Tuesday, 3 February 2004

Ceisteanna (12)

Eamon Gilmore

Ceist:

138 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the reasons he did not act in almost one third of the cases in which he had been urged by his Department's heritage officials to appeal planning cases to An Bord Pleanála, the reason he has decided to deal with this matter personally rather than leave such issues to officials who have knowledge and experience in this area and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2992/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (37 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

Final decisions on planning applications are a matter for the relevant local planning authority or, in the case of planning appeals, An Bord Pleanála. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is a statutory consultee in the case of any proposed development which may have an impact on built or natural heritage. The Minister is accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas and the public in respect of the exercise of this function.

On receipt of planning applications from a planning authority, an assessment is first undertaken by the relevant archaeological, architectural or national parks and wildlife service personnel. The procedures in place to facilitate the consideration of applications include consideration of a recommended response by the relevant line management. Some recommendations may be submitted for consideration at a more senior management level. In the final decision, a recommendation may be adopted in full, amended or rejected. The procedures are designed to ensure that the full implications of all applications are considered and that applications of a similar type are treated in a similar manner.

Where consideration is being given to recommending that a planning authority should refuse permission, require the undertaking of an environmental impact assessment or lodge an appeal to An Bord Pleanála, a submission is made to the Minister under whose statutory authority the comments are being made. In deciding whether or not to recommend that a proposed development should not proceed, consideration is also given to the use of other methods to ensure the protection of natural and built heritage. It is my belief that such methods have been underutilised. This course could involve availing of powers under the National Monuments Acts.

While my input into planning cases is limited to considerations of habitat and built heritage protection, the responsible exercise of this role by a Minister involves taking a balanced view in the overall public interest of the merits of the various possible interventions. Since my appointment as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, my Department has appealed far more cases than previously. A total of 19 planning decisions have been appealed to An Bord Pleanála which constitutes a strong track record.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for agreeing to take this question. Of the 28 planning applications which his officials recommended should be appealed to An Bord Pleanála, the Minister decided not to appeal nine. Did the Minister receive any communication from the developers concerned in respect of the nine applications or from any person acting on their behalf? Did he receive representations of any kind on the proposed developments in those nine cases? Given his rejection of the professional advice of his officials, did the Minister seek or receive alternative professional opinion or advice on the basis of which he made his decision on the nine applications in question?

The Deputy is suggesting that I rejected——

I am only asking a question.

The Deputy's assertion is that I rejected professional advice.

I am not asserting anything.

I did not. I took all——

I ask that the Minister answer my two questions.

I would answer, if the Deputy allowed me. I took advice from various sections. The perception the Deputy is conveying externally is that I sit in some office locked away on my own and receive a series of files.

The Minister should answer my questions.

I want to make it clear that I do not do that. It is important to record the fact.

If the Minister does not answer, we will draw conclusions.

As the Deputy is well aware, I sit down with senior management to discuss all of these issues right across the system. Members from all sides of the House constantly come to me about all sorts of heritage issues in their local areas. Some even try to raise planning issues with me in which instances I inform them immediately that I have no function in the planning system. People raise issues arising in their constituencies in respect of a range of matters on a constant basis.

Did anyone raise the issues in question?

I do not have any notes in front of me. I will not stand here and say no one did. I will check the files and if someone did, I will confirm for the Deputy what the position was. I have no difficulty with that as I wish it to be clear that I looked at the implications and our vitally important heritage aims in each of the 28 cases, 19 of which were appealed. I considered how best we could observe our heritage functions and protect our heritage sites. That is the view I have taken.

The questions I asked the Minister were very specific. I will repeat the two to which he did not reply. The Minister said he will come back to me on the question of representations, which I appreciate. Did the Minister receive any communication from the developers involved in any of the nine cases?

Was there communication from anyone acting on behalf of developers?

Not to my knowledge.

In the nine cases in question, the Minister decided not to accept the professional advice available to him from his Department's heritage officials. Did the Minister obtain or seek any alternative professional advice on the basis of which he decided not to appeal?

The basis of the second part of the Deputy's questioning is inaccurate. I have answered the first part. He suggests I do not take professional advice from my Department.

In these nine cases.

There was differing professional advice available.

I have a copy of the recommendations.

If the Deputy is asking whether or not I went outside the Department to obtain further advice, the answer is "No".

The Minister was given specific advice concerning archaeological and architectural matters. If he did not receive alternative professional advice, on what basis did he decide not to appeal or accept the advice and recommendations of his officials?

That is very easy to answer — I made this point in my answer to the Deputy. There is a whole range of issues under the National Monuments Acts and the Heritage Act where I can ensure that the same objectives are achieved. I will answer the Deputy directly. I am not absolutely certain as I do not have the files in front of me. However, I recall that one of the objections, which was in north Dublin, involved the development of a great deal of housing.

There were 1,100 houses.

Yes, 1,100 houses. I answer questions in the House every day of the week about our efforts to build houses. I took the view that there should be a balance between protection of the heritage on one side and other Government policy issues on the other.

The decision was only toappeal.

The Deputy is not saying that, in several of the cases to which he refers, we sent the proposal back to the local authority concerned and said that we would not accept the scale of the facility in question but that if it were substantially scaled back, it would meet the requirements of heritage. That was what happened. Some officials met those requirements after doing that and taking account of the response from the local authority through their planning system in discussions with it. My officials said that they did not like it anyway. That is not how I operate. We operate on the basis of a wider-ranging discussion in the Department on all issues. The advice to me from around the table was that the scale was the problem. It was resolved.

That concludes Priority Questions.

I am not a rubber stamp and I will not be one for anyone.

The Minister is accountable. He should not get tetchy with me.

I am not doing so. However, the point was why I engaged in this. I discovered that objections were made in my name about which I knew nothing.

The time for Priority Questions has now expired.