Planning and Development (Amendment) Regulations 2013: Motion

Anois, pléifimid na Rialacháin um Pleanála agus Forbartha (Leasú) 2013 leis an Aire Stáit agus a hoifigigh. Is that agreed? Agreed. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit, i mbun tithíochta agus pleanála sa Roinn Comhshaoil, Pobail agus Rialtais Áitiúil, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, agus a hoifigigh anseo inniu, Mr. Ivan Grimes, principal officer, water services policy Ms Marian O'Driscoll, assistant principal officer, planning, Ms Aileen Doyle, senior planning adviser, and Mr. Philip Nugent, principal officer, planning.

Gabhaim buíochas leo as bheith i láthair. The Minister is fully aware of the provisions of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act of 2009 regarding privilege so I will not go into any great detail. We did it most recently a few weeks ago. The opening statement and any other documentation may be published on the committee website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I thank the committee for agreeing to convene this session to discuss the proposed amendments to the planning code set out in the draft planning and development (amendment) regulations 2013. We gave some added information with photographs to illustrate the exemptions we are planning to make. These proposals provide for changes to the planning exemptions contained in the 2001 planning regulations in a number of areas. Section 4 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 provides that certain development is exempted from the requirement to obtain planning permission, mainly development by a local authority or the use of land for agriculture. Section 4(4) of the Act allows the Minister to make regulations providing for further development to be exempt where he or she is of the opinion that by reason of the size, nature or limited effect on its surroundings, the carrying out of the development would not offend against principles of proper planning and sustainable development.

It is important, regarding exempted development, to find the right balance between the right of the public to comment and input into decisions on developments that may affect them, and the necessity not to burden developers unduly by making them go through a consent process where this may not be necessary. My Department therefore keeps the planning exemptions under review to seek to reduce avoidable administrative or regulatory burdens and to ensure they remain in alignment with key national policy objectives. There are four amendments to the regulations proposed. I will briefly outline the nature of each of the proposed exemptions.

The first exemption is for charge points for electric vehicles. Under the EU directive on renewable energy, each member state is required to ensure 10% of transport energy, excluding aviation and marine transport, comes from renewable sources by 2020. Electric vehicles, EVs, are central to any plans for zero carbon emissions transportation systems. In 2010, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources signed an agreement with the Electricity Supply Board, ESB, and Renault-Nissan to support and promote the roll-out of EVs in Ireland, with ESB committed to providing the necessary charging infrastructure. Memoranda of understanding on a similar basis have also been signed with Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Peugeot-Citroen towards the same objective. ESB is currently working towards providing a charging infrastructure to support up to 10% of all vehicles being electric by 2020 and plans to complete the roll-out of a nationwide infrastructure by the end of 2013.

In addition to providing a national charging base, the infrastructure will ensure optimal integration of EVs with the electricity grid and deliver long-term benefits to the electricity system in Ireland in terms of demand-side management and optimisation of renewables. As things stand, under current regulations, class 29 in Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the planning regulations currently provides that the installation by an undertaker authorised to provide an electricity service of a unit substation of up to 11 cu. m for the distribution of electricity is exempt from the requirement to obtain planning permission. In this regard, the Department issued a circular to planning authorities in July 2012 advising that it was possible to take the view that a charging station for electric cars comes within the meaning of the term substation and is therefore exempt. This view was based on the International Electrotechnical Commission’s, IEC, definition of substation, the IEC being the internationally recognised standards body on electrical and technical issues.

To put the matter beyond any doubt, the proposed amendment will insert a new class 29A into the planning regulations which will provide an explicit exemption from the requirement to obtain planning permission for the installation of electric charging points, subject to certain conditions and limitations regarding size and advertising, including that the size of any such charging point shall not exceed 3 m or 0.5 cu. m when located on a public road. This amendment is to some extent intended to clarify and further elaborate on an existing provision. Class 29 of the planning regulations is also proposed for amendment to clarify that the exemption for a substation under that class excludes a charging point for electric vehicles but includes mini-pillars. A mini-pillar is a low voltage distribution box less than 0.5 cu. m in size. The ESB has always considered mini-pillars to be an element of the substation network. However, the proposed amendment would again serve to remove any potential ambiguity.

The second exemption relates to the use of existing electricity infrastructure for the provision of telecommunications services. Class 31 of Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the planning regulations currently provides that the provision of overhead communications by a statutory undertaker authorised to provide a telecommunications service is exempt from the requirement to obtain planning permission. The ESB is a statutory undertaker authorised to provide a telecommunications service and it intends to provide such a service. The ESB has sought clarity regarding the use of its existing infrastructure for the provision of telecommunications services. The proposed amendment to class 31 clarifies that any body authorised to provide a telecommunications service can use existing poles to carry fibre optic or similar telecommunications cable or erect new poles for that purpose, and it can also attach small brackets or devices - subject to size limitations - containing spare rolled-up cable.

The third proposed exemption relates to works arising from the new septic tank inspection arrangements. Section 70(h) of the Water Services Act 2007, as inserted by section 4 of the Water Services (Amendment) Act 2012, provides that inspectors will carry out inspections of septic tanks and on-site wastewater treatment systems as requested by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, or a water services authority. Inspections will be based on the national inspection plan, which is provided for under section 70(k) of the 2012 Act. Under section 70(h), inspectors are required to inform the owner of a treatment system and the relevant water services authority of the results of the inspection.

Where a water services authority receives notification that a treatment system is causing or is likely to cause a risk to human health or the environment, the water services authority must issue an advisory notice to the owner within 21 days. The notice will direct the owner to take the necessary remediation measures and will specify a timeframe for completion of those measures. Failure to comply with the provisions of an advisory notice within the specified timeframe will be an offence. Accordingly, the proposed exemption provides that remedial works carried out in compliance with an advisory notice issued by the water services authority are exempt from the requirement to obtain planning permission. Inspectors will shortly be formally appointed by the EPA, with inspections commencing from 1 July 2013. It is important that the proposed exemption is commenced in advance of this.

The fourth proposed change is a technical correction relating to provisions regarding thinning, felling or replanting of trees, forests or woodlands, not including the replacement of broadleaf high forest by conifer species, and the construction or maintenance of a forest road. Specifically, the proposed amendment to article 8 of the regulations is to provide that the following are exempted development: the thinning, felling or replanting of trees, forests or woodlands, but not including the replacement of broadleaf with conifer; and the construction or maintenance of a forest road other than the making of a point of access to a public road. Both these types of development have been set out in section 4 of the Act as exempted development for many years and both are regulated by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

The thinning, felling and replanting of trees is regulated under the Forestry Act 1946. Under that Act, it is generally unlawful to uproot any tree over ten years old, or to cut down any tree without a felling licence issued by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Various environmental checks are carried out by the Department as part of the evaluation of any application for a felling licence. The construction of private forest roads is also regulated by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, under the European Communities (Forest Consent and Assessment) Regulations. Private forest road construction projects must obtain the prior written approval of the Minister, as part of which the Department undertakes an assessment to determine the likely environmental impact of the project, in accordance with the environmental impact assessment, EIA, directive.

In the case of both consents, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine undertakes consultation with other agencies such as National Parks and Wildlife Service, Inland Fisheries Ireland, An Taisce and local authorities. Screening and appropriate assessment, if required, is carried out in accordance with the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011.

Section 4 of the Planning and Development Act was, however, amended by the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011 to clarify and state expressly that no development could be considered to be an exempted development if it could require an EIA under the EIA directive or an appropriate assessment under the habitats directive, which effectively meant that once works are classed as “development” for the purposes of the Planning and Development Act and would require an EIA or appropriate assessment, they would require planning permission. It was not intended, however, that this provision should bring tree felling or forest roads back within the planning system in any circumstances, because they are subject to a consent regime under another Minister, as part of which an EIA and appropriate assessment are carried out where necessary.

Accordingly section 4(4A) of the Act, also commenced in 2011, gives the power to the Minister to exempt development from planning by regulation, notwithstanding that it might require environmental impact assessment or appropriate assessment, where it comes under such other consent regime. It is in exercise of these powers therefore that I wish to make these regulations clarifying that the thinning, felling and replanting of trees, and the construction of private forest roads are completely exempt from the requirement for planning, as they always were until the 2011 amendment I mentioned earlier, because they are regulated by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

I commend the regulations to the committee and look forward to a full discussion. I believe everybody got the documentation which illustrates what we are talking about in a way that my words might not be able to do.

The Minister of State did a fine job and should not be so hard on herself.

I will ask two very quick questions as I am supposed to be at a Whips' meeting at 5 p.m. On exemption No. 2, telecommunication service infrastructure always seems to cause problems, but this particular area might not. Does this only relate to cables? The Minister of State spoke about cables and very small devices. The exemptions provided to the Garda, for example, resulted in a proliferation of antennae of a commercial nature. Provided it is not that, I would be satisfied.

My second question relates to forests and exemption No. 4, which the Minister of State may have already clarified. Obviously harvesting rights in our forests is a very big issue at the moment. So long as it is of a very minor nature it will not impact. We need to be assured that it will come back through the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine if there is any doubt about it. Those are my two concerns and if they are addressed, I will not have a problem.

It is just cables and brackets as illustrated in the photographs supplied. The forests will be fully under the regulatory control of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine. It was not a problem up to 2011, so it is just to clarify that. They are just the internal roads and the felling within the forests, which already fall under a full regulatory system within the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine.

I welcome the exemption for septic tanks being put into regulations. It was something that we discussed with the Minister during the debate on the septic tank legislation. It is welcome to have it for the smooth running of that legislation. We obviously want to see the roll-out of the electric vehicles and very small power points will be involved.

The regulations on the felling of trees are fair enough for large forests. However, why would a landowner cutting one, two or three trees need to bother the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on such matters. While the Minister of State may say it is not necessary, should we consider introducing legislation to allow the removal of a small number of trees without the need to torment the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government about it? Could that responsibility not be devolved to local authorities under the reform of local government?

I thank Deputy Stanley for his positive comments on septic tanks and electric vehicles. The septic tank issue will be on many people's minds in the coming months. On the second issue, it is not the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government but the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine who will be responsible. The regulations cover trees that are more than ten years old. It is generally unlawful to uproot any tree more than ten years old.

I do not have a problem with that. However, it is crazy that something like this would have to come to the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine for the Minister to authorise. It is an issue that could be dealt with by the local authority, subject to consultation with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the other bodies mentioned here. This is not something that needs to come to central government. The Minister is seeking things to devolve down to local government and this is one of them.

I could certainly take that up with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, Deputy Coveney. The Deputy might also consider tabling a parliamentary question to the Minister on the matter. I cannot give the Deputy a direct answer on the matter today.

I welcome the Minister of State and her officials to the committee. I also believe these exemptions are quite reasonable and practical and I welcome them in their entirety. It is very pragmatic to have an exemption where the upgrade of a septic tank is required. There was considerable scaremongering and misinformation initially when the septic tank legislation was proposed and I am glad to see the Government's practical approach to remediation of septic tanks.

The need for other infrastructure such as telecommunication cables and electric charging points indicates the new technologies that are facing society. The Electricity Supply (Special Powers) Act 1926 provided that the ESB and others could erect poles and infrastructure. Rural electrification would never have happened and we would never have seen the developments we have seen in the country. I welcome today's proposals because we need extra electric vehicle charging points and new telecommunications infrastructure. I ask the Minister of State to clarify that only authorised bodies can install such infrastructure. Is there any right of consultation with such authorised bodies in advance of installing such infrastructure? It would be a good idea that these authorised bodies be required to consult with people who may have concerns. If they prove they have consulted and explained the need for such infrastructure that is well and good.

Before the Minister of State came in we had a discussion with the housing agency which now has responsibility for sustainable communities. Previous planning exemptions applied to micro wind turbines. There is potential for further renewable energy projects, not just with wind turbines but also with small hydro schemes. I mentioned one in Portlaw in County Waterford where in the 19th century more than 350 kW of hydroelectricity power was generated on the River Clodaigh and now no hydropower is being generated. In the future we should consider providing planning exemptions for such hydro schemes to encourage their development. Another hydro scheme being developed on the River Glasha in County Waterford has to go back through the planning process because there are issues with grid connection. The bureaucracy around it makes it very difficult. Perhaps this can be addressed through regulation or perhaps in the broader planning perspective. However, we need to try to improve access to renewable energy technologies such as hydro schemes. The Minister of State and her Department would have a role in that, as might this committee. People trying to develop sustainable energy face practical barriers and I am using hydroelectricity as an example.

I thank the Deputy for his comments on sceptic tanks. The regulations apply to any body authorised to provide telecommunications infrastructure, so it is not just the ESB. The Deputy made some suggestions about micro wind turbines and smaller hydroelectric schemes. These are constantly under review so if other exemptions are required, we would be open to any newer ones that come along. However, obviously we need to get the balance right; we do not want to exempt things where neighbours would justifiably have a right to comment.

We do not want to move too far in one direction or another. Any sensible proposals will be considered. The Deputy suggests there are other ways of providing renewable energy. While this issue may not come within my remit, the Government would certainly be open to examining it. Technology is constantly evolving and we would be pleased to examine any new proposals which would be suitable for exempted development.

The Minister of State and her officials must be cognisant that people are making proposals in the area of hydro-technology. However, the convoluted nature of the planning process makes it difficult for proposers as they have to provide a large amount of information. Moreover, once they obtain planning permission, they must seek grid connectivity from the ESB which may not match up. As a result, they may have to engage in the planning process again as changes they have made may be considered to be material in nature. The planning process must show some flexibility towards hydroelectric schemes. In the case of the Glasha hydroelectric scheme in County Waterford, no objections have been lodged and fisheries bodies and others have all expressed support. However, the proposers must engage again with the planning process because the system is so rigid. I am bringing to the Minister of State's attention the fact that people are developing new technologies that would help us reach the renewable targets Ireland must achieve by 2020. We must think outside the box by revising the planning regulations and laws to try to assist such individuals, where possible. Environmental impact assessments have been done and objections have not been lodged. The system is rigid and outdated.

Our decision to introduce these regulations shows that we are willing to consider new proposals. I reiterate, however, that we must get the balance right because we have seen how lax planning got the country into trouble in the past. For this reason, we must ensure a balance is struck between the interests of communities and economic development. We are seeking to improve the planning system and make it more coherent in respect of foreshore. We are also considering new guidelines on wind energy, which is a matter of interest to many people. We are trying to respond to the issues that are emerging, particularly in the area of renewable energy, and we are open to new technologies.