Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois".
I am grateful for the opportunity to bring the Bill before the House. As flagged in the Seanad and to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I intend to table further urgent legislative amendments on Committee Stage later this evening. The amendments relate to the operation of the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 and substitute consent provisions in the planning Act. I will now outline the main provisions of the Bill as passed by Seanad Éireann.
Section 1 provides a definition for "principal Act", which means the Planning and Development Act 2000. Section 2 amends section 11(3)(b) of the Planning and Development Act 2000 to replace the requirement to hold public meetings regarding the initial issues stage of a proposed development plan with a more flexible requirement for planning authorities to consult with members of the public in such a manner as it considers appropriate and to invite written submissions from members of the public. The proposed amendment will allow the planning authority to take such steps as it deems necessary, such as public newspaper notices and online communication, to ensure the public are consulted in compliance with the principles of the Aarhus Convention, which include public participation in environmental decision making. This measure is immediately required to allow planning authorities to adapt public consultation procedures in light of the current restrictions on the holding of public gatherings due to the Covid-19 pandemic. If this amendment is not made, such restrictions will delay the progression of development plans during the pandemic. The amendment is in line with the modernisation agenda for the planning system to increase online activity and ensure continued flexibility in communicating details of draft development plans to the public and it will, therefore, be a permanent amendment.
For the avoidance of doubt, there will always be some format of public meeting under section 11(3)(b) in respect of the initial stages of a proposed development plan, either by way of a public meeting attended by the public in person or an online public meeting. Indeed, a planning authority may hold both if it so wishes. I imagine that many will do just that. I hope this addresses any concerns Members may have around the public consultation issues that were also raised with me in the Seanad when I introduced the Bill. It is important to note that subsequent development plan public engagement phases remain in place.
Section 3 deals with emergency periods. The provision will allow the Government to make orders during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, if required, which would extend certain statutory periods applying under the Planning and Development Acts and the Building Control Acts.
This contingency measure is required to provide an essential legislative safeguard which can be invoked as necessary to ensure the public participation elements of the planning regime and certain decision-making and enforcement systems of the building control regime are not compromised in the event of further waves of Covid-19 infection that may necessitate a further period of stay at home travel restrictions or, indeed, may critically impact on the operation of individual planning authorities.
The provision in the Bill includes new flexibilities. More than one extension period order may be made within the combined operative period of the Bill, which is currently due to end on 9 June 2021. Extension period orders, if required, can be applied to specific areas or administrative areas of the country, as opposed to only applying to an entire county. The Government, at my request, may choose which statutory periods it requires to extend rather than applying the extension to all periods under the Planning Act and the specified Building Control Acts. While it is obviously hoped that the safeguarding provisions are never used, it may be necessary to use them to ensure the integrity of the planning and building control systems and to ensure that it is maintained throughout the pandemic in the event that there is a critical deterioration in staffing levels due to infections in one or more planning or building control authorities or where the public generally or particular groups of the public may not be capable of engagement with the planning system due to the introduction of more restrictive travel constraints.
Section 4 of the Bill provides the Short Title and collective citations to the Bill.
I will outline the proposed amendments to the Bill which I will introduce on Committee Stage. Regarding amendments to the substitute consent process in the Planning Act, to comply with the Supreme Court Ballysax and McQuaid judgment of 1 July 2020 it is necessary to urgently amend the existing substitute consent provisions of Part XA of the Planning Act to require that exceptional circumstances be considered in the second stage application for substitute consent, along with related provisions to ensure that additional public participation is provided, where required, with respect to the consideration of exceptional circumstances as well as the wider substitute consent application. These urgent technical amendments are being added to the Bill on the advice of the Attorney General, as they will facilitate the earlier resolution of the terms of the November 2019 judgment of the Court of Justice of the EU against Ireland in case 261/18, the second Derrybrien wind farm case. Without these proposed urgent amendments, to ensure that the substitute consent process is in compliance with the environmental impact assessment, EIA, directive, the ability of the State to meet the terms of the Court of Justice of the European Union judgment will be called into question, with all the significant costs of delay from the accruing daily fines that go with it.
The proposed amendments will amend the substitute consent provisions at Part XA of the Planning Act to provide for exceptional circumstances to be considered in a second stage application for substitute consent at section 177K of the Planning Act, along with the necessary ancillary provisions to ensure additional public participation is facilitated, where required, with respect to the consideration of exceptional circumstances, as well as on the wider application. Section 177K will also be amended to provide for additional public participation to allow exceptional circumstances to be considered where an application for substitute consent is currently pending before the board upon the enactment of these amendments. The public, prescribed bodies and those who have already made submissions on the application can make further submissions on the application, including on whether exceptional circumstances exist in this regard.
The Government has approved the provision of temporary modifications to the operation of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to provide, subject to certain conditions, for increased notice periods, from 28 days to 90 days, in respect of notices of termination served on tenants during the period from 11 January 2021 to 12 April 2021 for rent arrears and to prohibit rent increases for relevant tenancies during that period. The aim is to further assist tenants financially impacted by Covid-19, while balancing the constitutionally protected rights of the property owners. Section 8 is key and sets out that the new Part 3 protections shall apply where the tenant: makes the necessary written declaration that he or she is unable to pay rent due on foot of Covid-19 and is at risk of losing his or her tenancy; at the same time, serves a notice on the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, requesting
assistance to obtain advice from the Money and Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS; and within five days of making this standard declaration serves a notice on his or her landlord seeking a consultation to make an arrangement to pay the rent due. The new Part 3 also applies to tenants who have made a declaration under the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, subject to certain conditions. That is the Act that was passed by the House last July, which has had the positive and desired effect the Government wanted it to have insofar as protecting tenants who were most at risk of eviction. Provision is made under section 9 for a counter-declaration by a landlord to disapply the protections. Similar to a tenant declaration, it shall be an offence for a landlord to make a declaration that is false or misleading.
Under Section 10, a notice of termination served during the emergency period shall not specify a termination date earlier than 13 April 2021. This means that with the provisions we introduced in the last year there are more than 12 months of eviction protections and additional tenancy protections for tenants. Section 14 provides that RTB tenancy tribunals are not required to be held in public during the period to 12 April 2021.
I look forward to the debate on the Bill's provisions and I hope Deputies will appreciate the urgency of these measures, the increasing cost to the taxpayer of inaction and the ongoing need to continue to protect tenants during the Covid-19 emergency. I understand there are concerns over substantive amendments, but I emphasise the significant engagement my officials have had with the Oireachtas joint committee on these issues and the legal advice received by the Attorney General. We must act in a timely manner and I thank Deputies for the constructive role they have played in this heretofore. I will respond to specific questions and engage further on Committee Stage.
I commend the Bill to the House.