I welcome the Minister of State, who has overall responsibility for planning. This is a very important aspect of his work. I thank his senior Minister and the other Minister for State for taking various aspects of this Bill. We had a good, healthy, robust engagement on it.
The Minister of State will note from the amendments before him that my signature is on the amendment along with those of my colleagues, Senators Keogan, Craughwell and McDowell. In terms of the crux of this amendment, it provides that a planning authority:
... shall hold public meetings (except in such grave and limited circumstances as may be prescribed by law, such as an emergency period, where the holding of such a meeting is not reasonably practicable, in which case a planning authority shall make alternative arrangements for effective and inclusive public consultation as it deems appropriate) and invite submissions in writing from members of the public, in relation to a proposed development plan ...
On the face of it, that is pretty simple. The Minister of State will know from his and his colleagues' experience in local government that it is critical to have public engagement. I understand what Covid entails and the necessity of all this legislation. I have no difficulty supporting any of the legislation, except in the context of the obligation imposed on a planning authority. We should remember that the determination is not in the gift of the elected members; it is a matter for the executive, which initially has its draft. It is important that there be public engagement.
Senator Dolan, from Ballinasloe, made a very eloquent, short and concise statement on the Commencement debate earlier. She talked about the importance and significance of the community in Ballinasloe in identifying issues and counteracting potential developments on floodplains. She referred to environmental issues and the protection of habitats. Her views are representative of those of many others in these Houses who have been engaged as councillors. Most of us in the Oireachtas and in city and county councils became politicised through participation in, and activity related to, sustainable planning for villages, towns and communities. The Minister of State will appreciate the importance of this.
What I am saying in essence is that this aspect of the legislation has served elected members well. It has also served the city and county managers well. It is a question of engagement with the people. We know from Tidy Towns and public consultation in other areas that this is important.
The other day, I referred to the National Children's Strategy: Our Children - Their Lives, a very impressive document about public engagement and the participation of children. Luckily, I was able to pull it off the shelf immediately after my speech. It is available online and is 20 years old. Its forewords were written by the then Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, the then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Micheál Martin, and the then Minister of State with responsibility for children, Ms Mary Hanafin. It refers to the participation of and engagement with young people, including children. It refers to planning and various aspects of engagement to which I referred. When I referred to the document, I did not have it to hand and I had not looked at it for nearly ten years. It refers to active participation of all people within our community. I was particularly drawn to an infographic depicting Hart's ladder of participation. The lower end, which pertains to non-participation, comprises "manipulation", "decoration" and "tokenism". In the next category, which shows degrees of participation, in which I am interested, the rungs are "Assigned and informed", "Consulted and informed", "Adult-initiated shared decisions with children", and children involved in making decisions about their own community. There are various rungs of this kind on the ladder. The document is really informative and good. It refers to participation in the community of a certain sector, in this case, youth, including children. The youth are an important part of our future and have a major stake, if not a bigger stake than we have, in terms of how the community is going to evolve and develop in light of the great potential.
I told the Minister of State responsible for heritage, Deputy Noonan, about the importance of engaging with young people in addition to their advocates, which include schools, teachers and sports clubs. He agreed with me. The engagement determines many aspects of strategy in regard to open space, recreation and community. The Minister of State present will be familiar with all this.
I was a member of a county council myself and have been involved with three county development plans. I am aware of the significance of engagement with people. There are different levels of skills, including IT skills, among people. It is important to acknowledge and recognise that. I welcome what the Bill is trying to achieve in this regard. I have no difficulty with all that, but there are those who would find it very difficult to understand a plan. Many might even have a difficulty with orientation in terms of north, south, east and west. The meetings I attended were always positive. My experience of them was that they often involved people closely connected to the map, plan or a potential change to the plan, including farmers. Individuals may have an interest in rights of way or greenways, which are to become quite common, or in specific local objectives, zoning changes, coastal and forestry interests, and all the various amenities. Not all the contributions are negative. There are positive contributions, even regarding An Bord Pleanála. It is not always the case that there are people objecting; there are those who make positive observations and engage in the process.
Another benefit of the public meetings is that one meets professional planners. It is not just politicians setting up stall to talk about planning. They are entitled to do that, and many of them do so, but professional planners know every line of the plan or written statement and know the nooks and crannies, alleyways, byways, motorways, hills, mountains and the sea. They know the place and they understand it. They are best placed to give accurate, true and impartial advice and information to citizens - the citizens whom many of us have represented on city and county councils. This is important.
I do not believe we are poles apart at all. Can we have both elements? Can we make it an obligation? So many politicians, in the Dáil, Seanad and sitting county councils, have an interest in this. The Minister of State will be aware, from his engagement with the Local Authority Members Association and the Association of Irish Local Government, of representatives' talk of issues associated with the powers of the chief executives of the councils. I have had good experiences of them and I support them. I support a new, reformed role for them but we also want to empower our elected members.
Let me refer to what I am trying to achieve simply in this legislation. I do not want to politicise this process by saying politicians, or the majority of politicians, in a sitting county council should make the decision about a public meeting. I do not believe that is right. On the other hand, however, I do not want to empower chief executives to make that determination and say it should be within their gift. I would say that most chief executives will go along with the public meetings but there should be no ambiguity about it. It should be clear. The legislation, since it has served us so well in recent years, should state clearly that the chief executive and council are required to hold a public meeting on the draft city or county development plan.
I took the time to examine the approach of a number of councils. Kerry County Council, on its website, details to a great extent its public engagement meetings. That was interesting. I was highly impressed with Kilkenny County Council and with Cork city and county councils. Cork City Council is now entering its development plan process. There is extensive information on the process, which is, of course, subject to Covid developments. This must always be to the fore in our decisions. There is a requirement to have the meetings, subject to considerations associated with Covid or an emergency. The attendees enjoy the meetings. I have spoken to planners who have said they are very effective. They learn. There is soft information to be picked up on issues that a planner might not necessarily know about.
I do not want to dwell on the point. People hear what I am saying. I hope I am articulating my position in a way that makes it clear. There are no winners or losers. I do not want to empower the executive over and above elected members. I want to have included in the legislation an obligation, outside the context of an emergency that may arise, to have meaningful, constructive public engagement, face to face with the citizens of the communities we represent.
Senator Seery Kearney referred to BusConnects recently. I fully agreed with her. She made a valid point on the importance of engaging with citizens. There have been changes to BusConnects as a result of engagement. I have been to one-to-one meetings on BusConnects and, in addition to my bringing something to them, I have had people explain to me what was happening, such as the taking down of trees and their replacement with other trees.
It is a two-way engagement process. I hope the Minister of State will be agreeable to the amendment and see the sense of it. We could leave it there for the moment, and if it presents a problem in the future, we can revisit the matter. It is my hope, view and respectful ask of the Minister of State that he would agree to the amendment.