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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 30 Mar 2022

Vol. 284 No. 2

Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (Number 2) Regulations 2022: Motion

I move:

That Seanad Éireann approves the following Regulations in draft:

Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (Number 2) Regulations 2022,

a copy of which has been laid in draft form before Seanad Éireann on 23rd March, 2022.”

I welcome the opportunity to present the Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (Number 2) Regulations 2022 to Senators. I do so in place of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, who unfortunately could not attend.

The proposed regulations are aimed at amending the provisions in the Planning and Development Regulations 2001 concerning development that is exempt from the requirement to obtain planning permission. Under the planning Acts, each House of the Oireachtas is required to approve draft planning regulations relating to exempted development by way of positive resolution before they can be made by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. As Senators will be aware, the Planning and Development Act 2000 section 181 regulations enacted in March 2020 currently ensure any temporary facilities required to respond to the Covid-19 emergency can be developed without the need for planning consent for the temporary period of the emergency. These facilities include hospitals, isolation units, step-down facilities and testing and vaccination centres. The duration of the 2020 planning regulations are linked to Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 and as such will expire on 31 March 2022 when this Act ceases to have effect. When the 2020 planning regulations expire the exemptions provided for no longer apply and any developments listed in the schedule will become subject to the normal provisions of the Planning and Development Act 2000.

Community testing centres and community vaccination centres have been and remain an ongoing cornerstone of the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Access to these centres for people living around Ireland is ongoing necessity and ensures people can access these fundamentally important services. Notwithstanding the expiry of the main Covid-19 emergency response legislation, the Department of Health has confirmed the HSE is required to continue to operate testing and vaccination centres in the months beyond the end of March.

The proposed Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (Number 2) Regulations 2022 will replace the existing Planning and Development Act 2000 (Section 181) Regulations. The replacement regulations are more limited in scope and relate to vaccination and test centres only. The draft regulations amend class 20 of Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the principal planning regulations to allow the HSE to temporarily use specific existing public buildings as public vaccine and public infection testing centres without having to apply for change of use planning permission. Following consultation with the HSE, the buildings to which this applies comprise schools, colleges, universities, training centres, social centres, community centres, non-residential clubs, art galleries, museums, libraries, reading rooms, sports clubs, stadiums, gymnasiums, hotels, convention centres, conference centres, shops, Defence Forces barracks, light industrial buildings, airport operational buildings, wholesale warehouses or repositories, local authority administrative offices or any structure normally used for public worship or religious instruction. I am advised that the HSE aims to ensure that people have access to testing centres within a 45-minute drive of their place of residence. Currently, this is the case with more of 90% of centres. The inclusion of a broad list of buildings in the schedule will facilitate the continuation of the HSE's Covid-19 vaccination and testing programmes without interruption. It is important the HSE can provide access to testing centres in as many locations as possible so if needed people have access as close to home as possible.

These draft regulations do not propose to provide a blanket exemption. The following specific conditions or limitations will apply to the proposed exemption, namely, the change of use is limited to a period of up to 12 months and the exemption only applies to change of use for the purposes of preventing and alleviating the risk to public health posed by the spread of specific infectious diseases listed in the infectious disease regulations 1981, such as Covid-19, for example. It is proposed the draft regulations will expire two years after commencement. If further use of these buildings as testing or vaccination centres is anticipated after this two-year period, the normal planning application procedures for change of use should be followed. In addition, any change of use will be subject to general restrictions and exemptions as set out in the Planning and Development Act or regulations. For example, the change of use shall not be exempted if an environmental impact assessment or an appropriate assessment is required.

I commend these draft regulations to the House and look forward to hearing Senators' contributions. Given the importance and benefits arising from the regulations, I very much hope the regulations receive the approval of the House.

I welcome the Minister of State, who is here in place of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. These are very important regulations as continue to grapple with the pandemic, though the severity of it is less. It is an important and prudent move by Government to ensure we can continue to provide testing and vaccination centres to the public. As the Minister of State rightly indicated, they should not be far away from people's localities and homes. The Covid legislation lapses at the end of the month and it is important we are able to continue to provide those facilities.

I note the limited scope of the regulations and the fact that the period involved is only 12 months. Throughout the pandemic, there were broader regulations in place that allowed the HSE to provide additional facilities, especially in acute hospital settings, to alleviate overcrowding, the constraints on outpatient departments and so on. To be frank, I found them to be positive regulations. When you see developments on hospital grounds they are in the main not that contentious because everybody sees the wider benefit of them to the entire public. While I welcome these regulations, I am a little disappointed that we did not continue some of the additional provisions for the likes of the acute hospital settings, in order to allow them be able to continue facilities. I am aware that might be a little controversial because people will say we are now through the majority of the pandemic and the proper process should be gone through to get planning approval. However, what I have found, especially in my own county and within University Hospital Waterford is some projects that perhaps would have been taking a significant period to deliver were delivered in a shorter period. Much of that owed to the fact things could progress faster without having to go through all the various planning process. In that context, there is probably something in there as we look forward from this point. I appreciate we must get these regulations in place with haste but there is probably something in the additional measures that allowed the likes of the HSE to be able to provide additional facilities over and above testing and vaccination centres with speed. I hope that is something Government can take on board in a wider context, so we can see a quicker provision of services and do not have unnecessary planning delays. Of course, we must build some kind of consultation into that process as well but there is a lot to be said for being able to provide facilities, especially health facilities, in a speedy fashion.

The Minister of State is very welcome. The question regarding these regulations is a simple "Why?". What need is there for the expansion of testing and vaccination centres? Is it primarily for testing or for vaccinations? I find it hard to believe we need to ramp up the vaccination roll-out given we have administered just shy of 11 million vaccine doses - unless we are planning for a second booster. Perhaps it is for testing. What evidence is there our current testing centres are insufficient or being overrun? Perhaps that is the case. I am sure we would like to have that shown. How many testing centres are operating currently? What is the cost of staffing and maintaining them?

What is the cost of running these proposed temporary centres? What agreements will be made with the owners of the occupied structures? Would reimbursement feature?

The Minister for Health has said that because of the transmissibility of the disease, the only way to suppress it is a full lockdown and there is no justification for that. While the regulation is not massively problematic, it needs to be shown that it is necessary and deserving of being passed in this House. Vaccinations can be done in our doctors' surgeries and our local pharmacies. I do not believe this regulation is needed. I hope the Minister of State can address my queries.

Fianna Fáil welcomes the continuation of these exemptions for the HSE in order to use certain public buildings as public vaccination and testing centres. The regulations outlined in section 181 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 facilitated the emergency development and change of use of buildings to ensure that any temporary facilities required to respond to the Covid-19 emergency could be developed without the need for planning consent for the temporary period of the emergency. However, these regulations are linked to the Covid-19 pandemic and will expire when Part 3 of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020 ceases to have effect on 31 March this year.

The Department of Health has confirmed that there will be a continuing requirement to avail of non-medical buildings until the end of 2022 for use as Covid-19 vaccination and testing centres, hence the need for the temporary extension. The change of use is limited to a period of up to 12 months and the regulations will expire two years after their commencement. It is a reasonable requirement. There is logic behind it. We are taking advice from the HSE on its need to serve the public and the public interest. Given that we are still dealing with the pandemic, I believe this regulation is in need of extension. I am happy to support that.

I will not speak for long. I appreciate Senator Keogan taking the Chair so I could make a small contribution. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Sinn Féin will support these regulations. We all know that the buildings, schools, community centres, art centres and art galleries have been very conscious of the importance of their role in the response to the pandemic. As the Minister of State said, they have been a cornerstone of Ireland's response to the pandemic. The likes of those arts centres, schools and conference centres should be kept in the loop about future plans and the timeline for the use of their facilities. They serve an important community purpose.

The Planning and Development Act 2000 regulations facilitated the emergency development and change of use of buildings to ensure that any temporary facilities required to respond to the Covid-19 emergency could be developed without the need for planning consent for the temporary period of the emergency. These regulations are linked to the pandemic and will expire, as has been discussed. We will support the regulations and I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House.

I thank the Senators for contributing to this debate. I will focus on the individual points that have been made.

The points made by Senator Cummins are valid. We all share his frustration at the length of time some of these processes can take for the delivering of new health facilities and so on, but that is outside the scope of what we are doing with this Bill. While this a planning issue and a procedure being brought through the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, it is being done on the advice and instruction of the Department of Health. The list was provided by the Department of Health in consultation with the HSE. We can only deal with what is in that request as part of that, but I take on board the spirit and nature of the points made by Senator Cummins. He talked about the speed of delivery but this is about us supporting the Department of Health and the HSE to make sure they have the strength to continue their role in the emergency response.

On the points raised by Senator Keogan, the fact is this is not necessarily about extra, new, ramped-up capacity. As I said in my opening address, this is about the fact that the regulations brought forward in March 2020 ensured that temporary facilities required to respond to Covid-19 emergency measures could be developed without the need for planning consent for the temporary period of the emergency. Since they were linked to the emergency measures in the public interest Act 2020, all those measures will cease and expire tomorrow night. This means that the planning that underpins our current vaccination and testing centres and the ability of the Department of Health and the HSE to respond to potential future waves of Covid-19, with the need for vaccinations and testing and the associated flexibility, would fall tomorrow night if we did not have these statutory instruments. That is what this process is about.

I thank Senator Chambers for her support and comments regarding these measures. I share her sense of how important they are. It is very important that we do not tie the hands of our public health officials in our response.

Senator Warfield made a very valid point about communication with community groups that have those facilities. It is fair to say that in the test centres and vaccination facilities being used at present that I am familiar with, all the groups involved were very happy to play their part. The two-year time limit on this is fair in making sure that emergency powers are not taken for an overly long period because the health authorities now have an appropriate amount of time to respond to emergencies as they may develop. Who knows where we will be in a few months' time with this pandemic? Hopefully, we are over the worst as regards the emergency response but we know we are under pressure there. Health authorities will now have the time, however, if they know they will require something more permanent beyond this next two-year cycle, to apply through the normal planning process in respect of those requirements, which is very important.

As I mentioned in my opening speech, public community vaccination and testing centres are the cornerstone of the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Department of Health and the HSE will continue to operate testing and vaccination centres beyond the end of March, when the regulations providing the current exemption from the planning process expire. As the HSE will continue to require flexibility in the establishment of these centres, sometimes at short notice and in non-medical buildings, replacement regulations are required. The Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (No. 2) Regulations 2022 will enable the HSE to continue operating its current testing and vaccination centres in non-medical buildings and will allow it to source alternative venues in a wide range of buildings, if required. The regulations will enable the HSE to temporarily use these buildings without having to apply for change of use planning permission.

I reiterate that specific conditions or limitations will apply to the proposed exemption. The change of use is limited to a period of up to 12 months and the exemption only applies to change of use for the purposes of preventing and alleviating the risk to public health posed by the spread of specific infectious diseases listed in the Infectious Diseases Regulations 1981, for example, Covid-19. It is proposed that the draft regulations will expire two years following commencement. If further use of these buildings as testing or vaccination centres is anticipated after the two-year period, the normal planning application procedures for change of use should be followed.

I sincerely thank the Senators for their contributions. Given the importance of testing and vaccination centres to our Covid-19 response, I very much hope the regulations will receive the approval of this House. If these draft regulations are approved by a positive resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas, they will come into force as soon as they are signed. In this regard, it is the intention of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to sign the regulations into law by 31 March.

Question put and agreed to.
Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 1.08 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 1.45 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 1.08 p.m. and resumed at 1.45 p.m.
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