Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 21 Mar 2002

Vol. 550 No. 5

Adjournment Debate. - Planning Applications.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me this opportunity and I thank the Minister of State for coming here to reply to my question.

This issue which has beset those of us who have represented parts of rural Ireland for some considerable time represents what I consider a serious clash of interest, a contradiction in terms of the application of the planning Acts, how they apply and how they are supposed to apply equally as between all members of the public. In my constituency, automatically and without reference to anyone, An Taisce or its agents examine each planning application for one-off houses in the countryside and lodge objections with An Bord Pleanála. When it does so it is guaranteed success. All that is required is that it submits the objection, quotes planning law, which may or may not be relevant, quotes the spatial strategy outlined by the Minister and quotes the development proposals for the greater Dublin area, all of which serves to reject the planning application on the basis that people who are indigenous to the countryside, who have lived all their lives in the countryside, whose sons and daughters want to live in the countryside and who are able to afford a home on the free sites they will get from their parents in the countryside are deprived of doing so.

I pay tribute to An Taisce for the excellent work it has done in the area of preservation of buildings. However, it has overstepped its authority and responsibility. The Minister makes a small annual subvention to that body. That is an indirect subsidy to facilitate it to do the type of work to which I have referred and to which I strongly object.

I listened with interest to a recent radio programme when the chairman of An Taisce outlined his plans for rural Ireland to the effect that people in the countryside need not be concerned because they would be catered for by compulsorily purchasing land adjacent to towns and villages on which suitable housing would be built for them. A similar policy was carried out in eastern Europe after the communists took over in 1945. The stated grounds for this were economic. It was more economical to keep people in high density locations and remove the possibility of having to provide services for them in the countryside. What services have ever been provided for people in rural areas in any event?

I find it objectionable that there are bodies acting as agents for An Taisce which are in receipt of the benefits bestowed on that body by the Minister as a consulting body in respect of planning permissions and by a direct subsidy, and which at the same time operate as community objectors and come forward allegedly on the basis of deep and overwhelming concern about what they see as unnecessary and undesirable planning in the countryside.

It is time we came to a conclusion on this issue. People in the countryside have an entitlement to live there. We still live in a free country. I hope we do not see a scenario where people will be ordered where to live. Unless the Minister takes action on this soon, I fear we are heading down the road of the areas to which I have already referred. This is not the first attempt at the depopulation of the countryside. It was done in the highland clearances in Scotland and it was also done in central and eastern Europe in another time.

Will the Minister either amend the legislation to reconstitute An Bord Pleanála to ensure the self-serving exercise is not repeated on an ongoing basis, or remove the consulting role from An Taisce, or will he do a combination of both?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Under planning legislation, each planning authority is obliged to prepare a development plan setting out the overall strategy for the planning and development of its area. Such plans, in the case of rural planning authorities, include the policy of the authority on the provision of one-off single houses. Decisions on individual applications are a matter for each local planning authority in accordance with its development plan, or for An Bord Pleanála in the case of an appeal.

Regarding a possible organised campaign of objection to rural housing, all planning appellants are by law required to state the subject matter and full grounds of their appeal and the reasons, considerations and arguments on which these are based. An Bord Pleanála has absolute discretion to dismiss any appeal from whatever source where it is of the opinion that the appeal is vexatious, frivolous or without substance or foundation.

Rather than maintaining a polarised debate around the issue of one-off housing, I would prefer to see a broader approach being adopted and developed to guide how rural economic and social development opportunities can be realised and rural communities strengthened as well as developing appropriate policies to respond to developmental pressures. There are threats to the rural environment other than one-off housing and the planning system must also address these.

Regarding single houses in rural areas, it is a long-held policy that it is essential that the farming community and those working on the land or involved in rural-based activities, or people who have local ties, should be able to live in the country. However, on balance, a continuation of the current exceptionally buoyant trends in one-off rural housing would pose challenges in terms of a range of issues such as the viability of public transport, the possibilities for strengthening many of our towns and villages, landscape and tourism and protection of ground and surface waters. All these issues will be considered further in the context of the national spatial strategy which is being finalised.

While I, as Minister for the Environment and Local Government, have not had any direct discussions with An Taisce regarding housing in rural areas, it made a submission in response to the recent consultation process on the national spatial strategy. The submission included comments on development in the countryside, including the issue of one-off housing.

I bet it did.

It is only one of the groups which made submissions – a number of groups and individuals made submissions. All the responses received during this consultation process are being carefully considered within the process under way of finalising the national spatial strategy.

On the issue of my taking action, the Minister has been precluded by law since 1977 from becoming involved in individual planning applications or making approaches on them. They are a matter for local authorities and An Bord Pleanála.

The Minister can change the law.

Opposition Members and the Deputy's party would be quick to point out if I, as Minister, or anyone else in my portfolio, began interfering again. This has not been done since 1977, which is before I was elected to the House. People at the time were agitated by the fact that the Minister had the power to do something about individual planning applications.

Will the Minister not do anything about it, will he allow the scandal to continue?

Acting Chairman:

The Minister, without interruption.

One of the actions we took to try to stop frivolous and vexatious objections to planning applications, not just in rural areas but everywhere, was to impose a €20 charge for objecting to or making submissions on such applications. The Deputy's party fought that tooth and nail.

Absolutely. No one should have to pay to make representations.

The Deputy cannot have it both ways.

The Minister cannot have it both ways. If he does not do something about it, he will be replaced and someone else will take action.