Planning and Development (Ministerial Power Repeal) Bill 2019: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to an Act to amend the Planning and Development Act 2000 and to repeal the following guidelines issued to planning authorities thereafter, namely, Sustainable Urban Housing: Design Standards for New Apartments, March 2018, and Urban Development and Building Heights, December 2018.

In the dying days of the previous Fine Gael-Labour Government, the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, and junior Minister, Senator Paudie Coffey, introduced the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2015. It seemed a technical and uneventful Bill to many people but one of the provisions, an amendment to section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, introduced a profound change to the way in which planning law is made in this State. It essentially gave the power to any Minister with responsibility for the environment, as it was then, and now housing to unilaterally introduce mandatory planning guidelines that would override the democratically agreed decisions of city and county councils. This would have to be complied with by An Bord Pleanála, local authorities and others.

There was no requirement in this amendment to have such significant powers approved by the Houses of the Oireachtas or any other democratically elected body. The Minister could undertake public consultation but the unilateral power to set planning policy was to be vested in the hands of an individual. The power is not only deeply undemocratic but in the two instances in which it has been used, it has led to negative planning outcomes. The current Minister with responsibility for housing has used it twice, last March and in December 2018, introducing in the first instance new design standards for apartments and in the second instance new mandatory guidelines with respect to building heights.

The first action has led to a significant deterioration in standards. For example, developers can now provide smaller apartments and increase the number of studio apartments in a given development, irrespective of whether that is an appropriate use of the development space in that geographical area. There is less of a requirement for dual aspects, car parking and storage space. With respect to both build-to-rent developments and the highly controversial co-living proposals, we have seen an even further deterioration of standards.

Likewise, the Minister often tells the House and the public that an increase in building heights is necessary to increase density when any first-year architecture student can say that the relationship between densities and heights is not that straightforward. Higher developments can have a lower density because they require more undeveloped space for amenities and car parking. Some of the most effective use of heights and densities are mid-rise developments, the vast majority of which are permitted under existing city and county development plans. We know that when permissible heights are increased, the price of land is driven up and accommodation becomes more expensive. Even if last year's guidelines from the Minister increase output - there is no guarantee of that - they certainly will not increase the affordability of that output. Just like with apartment sizes, this makes for very bad planning.

This does two simple things. It would repeal the bad decision made by the Oireachtas in 2015 and early 2016 and remove the power I have described from the Minister. If the Minister wants power to set planning guidelines, he should be forced to bring forward the proposal to the Oireachtas for its approval in the same way the Government would with any other legislation. That is not what the current power does. The Bill would also seek to repeal the two ministerial guidelines that have been introduced so we can return to the regime that existed before 2016. It worked perfectly fine, particularly in the context of the democratically agreed provisions of the local authorities.

The Bill is very straightforward and although I know the Government will probably oppose it when we bring it to Second Stage, I hope it will not oppose it on First Stage so we can at least allow the Oireachtas to have that debate and come to a democratic decision on these crucial matters.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.