I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I have always been of the view that the purpose of the strategic housing developments was not in the first instance to speed up the planning process, and I will explain why in a moment. Their primary purpose was to bypass democratically agreed city and county development plans. There is a mounting body of evidence, to which I will come in a moment, which confirms this. The difficulty is that the people who initiated the lobby for this change could not come out and say they wanted to undermine the democratically agreed city and county development plans, so it was framed as a matter of speeding up the process. I absolutely accept that the planning process, as it was before the SHDs, was too slow. This committee spent a very considerable amount of time examining the cause of that slowness. It amounted to approximately 48 weeks for a large housing development, on the basis of the planning applications we were considering at that stage. However, when the Department gave us a breakdown of pre-planning, formal planning application with the local authority, request for additional information and An Bord Pleanála, the only part of the planning process that was happening quickly and in line with the statutory requirement was that undertaken by the local authorities. Pre-planning had no statutory requirement and could go on for ages. As for requests for additional information, it could take up to six months for industry to get back to the local authorities. An Bord Pleanála, because of a lack of adequate resourcing, was not meeting its time guidelines. If the primary objective had been to improve the efficiency of the process, there were very simple solutions: have statutory timeframes for pre-planning and additional information and give An Bord Pleanála the resources to carry out the reviews. The same timeline could have been met. It is not 16 weeks at present, in fairness, because one must count in the time from when the additional engagement with the local authority happens right through to the formal application and onwards. The timeline is approximately 22 weeks or something. However, An Bord Pleanála could have achieved this without bypassing the local authorities.
This is a really important point that has not been properly explored here: why would An Bord Pleanála want to bypass the city and county development plans? There is a difference legally in what An Bord Pleanála must do. The legislation states that it must have regard to the city and county development plans, whereas local authorities must comply with them. That is a big difference. One official in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government once said to me that part of the purpose of this legislation was to get around the "eccentricities" of the city and county development plans. In the research Deputy Barry quoted from UCD and Queen's University one developer, not PII, talked about the ridiculous "rubbish" that democratically elected members sought to put into their city and county development plans. We need to be honest here: this is not about efficiency; it is about a policy agenda that was led by industry and which the Minister of the day and some of his officials swallowed lock, stock and barrel.
What have been the outcomes of this two years on? Killian Woods from The Sunday Business Post has done incredible work spreadsheeting all the SHDs. He has told us that of the 15,000 units approved, 10,000 have not commenced, and that of the 64 schemes, 41 do not even have commencement notices. These figures were correct at the time he wrote. We have been told there are many reasons a development might be delayed going on site, and that is true. However, one can have a commencement notice and still be negotiating, for example, one's water infrastructure with Irish Water or one's Part V commitments. Therefore, most of the reasons Dr. Duffy's submission gives for the delay are in fact things that happen in parallel with, not before, a commencement notice. I am sure some of these developments are for legitimate reasons taking time, but I am also absolutely certain, since we know some of the companies that have these planning permissions, that they are stalling on developments for market and business reasons, not because of the kinds of delays Dr. Duffy talked about. The research, which I commend to all members of the committee, was done by Mick Lennon and Richard Waldron from UCD and Queen's University, respectively. They interviewed 39 participants involved in this legislation off the record. They are really interesting interviews. Those interviewed, including politicians and representatives from some of the organisations here today, spoke openly and frankly. When one reads it, it is pretty definitive that the account I am giving is what was actually taking place. We need a little honesty about the process. If the purpose of this was to speed up the delivery of homes, it has not worked. We have not seen a dramatic increase in the delivery of homes. Yes, we have seen an increase in the number of planning permissions, and that is fine, but we could have dealt with that in another way.
My first question is to Dr. Duffy. Notwithstanding the fact that he was not there at the early stages of the SHDs, is it not the case that one of the objectives of his organisation was to bypass the democratically agreed city and county development plans and have this go directly to the board?
While he might not have been interviewed for the research, I know Dr. Duffy is an assiduous reader of this type of material. I have no doubt, therefore, that he will have read this piece of research. Do the comments attributed to his organisation reflect its thinking in this regard? Regardless of whether Dr. Duffy was the person involved at the time, are these comments an accurate depiction of what PII was involved in during the lobbying? Is it not the case that some developers are clearly abusing this process? They have benefited from fast-track planning and are abusing it.
My next questions are more general and for the representatives from other organisations. I hope the SHDs do not continue and I hope the Minister also takes that view. If they do, however, do we not need some mechanism to be able to independently monitor what happens post planning permission? I refer to ensuring there is no abuse of the system. I will give an example. A significant number of SHD planning permissions are being sold. Do we not need to assess whether those sales are legitimate or speculative? If they are speculative, do we not need to withdraw planning permission to protect the integrity of the system? Would it be a good idea to have that kind of mechanism?
I pose this question to the representatives from An Bord Pleanála, in light of the system possibly continuing. There is a four-week turnaround from publication to submission of opinions and this process involves very large, complex files. They are so large and indepth, in fact, that when I go onto the SHD website it is almost impossible to download many of the files and print them off. Is four weeks enough time for genuine members of the public, who are not part of culture of reckless objecting, to engage in the planning process to try to improve developments? Is the present online interface sufficient? Are there not better ways to ensure that we can end up with better developments through a proper consultative process? I have not objected to a single large development in my constituency. I would, however, like to have opportunities to engage, if we are going to have large developments, to ensure those developments have proper traffic management, amenities and green space. Elected representatives should be doing that, but the process at the moment makes it very difficult for us to engage properly in that way.