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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 25 Nov 2020

Vol. 272 No. 10

Planning and Development Bill 2020: Second Stage

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

I thank Senators for facilitating the introduction of the Planning and Development Bill 2020 and the urgent passage of this important legislation through the Houses of the Oireachtas. For this reason, I will be requesting, in due course, that this House considers a motion to enable the President to sign the Bill earlier than would be routine.

I am bringing forward the Planning and Development Bill 2020 as a matter of urgency in light of the present Covid-19 pandemic and to ensure that the necessary protections are in place to safeguard the operation of the planning and building control systems. The purpose of the Planning and Development Bill 2020 is twofold. Its first purpose is to amend section 11(3)(b) of the Planning and Development Act 2000 in respect of the mandatory requirement to hold public meetings with regard to proposed development plans. Its second purpose is to allow the Government to make orders, during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, which would extend certain statutory periods applying under the Planning and Development Acts and the Building Control Acts.

Before I address the rationale behind the Bill and specific details of it, I would like to address the matter of my request to an Ceann Comhairle, as Chair of the Dáil Business Committee, to waive the requirement for pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the proposed Planning and Development Bill 2020. I had sought this waiver due to the urgent nature of the proposed Bill, which I am bringing forward in response to the present Covid-19 pandemic. However, last Tuesday I was advised that I could secure an early time slot to commence the Bill's Second Stage today, Wednesday, 25 November, if I introduced the Bill through the Seanad. I was happy to do this, not only to progress the Bill as soon as possible, but also to allow me to fulfil a promise I made to Members of the Seanad just a few short weeks ago to initiate Bills in this Chamber.

The acceptance of an early time slot for this urgent Bill necessitated the publication of the Bill for the Seanad last Wednesday, which unfortunately rendered the potential for pre-legislative scrutiny by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage unfeasible in these exceptional, time-sensitive circumstances. In acknowledgment of this, and in accordance with Seanad Standing Order 149(2)(i), I confirm that the reason that pre-legislative consideration did not take place under Seanad Standing Order 143 is the time-sensitive nature of this emergency Bill resulting from the pandemic's potential to negatively impact on the operation and integrity of the planning and building control systems, which required this exceptional accelerated approach.

Having regard to the above, I assure the House that the decision to commence the Bill in the Seanad was not intended in any way, shape or form to circumvent consultation with the joint committee, but rather was motivated by the desire to have this emergency Covid-19-related legislation enacted as soon as possible. However, I apologise to the Chair and to the members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for any confusion caused by the urgency of this approach and for the resulting effects on pre-legislative scrutiny procedures.

Today, I am asking Senators to pass the Planning and Development Bill 2020.

The Bill is being brought forward as a matter of urgency due to the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure that the necessary protections are in place to safeguard the operation of the planning and building control systems. In particular, this Bill will ensure that the integrity of the public participation elements and decision-making processes of these systems are protected. Local authorities play a critical role in facilitating construction activity, including housing construction, through a range of responsibilities, including granting permission under the Planning and Developments Acts and granting fire safety certificates and disability access certificates under the Building Control Acts. It is therefore essential for our economy and our collective aim of housing delivery that these services remain functioning and open. In this context, every effort is being made to ensure that the planning and building control systems can continue to remain open, with appropriate accommodations and taking into account public health advice.

Notwithstanding the present Covid-19 level 5 national restrictions on travel, it is important to note that the planning and building control systems remain open for business. In particular, the public participation elements of the planning system have been recognised as an essential service in SI 448 of 2020, introduced by the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, which implements these level 5 restrictions. Attending the offices of a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála to engage in a statutory planning process, including inspecting the file, making an observation or submission to a development plan process or inspecting a site notice, is deemed to be a reasonable excuse for travelling or moving during these level-5 travel restrictions.

My Department continues to work with the planning and building control authorities to ensure that these systems, which are vital to the delivery of housing and infrastructure, remain open. Local authority public offices and the offices of An Bord Pleanála are open to the greatest extent possible, subject to adherence to HSE guidelines on physical distancing and any local arrangements on managed access. Furthermore, systems including the building control management system, can be accessed remotely over the local authority network; while in the case of the planning system, established systems are in place that enable people to view planning applications and submissions online.

As a direct response to the potential for Covid-19-related restrictions to have an impact on public participation in the planning application processes, the planning and development regulations were amended in May with the introduction of SI 180, the Planning and Development Act 2000 (Section 38) Regulations 2020, to require all planning authorities to upload all planning application documentation online for public viewing within five days of receiving the material, save for exceptional circumstances. My Department and I will continue to keep matters related to planning and building control regimes under review, in consultation with planning authorities.

It is hoped that the safeguarding provisions in section 3 of this Bill are never used. However, if there is a critical deterioration in staffing levels due to infections in one or more planning or building control authority or in the event that the public at large or particular groups of the public may not generally be capable of engagement with the planning system due to the introduction of more restrictive measures that may prevent the public, for example, from seeing site notices or attending planning offices or meetings, it may be necessary to use the proposed measures in section 3 to ensure the integrity of the planning and building control system is maintained throughout the pandemic.

I will now outline the main provisions of the Bill. As stated earlier, the purpose of the Planning and Development Bill 2020 is twofold. First, the Bill proposes to amend section 11(3)(b) of the Planning and Development Act 2000 in respect of the mandatory requirement to hold public meetings concerning a proposed development plan. Second, it will allow the Government to make orders, during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, which would extend certain statutory periods applying under the Planning and Development Acts and the Building Control Acts.

The Long Title of the Bill outlines the aims and policy context in which the proposed measures to safeguard the operation of the planning and building control systems are being introduced in light of the present Covid-19 pandemic and the associated restrictions required to contain the disease.

There are four sections in the Bill. Section 1 provides a definition for "principal Act", which means the Planning and Development Act 2000. Section 2 amends section 11(3)(b) of the Planning and Development Act 2000 to replace the mandatory requirement to hold public meetings regarding a proposed development plan with a more flexible requirement for planning authorities to consult with members of the public in such a manner as it considers appropriate and to invite written submissions from members of the public regarding a proposed development plan. This may include the holding of a public meeting, newspaper notices, written submissions or online communication or both.

The proposed amendment will allow the planning authority to take whatever steps it deems necessary to ensure the public are consulted in compliance with the principles of the Aarhus Convention, which include public participation in environmental decision making. This measure is required immediately to allow planning authorities to adapt public consultation procedures given the present restrictions on the holding of public gatherings during the pandemic. If this amendment is not made, such restrictions will delay the progression of development plans during the pandemic. The amendment is also in line with the modernisation agenda for the planning system to increase online activity and ensure continued flexibility in communicating details of draft development plans to the public and it will therefore be a permanent amendment.

Regarding the proposal in section 2 of the Bill, and following a submission from my colleague in government, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and as raised by Deputy Matthews, Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I wish to inform the House that I will be seeking to introduce a Government amendment to section 2 of the Bill on Committee Stage here in the Seanad on Monday to confirm that section 11(3)(b) of the Planning and Development Act 2000 will require the planning authority to hold either a public meeting or an online public meeting in respect of a proposed development plan. The Bill, as proposed, had required the planning authority to "consult with members of the public in such manner" as the planning authority considered appropriate, "which may include the holding of a public meeting". The Government amendment will ensure, for the avoidance of any doubt, that there will always be some format of public meeting under section 11(3)(b) in respect of a proposed development plan, either by way of a public meeting attended by the public in person or an online public meeting. That amendment will be introduced on Committee Stage on Monday.

Section 3, regarding emergency periods, would allow the Government to make orders, during the Covid-19 pandemic, which would extend certain statutory periods applying under the Planning and Development Acts and the Building Control Acts. This contingency measure is also urgently required to provide an essential legislative safeguard, which can be invoked as necessary to ensure that public participation elements of the planning regime, as well as certain decision-making and enforcement systems of the building control regime, are not compromised if further waves of Covid-19 may necessitate a further period of stay-at-home travel restrictions or may critically impact on the operation of individual authorities.

A core principle of the planning and development system is that of public participation and the assurance that planning is conducted in a manner which affords a high level of confidence in the openness, fairness, professionalism and efficiency of the process. This requires people to have the opportunity to participate in decisions being made at the strategic plan-making and individual planning application levels. Public participation is also central to certain decision-making and enforcement systems of the building control regime.

In the absence of section 3 of this proposed Bill, if circumstances arose during the pandemic which impacted on the public participation elements and decision-making processes of the planning system, these circumstances could cause significant difficulties, including preventing compliance by authorities with requirements set out in law and raising the prospect of knock-on effects. The possible consequences which might arise from these difficulties include the inability to operate statutory consultation periods, the inability to progress the making of development plans and deemed decisions, where decisions have not been made by the appropriate authority.

They could also raise the prospect of financial penalties being applied against authorities for not making decisions within statutory time limits; judicial reviews of decisions where individuals contend that the process did not adhere to statute; where public offices close, the inability to view information and make submissions; where enforcement proceedings are about to be commenced or are ongoing, the time limits are a key issue; and undue benefit accruing to some people by automatic default or through the elapsing of observation, submission or enforcement timelines before an observer, respondent or indeed the authority has time to act.

The main provision in section 3 is modelled on the recently expended section 251A of the Planning and Development Act 2000. Section 251A, in turn, was modelled on the existing section 251 provision within the Planning and Development Act, which applies each year for the Christmas period, when public offices are closed, whereby, when calculating an appropriate period or other time limit referred to in the Planning Act or regulations, the period between 24 December and 1 January, both days inclusive, shall be disregarded. The recently expended section 251A of the Planning and Development Act 2000 introduced a similar disregard provision for statutory periods during the first lockdown earlier this year, in which case the Government order made under section 251A lasted for eight weeks, from the end of March up to 23 May 2020.

However, the proposed provision in the current Bill includes new flexibilities, which were not previously included. More than one extension period order may be made within the confined operative period for this Bill, which is linked to the operation of Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, which now ends on 9 June 2021 following a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas. Extension period orders, if required, can be applied to specific administrative areas of the country, as opposed to applying to the entire country. The Government, at my request, may choose which statutory periods it requires to extend, rather than applying the extension to all periods under the planning Acts and the specified provisions of the Building Control Acts.

The proposed provisions in section 3 also introduce additional oversight of the Oireachtas, whereby any such order shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after it is made and, if a resolution annulling the order is passed by either House within the next 21 days on which that House sits after the order is laid before it, the order shall be annulled accordingly.

Similar to the provisions of the recently expended section 251A of the Planning and Development Act 2000, section 3 of the Bill requires that I, as Minister, shall consult the Minister for Health and request the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform prior to making a request to the Government to make an order specifying the period for which the order shall apply.

In making an order under section 3, the Government is required to have regard to the following principles and policies: the nature and potential impact of Covid-19 on individuals, society and the State; the need to eliminate or reduce the threat to public health of Covid-19; the policies and objectives of the Government relating to the protection of the public from Covid-19; the need to mitigate the adverse economic effects resulting from the spread of Covid-19 or the measures adopted to prevent its spread; and the need to eliminate or reduce the impact of Covid-19 and the measures adopted to prevent its spread on the effective operation of relevant enactments and the effective performance of functions under those enactments.

In the case of sections 4(4), 6 and 17(6) of the Building Control Act 1990, or any instrument thereunder, which concern the operation of the building control regulations, the Government shall not make an order unless it is also satisfied that the making of such order is in the public interest having regard to the need to ensure the effective operation of that Act and protect the health, safety and welfare of occupants of buildings. In the case of the other enactments, which comprise the various Planning and Development Acts listed in section 3, the Government shall not make an order unless it is also satisfied that the making of such order is in the public interest having regard to the need to ensure the effective operation of such enactment and proper planning and sustainable development. These principles and policies, which the Government is required to consider before making an order, broadly mirror the principles and policies of the expended section 251A. Section 4 provides the Short Title and collective citations to the Bill.

In addition to my detailed comments on the Planning and Development Bill, which is currently before the House, I also wish to inform the House that I will need to introduce further Government amendments as the Bill makes its way through the legislative process in the Dáil. Yesterday, the Government approved at Cabinet the priority drafting of modifications to the operation of the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, which are being worked on by my officials and the Office of the Attorney General. The aim is to continue but modify the operation of the temporary protections to tenants under the Act that we passed here in late July until 12 April 2021 while recognising and balancing the constitutionally protected rights of property owners. An amendment will also be tabled to extend from 10 January 2021 to 12 April 2021 the provision under the Act of 2020 that proceedings before a Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, tribunal need not be held in public during the Covid-19 emergency period, with the aim of continuing the protection of the health and safety of participants in the proceedings and of RTB staff.

It is recognised by me, and I have stated it in this House previously, that a cohort of tenants are experiencing Covid-related economic difficulties for a second time this year as a result of the current lockdown. A further cohort may face a negative financial impact for the first time on foot of Covid-19. Low-income tenants are disproportionately employed in sectors that are severely affected by Covid-19, for example, in the hospitality and retail sectors, and are likely to face continued and particular strain.

The State continues to provide immediate support to families and individuals in private rented accommodation under the Department of Social Protection's rent supplement scheme. The scheme provides short-term income support to eligible people living in private rented accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source. The scheme ensures that renters experiencing a temporary loss of employment during the Covid-19 emergency can continue to meet their rental commitments. The Act of 2020 complements the provision of rent supplement and other State supports, such as the supplementary welfare allowance, the pandemic unemployment payment and the employment wage subsidy, by providing time and security for tenants while engaging with State services in a bid to resolve their financial difficulty and to meet their obligation to pay rent.

The temporary tenancy protections under Part 2 of the Act of 2020 for tenants in rent arrears due to Covid-19 and at risk of losing their tenancy are due to expire on 10 January 2021, hence the amendment that will be brought forward in the Dáil. The economic impacts on tenants in the residential rental sector of Covid-19 and successive restrictions on the movement of people continue to be felt and the early part of 2021 is likely to be financially challenging for tenants. I have said that if I consider it necessary to bring in further protections for tenants, in particular in these difficult times during the Covid pandemic, I would do so. It was a Bill most Members of this House supported in July. It came into effect from 1 August. That Act has worked. This is effectively an extension of the provisions of that Act, coupled with the additional protections around the protection of tenants during the 5 km travel restriction, which we brought in a few weeks ago and which was passed unanimously in this House. This is a further protection that will be brought in and we will extend that out to April 2021. The amendment I mentioned is not quite ready and it will be introduced in the Dáil and added to this Bill.

Through these proposed amendments, the Government aims, as do I, to balance in a carefully calibrated manner the legitimate interests of both tenants and landlords. The proposed time-limited extension and modification of the provisions of the 2020 Act will apply only to those tenants who can demonstrate that, despite the significant State supports available, they have been negatively impacted by Covid-19.

In concluding the introduction of this Bill to the House, I confirm to Senators that it is urgently needed to provide essential safeguards to ensure the continued operation of the planning and building control systems during this pandemic. The provisions in section 2 of the Bill to amend section 11(3)(b) of the Planning and Development Act are immediately required to allow planning authorities to adapt public consultation procedures in light of current restrictions on the holding of public gatherings during the pandemic. If this amendment is not made, such restrictions will delay the progression of statutory development plans during the pandemic. These amendment provisions are also in line with the modernisation agenda for the planning system to increase online activity and ensure continued flexibility in communicating details of draft development plans to the public and will, therefore, be a permanent amendment to the Planning and Development Act.

With respect to the safeguarding provisions in section 3 of the Bill, it is hoped that once enacted, they will never need to be used. However, these essential provisions are urgently needed to give the planning and building control systems the legislative flexibility and agility to react to more restrictive travel constraints, if issued by the Minister for Health, during the remainder of the pandemic, or in the event that significant infections among local authority staff critically impacts on the resourcing and operation of individual planning or building control authorities. This is all in order to ensure that the integrity of the planning and building control systems is maintained throughout the pandemic.

I look forward to our debate on the Bill's provisions and will seek to respond to any specific questions. I commend the Bill to the House.

I wish to share time with Senator Byrne with six minutes for me and two minutes for the Senator.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for bringing this legislation to the Senate first. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage and I appreciate that some members were confused as to the Minister's intentions. I accept the Minister's apology and accept that his intention in bringing forward this legislation is both to support the proper functioning of our local authorities and our planning, development and building control processes and to protect public participation in those processes. I welcome this debate and Fianna Fáil Senators will be supporting the Bill today.

The Bill as I read it is an updating of the Planning and Development Act 2000 to allow for public consultation processes which are used for consulting with the public on city and county development plans to be updated and for the continued operation of the planning and building control systems during emergency situations like Covid-19. I welcome the fact that the Minister is replacing the mandatory requirement on local authorities to hold public meetings with a requirement that they consult with the public. The amendment he mentioned, which will be brought forward on Monday, provides that local authorities will hold either physical or virtual public meetings. This is very welcome and we will be happy to support it. Allowing the Government to make orders during emergency periods like the pandemic to extend the statutory periods applying under the Planning and Development Act and the building controls is also to be welcomed and I hope the whole House will support that.

This legislation reflects a Government that is trying to modernise how we do our business. It is also reflective of a Government that is responding to the very real-life circumstances in which the country finds itself in terms of the pandemic. It aims to improve accessibility and inclusiveness in our statutory processes while at the same time upholding the very important values asserted in the Aarhus Convention regarding public participation in decision making when it comes to environmental matters. I am coming at this from the perspective of a former city councillor in Dublin. The Dublin city development plan is a really important document that sets out the statutory guidelines and objectives for the development of our city. The current development plan was drawn up in 2016 and will expire in 2022. In June of this year, city council officials and councillors commenced work on the new development plan. The plan has multiple stages, beginning with a pre-draft consultation, on which submissions are invited. Then there is a consideration of those submissions, following which a draft plan is put out for public consultation. More submissions will be received on that draft plan and then that will come back for consideration. Following this, a plan is actually made. The process takes 99 weeks or almost two years of work. It is a really important piece of work that requires significant resources, not just from officials but also from the elected representatives. In that context, I am not going to let the Minister leave the House without reminding him of the Government's commitment to local authority members to deliver on the Moorhead report. It is an outstanding action and one that I ask the Minister to provide an update to the House on, as all Members would appreciate that.

According to the rules of the House, Members are not supposed to raise issues that are not related to the Bill.

I apologise to the House. I did not realise that was the case.

We appreciate the Senator's lobbying effort.

I am speaking as a former city councillor and I genuinely understand the enormous time and effort that councillors put into the making of development plans. It is two years' work and requires significant effort on their part. They engage with their constituents, lobby groups and so on. I am not going to repeat my request to the Government; everyone here knows what I want to say, including the Minister.

This legislation is important and the Fianna Fáil group will support it. We will also support the amendment as outlined. I would encourage the Department to continue to work in this way and to continue to engage with this House. We have a number of requests which I will not repeat now because I will be accused of lobbying. We have a number of requests of the Department and this House really wants to engage on them. I would encourage the Minister to come back to do that and we look forward to working with him.

I endorse Senator Fitzpatrick's views entirely, including on those issues about which we should not be speaking. I support this legislation but I do not want to see emergency periods being used, effectively, as an excuse for things not to be done. I have a specific question, for example, regarding why extended periods might be allowed under derelict sites legislation. I have no problem with allowing for extensions to consultation periods, planning permission for developments and so on but where we are dealing with somebody who has been subject to a derelict sites levy or has been ordered to carry out the cleaning of an area, I seek an assurance that nothing in this legislation will prevent such work from happening. Somebody who has allowed an area of land to be derelict for a long period should not be able to use this legislation or any loophole within it to prevent necessary work from being done, particularly given that the construction industry can continue to operate under all levels of Covid-19 restrictions. It is important for the Minister to confirm that this Bill will not prevent work from taking place in the case of derelict sites or dangerous structures.

My specific concern is in regard to the inclusion of the Derelict Sites 1990 Act.

For the information of Senators, a copy of the Minister's speech is available outside the Chamber. I was not aware of that until it was brought to my attention by a colleague. Copies of speeches are normally distributed in the Chamber. There are amendments being referenced that we may wish to address. It is beneficial to have the speech so all Members need to know that it is available outside.

In normal circumstances, copies of speeches are sometimes distributed in regard to Commencement matters, but because of Covid-19 it is not advisable to have people walking around the Chamber.

I appreciate that but we were not aware of it. We made the assumption we were not being given a copy of the speech but it is available outside. I thank the Cathaoirleach.

I welcome the Minister to the House. This is the first time we have been in this House together so I take this opportunity to congratulate him on his appointment. We soldiered together on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. The Minister has been on all sides of this debate, brief and portfolio. I wish him well and every success in it.

On the Minister's apology and clarification in regard to the pre-legislative scrutiny, I fully accept his bona fides. On the Planning and Development Bill 2020, I have one major concern. In regard to Covid, I understand the significance and importance of people being safe, be they staff, members of the public or anybody else. That is really important. I see the necessity for emergency legislation. However, I have a difficulty with section 2 of the Bill. The Bill will be amended, as the Minister will know, but the briefing also says the amendment is in line with the modernisation agenda and that this change will be permanent. I have with me a letter I received from An Bord Pleanála which I will circulate to the Minister. The Minister will be aware of the ongoing engagement with An Bord Pleanála in regard to Rebuilding Ireland, modernisation and IP planning. The board has been telling us for four years that it is working on a pilot scheme. I made some inquiries today. It still has not got that up and running. The modernisation of IT and IP project is a wonderful one, but it does not exist.

I am aware of a local authority that cannot scan applications, drawings and montages in colour in regard to protected structures. That is the reality for most councils. Another local authority does not have a proper archive of protected structures. I have had to visit the Irish Architectural Archive in Merrion Square to look at drawings because they were not retained by local authorities. I intend to bring a proposal to this House and to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in the next few weeks in regard to a national archive of protected structures because these applications are lodged but not centrally retained. There is a gap there that needs to be closed.

My issue is in regard to inclusivity and respect for the elected members - city and county councillors - who do an enormous job. I was a member of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council which had thousands of people engaging in county development plans. That is the reality. There is great interest in planning. It is about the future planning and sustainable development of people's areas. Citizens have those rights. We talk about the Aarhus Convention. If we attempt to curtail public consultation in statutory format it will end up in the courts. There are a number of environmental groups and prescribed bodies under the Planning and Development Act, of which the Minister will be aware, which are engaged in this area. I salute them. They are watchdogs for planning. I also thank the public, who are our greatest watchdogs in regard to proper planning and sustainable development, as are elected members.

The Bill seeks to amend section 11(3)(b) of the Planning and Development Act 2000 to replace the mandatory requirement to hold public meetings in regard to the proposed development plan, with an obligation for planning authorities to consult members. Who are the planning authorities? There is always a conflict between the executive, which holds the executive function, and the elected members who hold the reserve function. That is a constant battle. As a former councillor, the Minister will know that. Is this decision to be made by the executive? Will such decisions be made by resolution of the council? Who will decide how this happens?

The briefing also states that the amendment is in line with the modernisation agenda for the planning system to improve accessibility and inclusiveness through increased online activity and assured continued flexibility in communicating details of draft development plans and will, therefore, be a permanent amendment. The Minister referred to this modernisation in his speech. This change is to be a permanent arrangement. I will not be supporting it. I had hoped that the Minister would reconsider that amendment. I can understand it in the Covid context but not outside of it. I see the need for a sunset clause in regard to this aspect. I do not believe it is right and appropriate to make this a permanent change. This is a matter of concern for me and I ask the Minister to provide for a review of it in a few months' time.

In some local authority offices elected members do not have access to the Internet. Under this proposal we may be excluding a generation of people over 55 or 60 who have a difficulty in terms of accessing IT. That is the reality. In many local authority offices in rural Ireland, members have not been able to engage in Teams meetings of authorities because there is no connectivity. There are many city and county councillors across the country. I have spoken to a number of them in the last few days. I have also engaged with all of the other stakeholders. They, too, have a concern. I do not see in any of the correspondence I have on this matter any reference to engagement with the Local Authority Members Association or the Association of Irish Local Government. I do see reference to Fianna Fáil Senators having raised this issue with them in correspondence. I have communicated it to them myself and invited feedback. That is their concern. As I said, I have serious concerns in regard to this change.

Did the Minister give consideration to extending the lifetime of county development plans by 12 months? It is an option. This could be done through legislation. I mentioned the principles of the Aarhus Convention and the right of citizens to engage. Many people that are outside of the technology and skills area like to visit a public town hall to see the plans and montages and to meet planners and benefit from doing so. I know this is not possible in the context of Covid. I have no difficulty supporting any other aspect of this Bill. My concern is the permanent little arrangement which the Minister references in the context of reform and modernisation of the planning process. The Minister also has a responsibility in terms of An Bord Pleanála. It cannot manage its own IT systems. It has failed to deliver on commitments, albeit it has been set back by Covid for the last nine months like everybody else in terms of access to information. That is important.

The Aarhus Convention references citizens' rights in regard to environmental and planning issues. Most Senators here are former councillors of city and county councils. We often talk about the right to subsidiarity, to decision-making on the ground and engagement with people. The Green Party has a strong record on this issue and organises meetings and rallies in its constituencies and communities to highlight issues about planning. I know all parties do that but to an extent the Green Party has been at the edge of this in terms of its engagement with communities and electorate and the principles of the Aarhus Convention. I took some time to look at the Green Party website today. It has a very strong record on that.

I propose to bring an amendment to the House. I will lobby in advance of doing so. I will ask local authority councillors to engage on it with all Senators in this House. Will the Minister give consideration to a sunset clause to end this permanent arrangement? We do not need a permanent arrangement, we need an arrangement in place for Covid but not to extend beyond that.

I thank the Minister for being here today and for initiating this legislation in the Seanad. I am also a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage and I want to acknowledge the Minister's wholesome and fulsome letter to the committee and his apology for any slight that may have been experienced by some members who would doubt for a moment his bona fides in bringing this forward and understanding the emergency of the situation. I put that on the record of the meeting this week in defence of the Minister and the urgency of this legislation.

I fully support the legislation. I am getting to grips with the amendments proposed by the Minister and I will address them in a moment. To be honest they look sensible and embracing of the needs that are emerging in the context of Covid-19. I support this measure and we must recognise, in the context of Covid-19, that we cannot hold public meetings and it is ridiculous to run against public health advice. The planning process and the development plan process really need to proceed, despite current restrictions.

I am interested in the suggestion of extending the development plan period as it stands. However, I know in my area and South Dublin County Council, where I was a councillor, there is a need to press on with the amendments and changes so as not to lose a year. In that regard, although it is an eminently sensible suggestion, I would not be in favour of it. That is just in case the Minister is thinking about it.

I am glad that in his speech the Minister references "flexible" measures in looking at extension orders. I have a concern with how public consultation is handled in a pandemic. It is reasonable not to hold public meetings but the absence of public meetings must be dealt with through a stepped up and amplified level of advertising of the fact that public consultations are ongoing. Everybody needs to be in the know. We do not have the normal recourse of being able to go to residents' associations and talk about these matters.

We need to provide finance for advertising that these processes are ongoing and not just on social media. We are still in a transition period between pre-digital and digital contact and connectivity, and we must respect that by looking at different ways of advertising. A planning notice or something small is not enough. This must be a big half-page advertisement in all the local newspapers indicating that a public consultation period is ongoing.

We also need longer public consultation periods. If we limit something to six weeks, local representatives are now obliged to contact residents' organisations and try to organise Zoom meetings while getting out leaflets or initiating contact to ensure everybody is adequately informed and support them in making submissions in that time. We need to extend the consultation period to allow for the fact that the process is not as easy as it was. We have WhatsApp groups and other tools but with the residents' association of which I am a member, many people are older and do not use WhatsApp. They must be called individually and this takes a greater amount of time. We need to consider this and the Minister should take it on board.

The Oireachtas Library and Research Service document we were given to inform us on the legislation quotes the Maastricht recommendations on promoting effective public participation in decision making. It states that online consultations can complement face-to-face public meetings and hearings but should not replace them. It also goes through criteria that should be considered, including scale of activity, potential impact, size of the affected population and the controversial or high profile nature of an activity. It gives a list of considerations. I urge that we have a statutory instrument that sets up criteria for deciding on the length of time and how the public consultation period is to be addressed or advised to the public. We should take that into account.

On a related matter, the process of the development plan was very eloquently described by my colleague. In it we really need to respect much work over much time by the public and their representatives that goes into arriving at a development plan with which we can all live. The decisions made for the period taken in by the development plan are guided by this work. In that context, and again in alignment with public consultation, it was very disturbing to me the extent to which An Bord Pleanála admitted to the Oireachtas joint committee that it does not really take on board the development plan. We are going to the trouble of changing how consultation is going in legislation and ensuring that the development plan process can go on, yet there are areas like Dublin 8 where the development plan has not been considered and there has been a proliferation of co-living and student accommodation.

I very much welcome the Minister's initiative on co-living this week. I have never been a great proponent of it, although it has a place in a very small niche. In such circumstances we must ensure the development plan really is absolutely adhered to, as we are going to all this trouble, and more than due regard should be given to it. It must be the guiding light in this. I ask the Minister to elevate this element and look at an amendment to the legislation to ensure the development plan must be adhered to and given respect. We should respect all the work done by the public and public representatives.

I welcome the amendments and I will comment more fully on them next time around. I broadly support the Bill.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to propose the legislation. Before addressing the Bill, I welcome the decision he made this week on co-living. The decision should have been made sooner but when I read the report I realised the Minister had not taken on officials' advice to tinker but rather made a clear decision on banning co-living. I would have liked for this to apply retrospectively and particularly to current proposals going through the planning system. I hope An Bord Pleanála takes on board the Minister's indications on co-living and turns down such permission applications.

I read the circular the other day and the Minister also gives guidance on the changing of purpose-built student accommodation for short-term lets, as that has happened in five cases. Some of the other student accommodation providers are thinking about doing that in the long term.

I have no problem with the majority of the Bill but the section making a permanent change in the modernisation agenda is a sneaky change. Having a public meeting is really important and I will bring forward an amendment putting a sunset clause on that section. An older person who is not engaged online would see value in having a planner in front of him or her when speaking about complicated matters like site density, ratios and heights. It is important for planners to be able to explain these concepts. If local authorities get away with not having planners at public meetings, I see the process moving online. This is about a modernisation agenda in general but the change is being introduced for the long term so I would like to see a sunset clause attached.

It is quite ridiculous in 2020 that if I submit something to An Bord Pleanála, I must physically go to the building as it does not take payment online. A person would have to go to a post office and pay an additional charge in order to get a postal order otherwise. That is while we are talking about an online modernisation agenda. The first thing we can do is sort out the planning system so it is facilitating and flexible for people before we change it. We are submitting an amendment that will introduce a sunset clause.

The importance of development planning is acknowledged in this Bill but the Minister has other powers relating to heights and standards. There has certainly been a feeling that heights and standards have been undermined with the Minister's powers.

I would ask that the Minister would take similar action to that which he took on co-living and have a clear look at where his regulations are over-riding well-considered development plans. Senator Fitzpatrick and I were both members of Dublin City Council and we spent nights and days until 12 a.m. or 2 a.m. debating and considering the heights and densities within our city and we reached compromises on it. It was never a NIMBY development plan and agenda. We fought with the planners and with each other and we had it out, but it was a really well-considered plan for our city. I imagine that other local authorities around the country do that as well.

There is a real feeling that there is an undermining of local democracy, not just in participation but also in decision-making, when it comes to the heights and standards in the ministerial guidelines. We do not want to go back to the mid 2000s, when we had developer-led planning. We have issues such as construction defects that we have to deal with now as a result of that. We want to make sure that local people are involved in the decision-making and planning process. The Minister should reconsider some of the heights and standards changes he has made. I am not a believer that height equals density. I will argue hard with residents for density and say that this is the best way to have a good planning system, but it is difficult to do that if, within a couple of years, we have an undermining of that and if we have heights that are completely out of place.

I welcome the Minister's comments on the eviction ban and I welcome what he did last night. I ask that the Minister consider, and we have tabled amendments to this effect, that where there are restrictions in a county, the eviction ban will remain in place. Evictions are still happening for other reasons, and in the course of a pandemic we should not be balancing the rights of people. Public health has to take priority and anybody losing his or her home for reasons such as family members moving in or for substantial renovations should not be left in that position over the course of a public health emergency. I ask and plead that the Minister consider extending that to situations where there are county limits or restrictions on travel beyond 5 km.

I thank the Minister for coming into the House and I ask that he accept the amendments we have submitted when it comes to Committee Stage on Monday because it is important that we continue to have public meetings and that members of the public have access to professional advice and planners in the course of the development plan. I understand that we cannot have them in the course of a pandemic but there should be a sunset clause for that.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. As one of my Government colleagues said, I am never out the Chamber these days but it is good to be here to welcome the amendment that the Minister is putting forward on behalf of the Green Party and through the Government. That shows how the Government is working together on these issues and I am delighted to see that the Minister is amenable to that.

For clarity and for those who are not aware of the background to this, the 2000 Act had a provision that the planning authority shall hold public meetings and the amendment is thanks to Deputy Matthews, as the Minister said, who is the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. He had a concern when looking at the draft Bill because it says: "shall consult with members of the public in such manner (which may include the holding of a public meeting)". It is the wording of "may include the holding of a public meeting" that caused concern. I have not seen the wording the Government is proposing and I look forward to seeing that and engaging on it on Monday, but as I understand it, the wording will be to the effect that the planning authority shall hold a public meeting, whether that is online or a physical public meeting. That provision is hugely important to all of us and I am sure it was inadvertent and accidental in the draft Bill.

Many of us, as has been stated, have come from the background of local government and our engagement with people on the ground is a form of public participation. If we lose that from planning, it basically means there is a top-down heavy Government approach to how planning is operated. That sense of public participation, grassroots ownership and involvement within our local communities is hugely important to us in the Green Party, and I know our councillors would have found this particular provision difficult, as the councillors within Fianna Fáil would, because I know they are dedicated to that public service as well.

An interesting and important point was raised by Senator Seery Kearney. When we are looking at public participation and the types of engagement involved, the most helpful kind of public participation is to look at local development plans, city and county development plans, and local area plans, interrogate those plans, either as councillors, other elected representatives or interested members of a political party, and see where planning does not align with a city or county development plan or with a local area plan. There is a valid concern around a lack of local area plans, and I would have such concerns in my constituency. We need to ensure we are addressing that as a Government and I ask the Minister to look at that. We have few local area plans and we need to interrogate how we are carrying out public participation and how local councillors are able to engage with the kind of planning that is going on. They are the people who are best placed to know, not people up in Dublin. It is the people on the ground who are best placed to know what will work within their constituency.

I welcome that the Minister is bringing forward other amendments. I would like more clarity around those and around the RTB. If it is not being held in public, what kind of transparency is being proposed? I understand there is a sunset clause for that. If it is only until April, it is essential that we make sure tenants can bring forward issues to the RTB. I welcome this move overall. I do not fundamentally agree with the Labour Party's perspective on a sunset clause for these online or in-person meetings because it is important that we have some kind of continuity and we do not know when we will potentially be coming into and going out of the kinds of lockdowns that will not facilitate a large public meeting. Therefore, we have to plan for that and we cannot stop building and planning or stop the interrogation of the environmental aspects of planning. It is crucial from that perspective.

Overall, I welcome the Bill and most Members are welcoming the Bill and most of the provisions the Minister is addressing. I thank the Minister for that and I look forward to seeing the amendments when they come before us and when they go to the Dáil and come back to us.

I look forward to seeing those amendments and I welcome the Minister to the House. First, I would like to reference the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, which has been mentioned a number of times in this debate. The committee met on Tuesday last, 17 November and at that meeting, I understand that the Minister asked that pre-legislative scrutiny be waived for this Bill. A vote was taken and that proposal was defeated. However, using Seanad Standing Orders, the Minister was able to initiate this legislation in this House and, therefore, bypass the pre-legislative scrutiny altogether. Rather than a respect for this House that was outlined by the Minister, it was akin to a loophole.

On a point of order, I do not want to be argumentative in any way but I have outlined what happened clearly, in good faith and in a truthful manner. The Senator is trying to twist that. That did not happen so let us be honest about what happened.

I appreciate that these changes to the form and manner of public consultation are necessary to provide alternatives to face-to-face meetings during the pandemic. However, I would like to hear more detail on the Minister's plans to use a wide array of technologies to ensure the greatest possible outreach. Not everyone will have the experience, expertise or technical support to make a written submission. To achieve the highest possible level of participation, I therefore ask the Minister to examine a wide range of options, including holding meetings on platforms which are accessible to the public, such as Microsoft Teams.

I also ask the Department to examine how best to provide all the usual support and assistance to those with impairments or disabilities to enable them to participate fully in whatever form the consultation may take. While a public meeting may need only one or two individuals to provide an Irish Sign Language service, a bit more planning may be needed to ensure these essential aspects of accessibility can be delivered in whatever new format is adopted. The process of proper planning and development must be seen to be open and accountable at all times and not the exclusive preserve of those who already have access to and knowledge of the system.

The Department has said that these measures will also form part of the modernisation of the consultation process. Does this mean that if the format envisaged in the legislation proves to be a success, it may be kept on as a means of involving even more people? How will the Minister judge whether a particular format meets or exceeds the participation threshold of traditional face-to-face meetings? It is important that any benefit from new forms of outreach and participation in the planning and development process are consolidated. There must be a clear process for evaluating this.

The Minister has said he is committed to answering some questions. I have some specific queries. When does he intend to impose the emergency periods outlined in the legislation? Will these periods be time-specific or in line with public health advice, such as measures restricting travel to 5 km or within individual counties during localised lockdowns? Will the emergency periods apply throughout the State or only to specific local authorities at specific times? It appears that the Bill only refers to deadlines to do with planning and control. The Minister's Department deals with many other diverse areas, from quarry licensing to environmental protection. Are there plans to extend deadlines to other areas under the auspices of the Department?

We will absolutely support the legislation. Depending on clarification of the points I have raised, we may introduce amendments on a later Stage. I stress our willingness to co-operate with the Minister. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has articulated the Minister's willingness to engage with us on Seanad reform, which I welcome.

I welcome the Minister back to the House. Yet again we are discussing emergency legislation. The Minister has indicated that he intends to come before us to allow for more substantial debate. It would be very useful to know when that will be. As we have seen again and again, so many of the issues of concern in housing policy have been flagged but have not been engaged with at the most opportune moments, for example, in relation to co-living. It is welcome to see that there will be a move towards ending it, but a large number of planning permissions have already been issued in that area. It was an issue that was well flagged in advance. It is similar with strategic housing development where we now see that a very large number of planning permissions which were granted under that legislation when it was very much fast-tracked as an issue through the previous Oireachtas. At that time we warned of the danger of land hoarding and called for a use-it-or-lose-it clause, and now we are seeing that that may eventually come in years later after the exact consequences which were flagged have occurred.

There are several issues relating to planning and development, some of them I, with others, will be introducing on Committee Stage, while others will not be appropriate and I will not be able to bring them forward. They are, however, very important, especially when the Minister indicates that the Bill to amend the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 is to be introduced in the Dáil. When can we expect both pieces of legislation to be opened for full and proper review and scrutiny? That is very important.

It should be borne in mind that an unfortunate scenario arose the last time emergency legislation came through the House, where due to the limited time available and the Minister's enthusiasm for giving substantial answers to every question put-----

I was trying to be helpful.

Yes, indeed. It meant a very large number of very important amendments relating substantially to the issue were not discussed at all. I am sure the Minister will want to assure us that there will be no guillotine on the Committee Stage debate on this legislation and that all amendments will be dealt with. That will be very important. While this may be emergency legislation or may relate to a particular crisis, it is important that it has full and proper scrutiny.

On the substantial issues, I have some caution and concern. I welcome the fact that there was a suspension of planning decisions during the first lockdown. That was a positive decision. I would have liked to have seen a similar action taken during the current level 5 lockdown, and I understand that section 3 of the legislation could facilitate such a measure if an emergency period is declared. That is positive. The Minister said he hopes to use it very rarely. I think he should use it if it is the situation that circumstances are getting in the way of people being able to participate fully in the planning process.

I have a concern that it seems to be that a very large volume of planning applications have been made during the Covid crisis. Perhaps between now and Committee Stage the Minister might provide us with this information because I think it would be useful. I can only go on partial figures that I might have and we do not have the option of asking parliamentary questions in the Seanad. I have spoken to people who encountered real difficulties in engaging with the process at that time. It would be useful to know how many applications have been made.

I know that many local authorities encourage those making or intending to make planning applications to engage with others who might do so, resulting in many cases in sets of planning applications being made. This is sometimes a co-ordinated activity at a time when individuals or individual households who may be impacted by planning and development decisions have not had the same freedom to engage with each other, not just simply giving their input into the process but engaging in a co-ordinated way around input into the process.

In that sense, I have a strong concern about the proposal to make some of the changes in this Bill permanent. While it is fine to modernise systems, if we do so in a way that leaves people out, if we change our consultation process to upgrade it but effectively leave out those who need to be consulted, that is not adequate. I am concerned by the changes to section 11 of the principal Act and the idea that could potentially lead to a scenario where all consultation takes place online. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that 55% of people in Ireland are not considered to have strong digital skills. We might be confused by seeing the high-rise buildings of the many digital platforms headquartered in Ireland, many of which are very familiar with navigating the planning process, but Ireland is 17th out of 24 countries in terms of digital literacy. Some 55% of the adult population between the ages of 18 to 65 are qualified as having low digital skills. It is not enough that there is consultation if it is not consultation that everyone can access.

Given that the Minister is amending the Bill anyway when it comes to Committee Stage, I urge him not to make that a permanent change in section 11. If he is bringing the Planning and Development Bill 2020 back to the Houses again, let us examine a roadmap towards making such permanent changes, if they be needed. If, however, the Minister is asking for a particular measure in response to Covid-19 while inserting a permanent change in policy, that requires a different level of scrutiny.

I suggest that the Minister does one or the other. If these are measures around Covid-19 and responses to similar emergencies, so be it. If these changes relate to the Aarhus Convention, public consultation, and the right of every person, be they or be they not skilled in navigating digital platforms, to be heard, to exercise their rights and to have a say in the environment in which they live, then that is a separate discussion. I urge the Minister to separate these issues and to remove the sections of this Bill that make those changes permanent. I will be challenging that on Committee Stage, although I would prefer if we were able to have a proper and more robust discussion. I recognise that the amendment the Minister intends to bring to the Dáil is a small step but it is not adequate. That amendment would require a public meeting but it could still be online. I look forward to further debate on these issues.

I thank the Minister for bringing this important legislation before the House. He has been criticised in some quarters for expediting the Bill through the Seanad without pre-legislative scrutiny by the committee. As a member of that committee and as someone who was at the meeting referred to by Senator Warfield, it is disingenuous to try to twist the reality of how this Bill came before us. I accept fully the Minister's bona fides and the comprehensive letter he supplied to the committee explaining the urgency of bringing this Bill to the Seanad and why pre-legislative scrutiny could not happen. It is important that that is clarified, given what Senator Warfield said.

On a point of order, I understand that a vote was taken and the proposal was defeated.

Please address the Chair. We are not engaging in a to-and-fro here.

I accept that the measures in this Bill are immediately required to enable the planning authorities to proceed with their development plans. In many cases, especially in local authorities like my own in Waterford, as well as those in Limerick and Tipperary, which are amalgamated, their development plans should have lapsed in 2016, 2017, 2018 or 2019. They have been extended beyond their life as a result of the amalgamation and because the authorities are awaiting the national planning framework and the regional planning guidelines. It is important that, while we ensure consultation takes place, these development plans are not delayed any further. They are so important for the future development of our cities, towns and villages across this country.

I am sure the Minister will clarify what has been referred to as the permanent amendment and I certainly do not believe it is his intention to permanently replace in person public meetings. Rather, the amendment would be used as an option in circumstances such as those we face with at the moment in the Covid-19 pandemic. It will allow further enhanced consultation to take place in the future. While we have to look at our older generation and their ability to engage in the planning process, we equally have to accept that in order for our younger generation to engage with the planning process we must modernise it and engage them in ways that are not onerous and do not require travelling to a public meeting. I ask the Minister to clarify that in his response.

I also ask that his Department gives further clarity to local authorities regarding their process of engaging with their own members on the development plan process. Some of my former colleagues on Waterford City and County Council have criticised the fact that some of these meetings have been held online. While that is necessary at the moment, as we go further through the stages of the development plan process they should be held in person insofar as possible. We all know from our experience over the past number of months that although technology is fantastic, engaging in person is far more effective. I thank the Minister for bringing this Bill before the House and I look forward to his response.

I thank the Acting Chairman. It is great to see a Meath man in the Chair today.

It has been a tough week for them.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. Public meetings are the cornerstone of local government and are central to the participation of all citizens and members of the public in local democracy. This has been the way since the birth of western democracy. Some 2,500 years ago people would gather in the agora in ancient Athens for political, judicial, commercial, social and religious activity.

Section 11(3)(b) of the Planning and Development Act 2000 reads, "a planning authority shall hold public meetings and seek written submissions regarding all or any aspect of the proposed development plan and may invite oral submissions to be made to the planning authority regarding the plan." This section refers to that fundamental and foundational aspect of democracy, the public meeting. The public meeting is an important vehicle where people can quite literally voice their opinions, ideas and concerns to those who govern and can listen to their response. The development plan of a local authority can have a significant and lasting impact on the physical surroundings, amenities and environment of a community and those who live in it. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the ability to meet physically in person is not limited in any way. The new section 11(3)(b), as proposed in section 2 of the Planning and Development Bill 2020, would read:

a planning authority—

(i) shall consult with members of the public in such manner ... as it considers appropriate, and invite submissions in writing from members of the public, in relation to a proposed development plan, and

(ii) may invite oral submissions from members of the public in relation to a proposed development plan.

This section would make the holding of a public meeting subject to the discretion of the planning authority. I am glad the Minister will be amending it. According to the current amendment, it would no longer be a legal obligation to hold a public meeting when a planning authority is reviewing a development plan. Rather, the authority would merely have to consult with members of the public as it considers appropriate. The manner in which the proposed consultation would take place would be determined completely by the planning authority. This amendment weakens the democratic process and weakens participatory democracy. Making a public meeting optional undermines a key cornerstone of local government, one that has existed since the dawn of democracy.

I have grave reservations about this amendment, based on my own experience of having previously served my community as a county councillor. Other forms of consultation are not optimal and if a meeting were to be held online via Zoom or some other app, it could be prejudiced against people who are not IT literate and those in rural areas who do not have reliable broadband. Certain demographics would be prejudiced and excluded from the democratic process in 21st-century Ireland. There are 500,000 people in this country who cannot even read.

Too many people are already being alienated and left behind. We should always seek to empower people and enhance the role of citizens in government and democracy, thereby respecting the subsidiarity principle of European Union law. While I acknowledge that the advice of the Attorney General has been sought in drafting the Bill and that the preservation of public participation was a consideration, I have doubts that this amendment achieves that or that it is in the true spirit of the principle of subsidiarity.

Notwithstanding the opinion I have expressed, if this amendment is to be passed, it should be accompanied by a sunset clause to ensure that the amended section 11(3)(b) would expire on 9 June 2021 along with all the other Covid-19 restrictions unless it is extended by means of a resolution passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas prior to this date.

Will this legislation affect the amendment stage of the development plan and, if so, how? Councillors in Meath will be in work every day until 15 December going through the development plan. It is a major task, particularly for new councillors who have not had the proper training on development plans and are obviously at a loss as a result. Someone mentioned that the development plans are really important. In 2014, across the country 17,000 ha were zoned to deliver 414,000 houses. Therefore, there is no hurry with development plans. I just wanted to put that out there.

I will always pat the Minister on the back when he does a great job. However, in the past 24 hours two homeless men in their 40s have died, one very close to this building. I ask the Minister to please tackle the homelessness issue in the country.

I believe this is my first opportunity to welcome my good friend and colleague, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to the House. He was the Leader of the Opposition in Seanad Éireann from 2011 to 2016 during which period he was constructive in the way he dealt with the role. His constructive approach will percolate right into his Ministry. We want to see problems resolved. Politicians are there to solve problems. If there were no problems, we would not be here. To get someone of his calibre to take responsibility for solving the problems in housing is a very good fit. He has a deep understanding of the challenges of housing, having been in politics for most of his adult life in this city.

I very much look forward to what he will achieve. I know of his dogged determination and he will deliver.

I echo what Senator Cummins said about this legislation. It is essential to continue the important work of local government and the process of passing county development plans. The pandemic has changed how we do business in the country. The Bill enables local authorities who are going through the development plan process to continue holding their public engagements, which they are statutorily obliged to do while using modern technology. When the legislation that preceded this was introduced, everyone was able to hold public meetings; it was not an issue. Nobody envisaged a situation where we would not be able to hold public meetings, public consultation processes and so on for development plans.

Along with others, I really encourage the public to engage more with their county development plans. In my county, Clare, submissions for the latest county development plan closed on Monday. It is a plan that will follow through on a number of steps. I encourage people who are watching today's debate to read the development plan and make their views known to the local authority and to their councillors. We need people to engage more in the process and share their views, experience and knowledge bearing in mind that many people living in County Clare, as in other counties, have travelled the world and seen good ideas abroad. We want to draw on those good ideas and suggestions to feed into what is the bible in planning and development for the coming years in our county, as it is in every other county.

On the principle of encouraging people to participate more in county development plans, the Minister should consider embracing modern technology. Sadly, in my view, social media is probably viewed more than local newspapers, and observed and listened to more than local radio stations. I do not know whether it is good for democracy, but it is not going to change, and we are where we are. As with other aspects of life, county development plans need to embrace that modern technology to try to reach a bigger audience and elicit the views of many more people. This legislation is important because it broadens the toolkit of local authorities to do that. It allows us to live with Covid - that awful phrase. It allows local authorities to continue with their development plans. It gives the Minister the flexibility to be flexible during this crisis.

I wish the Minister the very best of luck. I know he will initiate many Bills in this House because he knows the value of the House.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I am very happy to see this Bill introduced. It is important that we are providing ways for local authorities to come together. I know how difficult it is. Many Senators were recently local authority members. Galway County Council is trying to hold its plenary meetings by bringing 40 to 45 councillors together in large GAA halls at the moment.

The county development plan is very important, and this legislation is really about the county development plan. In my area in Ballinasloe we are looking at developing areas for residential use and for industrial use. We are crying out for office space. The local authorities have encouraged and received written submissions. If we are doing this in an online way, we need to ensure there is communication allowing people to join in. With so many online meetings, it is very hard to galvanise people to get involved in the process of submissions and consultations.

Before I became a councillor, I probably did not understand the impact a county development plan has on my local area for five years. It has enormous repercussions. This is a crucial period for all the towns and villages in Ireland to plan for the coming five years. It needs to be cross-departmental. As Senator Fitzpatrick said, it is an enormous process taking place over nearly two years. As I only became a councillor in 2019, I have not been through it previously, but I am seeing it now and looking at it from a little further away in this House. We need to find a way to incentivise people to participate in the consultative process. When we have these online consultation measures, local authorities should have targets for the minimum number taking part in these meetings or in representative groups.

Is it possible for me to share time? I forgot to mention it at the beginning.

I wish to share time with Senator Ahearn.

Senator Ahearn will have five minutes on his own.

My final comment is on timelines for planning developments. Again, I am very familiar with a local one. I refer to a permit, nothing to do with planning as such, for the operation of a waste transfer station and I am involved in the campaign about the inappropriate location. The challenge we have is that there is no extension to the 25 working days for people to respond and make submissions. Especially with Covid, and we have just gone through a lockdown level 5, there is no way to galvanise or engage with the community. I have a huge concern that community groups are literally fighting. We have already gone to the High Court where we fought, under the habitats directive, to protect a piece of ground and challenged Galway County Council. I ask for consideration to be given to extending timelines for planning and permit applications if we engage in more level 5 lockdowns during the year ahead because the county council has not allowed an extension with the current level 5 lockdown. I thank the Minister for his time.

I probably will not need five minutes and I can accommodate Senator Burke if he is happy to share time.

We can accommodate whatever.

I will only take two or three minutes so either way. If Senator Burke is next on the list, it is fine.

I welcome the Minister to the House and it is a pleasure to have him here. I congratulate him on his appointment and wish him well. He has hit the ground running. He will certainly have my support and that of Senators on this side for the work being done.

This legislation that has been brought forward today is very welcome and I support it. Obviously the function of the legislation is to support the local authorities going forward. In a time of Covid they are having an awful lot of difficulties. The legislation seeks to facilitate public consultation whether that is in person, which we cannot do at the moment but we will see where we are in the new year. If it is not possible to do that through public consultation or public meetings then it should be done online or using Zoom or Webex.

It is important that we promote public participation and I encourage people to participate as much as possible in county development plans. We have started the Tipperary county development plan 2022 to 2028. It is so important for the public to give their views on plans so I encourage people who want to see their town or county progress to use county development plans as an opportunity to get involved. I do not mind whether that is done through traditional public meetings or through another facilitation using Zoom so long as people give their views on how they want to see their constituency and county develop over the next number of years.

We need to focus on one planning issue. In my own county of Tipperary many people have applied for planning. As they want to live in rural areas they might seek to live just outside of a local town. I know that we encourage people to build and live in communities and not in what we would class in Tipperary as the middle of nowhere but we need to focus on areas that are very close to town centres but are classified as agricultural areas. There is a restriction so people who are not from a farming background or do not own 30 acres of land will be unable to live in the area. Albeit these people work in a town or give back an awful lot to the region in which they live, they still cannot build in the area. I am lucky that I live on my own farm that is quite a distance from town but not everyone has an opportunity to live in the area. People are trying to live much closer to towns than in the past but they are not getting planning permission because of provisions that were brought through six, seven or ten years ago. That situation needs to be looked at certainly from the perspective of Tipperary.

In terms of the legislation today, I fully support it. However, we need to promote and advertise it as much as possible so that people can engage and give their views. I again welcome the Minister and thank him.

I welcome the Minister back to the House. I wish to share my time with Senator Currie unless she gets time herself.

At this point only one person has offered to speak after the Senator. If Senator Currie is here then I can add her name to the list. There are eight minutes remaining to be shared between both Senators. There is also time for the Minister to come back in.

The Minister has said that the Bill will not be a cost to the Exchequer. However, section 3 of the Bill states that he must do this in consultation with the Minister for Health and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Why, if the Bill will not be a cost to the Exchequer, must he consult the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform? Is it just a case of the Department of Finance shoving its weight around the place? I would say that is probably the case.

I welcome the Bill and wish the Minister well with it. The legislation will put a lot of extra pressure on councillors because they will have further consultation with the public and, therefore, have an increased workload. I know that the Minister has the Moorhead report and should make a decision in relation to that.

I urge the Senator to not stray into such territory.

I am not. This Bill will place an extra workload on local authority members.

The Minister knows what he must and should do. The Government has very ambitious renewable energy plans for up to 2030, particularly for the east coast from Wexford to County Louth where it is planned to generate 3.5 GW of electricity. As of now, we have only 25 MW generated by a very small offshore farm on the Arklow Bank. The Marine Planning and Development Management Bill will come before the House shortly but there is a crossover concerning An Bord Pleanála. Has An Bord Pleanála the expertise and resources to deal with the ambitious plans the Government has for renewable energy, which is massive compared with what we have? I like to think that the resources available to An Bord Pleanála will be taken into consideration and that whatever it requires will be dealt with, maybe not in this Bill, but somewhere because there is a crossover with the other Bill that will come forward.

As a result of today's Bill there will be a change in work practices because as more people work from home, less office space is required but garden offices will be required. In the last year or two an office space, back garden shed or whatever in Dublin was refused planning permission. Throughout the country there will be a sea change in work practices with people working from home. Will the Minister offer advice to local authorities and their members on changed work practices when they compile development plans going forward? With that, I wish the Minister well with his Bill.

That completes all of the listed speakers with three minutes remaining. As Senators Currie and Davitt have not spoken, I ask them to take a minute and a half each before I bring in the Minister to reply. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I will be fast. When I was a councillor, the Minister's brother was mayor.

Of course he was okay. I have one or two points to make. It would be a good idea to establish guidance on best practice for running public meetings online and for online consultations. I appreciate the speed at which things have changed but how things have been handled has varied dramatically between different local authorities and the National Transport Authority, NTA. We have had some experience with Iarnród Éireann in this regard. It is important that a review of what has worked and what has not be carried out urgently so that we can establish what is best practice from the start. People were trying to cope and, in some cases, it did not work out very well. In the case of Iarnród Éireann's consultation, it was left to communities to figure out some very technical information for themselves in the middle of level 3 restrictions. That caused a great amount of stress. If public meetings are held on matters that really affect a community, there will be hundreds of people on the call. A consultative interactive process in which people feel like they are getting answers to their questions is required. This is really important. With regard to the Minister's modernisation agenda, a hybrid model is preferable if we are to ensure universal access.

I welcomed the Minister's announcement last week with regard to co-living. A suburban cul-de-sac in Castleknock was never the place for co-living. That application is with An Bord Pleanála. I hope the board listens to its inspector and the Fingal County Council planners in that regard.

There are actually an extra couple of minutes available if the Senator would like two minutes more.

No, I have finished. I thank the Acting Chairman.

The Senator was working with the good O'Brien.

Before the Minister winds up, I will compliment him on all the good work he has done in this Department. He has shown great initiative. He has been bounced around by bad luck, as has everyone else, as a result of the pandemic. It certainly has not helped the Minister to fulfil some of his expectations but I know he is working hard to maximise output in the housing industry. This legislation is forward-thinking, as are the bits and pieces that Senator Currie just mentioned on which the Minister has given promises.

I will raise one issue of which the Minister might take cognisance in the future. I refer to the national planning framework and Project Ireland 2040. We have a crisis in housing, which the Minister is certainly doing his best to work on. In Westmeath and Meath, the process of drawing up county development plans is ongoing but constraints on numbers in certain hubs and areas are causing serious complications in counties such as Westmeath, Meath and Longford. When a lot of this was put together, we were in a different place. There was a downturn in housing and an economic crisis. Much of this forward planning was carried out at that stage. As the Minister knows, it really only came to fruition in 2019 but a lot of work had gone into it over the previous five or six years. The Minister is new to his Department. This planning was done before he came into his position. I sincerely feel that Project Ireland 2040 should be reviewed and that a lot of it should be put on ice for now.

I see this all over the country in my interactions with different councillors who tell me about the complications in their own areas. In Westmeath, there are logical places to zone for development in towns like Castlepollard, Kinnegad and Rochfortbridge. I refer to infill sites, for example. I have been made aware of one particular example in Castlepollard, although I will not mention any names, in which a builder had built a certain number of houses and had given the 20% allocation to the council. We were delighted to get some housing on the back of the development. He had another 4 acres which had been dezoned under the previous development plan which he sought to have rezoned. It had all the services. He wished to build more houses which would have allowed for more social housing and housing for the general public. This application was refused as a result of the constraints under which Westmeath County Council finds itself as a result of new development plan guidelines.

This is blatantly wrong. It does not make any sense. There are crunches because of the numbers involved. The main thrust of the development plan was aimed at bigger hubs such as Athlone or Mullingar. Towns like Kinnegad, Castlepollard, Rochfortbridge and so on will suffer on the back of this. If we are serious about the divide between rural areas and the cities, we must support well-established towns in rural areas. If we do not, we will face serious problems. That is a fundamental result of the Project Ireland 2040 plan and no one will tell me otherwise because it is there to be seen. It is laid bare in all of the county development plans being drawn up across the country at present.

I know this is not totally within the terms of the debate for which the Minister is here today and I sincerely appreciate all the good work he is doing. He has been thinking outside of the box, which I hope bears fruit for him. I sincerely ask, however, that he look again at the Project Ireland 2040 plan because it is causing an untold number of problems throughout the country.

I thank the Senators. This debate has shown their depth of knowledge regarding the issues pertaining to this particular Bill. Many Members have worked on county development plans in their previous lives. Today's debate has shown their appreciation of the nuances involved and their consciousness of the realities of the process and the importance of public engagement. As there are no other Senators offering, I will now call on the Minister to conclude.

I thank Members for their contributions and for the points they have raised, all of which I have taken note of and some of which I will do my best to respond to today. We can come back to some of the others on Monday, but all of the points have been taken on board.

At the outset, I will mention an issue which was raised by a Senator today. I refer to a very tragic death in the vicinity of this House. I am loath to comment on specific cases, as the Senator may understand, because each case is a tragedy for the family of the person involved and for his or her case worker if he or she had been engaging with emergency services. I feel it acutely when people die in such tragic circumstances. We discussed aspects of this matter in this House last night as well. It is important that people know that this specific tragedy is unrelated to emergency services and emergency bed facilities. There is emergency bed capacity in every city in this country. There was spare capacity last night. We have made sure that our winter plan is in place. My priority, above planning processes, development plans, Covid and all else, is to eradicate homelessness and to keep our most vulnerable people safe during the pandemic. I commend all of those workers who are on the front line every single day of the week in our local authorities. I meet many of them in the Dublin authorities regularly. I have a homelessness task force including all homelessness partners which convenes weekly. I want to put that on the record of this House but I will say no more about it to respect the privacy of that individual and his family.

With regard to the points that have been raised, there has been a lot of discussion around our plans vis-à-vis public consultation, whether in person or online. Perhaps I was not as clear as I might have been, although I thought I was, but meetings under section 11(3)(b) relate to issues at the consultation stage of development plans. This is the preliminary, pre-draft stage which involves very little consultation, if any.

In my view, this would improve that further. Obviously, Members will have the course of the week to look at that, but it will be open to authorities to hold online or in-person meetings, or both, into the future, and that is why I think it is a good thing. I have seen that consultation work very well.

The Senator rightly discussed, as did Senator Cummins, bringing in newer generations and people who do not necessarily tend to engage with these types of process, and I see Senator Dolan and others agreeing. We want to get more people involved, increase access and have more transparent meetings. Many council meetings are streamed live, for example, my own local authority in Fingal and that of Senator Currie has been streaming both area and full committee meetings for years, and that is a good thing. It does not exclude anyone, and I would not be so presumptuous or ageist to say that just because people are older, they will not be able to access meetings or will not have the ability to do so. I think that is incorrect. Some have alluded to the idea of where there is an older population, they may not be able to access online meetings, but I disagree. My own father is 85 years of age and is more than capable of accessing many different things, including meetings. The point is that this concerns the pre-draft stage, and it relates to development plans only, but what it might do is help in other consultations, and I have seen it in practice.

Senator Currie has made a very fair point about other consultations and how they are managed and following good procedure within them. It is not just a case of putting all the information online and leaving it to people. It requires us to do more, and that is why I signed an order, and went further and issued draft standing orders from my Department to every single local authority to permit them to hold their meetings remotely, in person or using a combination of both, if they wish. It is up to each local authority to adopt these orders, to bring in their own standing orders, and they can even decide vote remotely. There were some criticisms initially, with people claiming that this was a diminution of local government, and I cannot understand why anyone would say that. If anything, it makes it safer for people, potentially, but it leaves it up to the local authorities themselves to decide how they want to do it.

Many points have been raised and I will speak on a few items. On the issue of construction and all its ancillary services, I was slightly concerned when a few Senators spoke of their desire to pause the planning process. We fought very hard to have construction and ancillary services remain open during level 5 restrictions, and there is a reason for that. The initial shutdown earlier this year has actually meant that our housing delivery will be substantially behind what we need, with somewhere in the region of 16,000 to 18,000 housing completions being delivered in total by the end of the year when we need to be building and delivering about 33,000 per annum, based on the ESRI research that my own Department commissioned. We are living with this pandemic at the moment and there is light at the end of the tunnel, thankfully, and there is good news in respect of vaccines, but we are going to be living in this type of scenario right into next year. I think it was Senator Higgins who raised the point of pausing planning right now, but I think that would be an absolutely retrograde step. There is nothing to be feared from what is being brought in today. If anything, it creates a more transparent system and, as has been mentioned by Senator Dolan, a hybrid type system, which is what I would encourage people to do to allow more people to be involved.

Senator Boyhan raised a number of points in respect of a sunset clause, as did a number of other Senators, including Senator Moynihan. I do not believe we need a sunset clause. It relates to section 11(3)(b), which is the pre-draft stage, so maybe they want to consider that, but I have taken the points raised by the Senators. From our perspective, we do need these measures brought in quite urgently, and I explained at the outset the issue with pre-legislative scrutiny. I cannot have a situation whereby, if there was an outbreak of Covid, and we hope that does not happen, in a particular planning authority or in An Bord Pleanála and staff are affected, the planning or building control system and the operation of it would be put at risk. That is why we need these measures to be put in place.

The RTB data amendment contained in the Bill simply allows those hearings to be carried out online to allow them continue. It is obviously not the optimum as we move through the pandemic, but it is to allow it.

In advance of Monday, just so Members are clear on the amendment that will be tabled, a draft of which I have with me, although I am not moving it now, obviously, as we are on Second Stage, it clearly states that a local authority shall consult with members of the public in such a manner which shall include the holding of a public meeting or an online public meeting, so it is one or the other, as it considers appropriate. Obviously members of local authorities will have an input into that. It also states that a local authority can invite submissions in writing from members of the public in relation to a proposed development plan, so it is at the pre-development stage, not when the draft is published, although I would expect and think it would be appropriate at that stage as well. The vast bulk, if not all, of our local authority meetings at the draft stage, when members are actually engaging with the development plan, are open to the public to see what is happening, or they are open to submissions. We want to see that.

Senator Burke raised the issue of resources for An Bord Pleanála and other pieces. The marine planning and development Bill is well advanced, but that issue is outside the remit of this debate. I will talk to him separately about it.

I thank the Senators for their time because they have been most accommodating and constructive in respect of two important pieces of legislation that have been passed recently. I do intend to continue to initiate legislation here because the debate here really informs what we can do in the Dáil and how we may move and tweak pieces of legislation. With the co-operation of the Senators, I will certainly be doing that again. A Senator mentioned the potential use of the guillotine procedure on Monday. The Order of Business of this House is a matter for this House itself, and it has nothing to do with me. I get a sense that the vast bulk of Members here today support the thrust of this legislation and understand the urgent need for it to be passed. I therefore thank them for their co-operation today. I have noted all the points that have been raised, even though I have not been able to cover all of them, but I will respond to other points on Monday.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Monday, 30 November 2020.
Sitting suspended at 3.07 p.m. and resumed at 3.22 p.m.