I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, to the House and wish him well in his new portfolio.
Planning and Related Issues: Statements.
I am pleased to be in the Seanad again not as a Senator but as a visitor to the scene of old crimes.
I take this opportunity to address the Seanad on priorities in the planning area, an issue in which I know Senators take a particular interest given their relationship with councillors and county councils. Land use planning has a higher profile in Ireland than ever before given that we are building more houses than ever and our population is increasing. We will build 83,000 houses this year, approximately three times the European average and five times the per capita level being achieved in the UK. We are constructing more infrastructure and more roads without which our record economic development cannot continue into the future. At the same time, the people of Ireland are becoming increasingly aware of our environment and heritage, particularly our built heritage, and the need to protect both. These differing priorities and interests cause conflict and, occasionally, controversy.
Our planning system which must mediate between all these interests is probably one of the most open and democratic planning systems in Europe. It must take a strategic view to ensure that Ireland Inc. keeps developing into the future and that the quality of life in Ireland is preserved at the highest possible level. At the same time, it must take care of the small issues, the individuals in the system, to ensure that everybody gets the best possible results. When a councillor, I used to remind council officials that their role relates to development and planning issues.
We also have to acknowledge that the economic boom has placed planning authorities under greater pressures than ever before. They are now handling around 80,000 planning applications a year, double the level of the early 1990s with planning applications in 2004 set to increase yet again. Appeals to An Bord Pleanála increased by 13% over the same period. The rate of appeal has not kept pace with the rate of planning increase. At the same time, people's expectations of a quality service when they interact with planning authorities have gone up and rightly so. Citizens have a right to expect a quality service. They expect quick delivery, electronic access — an issue which I will address later — and ready accessibility. Above all, they expect to be treated with courtesy and consideration. The planning system is struggling to meet these pressures.
I want the planning service to deliver for the people of Ireland. At a strategic level it must support the delivery of balanced growth and a better quality of life for all the people of Ireland. At an individual level, it must be more responsive and more customer oriented. These are important challenges and I hope I will have the support of this House in addressing them in the future.
I would like to make a point on customer orientation, a point with which I know many, if not all, Senators will agree. It is important that the planning system deals with citizens in a courteous, open and transparent manner. Above all else, the planning system should be competently administered. Discourtesy, secrecy or incompetence are simply not acceptable. These challenges are not insurmountable.
We have certain advantages. The legislative framework for the new planning system at all levels, local, regional and national, is already in place. The Planning and Development Act 2000 and the consolidated 2001 regulations represent the most far-reaching reform of the planning system since the original 1963 Act. The focus of my Department must now be on helping planning authorities to deliver on that framework at a strategic national level and at customer level.
The key to delivering at strategic level is the national spatial strategy, the main objective of which is to achieve more balanced development of the country, a better quality of life for everyone, vibrant urban and rural areas and a better environment. We want continued economic and social development but with a better spatial distribution. The strategy aims to build on the strengths of all areas to achieve more balanced regional development and population growth. We began speaking about national spatial strategies in the early 1960s when the Buchanan and Myles Wright reports were drawn up. It is extraordinary that 40 years later we are still talking about them. It is time the talking stopped and the implementing started. We are now in a position in terms of resources to achieve things which could not be considered a number of years ago.
The spatial strategy recognises that a greater share of economic activity must take place outside the greater Dublin area while at the same time we must continue to support Dublin's role as a key driver of our economy at national and international level. To achieve a more even distribution of development, the strategy sets out a spatial framework within which gateways, hubs and other urban and rural areas will act to allow areas to grow. There is more coherence in this strategy than ever existed in the history of planning in this State.
Regional and local authorities are key players in implementing the NSS in partnership with the Government. Central government alone cannot deliver the strategy. Regional planning guidelines to further implementation of the national spatial strategy at regional level were adopted this year by all regional authorities. Local authorities must now take account of the national spatial strategy in the preparation and adoption of their development plans and in varying development plans, local area plans and other plans and strategies. That makes sense. Ireland is a small island in that no area is isolated from another and it makes sense to adopt an holistic approach in this regard.
For the first time Ireland now has national coverage in terms of regional planning guidelines, for which local authorities are to be complimented. These guidelines inform and strengthen the big picture context for the local planning system. The national spatial strategy together with regional planning guidelines and more strategic local planning will provide a much more plan-led system to better address strategic development opportunities and infrastructure priorities. I want to see an end to what happened in the past when houses were built without supporting infrastructure. When my wife and I first settled in Greystones the residents' association was run by a woman from Applewood Heights who had an extraordinary sense of humour. She named her house "High and Dry" because there was no water available to her until 3 a.m. Getting up at that time to do one's washing made for a very interesting life.
If we are to deliver the right plan we need to take account of the bigger picture, to look at the issue in an holistic way and to take into account all regional issues. The guidelines act as a new strategic big picture backdrop for local plans ensuring that the development plans of the different planning authorities in each region are more integrated. In this way, regional as well as county or city level aims and objectives can be progressed in tandem. Regional guidelines will also help to shape and inform the strategic infrastructure priorities for Departments and their agencies. Departments and agencies such as my own Department, the Department of Transport, IDA Ireland and so on, have been actively examining and re-focusing their own policies and activities in the context of the national spatial strategy, looking at ways to support balanced regional development in a more systematic manner. Departments, agencies and the private sector are actively looking towards the investment priorities which the implementation of strategic development frameworks for the gateways and hubs will require. This is a big task but it is not impossible; it can be done if the various actors for once operate in concert.
The other way in which my Department underpins the strategic dimension to the planning process is through guidelines on specific land use topics of national importance. The draft guidelines on wind farms which will help deliver on targets for reductions of greenhouse gases, were recently put out for public consultation. Senators do a great deal of travelling around the country and will therefore be aware of the existence of the good, the bad and the ugly in this regard. Issues such as siting and design are the focus of these guidelines. It is not intended to stymie what is a positive development but to ensure that it takes place in a way that does not have a downside.
My Department has also published far-reaching draft guidelines on sustainable rural housing. For the first time, they provide a policy framework setting out in detail how Government policy on rural housing, as set out in the national spatial strategy, is to be taken forward by local authorities in planning more effectively for rural areas. This is where the controversial issue of one-off housing arises. These guidelines deal with how development plans can support the development needed to sustain rural communities, how development can be guided and facilitated at the right locations and how planning policies should be tailored to respond to the different circumstances in different types of rural areas, be they near either a large urban area or in a remote area. My personal belief is that a countryside denuded of people is a desert. I do not subscribe to the ideology that the countryside cannot have sustainable development, particularly in the area of one-off housing. There is nothing so joyful as a countryside populated with people. With the best will in the world, I cannot understand the ideology that suggests we should force everybody into towns. I do not accept that is the Irish way nor do I accept that it is the best way.
The guidelines are explicit in a way that has never been the case before now. Reasonable proposals on suitable sites for persons who are part of and contribute to the rural community must be accommodated. I know Senators will agree with that sentiment. There must be balance in how this issue is dealt with. It is important to note that these guidelines are based on good planning principles such as ensuring that housing development in rural areas complements rather than dominates its natural surroundings and that water quality and other issues are properly protected. Although the guidelines are still in draft form, planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála have been urged to adopt them, given the importance of the rural housing issue. Senators will be aware of my own views in this regard expressed very frequently in public before I took office and they are not changing. I regard as rubbish the comments of some commentators who have said that an acceptance of the importance of affording people in rural areas the opportunity of building their own homes means that the Government is not fully committed to the principles of sustainable development. I do not accept the ideological approach and I reject that view.
Sustainability must be about people. The most sustainable rural area is one which affords its population the opportunity to build their own homes in the area. I strongly believe that it is reasonable that the housing requirements of persons with roots in or links to the rural community will be accommodated by our planning system. I am familiar with parts of this country which over the years, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, lost their populations. People were driven out by economic circumstances. On the issue of the guidelines, I want the particular situation of emigrants returning to their home areas to be borne in mind. Senator Kitt has expressed his concerns to me about people returning to the Galway-Mayo area, an area with which I am very familiar. I want the guidelines to accommodate that type of return as much as it accommodates others. A common sense solution to this problem can be achieved. It will not be based on ideology but rather on practical considerations being brought to bear on each individual case.
On the subject of better quality services, the rural housing guidelines will also help to deliver the other fundamental for a good planning system which is a better quality of service. Achieving greater efficiencies in the planning system was one of the main reasons for the 2000 Act and 2001 regulations. They introduced many new measures to enhance the efficiency of the system, for example, by tightening the deadlines for making decisions. The role of third parties in the system was also clarified and their rights of involvement were stated more forcefully, subject to certain restrictions. This is again an issue of balance. We have a good planning system with many positive aspects but from time to time it can be the subject of abuse. There must be greater consistency in the way that planning authorities use our planning laws and there should be a more courteous and open way of dealing with the people who interact with the planning authorities. My Department keeps the procedural aspects of the planning system under continual review. The proposed 2004 draft regulations, which were recently put out for consultation, contain proposals to further streamline the planning application process. In particular, a standard planning application form is proposed for use by all planning authorities which it is hoped will bring greater clarity to the system and will facilitate the introduction of e-planning, electronic planning. I had better explain that concept later, lest we run into the same difficulties as happened elsewhere when the "e" word was mentioned.
The Department will also issue guidelines to planning authorities on how to handle the procedural aspects of the planning process. Some local authorities have good practice but others have appallingly bad practice. There is not consistency across the country. Its lack is quite extraordinary. Best practice should be the norm. The development management guidelines will replace the existing manual which dates back to the early 1980s. They will set out the ways in which we expect authorities to act when they are handling planning applications, complaints about breaches of the planning code and so on.
Changes to the regulations and to the issuing guidelines will not deliver a more customer-friendly service on their own. Everybody in the system must sign up to the provision of such a service. It is essential that local authorities continue the work they are currently undertaking on the delivery of quality customer service. We can measure this by building on the performance indicators which have already been expanded to all main service areas, including planning. I wish to send a message to councils up and down the country. I expect them to come up with performance indicators. Objective indicators which show how a local authority is performing will highlight that which is good and will also highlight where there are problems. By doing so, we will not be in a position of being "after" local authorities, but in a position to encourage local authorities to deliver the quality service to which the taxpayers of this country are entitled.
I intend to develop the existing planning indicators in consultation with key stakeholders and devise a more comprehensive set of planning performance indicators. It is appropriate that I mention this in this House. For the past week, I have been looking at performance indicators in the housing area and the performance from councils varies dramatically and frighteningly in some cases. It is Government policy that good practice is the focus across the country. I want performance indicators for planning to be based on the ordinary things by which people will judge the local authority's performance, for example, the length of time it takes for a pre-application consultation to occur. I am amazed that it would be easier to get an audience with the Pope than it is to get an audience with relatively lowly officials in planning authorities. That is utter nonsense. If a pre-planning application and discussions are in place, citizens will be saved the time, expense, trouble and trauma of making planning applications that simply do not stand a chance.
The Planning Act deals with planning and development. How counter staff deal with inquiries is an issue for citizens. I am not prepared to accept a standard of discourtesy which has been reported to me and of which I have first-hand experience. I expect public servants to treat the public with the respect it deserves and that is the desire of every public representative from the most junior town councillor up to Members of the Oireachtas. Standards must be maintained. On the issue of performance indicators, I question how people can check the progress of their planning decision. It is astonishing there is no system for notifying people. Some local authorities are good in this area while others are very bad. This is one area where technology could help. I said we were trying to change the standard forms so there is a standard process. With modern technology, one should be able to go onto the Internet, go to the website of the local authority and find out the progress of one's planning application. It is not rocket science. It is simply the application of a system that exists in the private sector. It must exist in the public sector.
We have achieved a breakthrough in motor taxation. One gets a pin number and pays one's tax on-line. It relieves the queues at counters for those who cannot use the electronic system. The same application of common sense technology can help greatly in the local authority area. We need to work on the indicators that show the quality of service. If Senators have ideas, and they have first hand experience in this area, they will be pushing an open door.
Responsibility for good planning and customer service does not rest solely with local planning authorities. An Bord Pleanála has also an obligation to meet the higher expectations for customer service from public bodies in modern Ireland. My Department is actively working with the board on systems to ensure quality decisions, consistency in reports and so on. It is not fair or reasonable that one can get inconsistency at either board level or local authority level, depending on the state of someone's files or who turns up on the day. There should be consistency through the planning system. It is reasonable that people have an expectation that their case will be treated in the same way as every other case.
In my contacts with An Bord Pleanála, I have been impressed by the courtesy of the staff. They have done work but there is more to be done. A recent innovation is the introduction of a complaints handling system within the board. I celebrate that progress. This will ensure complaints are responded to promptly and that mistakes are corrected. However, most importantly, it will ensure lessons from the past are implemented. To make a mistake is the mark of humanity, to learn from the mistake is the mark of a sensible human being. That applies at all levels of public administration.
I see significant advantages for planning authorities and individuals in the full roll-out of an electronically based planning system service. E-planning — I hate the jargon — will be critical in terms of opening up a really transparent planning system. It will reduce the time needed for individuals to interact with the planning authorities. Some progress has been made but I am impatient that enough progress is not being made. Some progress has been made in using modern information and communications technologies and some councils are well advanced while others are still back in the days of the quill pen. That is not tolerable. If we are to give good quality customer service we should be prepared to use every technique available. The State has invested fairly heavily in computing services for local authorities and they should be used.
There should be an increased use of websites to provide information about development plans and lists of current applications. Why is it that a list of current applications is not available in every local authority? Why can we not see what is happening? For example, why can we not have an in-house file tracking system to see the progress of a planning application? Senators are aware of this from their experience as public representatives. When somebody goes to the local authority to look at the file, the file cannot be found because it is out.
More often than not it is in somebody's car boot.
The Local Government Computer Services Board has developed a wide range of planning-related programmes for authorities. E-planning has great potential for planning authorities and that potential must be unlocked. I cannot understand the reason no planning authority allows the submission of planning applications on line.
Let us look at what the Revenue Commissioners have done. They have made a significant saving for the taxpayer and have encouraged corporate Ireland and individuals to consider interacting with them on-line. One can pay one's taxes on-line. This is one of the most sensitive issues that any private individual or corporate body deals with, yet one cannot do likewise in the planning area. We are back in the days of snail mail in planning when the rest of the country is moving on. I have a degree of impatience in this regard. I hope to be in a position shortly to take steps that will drive forward the achievement of a full e-planning service in all local authorities because it will be a better service. That is not to say one can only go that route because there will always be people who do not want to do so. It will supplement the existing position where people have to queue at counters and put up with the current frustration and annoyance.
The planning system can and must be improved if Ireland is to develop. My Department and I have much to do to support local authorities and the planning board in delivering my twin goals of a strategic planning system at national level and an accessible system responding to customer needs at local level. I am confident that with a good legislative base and a good policy framework in place, the guidelines and indicators which are coming on-stream will make a real improvement. Senators have a significant amount of experience in this area. I have never taken the view that wisdom and experience reside only in Government and in Departments. We are here to do our best to make the system better for the people of Ireland. If there are any suggestions or observations or areas where there are blackspots I would like to hear about them and I will certainly take on board anything Senators have to say on the matter.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Roche, and his officials to the House. I welcome his off-the-cuff remarks in regard to one-off housing in rural areas. It was a breath of fresh air compared to what we heard during the past four or five years or more. Since the Government took office many wild decisions have been taken in the area of planning. Hopefully, the Minister will bring more realism to the planning system.
Arising from my experience as a local public representative for the past 19 years, I wish to make a few comments which I hope will be of interest to the Minister and his officials and might stimulate a debate on how to deal with local public representatives. Under the Planning and Development Act 1963 public representatives have three main objectives, namely, the reshaping and modernisation of our cities, towns and countryside to meet the demands of traffic and the growing economy; the identification and development of centres of economic and social growth; and the preservation and improvement of amenities, an issue that has been neglected by local authorities due to a shortage of funding over many years.
This development is designed to ensure that life is comfortable, enjoyable and profitable. There is nothing wrong with the word "profitable" in today's world but it has been blackguarded by those in the business of development, building and so on. A small percentage of people have witnessed irregularities. The jury is still out and I hope those involved will be prosecuted. The majority of those in the development business are good, honest, decent, hard-working people and make a contribution to the economy, something we should all recognise.
The central feature of this Act is the county development plan, to which the Minister referred. Meetings dealing with the preparation of county development plans and the budget are some of the more important for public representatives. This is where we all need to be tuned in, particularly councillors. Each county council was required, in its role as a planning authority, to prepare a development plan within three years of October 1964. The 1963 Act required that this plan be reviewed at least once every five years and more often if necessary. It is also important that we do not wait to review any major new developments until a new plan is introduced.
Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, each planning authority is obliged to prepare a development plan for its functional area every six years. It is important to note that the making of a development plan is a function reserved for the elected members of local authorities. In that context, I was disappointed that county development plans did not get a special heading in the booklet, Local Government and the Elected Member 2004, recently published by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It is such an important matter that it should have had its own heading. However, I know it does not because I studied the booklet in detail at 3 o'clock this morning.
The Senator has an interesting social life.
The former Minister, Deputy Cullen, obviously had other things on his mind at the time such as the squandering of €60 million of taxpayers' money on the flawed e-voting system. I hope the Minister will give due consideration to different systems before he attempts to introduce them again, as I have no doubt he will.
We will be back.
The development plan must consist of a written statement, maps, drawings and plans indicating the development objective of the particular county. It must show the local authority's objectives for the development and renewal of obsolete areas; the preserving, improving and extending of amenities; and the further provision of new water supplies and sewerage services. The extension of these supplies and services such as housing, traffic improvement, land use, zoning and enveloping may also be shown on the county development plan.
It is important to remember that, once made, the development plans do not require the sanction or approval of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, although some changes in this respect have been considered by the Department. With so many new councillors elected in June, it is important for the development of counties that this message is communicated by the Department and I hope the Minister will embark on such a programme. In that context, I understand seminars are being organised by the IPA and other bodies to update councillors on legislation. Moreover, a document of this kind should be introduced and forwarded to each elected member.
All policy matters are reserved for the local authority except those which were removed by the Minister's predecessor in respect of waste management to allow him to introduce mass incineration. A number of applications are before the authorities and more are submitted daily as companies plan incineration in different parts of the country, about which the public is very concerned. I plead with the Minister to ensure that any system of waste disposal which is introduced is safe and has no health implications. This very important issue must be examined because research in the US and Europe is producing conflicting results. I ask the Minister to proceed with caution and hope he has a change of mind on this issue.
Submissions and observations by individuals and voluntary bodies can be of great help to local authorities in their task of formulating objectives for development plans. The public consultation exercise must be improved throughout the country to involve local communities, voluntary groups, associations, societies, statutory bodies, service providers and the public through the distribution of a questionnaire to aid the process. It is important that everyone is involved in the planning process so that everyone knows what is happening. A common sense approach is always important.
Naturally, public representatives will press the claims of one part of their area more than others. This positive action is to be welcomed and, if the public representatives' proposals find their way into the development plan, as is often the case, the local authority officials are obliged by law to take all necessary steps to ensure that they are implemented. I am often not happy with the implementation of the county development plans when public representatives have been fobbed off with excuses such as the lack of staff or funding. Such excuses should not be accepted by public representatives. The Minister should also ensure that funding is made available for the implementation of the plans.
As we all know, planning is not a new process. Historical records indicate that ancient cities had areas set aside for housing, temples and other activities. Walls were built around towns, some of which are still with us today. The design of some of our buildings, towns and cities gives an impression of great vision in the minds of those who gave us the artefacts which history has fortunately preserved. I am proud that one of my greatest achievements as a member of Longford County Council was to save Longford Courthouse by not allowing it to be destroyed by a wrecking ball, as planned by council officials and Fianna Fáil in County Longford — this fact is on record. Unfortunately, we have not been as vigilant or active in the preservation of our artefacts as our neighbours in Europe who have preserved small towns and villages.
Planning in the counties was not a prominent feature until relatively recently. The old Acts under which planning was governed dealt primarily with towns and cities but it was not the mandatory system we have today. Planning for anything naturally requires a common sense approach and the country developed well without laws in the past. However, the population has changed and it is important to have a process in place. However, there are buildings which are a credit to the people who constructed them in the 1700s and 1800s when there was little or no planning.
As in many other areas, Governments have taken initiatives from advances in law in other countries and decided that Irish people have to be controlled. The tombstone of rural Ireland is already being made because of too much bureaucracy and regulation in planning. I am glad the Minister made a statement to the House in this regard. Planning presents a great difficulty in the context of rural regeneration. The Planning and Development Act 2000 has discriminated against people who wish to return and settle in the rural area from where they came. Many find that the planning door is slammed in their faces as they are effectively excluded from their place of birth under the terms of the Planning and Development Act 2000. In that context, I am glad the Minister intends to revise the Bill, as I hope I correctly assume he does.
A typical case is that of a man who wanted to move his family and business back to the midlands last year. His new house on the family farm would have provided extra comfort for his aged mother and mother-in-law and the business would have provided good jobs and long-term security for a village of more than 60 people. The location and design chosen for the house were the least obstructive and the furthest away from a stream on his farm, just more than a mile from the town. He agreed to install a Puraflow sewerage system, which was not requested by the local authority. The family went to great pains to conform to the local county development plan and gained unconditional approval from the county council after approximately two months. However, An Taisce promptly appealed the decision to An Bord Pleanála and several months later the family received a letter stating that planning had been refused on the basis that it was unsustainable, isolated, constituted random development, seriously injured the amenities of the area and would affect tourism. It referred to roads in the area being too narrow and that, therefore, the proposed development would pose a danger to public health. All this appeared in a damning report indicating a refusal even though all these issues had already been addressed and had satisfied the planner when the local council granted the person planning permission.
The officials from An Taisce and the inspectors who wrote the report for An Bord Pleanála obviously were from outside the area and working to a different agenda. This was a bitter blow to the family and such a trend, if allowed to continue, will spell the death knell for our rural areas. Unfortunately, this case is not unique. I know of many similar cases and the list is growing. I hope the Minister will act to counteract this trend. He has indicated that he will do so and I sincerely hope he follows through on that. I am as concerned as anyone else about protecting the environment but, increasingly, applications are being frustrated by the refusal of authorities to grant planning permissions for single rural dwellings for an applicant's own use. This issue is frequently raised.
With farming in a depressed state it is not possible for a family to live off the land. Many farmers wish to provide sites for their sons and daughters who work in neighbouring towns. Sites in towns may cost as much as €60,000 to €70,000 while a young person might be offered a site on his or her parents' farm which would be of great assistance to that person securing a more affordable house. The Minister spoke of the number of houses being built and this is an area to which he should give due consideration.
Many applicants are frustrated in their efforts to obtain planning permission because planning regulations have become increasingly restrictive. I am very much in favour, as is the Minister, of allowing people to live in their home areas and to raise their families in the vicinity of their parents' house or the home of a friend without damaging the beauty of the countryside. I am informed by council colleagues throughout the country that too many planners and An Bord Pleanála are taking an easy way out by finding some point on which to refuse applications for planning permission. The reason given is trivial in some cases such as the need to protect agricultural land, which is a joke when one sees some of the best land in the country currently being planted. I am not calling for a policy of ribbon development but merely one of allowing people to live in the place where they grew up and commute to work in a nearby town or to work from home.
What is causing most bitterness and resentment throughout the country is that some applications can go through unchallenged, yet even if one conforms with the requirements of county development plans in every detail and spends an average of €25,000 applying for planning permission, one's hopes can be dashed by the planning authority.
The Deputy's time is well exhausted.
Applicants have lost considerable money in applying for planning permission. Organisations such as An Taisce are not qualified to properly investigate the merits of each application. Nevertheless, they are allowed to work an inside track to dictate what they consider is best for our countryside and therefore appeal against any development they choose to. The Minister should introduce whatever ministerial directive it takes to remove such personnel. Members of the public are fed up of being herded into towns and villages to suit the notions of stubborn people in some of those organisations.
I ask the Senator to conclude.
On the issue of An Bord Pleanála, we should have regional planning boards because many of the members of that board may never frequent an area outside Dublin. It is important that the people concerned know what is happening on the ground. I encourage the Minister to set up regional planning boards, if possible, the members of which would know the regions. That suggestion should be considered.
The Senator has far exceeded his time.
I wish to share my time with Senator MacSharry.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I join others in welcoming the Minister, Deputy Roche, to the Seanad and thank him for addressing us on this important debate which I am glad is taking place today. I was particularly interested in what he said about emigrants. Coming from County Galway I have a great interest in this issue, as have people from the west in general. The Minister's comments are evidence of the Government's policy on this issue and its intention to help people who wish to return to their home county. I fully support what he said.
I was a member of Galway County Council in the 1970s, as was the Acting Chairman. Serious issues arose at that time regarding planning in rural areas, particularly in Connemara, and section 4 motions were moved on occasions which the media criticised. We had to do that, however, because of the serious issues facing us. I recall one particular case where councillors from Connemara wanted to help a person to build a house. The applicant was a garda and a footballer and we were told not to mention either fact because it was all about proper planning and development. At least now the words "sustainable planning and development" are included, which is important. The position with regard to planning in the county has been helped by the 2000 Act.
The Minister made a key point on pre-planning. The consultation, which is not always available but should be engaged in, is important. People tell me there are a great number of planning applications in Galway, the second largest county in the country, but we have to sort out this question. Whether what is required is the provision of extra staff or having various offices located throughout the county and not only in the city, there should be more pre-planning and consultation. People often ask me and other public representatives why they cannot have a particular colour brick or a bay window on the house, the reason they have to change a particular window or why they cannot have a two storey house. These questions sometimes arise too late when the planning permission is close to being granted. That aspect is vitally important.
The Minister did not refer to An Taisce but Senator Bannon did. The Minister spoke recently about An Taisce's obsession with one-off housing and I hope it will back off on that issue because one-off housing is important in rural areas. An Taisce does good work, however, as I have often said in this House, particularly in respect of awarding green flag status. Some 40 schools in County Galway have that status and other good work has been done regarding the blue flag status. That is very important.
The Acting Chairman will be aware that in Ballinasloe recently there were objections on environmental grounds to a hotel project. I hope that type of issue could be dealt with more quickly and that the next application submitted for planning permission by that hotel will be granted because it is an important development for the town and we should encourage that sort of development.
The former Minister, Deputy Cullen, brought Dúchas under the auspices of the Department and I pay tribute to him for his work in that regard. That appeared to be a welcome development but again certain issues arise regarding SACs and certain flora and fauna which have caused problems. I hope to raise on the Adjournment tomorrow evening the question of people who found that their land was designated as far back as 1998 or 1999. They would have received very little money for that designation, yet it has adversely affected them, particularly in respect of planning.
The Minister is correct in what he said about the huge increase in housing, planning applications and the number of permissions that were granted. We should bear in mind, however, that in many circumstances applications are withdrawn because the applicants know they will be refused. That figure may not be taken into consideration when we are talking about the activity in question. Obviously, the withdrawal of applications happens because there is some confrontation; we should examine some of the reasons those applications are withdrawn. One reason is that some local authorities refuse to allow backland development. Such development can be very good in a town and I have seen some very good examples throughout the country. Some county councils have no time for it whatsoever.
Another reason applications are withdrawn concerns the ban on building within a radius of 1.5 miles of a town or village. This has caused problems. The question of site distance has always been with us. If county councillors suggest that we build houses in the towns and villages, they should bear in mind that we do not have water and sewerage schemes, particularly the latter, in all our towns and villages. The proposed clusters of houses, which I believe are a good idea, cannot be developed without the availability of water and sewerage facilities. It is important that we invest in such schemes, some of which could cost between €1.5 million to €2 million. If we cannot build on the primary and secondary routes and are forced to build elsewhere, we should do so in a tasteful way, as the Minister stated. I agree fully with what he said about development in the countryside.
The Minister mentioned wind farms. Just 12 months ago there was a landslide in Derrybrien in south Galway. Fish were killed, there was much environmental damage and there could have been a major effect on the water supply for Gort. This highlights that people have both good and bad experiences with wind farms. The issue is still in the news this week, which suggests that there is a very strong case for consultation on the development of wind farms. We do not yet really know the reasons behind the landslide in Derrybrien. A similar landslide occurred in Pollatomish near Belmullet in Mayo. It is important that we investigate further the causes of landslides. The question of offshore wind farms also arises because they may represent a more popular option.
One point in particular that I noted in the Minister's speech concerned spatial planning. I am glad we have a spatial plan whereby towns have been designated as hub towns or gateways. This has been talked about since the 1950s and 1960s. Towns obviously want industry, transport and health services and therefore it is important that we work on this given that we now have a spatial strategy.
It is significant that most local authorities have extra staff working on the very important issue of planning enforcement. There has been an increase in the number of convictions of people who are breaking the law in this area. The Minister will be familiar with the issue of quarries in his own county and the west. Better regulations should apply to the operation of quarries. I know all quarries now have to register with local authorities, which is very important, but the number of complaints I receive about large trucks and quarry activities is increasing. I hope the Minister will consider the control of quarries. In response to this debate, he or the Minister of State might outline whether more investigation can be carried out into the means of dealing with those who are operating illegally.
I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him on his recent appointment. I look forward to working with him over the coming years. I am delighted to have the opportunity to make a few points on the important subject of planning, on which we all have so much to say. In the two years in which I have been a Member of this House, I have looked forward to the opportunity to speak on planning.
Notwithstanding that we all appreciate that the person who comes up with the optimum planning system will probably win a Nobel prize because planning is a highly subjective, variable and difficult issue to solve, I have no doubt that there is a better planning system than the one we are currently operating. The former Minister made great strides in beginning to tackle the problem of one-off housing, but there is still much to be done. Rural planning is not the only issue. There are many others, including commercial and urban planning.
To be facetious, coming from the west I contend that people need to realise that the west and rural Ireland generally do not just comprise a weekend or vacation retreat for urban dwellers or non-national holidaymakers who wish to come in search of the likes of Peig Sayers in a shawl, with a pint of Guinness in hand and pipe in mouth, looking out over a half door——
Is the Senator including the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in that?
——and in search of the local store, around which we all huddle, selling all amenities. Far from that, it was rural and regional Ireland that built the Dublin cities and Celtic tigers of today. The inhabitants of rural and regional areas wish, as is their right, to develop and evolve in a natural and progressive way such that they will have the amenities they desire in their towns and developing cities and that rural areas will be repopulated, specifically County Leitrim and County Sligo, from where I come. A number of bodies seem to have had difficulty accepting this in recent years.
An Taisce has been subject to considerable criticism. Some 99.9% of this criticism relates to planning and I fully support it. I have called and still call for An Taisce to be de-prescribed as an organisation in the planning process. While I know the Minister has many points to consider, I recommend very strongly that he give every possible consideration to this issue. As Senator Kitt stated, An Taisce does some very good work, but it should not be a prescribed organisation in the context of planning. It could still be involved in initiatives such the awarding of green flags, Irish Business Against Litter or Green Week, and we could still give it State aid to carry out this brilliant and very beneficial work. An Taisce has had its chance in respect of planning and it has fallen short. It is representative of a very small number of people in the country and most of the planning policies it is introducing seem to be highly obstructionist and objectionist and seem to have less to do with worthwhile conservation than with an attempt to block the natural evolution of rural and regional areas.
The way An Taisce objects is very highly organised in that, more often than not, it lodges objections in the last hour of the last applicable day, thereby causing the maximum possible harm to a young couple who have got a site for a house on a farm from their parents. It also lodges objections to much bigger commercial developments in the last hour of the last day. In a recent application for a development worth some €20 million in Sligo town, the developers in question negotiated frequently with An Taisce from beginning to end over a nine month period. They met all the costs involved in lodging their application but in the last hour of the last day an objection was lodged by An Taisce. Sure enough, An Bord Pleanála agreed and the development was scuttled. This is absolutely inconceivable. We are giving dictatorial powers to an organisation whose members are elected by nobody and represent an absolute minority in our society. This must be dealt with once and for all.
I fully accept that we need an independent body to oversee the planning system. However, to say something very unusual, which I am sure will not happen too often in the House, I agree with Senator Bannon's call for an examination of regional planning boards. If An Bord Pleanála was regionalised, it would at least be a little more in touch with the people on the ground. There have been great development plans in recent years, drawn up in the correct way with public consultation. Bodies made their submissions through local representatives and draft development plans and managers' reports were produced. They could not have been more democratic or representative of the people, yet when planning permission is granted by local authorities, it goes before An Bord Pleanála and is sometimes overturned against its inspectors' wishes, which is ridiculous. I would be happy if I got something similar to Senator Bannon's proposal. A review of An Bord Pleanála is needed with a view to regionalisation and reform. There is no reason not to proscribe An Taisce because it would be a positive move.
I would like to deal with the right to object generally. I have no difficulty with people wishing to object to anything provided it directly affects them and they live in the area. It is neither fair nor just that I, Senator MacSharry, could, for example, object to a development in Cork by Senator McCarthy. The people in the area should be allowed to determine what they want in an area. Common sense and pragmatism must become prime components of planning. Planners in all local authorities must be cognisant of the increased costs on developers, whether private individuals trying to build a home or commercial developers. They must be proactive rather than just throwing back application forms. An agent should be informed three weeks in advance that the application permission will not be granted unless (a), (b), (c) and (d) are dealt with, rather than throwing it back at a cost of an extra €100,000 to a commercial concern or €5,000 to a private individual.
I ask the Minister to refer in his reply to the infrastructure Bill which is currently being talked about. It is important to debate this Bill in the context of roads initiatives and infrastructure throughout the country.
The debate should not conclude at 1.30 p.m. Many Senators wish to speak and we have been asking to debate the issue for a long time. I ask if the Leader might come to the House and extend the time.
We will contact the Leader who will make a decision.
I welcome the Minister to the House and wish him well in a difficult and challenging portfolio. I am sure he will give it his best effort as he did in his previous responsibilities.
It is important to note that the issues we are debating today touch on everyone, including city and country, town and community. It is a bit like neutrality in the Minister's last portfolio. No one has ever given the matter real thought. In an ideal world, An Taisce would have an important role to play and in an ideal world it would be important to monitor what is being done in the development area. We should remember two facts. Some 150 years ago, Ireland had double the population it has today. It is worth remembering this in terms of people asking where should they build. More important, the Netherlands is about the size of Munster and has three times our population, yet no one could describe it as a crowded space.
We need to stop the urban sprawl and take a proper approach to people who wish to live in the countryside and build in their local area. We should get the issue of one-off housing properly determined in a way that will suit everyone. That will mean taking difficult decisions and saying to farmers who pretend they are looking for planning permission for their son who wants to sell a site for extraordinary money that this is not acceptable. We must impose conditions on planning applications which will be of help.
I agree with many of the points made by Senator MacSharry. I would ask the Minister to do the following. Without changing the right of appeal, the Minister should shorten the timeframe, even though I know people will object to this. This morning we discussed the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. We have had to shorten the timeframe to ensure people can get their claims dealt with adequately and quickly. The point made by Senator MacSharry is crucial. If things are postponed at the last minute, business plans and house plans go out the window and everyone suffers. I saw a report recently on RTE television about a house which was built in the middle of a planning controversy. At the end of the report, the RTE reporter more or less invited everyone in the world to object to the proposal to seek retention of the building just because it belonged to a Minister. This was feeding into a particular attitude, whether it is right or wrong.
I love the Burren and Ballyvaughan. I supported strongly here, against much opposition, the proposed Burren interpretative centre, which was never built. That is a loss to the Burren and west Clare. I took the same view on Ionad Oidhreacht in Corca Dhuibhne. These issues are important in order to give a focus to an area as long as they are done properly and with taste. There is an arts college and Italian school and restaurant in Ballyvaughan. I have visited the very nice vegetarian restaurant because I love Ballyvaughan and that part of the country. It had a problem with planning and applied for retention. After going through the process, retention was granted by the council. the decision was appealed to An Bord Pleanála and has just been rejected. I am trying to put this matter in context. The appeal was made by a competitor. There is something wrong in this case because it has nothing to do with planning. I am not making a case for or against this project; I am just pointing out that this is where things go wrong.
People who do not live in an area should not have the same rights as people who do. Many people on the east coast of Ireland like to preserve the west coast as a place they can visit occasionally. They want to keep it as it is and make us a major zoo, which they can visit from time to time and remember Ireland as it was while they go back to the comfort of the suburbs in Dublin. Much of this goes on and should not be allowed to happen. We should clamp down on bad planning where it occurs. We should encourage councils to implement the kind of proposals the Minister's party spoke about in regard to one-off housing. I do not know what is being done about this. The Minister made a good speech on three occasions but I do not see how it is working out. This is not just an issue in country and west coast areas. I live in north County Dublin in the middle of a farming community. The man next door to me who owns a couple of hundred acres wants his son to build on the farm but he cannot get planning permission. This is happening everywhere.
This policy needs to be examined carefully. I ask the Minister to introduce consolidating legislation to shorten the time allowed to lodge an appeal. If people lodge an appeal, which will potentially cost a business person or a council huge amounts of money, they should be required to do so in a much shorter time so that people know what is happening. There is the example of the disaster of Carrickmines. I have a stronger conservation and environmental record than many people who wear green wellies and tweed jackets. However, we must be practical. I asked qualified archaeologist friends of mine about Carrickmines and they all came up with the same answer. They said we have learned all we could from Carrickmines; there is no longer anything much to be preserved there. I am aware this is heresy to others, but my friends said they have learned everything from the site; this is also what happens in other countries. Certain buildings and edifices must be retained. My friends said that the Carrickmines site should be used for learning purposes, but after that it has no further function. We need to take difficult decisions and be prepared to justify them. It is not fair to criticise An Taisce if we are not prepared to support it when it takes decisions that may be slightly unpopular. It is right as often as it is wrong. We must examine what is happening in regard to local authority decisions.
Senator MacSharry made a valid point about the connection between a local person and a non-local person. There was a whole spate of planning proposals in County Kerry to change the county development plan and none of the proposals came from the area. We introduced legislation some years ago to stop this happening. People try to do deals which we all know about. Dare I mention the Minister's county, which has been in the news recently?
We must examine how planning permissions are granted. We talk about building a crescent or group of houses, rather than single houses. It will work if people are given a bit of space in a field, so they live in a cluster rather than in one house.
Where I live in north County Dublin, everybody drives into the city to work. There are accountants and architects who do not need to travel to the city, but that is where their offices are situated. It is not possible to get permission to build a retail block in an area zoned for agricultural use. There is nothing wrong with zoning an area for a cluster of houses and possibly two offices, along with a farm produce shop or a veterinary or doctor's surgery. We can build amenities so there are living communities and not just areas which are dead during the day. The planners will not agree with me.
Much needs to be done, but it requires someone to take a hard look at the situation, make difficult decisions and ensure those decisions are implemented. That means standing up to people on every side of the argument. It is an unpopular role, but the Minister can be thorny and he is capable of taking on people from both sides of the argument. He did not take on the job to be a populist, he took it on in order to do it well.
Road and rail connections also need to be developed. With regard to rail connections, we should not be swayed by the arguments of non-visionary people who tell us the population of a place and the likely usage of railways. As the Minister is aware, particularly in his area of Greystones, once the service is provided actual usage far outstrips the prognosis of so-called economists who have said how many would use it. Recently I gave an example of the commuter line between Ennis and Limerick which has quadrupled in terms of usage since it opened last December. This happened without local stations, which will now be built in Newmarket-on-Fergus, Sixmilebridge and Bunratty. I am not even mentioning what would happen if there was a connection to Shannon Airport.
These are the types of planning issues we must consider. By allowing people to move, one can take them off the roads, making the roads safer and making planning better.
Approximately six months ago, Senator Kitt made an impassioned appeal in this House to the then Minister for Transport to ensure the interconnector across Athenry junction was put in place so the Sligo-Limerick line was still viable. He was ignored and it was not put in place. That is how we kill our infrastructure. It then impacts on planning because people will not build a house there. The infrastructure of an area is withered and nobody wants to live there.
This similarly applies to the issue of schools. I often make this argument. People ask why two local schools cannot be amalgamated. The difference between one parish and another is significant in Irish society. We are culturally based on parish and village life. If people are moved to a school with a different patron saint, a different football team and different match day colours, something is lost as well as gained. I am not suggesting we should be governed by this consideration, but there are issues which must be taken into account when planning.
There are deep, cultural issues which bind us together and they should also be part of what informs planning decisions. If people cannot live and work in their own place, then planning is not working. It should not simply create more polluted, sprawling and crowded cities.