Wednesday, 4 February 2004

Ceisteanna (43, 44, 45)

Bernard J. Durkan

Ceist:

135 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs his plans to ensure the survival of rural populations with particular reference to the right of family members of rural dwellers to live in the countryside; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3187/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Gay Mitchell

Ceist:

195 Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the progress to date on the rural aspects of the national spatial strategy; and if he will report on the follow up discussions initiated by him between his Department and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the issue. [3240/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Seymour Crawford

Ceist:

206 Mr. Crawford asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the involvement he has in the new proposals being brought forward by the Government for once-off rural housing; his views on development charges on homes in the CLÁR areas where it is clear there is great difficulty in holding populations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3194/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (28 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 135, 195 and 206 together.

My Department is committed to maintaining the maximum number of people in rural areas and to strengthening rural communities economically, socially and culturally. Rural development policy is set out in the White Paper on Rural Development which is being implemented primarily through the national development plan.

As pointed out in the national spatial strategy, in many rural areas the combination of a high dependency on a changing agricultural base, a scarcity of employment opportunities and resultant outward migration, has weakened their demographic, economic, social and physical structure.

My Department is represented on the interdepartmental committee on implementation of the national spatial strategy. During 2003, my Department contributed to implementing the strategy, through, for example, the CLÁRprogramme which is targeted at particularlydisadvantaged rural areas and supports the national spatial strategy objectives. In addition, I asked the Western Development Commission to co-ordinate a strategy for towns on radial routes in the west so as to maximise the benefit to the west of the NSS in regard to major roads investment, the strategic rail review and decentralisation. In addition, I commissioned a review of support for enterprise in rural areas, the report on which I expect to have later this month.

The national spatial strategy addresses many of my concerns in regard to such issues as rural housing. The rural settlement policy framework contained in the NSS, which represents overall Government policy on rural housing, aims to sustain and renew established rural communities, while strengthening the structure of villages and smaller settlements to support local economies. In this way, it seeks to ensure the key assets in rural areas are protected to support quality of life and that rural settlement policies are responsive to the differing local circumstances in different areas.

My colleague in Government, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, accepts that it is vitally important that there is clarity and consistency in the implementation by planning authorities of Government policy in regard to rural housing through their own development plans and in the operation of the development control system under planning legislation. This is the purpose of the guidelines on rural housing which the Minister, DeputyCullen, intends to bring forward to deal with this issue. These are at an advanced stage of preparation.

I understand from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that under the Planning and Development Act 2000, all planning authorities must draw up a development contribution scheme in respect of public infrastructure and facilities provided by, or on behalf of, the local authority that benefit development in the area. These schemes must be adopted by 10 March 2004. It is the elected members of each local authority who decide on the level of contributions, the types of development to which they will apply and exemptions from the scheme, if any, for their own functional area. I am advised that all planning authorities have drafted development contribution schemes and as at 21 January 2004, 14 city and county councils had adopted their schemes.

Having listened to the Minister's reply to this and a previous question, many aspects of which I identify and agree with, will he indicate when he intends to take steps to ensure the right of a person born and raised in a rural community to live there and ensure he or she is not informed by the local authority that he or she should live in a settlement in some town and in a house he or she cannot afford to buy when he or she could quite conveniently avail of a site readily available from his or her family? I agree with the sentiments the Minister expressed but the time has come to make decisions. When will those decisions be made? I ask the Minister not to push them into the future because nothing is happening.

If nothing is happening, it is not because the Government is not taking action. There was a difficulty with the 1997 sustainable development guidelines which, at the very least, led to obfuscation as to what urban generated development was. Planning authorities defined urban generated development as anything other than people functionally engaged in agriculture, which was nonsense. The majority of people living in rural areas are not functionally engaged in agriculture. Chapter 5 of the national spatial strategy, which is Government policy for the next 20 years, clearly lays down the ground rules for rural housing. It states that anybody with a connection with a place, either by way of background or by employment, full-time or part-time, is entitled, subject to good planning and design, to build in the countryside. Maybe we are missing the next step in the building block. It is now up to each local authority to write that clearly into its county plan. If it does not do that, we should not blame the planners but councillors from all parties. There is now no way a planner can state it is contrary to Government policy, which was the mantra we heard until then. This was clearly supported in a High Court action. There is an absolute obligation under the law for the planner to put the plan into force as written. The planner cannot rewrite the plan as she or he does not have that legal authority.

We have, therefore, put all the blocks in place and in some counties it is working well because the councils put the second block in place and made sure their planners adhered to the law. It would appear that has not happened in other counties and Deputies should not blame the Government for that.

What is Government policy on rural housing? The Taoiseach made a speech in Sligo and when I queried him on it, he said he meant a farmer's son or daughter could get permission. It is time we cleared this matter up. Does the Minister accept it is logical, in an area he has designated for CLÁR and which is clearly identified as one that has suffered serious depopulation, to ask somebody who wants to live in it to pay significant development charges? Is there no Government thinking on this matter to ensure those areas are allowed to develop and to maintain their populations? Has the Minister been involved in this matter to ensure the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government does not bring forward a single regulation, clause or otherwise on an all-Ireland basis because the situation is different in various areas? There is no village in my parish of Aghabog which the Minister visited; it is totally rural. I wish to make sure a common sense approach is taken and not a global one which will be all things but which will mean nothing.

We are straying very much into questions to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. We all have a duty not to get involved in obfuscation. Any Deputy who wants to know the Government policy on rural housing would be well advised to go back to his or her office, to look up the national spatial strategy on the web and read chapter 5. I have outlined it twice today but there is a little more detail in it. I have, however, given Deputies the essence of what is in it and it is quite clear. Anybody with a connection with a rural area by way of background or employment, part-time or full-time, is entitled, subject to good planning and design, to get planning permission.

That is not happening.

That is Government policy. I explained how one would make sure that policy is delivered on the ground. If some local authorities are not doing that, they are not using the implement they have been given. In fairness to my county council, with which I have arguments on some issues, it is, a bheag nó a mhór, adhering to it.

The issue of development charges is clear. Under the law, one cannot be charged for that with which one is not provided. In rural areas, for example, one must pay for public water if one is provided with it, which is not unreasonable. If, however, one is not provided with a sewerage service, one cannot be charged a development fee. If a local authority charged a person for seven years for a service it had not provided, the law provides that the local authority must return the money, with interest, to the person in question. Similarly with amenities——

Local authorities never return money to anyone.

The law is clear in this regard; one could take a local authority to court for not returning money. Amenity charges are an issue for local authorities to decide. The level of charges and the way in which they are structured is a matter for each local authority rather than central government. The original intention of this measure was to ensure that those who benefited from amenities paid for by the State, namely, the taxpayer, having bought land at agricultural rates which was later rezoned, made their contribution to the costs of the provision of necessary services on their sites.

As a former member of Kerry County Council, I am an expert on this issue because it is one of the difficulties we have on my local authority, as demonstrated by the widespread use of section 4 motions. Deputies share the Minister's opinion on once-off rural housing. Planners interpret county development plans in their own way in many cases. The Minister may shake his head but it is the reality.

The Minister's argument, if I have interpreted correctly, is that the only way to ensure that people in rural areas will be able to obtain a site at an affordable price is to require persons selling sites to sell to local people only. How can anyone implement such a measure without coming into conflict with the provision on private property in the Constitution, which, I presume, allows property owners to do as they wish with private land? How can local authorities or the Government prevent someone from selling a site to whom they want?

A planner has no legal right or power, provided the plan is legal, to do other than apply the plan as written. If a planner proves that the words a person has written meant something else, the simple course of action for that person is to change the plan to make it mean what he or she intended. I am fed up listening to the argument that certain planners defy the law. If that is the case, they should be made amenable to it. Perhaps the reason the problem arises is that, when push came to shove in the cases in question, some people were not willing to do the hard work or read the small print to ensure the plan was watertight.

I am surprised at a Labour Party Deputy framing a question on property rights in the terms used. The Constitution is clear on the issue of private property rights. All private property rights are subject to the exigencies of the common good. If that were not the case, we could not have planning law. We all know one cannot build a 50 storey office block or make hundreds of other changes on one's private property. The only matter the Constitution makes absolute in private property is that it is not within the power of the State to abolish it. It has, however, a right to delimit its use, which the House does regularly in the laws it passes — for example, on special areas of conservation and so forth. I do not accept the argument that we cannot impose restrictions on those who may obtain planning in certain areas.

The reason I asked the question is that I do not want people to be misled or conclude that they may be able to take certain courses of action as a result of what may appear in print on this issue. The term "common good" needs to be defined, not only, as is usually the case, in the construction of roads and so on. It is not defined in planning.

It is clear from the Minister's reply that the Government must govern in this issue. Planners are not delivering Government policy in their planning decisions. It is time the Minister and his colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government issued a directive to county councils stating that Government policy, as outlined in the spatial strategy, is the way forward. While I acknowledge the Minister's commitment to this issue, it is unreasonable that nothing has happened in this area. The Government has been talking about the issue since it came into office but there is no finality about it.

Will the Minister ensure that, when the planning guidelines are issued, positive discrimination takes place in favour of rural areas in which the population is stagnating or declining? If possible, we should discriminate to make it easier for people to live in disadvantaged and distant communities rather than communities nearer to large towns. Deputy Crawford made the important point that one cannot have one rule for all but must discriminate positively and selectively in favour of rural areas.

The Government has defined the common good, which is what the spatial strategy is about. We have stated that the bias must be in favour of local people or people working locally. I do not know how often we have to repeat this before others accept that this is laid down in black and white in cold print.

Some local authorities have listened carefully and use the clear statement in the spatial strategy to ensure their county plans are specific on this subject. I congratulate, in particular, councillors in Galway who wrote the relevant sections of the spatial strategy into the county plan to reinforce the sub-rules they made. This was done to ensure that, if any planner argued that the rules were contrary to Government policy, councillors could point to the relevant section of the spatial strategy. Is Deputy O'Dowd indicating that county councillors are not including Government policy in their plans?

Yes, planning applications are being refused on the basis of the national spatial strategy. The Minster should now govern and insist that Government policy in this regard is paramount in all councils, not only in those such as Galway that he acknowledged.

It is paramount but we must——

As the Minister responsible, he must make this happen.

We have laid out the national policy. What appears to be happening according to the Deputy, and it surprises me, is that some councillors and councils, as opposed to council officials, are not implementing the spatial strategy, despite all the shouting. If they write the strategy into their plan, a planner has no choice but to implement it. If we can persuade everybody to stay calm and follow a three step process, we will get there. We could shout forever about the issue, but most politics is about slow, step-by-step work.

Will the Minister issue a directive giving effect to it?

A directive has been issued. It is the spatial strategy.

In that case, it is being ignored and the Minister will have to use his authority.

As the Minister outlined, the national spatial strategy is being implemented, and certainly in Kerry County Council's development plan. There are, however, problems. For instance, on one side of the road from Castleisland to Tralee, a national primary route which the Minister knows well, 40 or 50 trucks per hour access the road from the John A. Woods quarry company, while on the other side, where there are three agricultural entrances, a person who owns eight acres of land cannot obtain planning permission. This is an example of the anomalies in the system.

From a rural point of view, nothing is being done to facilitate local working class people who want to live in their area but cannot afford sites. The knock-on effect of this is that they join the housing list and the Government must pay €140,000 to build a council house to accommodate them. If the Government could provide a mechanism to offer such people an interest-free loan, they could buy a site and live in their own area.

The reason I tabled a question on this issue was that the Minister has specific responsibility for rural affairs.

That is the reason I asked the Minister to state his involvement with this Government proposal which comes from the Taoiseach down. I ask the Minister to assure the House that he will continue to have an involvement. He has demonstrated clearly that he is committed to this. I am very worried that there will be a single policy for all.

I ask the Minister for his advice on how I should deal with the cases of three young people in my county who want to build on their own family property but are being refused on technicalities by Monaghan County Council.

Despite the fact that most people would consider Cork city to be an urban constituency, there is a deal of the rural in it also. As Deputies O'Shea and Moynihan-Cronin stated, the Minister needs to clarify the issue of the interpretation of the development plan and that needs to be done urgently. It is far wider than the interest of the common good because the common good is very difficult to define——

A question, please.

I have a question. It is very difficult to define when it comes to the single, one-off dwelling; it is much easier when dealing with a road, for instance. In Cork County Council's development plan, a farmer's son who has no connection with the land other than he was born in a particular area, has no difficulty getting planning permission but the farm labourer's son who may have the county council acre is refused point blank. That is an issue of discrimination. In order to ensure rural areas continue to be populated, is the Minister prepared to issue clarification to county councils who are implementing this policy before someone takes them to court and they are found guilty of discrimination?

On the issue raised by Deputy Ferris, we must ensure that lives are not unnecessarily endangered. In County Galway, planning permission for such a case as outlined by the Deputy will not be granted for land opening on to a national primary route if there is an alternative opening on to a secondary or smaller road. This is purely for safety reasons. Some years ago, An Foras Forbartha proved quite conclusively that the more openings on a road to accommodate houses, the greater the risk of accidents. We must always look at the big picture and be honest with ourselves.

In reply to Deputy Crawford, as I have not seen the applications in question, I cannot say why they were refused on technicalities. I reiterate that as far as Government policy is concerned, in the BMW region such as the Deputy's constituency, in an area of non-urban influence and where the person wishes to live permanently, that person should get planning permission, subject to good planning and design and as long as he or she does not build in a bog hole, for instance.

I was very involved in the spatial strategy and in the wording of this section. The words "farmer's son or daughter" or any other, do not appear. The phrase used is, "those with a connection with the place by way of background." That word is crucial. I am tired of this argument about the farmer's son when I know that more and more young people growing up in the countryside are not going to be the sons of farmers but the sons of somebody with a half-acre site. The spatial strategy is clear on that issue and I advise the Deputy to study it.

There also seems to be a problem in the case quoted by Deputy Lynch in that even though the spatial strategy is not the interpretation wished for by either of us, the county plan, which is not the prerogative of the manager, but 100% the prerogative of the councillors, has not yet aligned itself with the spatial strategy. I do not know when the Cork county plan is due for review but I suggest the Deputy line up the county plan to exactly reflect the spatial strategy. Her problem is then solved in one go and the county manager has no option but to apply the plan as written.

There was a court case which tested the issue of whether they had a right to rewrite the plan in their own head contrary to what the council had done and the answer was clearly given in the High Court case, as I interpret it, that they had to comply with the plan as long as it was legal.

As the following are oral questions, not more than 18 minutes is allotted to them.