in the Bill. We are looking at that to see if it is possible to do that because we recognise the benefit of and the reason behind it. We are prepared to look at it. I will come back to the Senator before Report Stage and engage with him on it in a genuine effort to see whether it is appropriate to do it in the Bill. We are getting legal advice on that issue. It is something on which we have been working over the past couple of months and we will continue to do so. There have been strong cases made for it.

We talked about how we would implement the Mahon recommendations. We do not need a history lesson here to be told about politicians, and for that matter officials, in local authorities in the past. Let us be clear about it. This proposal relates to "any amount in monetary terms" and refers to political parties or individual representatives in any county council.

History tells us that planning officials and executive members of local authorities were found to be corrupt. Politicians were found to be corrupt. That is the reality. We do not need to keep reading their names out. I took the time today to look at Mahon's recommendations. There is a strong case for looking at this because planning has to be above reproach.

Politicians do not impact on planning decisions. That is healthy and good and it is right. However, if we are watching the politicians, we have to watch the executive as well. I am not casting aspersions on any current member of any planning authority in any one of the 31 local authorities, but what I am saying is there has to be confidence in a system where people in no way are influenced in determining the outcome, which amounts to a lot of money if one gets a favourable planning permission.

I hear what the Minister of State is saying. I get the impression he is sympathetic. He needs advice on it. However, if we are to transpose the recommendations of Mahon into legislation, although I accept matters have moved on in other areas and they are not all relating directly with planning, this is an important area that needs to be revisited before this legislation is finally enacted.

I agree with the previous speakers. It is important that the Minister of State revisits this and comes back to us before anything else has been published. As previous speakers have said, it is important that we use the recommendations of the Mahon tribunal. We merely want to ensure that the matter is revisited and the Minister of State comes back to us.

We certainly will engage. We are genuinely looking at it.

As to the Mahon tribunal, the spirit of the recommendations to be transposed was to ensure that donations are in the public domain, which they are. I understand the spirit of the amendment is to ensure that when it comes to planning, people can join the dots easily and can see the information linked. There is merit in that. We merely have to find a way where we can slot it in where it fits.

I understand the intention of the Senator that it would be clear and transparent to everybody that the applicant made donations so one does not have to go looking through legislation to find it in some other place and that it is linked together. We are trying to see if we can find a way, and a space in the legislation, to do that.

I commend Senator Boyhan and agree with him wholeheartedly.

This is an issue that has been dealt with in the Lower House. I take the word of the Minister of State that he is working on additional proposals. If I can reserve my right to resubmit this amendment, I will withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 13 agreed to.
Sections 14 to 21, inclusive, agreed to.
Amendment No. 40 not moved.
Section 22 agreed to.
Amendment No. 41 not moved.
Section 23 agreed to.
NEW SECTIONS

Amendment No. 42 in the names of Senators Kevin Humphreys and Ó Ríordáin is a new section. Amendments Nos. 42 and 43 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 42:

In page 53, between lines 17 and 18, to insert the following:

"Exemption from fees for submissions and observations by councillors on planning applications

24. Section 246 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 is amended by inserting the following new subsection after subsection (1):

"(1A) Regulations under subsection (1) shall not apply to the making of a submission or observation to a planning authority, respecting an application for permission referred to in paragraph (a) of that subsection, where the person by whom the submission or observation is made is an elected member of the planning authority concerned.".".

This is an important recognition of local councillors. Local councillors up and down the country up until recently have had to pay to make an observation on a planning application and then there was a question mark over whether, if they had not paid regarding a planning observation, they could then go on to An Bord Pleanála with a submission.

The day-to-day work of local councillors, as many would be aware, is representing residence groups regarding major planning applications. Sometimes those observations may be in support of a planning application. For the sake of transparency, to ask councillors who are on a very low salary to make a payment to make an observation on a planning permission is unacceptable in this day and age. An Taisce, which is a prescribed organisation, can make a submission on a planning matter up and down the country without having to pay and yet we see councillors, practically on a voluntary basis, given their salaries, having to make a payment to do so in their local authority. I ask the Minister of State to accept the two amendments. Both amendments have the same purpose, namely, to try to reduce the financial criteria for councillors.

The Minister of State may state that the sum is quite low but if one is from a major urban area, whether that is Cork, Dublin or Limerick, there may not only be many planning applications but many applications on the same site. I have seen developments with up to seven live planning applications, all running at the same time. If a councillor wanted to make an observation on all seven, that would cost €140.

The Minister of State will respond by stating he is sympathetic towards the amendment but this is not the Bill to do it in. If so, I would ask him to give a commitment to a date and time at which that will be removed because it is unfair to ask councillors on a miserable salary to make that financial commitment to submit an observation on a large-scale development. If the Minister of State is to so respond, he should be short and sweet. If he will not allow it and support it as part of this Bill, I will withdraw it and resubmit it on Report Stage if the Minister of State will give me a timeframe for when he will introduce regulation to allow councillors make an observation free of charge.

This is perhaps one of the most important pieces in this jigsaw in terms of public accountability and public engagement. Neither the Minister of State nor I want councillors in backrooms talking to qualified planners and chief executives about what should and should not be granted permission and how to determine planning applications because that is not the role of county councillors.

My understanding is that councillors are the guardians and custodians of their county development plans. They are proud to play the major part in the forming and shaping of those plans. They have been and will be curtailed but it makes sense because we must have regard to the hierarchy of planning, from the national planning framework to the regional planning, the county development plans, the strategic development plans, local area plans, LAPs, and even urban and village plans that some progressive local authorities promote and push. As I have stated previously, we need an educational programme to explain to both elected members and the public generally the hierarchy of the planning system. As this is all completed, it is time that we review that.

I understand the situation because I was at the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA, meeting in Donegal and last week I was in Dungarvan where I heard two of the Ministers in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, and the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, say they are committed to this issue - I have also heard the Minister of State himself in the past say he is committed to it - and, in fact, both made announcements about supporting no fee for planners. It is a foregone conclusion and I hope the Minister of State will confirm that here and now for the record of the House because councillors are keen to know.

Planners do not always get it right. I have been involved in 30 or 40 planning objections in the past 12 months. Some of them were not even in my name but I have written them and they all mostly relate to my own county development plan because I know it intimately. I have been involved in three of them in that county. In some cases, the people have had to pay themselves, but I have given them the little expertise I have, and it is more knowledge than expertise because I know that particular plan well. We have been successful. In some cases, we have had to appeal to An Bord Pleanála and we have been successful there. It is interesting to look at the success rates in some local authorities. That is not to say "well done" or vice versa to the planners, but they do not always get it right. They are sometimes motivated by other considerations. There is an economic consideration that is also part of the functions of a local authority, and rightly so. Where my proposal differs from Senator Humphreys is that I acknowledge there could be difficulties if we roll out a free for all for everyone because what will possibly happen is that councillors will come back in 12 months and say they are now doing hundreds of objections on a monthly basis. That is not what we want and that is not right either.

I am sorry for interrupting the Senator-----

We are wrapping up.

The order of the House is that the debate is to be suspended at 6.30 p.m. I ask the Senator to report progress and he will be in possession-----

When we come back next week.

Yes. He will be in possession.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.