Planning and Development (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2021: Second Stage

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this Bill.

I sincerely thank the Seanad for facilitating the urgent passage of what is very important legislation, and facilitating its passage not just here in the Seanad but starting it here for it to conclude very shortly, before the recess. For this reason I have asked the House to consider a motion to enable the President to sign the Bill earlier than would be routine.

I am bringing forward the Planning and Development (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2021, as a matter of urgency, in order to address delays and disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic on the completion of construction projects, including housing projects, and for the completion of development plan programmes, in particular having regard to arrangements for consultation with elected members and the public. These are matters that have been raised by Senators and councillors directly with me, and this is a response to ensure that we ease the situation somewhat for them.

The Bill will also bring forward urgently needed amendments to the ministerial order procedure of the Planning Act to ensure such orders will apply to development by or on behalf of statutory undertakers, and amendments to the Fifth Schedule to the Planning and Development Act 2000.

Due to the urgent need for this legislation, I made a request to the Business Committee of the Houses to waive the requirement for pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme by the joint Oireachtas committee. The waiver was granted earlier this week following a briefing session by my officials with members of the joint Oireachtas committee.

With regard to the purpose of Planning and Development (Amendment) (No.3) Bill 2021, the first two provisions I will discuss are proposed in the context of delays and disruptions to certain elements of the planning system due to Covid-19 restrictions and the pandemic itself.

The first provision proposes at sections 2 to 6, inclusive, and 8 to allow a planning authority should it so decide - and that will be a decision of the elected members and not the executive - to take an additional period of up to one year over and above the statutory period set out in the Planning and Development Act to prepare a new development plan for their area. Some local authorities have indicated that while they have remained open for business, despite Covid-19 restrictions, and have facilitated public participation in the plan-making process, restrictions have resulted in unavoidable disruption to the development plan programme, in particular the arrangements relating to consultation with elected members and the public. I have had numerous examples of that brought to my attention and this is a sensible provision that will enable us to rectify that situation.

Public participation, as I have said in this House before, is a core principle of the planning and development system. It requires that people have the opportunity to participate in decisions at both the strategic plan-making and individual planning application levels. The public participation elements of the planning system were previously recognised as an "essential service" in SI 448 of 2020 and, therefore, were not subject to travel restrictions. The mandatory requirement to hold public meetings, in terms of a proposed development plan, has been replaced with the obligation for planning authorities to consult with members of the public in such a manner as it considers appropriate and also to invite submissions in writing from members of the public on a proposed development plan, which may include the holding of a public meeting.

Notwithstanding this, however, some planning authorities have indicated that it has been necessary to delay certain stages of the plan-making process to ensure that the appropriate level of engagement with the planning system can be facilitated with elected members and that other practical matters, which have arisen, can be addressed. As a result, they may not be able to finalise new development plans within the statutory periods set out in the Act.

It is, therefore, proposed that where a planning authority requires additional time to prepare a new development plan, it would need to consider and set out its reasons for doing so, and extend the duration of its existing development plan accordingly but taking appropriate account of any potential environmental effects, or any effects, on a designated European site which might result. This is a practical measure and I expect that local authority members will know themselves where they need additional time, where they need to pause a development plan or where they need to extend it. This will be brought forward by way of a motion tabled by a member or members on the floor of a council where it will be the members who will decide should the development plan be extended, not the executive, because it is their reserve function. As I have said many times in this House, I am a firm believer in local government. We want to continue to rebalance the powers between our councillors and the executive, and this is a real-life example of doing so but a practical measure as well that I believe will help the process.

The second provision in section 7 is grounded in the need to ensure timely delivery of housing, of other projects and the completion of construction projects, in the context of delays caused by Covid-19. The amendment to the planning Act will allow, on a temporary basis, for further extensions of planning permissions previously extended, where those developments were commenced with substantial works carried out by a period of up to two years or until 31 December 2023, whichever first occurs. The general scheme of the Bill, as approved by Cabinet last week, had originally provided for a single year extension. We have gone further to provide a two-year extension because if we look through Covid, we have had 15, 16 or 17 months of disruption and by the time capacity is built up, particularly on construction sites, there is a further lag time. Again, this is a practical measure that will help people to extend their planning permissions and then we can get back out, effect those permissions and get them building. Two years was considered a reasonable period, not only due to the direct delays in construction but as I said, also due to the possible disruption to logistics and supply chains, etc. The provisions will allow for the further extension of permissions which have expired or are due to expire during the period from 8 January 2021 to the day before section 7 comes into operation.

If colleagues have not done so, I would ask them to have a look at the exact provisions within the Bill and we can tease them out further on Committee Stage. The measures we brought forward are timely and appropriate. Any further extensions will be subject to a condition that environmental assessment is not required in relation to the proposed extension of time. If an environmental impact assessment, EIA, or appropriate assessment is required, then a fresh planning application will need to be made in order to continue the development as this allows for updated environmental assessments and public participation in that process. That would happen in a small number of cases.

Separate to these Covid-19 related amendments, at section 9, the Bill proposes to amend the ministerial order provisions in section 181 of the Act, for the avoidance of doubt, to include development by or on behalf of statutory undertakers. This amendment is being made at the request of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and on the advice of the Attorney General.

Section 181 enables a Government Minister by order to disapply the planning Act to development to be carried out by or on behalf of the Minister or the Office of Public Works, OPW. The relevant Minister must be satisfied that carrying out the development is required by reason of an accident or emergency and the development may be subject to an environmental assessment procedure carried out by An Bord Pleanála before any order is made where such assessments are determined to be required.

The final provision at section 10 of the Bill is a technical amendment that proposes to amend the Fifth Schedule to the Planning and Development Act 2000, which sets out conditions that may be imposed as part of a planning permission, without attracting compensation. The new provision relates to a condition which restricts the persons of a particular class or description who may use a dwelling which has been approved as part of the planning permission.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and Senators for their time. Those are my opening remarks on Second Stage of what is an important and urgent Bill. We need to ensure that this passes the Seanad and the Dáil and there is an earlier signature by An tUachtarán to be able to bring these provisions in before the recess of both Houses.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for bringing forward this important legislation, which Fianna Fáil will be supporting. I commend the Minister. Taking office in a pandemic is not a light undertaking for anybody but since he took office and having responsibility for housing, local government, local authorities, heritage and planning, he has demonstrated great insight and understanding into those matters, as well as commitment to supporting and strengthening them.

This is another example of the Minister bringing forward a practical and pragmatic amendment to the legislation to support our local authorities, councillors and local representatives in every community around the country. The Minister's proposal in this amendment to the legislation to give local authority members the power to extend their work on their important development plans is welcome and we wholeheartedly support it.

The front-line role which members of local authorities have embraced and championed throughout the pandemic for their local communities must be acknowledged, including how they have worked on behalf of their local businesses, residents and their community groups and voluntary organisations. All local authority members are to be commended on that, as are the Minister and his Department for the way in which they supported them practically and financially. The waiving of rates was a significant and important decision he made that enabled local authorities to respond on the ground and support local businesses and residents.

This Bill pertains to the development plans, which are very important pieces of work. Generally speaking, they take in the region of 18 months to two years for any local authority to complete. There are development plans in process throughout the country. The work commenced in 2020 in some local authorities and it will commence in others this year. It will go on until about 2025. The Minister is correct; during the pandemic we all had to restrict our movements and to reduce the volume of face-to-face work. That has restricted local participation and democracy, including the engaging by local residents and communities in the way they would wish with their development plans. These development plans will set the strategic planning objectives for cities and counties for the next five years, including how land will be used and how building and planning will be granted and guided. Therefore, it is greatly important that the Minister is taking action to increase democracy and democratic participation at a local level.

There is one issue I would like the Minister to consider, if he can. I welcome that he has given the authority to elected representatives to commence the request for an extension. However, as the Bill is currently drafted, it requires a 75% majority, which is a very high threshold. I know from my experience at a local authority, it was always difficult to achieve that. I ask the Minister to consider a simple majority. This is a simple, pragmatic, really important amending Bill that the Minister has brought forward. Let us make it a simple pragmatic action in each local authority chamber throughout the country. Let us make it a simple majority, if we can.

Another provision in the Bill is to extend the life of planning permissions that have been impacted by Covid. I know that the development and delivery of housing is the Minister’s number one priority. It is important that any planning application or planning permission that was granted but has been impacted by Covid is given the opportunity to be completed. Let us not add further burdens to the process. Everybody is working to ramp up and increase capacity and the delivery of homes. This is a practical amendment from the Minister, and we are happy to support it.

The disapplying of planning permission requirement on Ministers and Ministers of State who need to respond to accident and emergency situations is of great importance. Again, it is another pragmatic practical intervention on the part of the Minister. I commend him on this Bill and we wholeheartedly support it.

We will now move the Independent Group. I call Senator Sharon Keogan.

It is nice to see a Meath man in the Chair today. The Minister is very welcome to the House. This Bill is of great importance, as is any legislation concerning planning and development in this country. It is one of the fundamental tasks of government at a local and national level.

I will begin by addressing what this Bill seeks to do. I will touch on the issue of councils that may have made decisions while being unaware of the impending legislation and the possibility of extra time through the extension provided for in this Bill. The Minister might offer some of his thoughts on that. Could this Bill serve better those who may have rushed processes in their area in an effort to meet statutory guidelines? This Bill provides for an additional period of up to one year for the preparation of the development plans by planning authorities in response to the disruption to plan-making programmes. The Bill amends sections of the Planning and Development Act 2000 to provide for an additional one-year extension to be given to developers of commercial and domestic site developments. alongside that of the current six-year statutory period they are provided under the Act of 2000, along with the additional extraordinary period of six months, for the preparation of a new development plan, as necessary, due to the carriage risks of Covid-19 on public health at the discretion of the Minister.

The putting in place of contingency measures in order to ensure the proper and continuing operation of the planning process is of the highest priority and careful consideration of the level of disruption the imposition of Covid-19 restrictions has had on construction is essential. I have spoken in this House before about the shutting down of our construction sector. I still believe Ireland was an outlier in this regard and our overly harsh cancelling of construction was not in line with that of our European neighbours. However, what is in the past is in the past and we need to see how we can effectively remedy the 2020 construction deficit as quickly as possible.

The deadline extension also serves as an olive branch to persons who have suffered substantial restrictions in their legitimate business endeavours, arising from the fact that it has not been possible for them, due to Covid-19 restrictions, to begin development nor continue to develop existing sites authorised in accordance with the Planning and Development Act 2000.

The Minister should consider offering our elected councillors independent legal and planning advice on upcoming plans. Many councillors take the county development plan seriously. How they shape the fabric of their counties is a serious business, so receiving the correct legal and planning advice, independent of the executive, is crucially important as most council executives have been instructed by the Office of the Planning Regulator on how to approach the upcoming plan.

This is not the correct way. This is a people's plan and outside interference by any Government body is wrong. My slight grievance is for those councillors who may have rushed vital steps of the preparation of development plans. Even with this time extension, steps may not be retaken in a more measured fashion. I understand we have all been dealing with less than satisfactory circumstances for the past year. Planning and development is simply too important to the good of this country to have the central process underpinning it being anything less than above reproach.

I do not come with a perfect solution to this but my concerns are valid and I wish to express them. I would be grateful if the Minister could address them. Unfortunately, many of us here are all too familiar with the problems which can arise when drafting a county development plan. It is bad enough when the problems are unavoidable or out of control but when they arise out of willful obstinance, it is another matter entirely.

Meath County Council, like many councils around the country, is in the process of drafting its county development plan. There have been a string of meetings around the county development plan with vital submissions given by both councillors and stakeholders. These meetings were publicly held online by videoconferencing and there exists 80 hours of audio and video, which the council is proposing to destroy.

Bizarrely, none of this has been made available to local councillors, with members of the executive refusing to grant access unless under supervision by them. No minutes of these meetings were drawn up after each planning meeting and agreed upon at the next, as is the standard practice. Instead, upon the completion of every meeting and at the very end of the of the process, a single document purporting to be a summary of all meetings was presented to the councillors.

Even then, multiple councillors raised serious concerns the document was not an accurate reflection of what had transpired at the meeting and yet, such concerns were dismissed out of hand. Councillors are being asked to approve potentially inaccurate or incomplete minutes of meetings held weeks or months ago, which they may or may not have attended personally while being denied at the same time copies of raw video and audio footage, which is in the hands of the executive.

I have to ask the Senator to conclude because we have a tight schedule.

I understand that, but the Minister was not-----

I was listening.

Remote meetings were introduced by the Minister's Department. It is important, in the interest of transparency, that the councillors be given access to these data. They have sought through a freedom of information request to see and hear the video tapes. I ask the Minister to write to them. I would not like our council to end up in the High Court. I thank the Minister and apologise for boring him.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him and his officials for engaging with members of the Oireachtas joint committee on this Bill.

I agree with the Minister that this Bill is urgent, that it is important that it is put through both Houses without delay and that we have a motion for earlier signature.

I will focus on sections 2 to 6, inclusive, of the Bill, which deal with the development plan process referenced by my two colleagues in their opening remarks. Setting a development plan is an integral part of every local authority but Covid has had an impact. I believe approximately 26 local authorities are in the process of carrying out their development plans and many of them have found it difficult despite Trojan efforts by councillors and the executives in local authorities who have really tried their utmost to engage with the public and among themselves regarding the development plan process. However, because of the remote nature, it has been extremely difficult. In my own county of Waterford, they had some very successful online engagement relating to the early stages of the development plan yet many councillors, who would have been meeting subsequent to that to take public feedback on board, found it difficult because they were unable to be in the same room and engage with each other and put forward amendments to what would be the ultimate draft. I know it is a possible extension of up to one year but might the Minister extend each section of the development plan process from hereon out or is it the case that he must decide from this point forward that he will extend it by three months and then it has the subsequent follow-on delay? Could the Minister clarify that?

I compliment the Minister and the fact that the power to do so is being given to local authority members and that it is not an executive function. That was a very important part with which all of us agree. In respect of section 7, I previously raised the extension of planning permissions with the Minister. I know his officials will agree that I was quite firm in the arguments I put forward regarding the necessity of having a longer period than the one year that was in the initial draft. The Minister knows that large developments are not like a tap. They cannot just be turned back on. I am particularly conscious of developments in the final stages of financing when Covid hit. One needs certainty to conclude financing and certainty was certainly not in abundance at that time so many of those large-scale developments are only now in the process of finalising their financing to get on site. This is what we want. We want more homes so it is very appropriate that we extend it to December 2023.

Could the Minister elaborate on substantial works and the consideration of what substantial works are? Substantial works for one development may differ from those relating to another. A large-scale apartment complex with several blocks requires underground car parking for the entire development. If the foundations have been dug out, all of the foundations and car parking have been put in and construction on three or four apartment blocks has started, I would consider this to be substantial works but the Minister might clarify that. I compliment the Minister for bringing this legislation forward. I look forward to engaging with him on subsequent Stages and getting this Bill passed as soon as possible.

Senator Warfield is next to speak on the assigned list of speakers. I note that Senator Moynihan is in the Chamber. I wish to point out that the Labour Party has not submitted anybody to speak here today so the slot was reassigned to other groups.

That is no problem.

This is significant planning legislation. I wish to put on the record that legislation as significant as this should not be pushed through the Oireachtas. I acknowledge, as others have done, that members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage received a briefing on the general scheme. It was agreed that they would not push for pre-legislative scrutiny on the basis that the committee would write to organisations, such as the Irish Planning Institute, to seek expert advice on the measures proposed in the Bill.

The Bill was only published at 8.34 p.m. on Wednesday. This is not a good way to legislate. The Bill's stated purpose is to mitigate the disruption caused by Covid-related delays. Sections 2 through 6 of the legislation deal with county development plans and provide additional time for the preparation of such plans. I have not heard of any local authorities that have requested additional time for preparation of their development plans. Could the Minister explain the motive behind that provision in the Bill? Is there-----

(Interruptions).

I am sorry, I am talking. Is there no other motive? Can the Minister indicate how many and which local authorities have identified a need for provisions to allow for the extension of existing county development plans and are seeking these provisions? Has the Minister considered the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020, and orders provided under the new section 2(5)(1)(a) of the Planning and Development Act 2000, and the impact they already have on effectively freezing time for the preparation of county development plans and an extension of duration of permissions?

Has the Attorney General given specific advice on this matter? Will the Minister share that advice with the Houses of the Oireachtas in order that we can be informed in proposing our amendments for Committee Stage? Can the Minister also indicate what the basis was for selecting the date of 1 January 2024, up to which the provisions on extending existing county development plans have effect? Furthermore, what is the maximum amount of time by which a county development plan may be extended under the Bill?

On the extension of planning permissions, I have sympathy regarding the time that was lost due to Covid-19 and the associated public health restrictions. I also have difficulty, however, with the granting of blanket extensions in respect of existing planning permissions. Would be better to grant these exemptions on a case-by-case basis with the extensions then granted on the basis of the months lost due to the shutdown of construction? I have concern that blanket extensions to existing planning permissions, some of which have been in place for 15 years, will lead to planning hoarding.

(Interruptions).

I would be grateful if the Minister could elaborate on the reason behind this approach. I also have concerns about the impact that granting planning extensions will have on appropriate assessment processes and strategic environmental assessment, SEA, processes. Is it the intention of the Bill that the consideration of the appropriate assessment and strategic environmental assessment applies equally to both a first and second extension? If not, how does this reconcile with the EU law obligations under the strategic environmental assessment directive, various assessment obligations under the habitats directive and Article 4 of the water framework directive? If an SEA report or an appropriate assessment determine that there are environmental effects and that mitigation is required, how - and where in the Bill - is it envisaged that these can be addressed and incorporated into a county development plan in the context of which the extension is being considered?

Can the Minister outline if there are any limitations envisaged to the ability to appoint someone - a party or body - under section 9? Finally, can he outline the rationale behind section 10? Can he clarify, in a meaningful way, the nature of the limitation of the right to compensation, if he has secured advice from the Attorney General on the lawfulness of this provision? I hope the Minister will be able to provide some clarity in terms of the constructive questions I have raised.

I also want to express my disappointment, particularly as the Minister may not be here later. I have received notification from the Cathaoirleach that my amendment to oppose the pro-developer shared equity scheme has been ruled out of order, which means the Seanad will not get to discuss the shared equity scheme.

It is a disgrace that this House has not had a chance to discuss that scheme. I do not believe-----

The Senator will have to make his mind up on that.

I do not believe it is in conflict with the Bill. Indeed, a pro-developer shared equity scheme is precisely---

We are dealing with the Bill before us.

It should never have been in an affordable housing Bill in the first place.

We are moving on. I call Senator Malcolm Byrne, who is sharing time with Senator Casey.

I thank the Minister for coming in. I disagree with Senator Warfield's assertion that this has not been sought by local authorities. Senator Keogan and others in this Chamber, including Senator Cummins, raised some of the concerns relating to county development plans and what has been happening over the past year. The representative bodies for local authorities have sought this. I am very happy that the Minister is giving the power to local authorities to make the decisions because councils and councillors are the most appropriate people to make decisions like these. I know the Minister is deeply committed to local government and I hope it will be a hallmark of his time in the Department that we will increasingly devolve powers in these areas to local authorities.

Senator Warfield said this is pro-developer legislation. That kind of language is an indicator of the problem with what Sinn Féin is talking about. This is not about pro-developer legislation. This is about getting homes built. It will allow people who have had difficulty during the Covid period, who are looking to build either their own homes or estates of houses, the time to get them built. I do not know what Sinn Féin's problem is with builders and people in the private sector. If we do not engage with the private sector we are never going to get the housing we need built.

I agree with some of Senator Cummins's concerns about people being able to obtain financing. One of the issues that will arise, of which the Minister will be aware, is the rising cost of construction and how that may impact on business plans for the construction of individual houses and estates. That will obviously have implications for plans that were made pre Covid, so I ask that there be some understanding in that regard. It is also important that there is understanding on the part of State agencies. I refer, in particular, to Irish Water. There have been huge difficulties for individuals and developers in getting water connections. I hope the message will go from the Department to help get the construction industry back up and running rather than delay it. We have also learned from this experience and I hope that will inform how we look at our planning process, a very important process, into the future. I strongly support the Bill.

I welcome the Minister. I fully agree with what Senator Byrne said. The Minister met with my colleagues in Wicklow and they asked if he could do anything to give them powers to extend the county development plan process. This is about restoring powers to our local authority members. I hope they use them. I will come back to the two-thirds majority required for decisions under the legislation. We might need to look at that.

The core principle here is about consulting with communities and the public, explaining to them what the core strategy means and what the national planning objectives are and how they will impact on their communities moving forward. Trying to do that in real life is hard and complex enough. Trying to do it over Zoom is impossible. That is why we need to extend the development plan process to allow that consultation with communities and with the people directly affected by decisions the council would make.

As I said, I have a concern about the two-thirds majority. I understand and appreciate the work local authority officials have done in trying to put together a county development plan process in a pandemic. It has been a nightmare for them. However, at the end of the day, it has to be about the people in the communities. By putting the two-thirds majority in the legislation, we are giving officials the power to defer the local area plans, and they are doing that already. Regretfully, every municipal district has a local area plan we must remember that the core strategy sets the foundations and the principles of how that local area plan is to be structured.

We need time to amend the county development plan. I ask the Minister to consider the issue of the two thirds majority again. There should be a simple majority, given that the decision is on the core strategy, which determines everything. The local area plan does not determine the core strategy. Members of the public covered by a local area plan are entitled to understand the impact that the core strategy and national planning policy will have on their futures.

I understand that Senator Burke is sharing time with Senator Ward.

I welcome the Minister back to the House and thank him for appearing before us so often.

I agree with the Bill. It is important legislation, which I suppose is the reason it is being rushed through both Houses. I agree with Senator Fitzpatrick that a simple majority is required. A two thirds majority would be difficult. As other Senators have stated, considering a development plan over Zoom is not ideal and is difficult. I heard of a case where a person was on Zoom, went to answer a call at the door and missed the vote. A simple majority is the answer.

I wish to flag an issue in the short time I have, that is, the 51% reduction in emissions. We have no maritime strategy in this regard. The enactment of the planning and development Bill - I think it was the 2019 Bill - should be done quickly. We have an emissions target of 1% by 2030. We have plans for 5 GW on the east coast, but there are no plans for the west coast even though it is the best asset in Europe. Has An Bord Pleanála the manpower to deal with all of the planning applications that might come before it in the not-too-distant future?

I welcome the Bill.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire freisin. I agree with most of what has been said by others. It is hard for us to overstate the difficulty that councillors have had in doing just their general business over the past year or more, but going through the development plan process via videoconference is incredibly difficult. There is no opportunity afterwards to catch officials on the margins or ask someone a question one does not wish to ask online. It is appropriate that we recognise just how difficult a job our local authority members have had in recent times.

I agree with the suggestion that the two thirds majority stipulation is overly onerous. It is difficult at the best of times to get majorities on local authorities, never mind two thirds majorities. We should give more latitude. In general, the Bill tries to do that, which is welcome.

Although the timescales are important in terms of the making and framing of a development plan, the Bill is overly prescriptive because it creates pressure points in the process at local authority level. That is not necessary. We can rely on local authorities to do the job they need to do.

An issue that has arisen since the Local Government Reform Act 2014, which amended the principal Act in this regard, relates to the variation of development plans. While that matter is not specifically covered by this Bill, there may be a missed opportunity to correct the 2014 Act's unintended consequence of removing the rights of councillors to vary a plan midway through its progress. Although the Bill deals with the making of plans and councillors should use every opportunity they can to make their points at that stage, issues can arise during the currency of a development plan, yet the law as it stands prevents local authority members from initiating a variation to it once it has been made. We in the Oireachtas always say that the plan belongs to the councillors, who are the people elected at local level, but that is not true because they cannot initiate a variation without the consent or acquiescence of the executive. That is a further concentration of powers into the hands of unelected executive members of local authorities. Will the Minister consider accepting an amendment that would amend the 2014 Act to allow members of local authorities to own and control their development plans properly throughout the plans' lives rather than at just the time they are being made and to initiate variations?

It still requires a majority of a council to approve such a thing. It still requires the process whereby it goes through the local authority and is discussed. It is only right and proper that councillors have the power to make this variation of their own motion and not rely on executives. I always say the chief executive will never knock on the doors of constituents to ask them what they think about something. Councillors are the closest to the people. Councillors understand what people want and they should have ultimate control over any variation during the lifetime of the plan.

I welcome the Minister. I very much support this opportunity for elected members of local authorities to choose and decide the times they can put into the county development plan. As has been stated, it is one year. This is very important because at present many members of the public are excluded. It is impossible to see a file or attend local authority offices, and for good reason given public health guidelines. This means it is difficult for anyone who does not have access to technology. We speak about the digital divide and if people do not have access to a laptop or smartphone, they cannot access this information. Much of our population, especially in the area I am in, which is Roscommon and east Galway, is in an older age group and they cannot access this information. They depend on our media and public representatives to give them information. I very much support the motion and the fact it gives the decision to our elected members and the councillors.

Following on from Senator Cummins with regard to planning, the Minister mentioned an extension of planning permission. Is this where substantial works have taken place? I would like a description of these substantial works. As an aside, is it possible for online meetings for local authorities to be considered? By these I mean the plenary meetings in municipal districts. Some local authorities have implemented this and people can view the meetings as they take place. Will broadening this out to all local authorities be considered and will the Minister consider providing incentives to do so? It is a great way of accessing for people who may not be able to attend. Considering there will be many limitations with regard to the number of people in rooms, it is very difficult to access them.

I welcome the Minister. I also welcome the Bill, which is important. Having recently spoken to councillors who are in the middle of their development plans, they are finding many difficulties. It is very good that this extension is being offered. As has been pointed out, it is difficult to do everything online and have meaningful meetings online and get the true reflection of the members. Sometimes people can step outside a group setting or the council chamber to discuss issues to see whether they can be resolved through amendments.

I support Senator Fitzpatrick's suggestion of a simple majority. Reaching a majority of three quarters would be tough. Sometimes people do not understand what someone else is proposing. People in local areas know what they are speaking about and it is very important if they feel something being proposed should not be blocked by the other side.

I ask that larger developments under construction, which ran into problems earlier in the year or had to stop because of Covid restrictions, be granted an extension of planning permission. We are back building now and it is very important that these developments progress as quickly as possible and that they are allowed the time at the other end for completion.

I very much welcome the Bill. We have engaged extensively with local authority representative groups, the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, and the Local Authority Members Association, LAMA, and with local authority members in the Fianna Fáil party over many months on this issue.

That this change is coming about is testament to the Minister, his Department and all of our councillors because it has been sought for a very long few months. Many Members have articulated very well the difficulty in doing a county development plan during a pandemic. At its heart it is about public consultation with the people one represents. We know the impact a county development plan has on the social and economic development of the county, the community one lives in and the area one is from. It impacts on rural planning as well, very much so. I have raised this with the Minister many times, as have many of our councillors. There was a huge concern that significant changes were coming down the tracks in new county development plans around the area of one-off rural housing. This is giving our councillors an opportunity to discuss that further, to consult properly with their communities and local interest groups and to take the time they need to properly consult with the public on this. We are very keen to see the rural housing guidelines as well and to have an opportunity to view those in advance of completing the county development plans. I would appreciate some remarks from the Minister on that document and those guidelines. I know many councils across the country are eagerly awaiting sight of that, engagement with the Minister and his Department and ultimately being able to use that document when they are putting their plans together.

I welcome also the extension of time for planning permissions. I would not say it is a massive issue but I have certainly been contacted a number of times. People have not really been in a position to build their homes in the last year or even to just initiate that building process. There is pent-up demand there as well; it is very difficult to get a builder or tradespeople. There are many issues there so the additional time is giving people space and acknowledging the difficult period, of more than a year now, that we have had. It is very welcome.

I thank Senator Chambers for agreeing to share her time with me. I thank the Minister for being here, for listening to the positions we are putting to him and for the legislation itself. It is really important because the county development plan and indeed the local area plans are the blueprints for how we live our lives into future as they look at both the economic and the social side of how people live their lives. Building sustainable communities is hugely important in the sense of having a balance of residential development and of course supporting enterprise and business, in addition to ensuring we have sufficient zoned and appropriate land for schools, educational facilities, childcare and leisure and amenity.

Extending the deadlines on this as a reaction to Covid is very important for two different reasons. One is that the consultation, which has already been mentioned, is hugely important. People’s views must be borne in mind. Elected councillors must have the opportunity to have informal consultation as well as formal consultation. Covid has also changed how we live our lives, particularly regarding the whole area of rural planning. Many people have now seen that they do not have to be in their cars or on public transport very early in the morning and very late in the evening. People have also seen they do not have to live in a city centre, that they can live close to their families and communities and have the type of intergenerational support that is needed. As such, I really hope the Minister takes this on board in the context of ensuring county and local area development plans accommodate relaxation in relation to rural and one-off housing.

Traffic management is really important to county plans. An example of this we have spoken about before is the need in Newbridge for a second bridge. When I am coming to work in the morning it takes an extra 25 minutes because we only have the one bridge. We absolutely must have issues like that addressed. We must also look at quotas for different areas. At the moment, County Kildare has a proliferation of quarries, and a large quarry got permission from An Bord Pleanála during the week. The Department should look at a situation whereby there is a balance between these much-needed facilities such that no single county or area has an overexposure to developments which have a big impact on people’s lives.

I welcome the proposals that are laid out in this Bill. It is clear in terms of the national planning framework, regional strategies and the county development plan. Councillors must take part in much onerous work, including preparatory work, reading and understanding. It is important for that power to be given, where it is deemed necessary, first to the planning authority and to the members, if it is deemed that more time is required. Perhaps the Minister will let us know how many approaches have been made across the country in terms of a desire for this extra time.

I am a former councillor and one of the issues that comes up most often in that role relates to rural planning and the concerns around it. I know the Department is reviewing strategies in that regard at the moment, as it has in the past. There is always a concern that the instructions coming from the Department will make it harder for local people to gain planning permission. That is a concern in every county development plan and it is an area that councillors, in particular, are very conscious of in their deliberations on county development plans. That will be important.

I welcome the proposals for the extensions of planning permission where substantial works have taken place. We cannot have a situation whereby we see planning applications for major developments continuously rolling over without any works or development taking place at a time we need houses.

There are other areas at which we need to look, including historical developments, that are quite limited and complex. That is particularly true in the area of retention of works as a part of historical developments where appropriate assessment is completed but the project or works do not screen out and, indeed, it would cause more damage to reverse what was done, which also would not screen out. In those cases, it is impossible to regularise a situation. That impacts on the ability to sell that development or anything else into the future.

County development and local plans are all well and fine but the funding of local government is an area that is hugely important, although there is no time to dwell on it now. It is an area in which we need to ensure resources are available to implement the vast array of plans we have across the local government sector.

I welcome the Minister to the House. This is important legislation and I hope it will receive the urgent passing it needs. It will create at least one extra reserve function for councillors, which is welcome.

The legislation gives a 12-month extension to both commercial and domestic planning applications that are live and that is only fair. Many people have found themselves in difficult and precarious situations as a result of the pandemic.

I agree with suggestions made by Senator Keogan and others about providing some sort of resource to allow councillors to retain independent legal and planning advice. The suite of supports that should be available to councillors should include being able to get expert independent advice on the work they do on a county development plan. That advice would touch on legal, engineering and architectural areas, and on special planning in general. Some sort of a system will have to brought in whereby councillors are receiving independent advice and we should look at that.

I welcome what is being done in terms of dealing with the issue of councillors' pay, led by the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, and the Minister. However, other supports are needed. New councillors, in particular, find it can be intimidating to deal with county development plans. If that type of advice were available, it should be looked at.

I know the Minister is committed to local government and I hope, during his term in office, we will see many more Executive functions become reserve functions. When we give councillors more reserve functions, they have always used them effectively and responsibly, and I want to see more of that as we continue to reform local government.

I want to see more localised democracy and the county councils, which have the mandate of the people, having a great deal more power.

I welcome the Minister to the House in a week in which, once again, he is thinking outside the box. It was reported in the media that there will be public housing on public lands in our two largest cities. I am often suspect of Ministers and the "steady as you go" approach, with the permanent government dwarfing the individual innovation of Ministers. That certainly cannot be said of this Minister. If Ronald Reagan was called the great communicator, the Minister is rapidly getting the reputation of being the great listener. Housing is probably the most important brief at this time in our country. The Minister appears to be throwing everything at it, and he deserves the support of all sides of the House. I commend him on his innovative, independent and, in places, radical thinking because he is looking after a significant majority of people, called the squeezed middle, who do not really have a voice. They can qualify for the cost rental model of housing. Public housing on public lands is so exciting for those people. I commend the Government. It will be results based, but if this Government runs its full term I believe we will come out the far end of this by the time it comes to an end. I commend the Minister. He should continue the great work.

This is a democracy and people have different views on the simple majority mentioned by Senators Fitzpatrick and Ward. I happen to disagree on that. The Green Party believes in weighted decisions. I believe they are safer. However, doctors differ and patients die, so it is a subjective opinion. For example, when the Green Party went into government it was not based on a simple majority but a two thirds majority. That gave it twice the authority when it went into government. It is an extremely high threshold, but it means one commands more of the middle ground in the longer term, although there can be practical challenges with that. I agree to disagree on the weighted majority. I believe in weighted decisions and consensus.

I welcome the extension for planning permissions. The planning authority can only extend the appropriate period under the new subsection (1B) provided for in section 7, and in the case of an extension where the appropriate period as extended or further extended expired during the period beginning on 8 January 2021 and ending on the day before section 7 of the Bill comes into operation, they will qualify. However, there does not appear to be equal treatment for everyone. What happens if there is a planning permission that is due to expire in December this year? This is Second Stage, so I hope to tease that out on Committee Stage with regard to planning permissions that have only expired. They might have benefited from a small extension already, but if they expire in December this year or at any time after this Bill comes into force, it would be most helpful if the Minister had any succour or comfort for those.

I also welcome the extension of time for the development plan. I appreciate the Minister's respect for the local government elected body. The Minister said it is a reserved function, not an executive function. That body has the power, and it will only use it if it must in respect of that extension. The development plan is probably the biggest responsibility of councillors, as it has impacts for generations to come. Local councillors have one other huge responsibility. In the week that is in it, I heard about the concerns in the University of Limerick, although they are not perhaps directly connected to county councillors. The second big responsibility of councillors is to dispose of public lands. It is not their own lands, so there should be a higher threshold. I wrote to councils ten years ago and they appear to have different views on the necessity of obtaining an independent valuation.

Under section 211(2) of the 2000 Act, unless a sale is for a price that is "the best reasonably obtainable" the Minister's consent is required. So how are councillors or managers to know whether they should seek the Minister's consent unless they have a valuation?

I wrote to lots of councils at the time and I would like to see something put on a statutory footing in express terms. Perhaps this matter is not an issue for today but for the week that is in it where there are huge concerns about the University of Limerick and the purported sale that the university entered into, where there was no valuation at all on the file an independent expert valuation would assist and guide councillors. To be practical, unless a valuation costs more than a piece of land, and I am not saying we must have this for every single section 183 application, then I believe it is best practice to always have an independent expert valuation to guide councillors in their most important work, along with the development plan, which the Minister has provided for today.

I thank the Senator for comparing the Minister with Ronald Reagan. I was going to say that instead of the Minister tearing down walls he is trying to build walls but that would mean comparing him with a different US President.

I, too, welcome Dutch "The Giver" O'Brien to the House.

This Bill is technical as it allows for various amendments to the Planning and Development Act 2000, and extends time limits for the formulation of development plans among other things. All of this is very relevant and necessary, given how important it is that there is leeway and grieving space in view of the Covid-19 situation and the 18 months of disruption that it has caused.

I notice that the main provisions of the Bill will cease to have effect on 1 January 2024. These sunset clauses are welcome in relation to all emergency and technical amendments that arise from Covid. Why was that date chosen and not an earlier date? It seems to me that 1 January 2023 would make more sense as it would be 18 months from today, thus compensating for the 18 months lost since March 2020. I have no issue with the date being January 2024 as long as there is a good reason for doing so but special Covid provisions should only stand for as long as is absolutely necessary. There may be some technical reason this is necessary so I ask the Minister to clarify the matter. I welcome the provisions that make it clear that before extending the duration of existing development plans, cognisance must be taken of whether such extensions would have an impact on the environment or protected sites.

The focus of this Bill is on local authority development plans which brings to mind an issue that I mentioned recently on Second Stage of the Affordable Housing Bill 2021, which will reach its final Stages in this House today. I refer to the issue of the vacant site levy under the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015. I tabled an amendment on that subject on Committee Stage but because of the guillotine it just was not dealt with. My amendment is before the House today and I am interested in hearing what the Minister thinks of it on Report Stage.

I ask that the Minister, as a former Member of the Seanad, somebody who contributed to the Seanad with distinction and was a very pleasant colleague as well, to please use his influence with Government to stop this disgraceful habit of guillotining legislation. It is an absolute scandal that it happens on Committee Stage of legislation. The legislation that he has brought forward is extremely important but we can sit as long as necessary to allow Seanadóirí to tease out issues, especially on Committee Stage. I do not know what goes on in the Dáil, whether the cancer of this happens to the same extent but it is a serious problem in the body politik. It diminishes public respect for the work that we must do as legislators. I ask the Minister to get outside the Government majoritarian mindset that influences this behaviour and urge respect for the processes in both the Dáil and Seanad.

It is in that context that I hope to hear his thoughts on my amendment today because the vacant site levy simply does not work in the way that it was intended. As far as I know, only ten local authorities seem to be in a position to enforce the levy. Just 359 vacant sites were registered across 22 local authorities as of December 2020, and nine local authorities had registered that they had no vacant sites. In addition, there is well over €1 million in uncollected levies. One has a loss of revenue and a strange situation where those with eligible sites are being levied and those with similarly eligible sites are not being levied.

The legislation lays out a cumbersome method of doing so. That seems to involve a significant burden of manpower and resources to facilitate assessment.

It seems that a couple of simple amendments can be made to this system in the interests of creating a more efficient levy. First, if the Minister makes it a requirement that properties which have been the subject of a grant of planning permission for residential development above a certain number of units, but where development has not commenced, should be considered to be vacant sites in the first instance. Second, if an element of self-assessment was brought into the operation of the levy, compelling landowners of sites that have been the subject of grants of planning permission to register those sites, it would at least ease the burden and ensure a greater level of registration of eligible sites. It would then be for the council to identify whether such registered properties are in an area of housing need before applying the levy.

There are a number of requirements at the moment. The property involved has to be residential, in an area of housing need and suitable for housing. The local authority has to jump through these hoops but there is something wrong with the way it is working. It is not delivering the revenue. We need to incentivise people who have land that needs to be developed and that is suitable for housing to get on with it and not to be sitting on properties in the expectation that property values would rise. That is the thinking behind what is proposed and I would be grateful to hear the Minister's thoughts on the matter. I am mentioning this because if it does not succeed today, I will be back with it and it may well be a relevant amendment to this legislation.

I echo what many have said in their praise for the local authority members who have conducted their business during this process, such as in my county of Meath. As Senator Keogan said, they have done a significant amount of this work online.

All of the Senators who contributed, bar one, specifically referenced the value of local government members and the difficult work they have had to do right the way through this pandemic. It has been incredibly difficult. Local authorities and councillors are the tip of the spear when it comes to the State's response in the area of local democracy and its response to the pandemic in the context of the Community Call and all of the various initiatives that they took part in. I have had the pleasure of dealing with hundreds of members of staff all over our 31 local authorities, including our councillors across all parties.

I would like to thank everyone for their contributions. Some sensible suggestions have been made, which I will take away and look at in advance of Committee Stage. Some valid points have been made on the bar that is set in the context of making the change. It may be set too high and if Senators wish to table amendments in that regard, we will review them.

The county and city development plans are really important. We need to get them right. They have been particularly challenged, not just by the pandemic but also as to how they fit in real terms with the national planning framework, etc. There has been a new thing for councillors to grapple with. We have to fundamentally restate - I have said this time and again - that the reserve function for making a development plan sits with the local authority and its elected members. Rebalancing powers between the members and the executive is a priority for the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, who has been doing a lot of work in the area of local government reform, and me. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has also been working on the electoral reform Bill, which will be going for pre-legislative scrutiny and then coming before this House. That will be a significant electoral reform.

I am going to look at some of the suggestions that have been made. I am open to reasonable amendments. I say that to Senator Mullen. I always have been open to reasonable amendments. We are going to be dealing with the Affordable Housing Bill later this the morning. A number of changes to that Bill have happened in the ten hours of Committee Stage debate so far and there have been some significant changes right the way through with it.

I initiated this Bill in this House, and many other legislative items, as I said I would at the start, because it is an important Chamber to tease out the issues and look at aspects of the Bill in more detail.

I will now turn to a number of specific questions that were asked. I intend to have the revised rural planning guidelines issued by the autumn. We have nearly concluded the work and the leader of the Fianna Fáil group, Senator Chambers, mentioned that as well. It is appropriate that people see those new guidelines, to help them frame their development plans. Senator Warfield asked earlier whether any councils or councillors had been in touch in relation to this issue. The answer is “Yes”. There have been approximately 15 directly impacted, including members of the AILG and LAMA. I have met councillors from all parties, not just my party. I keep my ear to the ground, so I understand what is being said and what people need in different areas. I am responding to that. Even parties that do not have the best tradition of supporting development and building would recognise it is important that we have county and city development plans in place that are appropriate for the areas. Sometimes, it is appropriate that we take a step back. I am not telling councils to do this; I am giving them the option, should it be appropriate for them. That is local democracy, which I hope all of us support. It is up to the local authorities to decide, because in some instances it will not be appropriate. The councillors will decide themselves and that is absolutely fine.

The extension of planning permissions recognises the reality of what we have had to deal with in the past 15 to 18 months. Senator Cummins made this point earlier but the reason we are allowing a two-year extension is because for many sites, it is not simply a matter of switching them back on again. There are capacity and supply chain issues that have been further exacerbated this year. Supply chain and capacity are not back to previous levels and we are working through this. That is why we believe it is appropriate that a two-year extension applies in that regard.

The question as to what is defined as "substantial works" comes up from time to time. Each local authority should have a good handle on that in their area as well. We allow an element of discretion in that regard. This is not the first time "substantial works" has been used as a definition to extend certain provisions that are there. Should this Bill pass into an Act, we will write to all 31 local authorities asking them to use their common sense and discretion in that regard.

It is important to restate, and anyone who has read the Bill will understand, that this is not a blanket extension. One must apply for an extension. In applying for it, there will be an open process and a decision will be made on whether they are substantial works. Perhaps between now and the week after next, when we get into Committee Stage, those who have not read the Bill might do so. We can then take further questions or amendments on Committee Stage.

That is not what-----

If there are any Members who have not read the Bill-----

The Minister has not-----

I advise they read it again. It is not a blanket extension. We have said that one will need to apply for it. In regard to the provisions within this Bill that I bring forward, I welcome the support and input of Members. I am open to receive any reasonable suggestions and amendments at Committee Stage. We must pass this Bill by the recess, as it is time bound. We have responded to a number of items of emergency legislation here. We briefed the Oireachtas joint committee. The Department did not have the time to go through the full pre-legislative scrutiny process but I think Members understand what we are trying to do here. Most of them will support them as practical measures that are required to ensure we keep the planning process going, particularly in the preparation of development plans that will be in place until the mid-2020s. This is something that we must ensure councils get right.

I thank the Senators for their contribution-----

Can I make a quick contribution?

The Minister is absolutely right; it is not always possible to go through the full pre-legislative scrutiny process.

That is exactly why we need a full deliberation when it went through the various Stages of legislation.

There has not been a blanket use of a guillotine.

(Interruptions).

Yesterday we concluded 20 hours of Committee Stage of the Land Development Agency Bill 2021. We have done ten hours on the Affordable Housing Bill 2021. We will be doing Committee Stage on this Bill as well. I am open to any suggestions or interventions in between Stages. It is always open for people to come to me. The Senator has made suggestions with regard to the vacant site levy. They are things we are looking at. I can assure the Senator any time there may be a restriction on time, it is only because of the urgency of the legislation in front of us and the need to get those change in place and in law.

(Interruptions).

I do not think it is a Q&A.

Can the Minister take a point?

We will put the question now because we are out of time.

I thank the Minister.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 22 June 2021.

In accordance with the order of the House, the sitting now stands suspended for 15 minutes.

Seanad suspended at 10.52 a.m. and resumed 11.06 a.m.