Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 13 December 2016
Select Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government
Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016: Committee Stage
For the information of members, there are typographical errors in amendments Nos. 72 and 82. In amendment No. 72 the reference to the "Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015" should read "Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015". In amendment No. 82 the text at the end of the third line is missing the word "of". It should end with the words "on the making of".
I thank the Deputy, but I still have to read it. The sitting will be suspended at 3.30 p.m. and resume in committee room No. 1 at 5.30 p.m. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Damien English, and his officials. I ask members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off or left in flight mode for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment, even when left in silent mode. I refer members to the list of amendments which will be grouped for the purposes of debate. It has been circulated.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 6, between lines 5 and 6, to insert the following:“ “The Aarhus Convention” means the Convention on Access to Information, Public Prticipation In Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters done at Aarhus, Denmark, on 25 June 1998;”.”.
As this amendment is connected with amendments Nos. 17 and 125, I would have thought it would have been grouped with them.
The substantive discussion will be on amendment No. 17. It would, therefore, be proper to discuss amendment No. 2 with that amendment. It would be quite academic if amendment No. 2 was discussed on its own.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 6, between lines 5 and 6, to insert the following:“Report on the causes of delays in the construction of housing
3. The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government is to report within three months of the enactment of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016 on the causes of delays in the construction of housing, including—(a) delays caused by the hoarding of land by landowners and developers,and on the measures needed to address them.”.
(b) delays attributable to developers during the planning and pre-planning process,
(c) delays related to tendering rules and processes in the case of local authority own development,
The purpose of the amendment is to ask the Minister to present a report on the causes of delays in the planning process. Our information, from our experience as members of councils and reports from the Irish Planning Institute, is that the causes of delays in housing coming on stream have more to do with builders than anything else. There is a huge amount of land being sat on, for which planning permissions have been granted. Dublin City Council has seen figures that suggest there are 28,000 planning permissions, with thousands more in the pipeline. Dublin is not the only location in which there is homelessness and a housing crisis, but it is a key location. The conclusion is that developers are hoarding land. the head of NAMA says the same thing, even about NAMA. This issue came up at the housing committee and I hope the work done by it will count for something.
In one council area, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, there were no delays whatsoever. Councillors believe delays are not caused at local council level, although a council may delay a project by four weeks or so.
The Minister presented the need for overturning many of the checks on developers at local council and community level as being vital, however, we have not seen the evidence presented. Even the Irish Planning Institute has made that point, so it is not confined to people on the left. We think it is vital that the Minister conduct an investigation within three months of the enactment of the Bill outlining the cause of delays and the percentage attributable to developers, landholders and the planning process and then present a report. In this regard the tendering process is a key delay of local authority house building. The local authorities are not going ahead with house building under this Government but when they do the obligation on them to tender out the contract to build is a cause of delay and acts as an impediment to houses coming on stream.
During the 1970s when between 8,000 and 9,000 houses were built a year to resolve the then housing crises, it was done by direct labour as the local authority councils had their own staff and would have employed a builder to do certain aspects. The local authority process was much more ready to go. We have a housing crisis and we should not be putting neoliberal obligations on local authorities that they must put the contract out to the private sector to build. It was for those reasons that I tabled this amendment.
I support amendment No. 3. I do not want to repeat the arguments I made on the Second Stage debate, but at that point I had raised my concern that the evidence presented to members suggested there were alternative ways of shortening the length of time it would take for the 15 large planning applications that were cited on the spreadsheet to be processed. There are on average 33 weeks spent of pre-planning and I questioned whether consideration was given to tightening up the statutory timeframe for pre-planning within the existing local authority decision framework. Equally, it takes an average of 29 weeks for the local authority to make the decision in those 15 cases, and about half of that time has been as a direct result of the length of time it has taken the applicant to come back with the additional information requested. When one removes that average ten weeks response time to requests for additional information, it brings it down to 19 weeks, which is the same time as a decision from An Bord Pleanála.
When looking at the average time of 19 weeks for a decision from An Bord Pleanála it is important to stress that what An Bord Pleanála does is much more narrowly focused and defined that what the local authority does, so one could argue that An Bord Pleanála having 19 weeks under the existing regime is too long. While the Minister gave us evidence, I am not convinced the evidence as presented supports the overall objectives of this Chapter. I will not repeat this argument at every section but I would like to know if consideration was given to rethinking the statutory framework for pre-planning, for shortening the time for additional information to be supplied by applicants, once they have applied, and for shortening the timeframe, and if necessary increasing the resources to An Bord Pleanála to tighten its timeframe. If the Minister had taken those steps, he could by my calculations come up with a 25 week turnaround framework, without taking the power away from local authorities to make the primary planning decision.
The Irish Planning Institute makes the point that there is a myriad of guidelines that are confusing and that it makes it more difficult to make decisions. It is almost a convenient way of blaming a cohort of society, namely the public who have an interest in the planning decision by virtue of living beside a development that is planned. They appear to be the cohort that are being cut out, with very tenuous arguments being advanced for doing so. There could be a very significant monetary price to be paid in later years by rushing decisions through An Bord Pleanála that otherwise would have been property scrutinised by the various sections of the local authority, such as the fire officer, the roads and sanitary services departments, all which have substantial levels of local information that is critical to making good decisions. An Bord Pleanála will not be able to write the type of conditions that would be necessary to overcome difficulties that will present into the future. There is a supposition that the local authorities are the source of delays that necessitates this so-called fast tracking approach, whereas there is no understanding of where the delays could actually be minimised.
I will not keep repeating this at every hand's turn but I think it is a very big mistake to rush through, not think it out and not understand where the delays could be minimised.
I support the amendment. There has been a complete lack of analysis of the problem. We are rushing in once again to a developer-led solution. I made this point in the Dáil and I will repeat it at every opportunity as quickly as I can. We have a major housing emergency. There has been no proper analysis of how that arose, so therefore we cannot have a solution. At the very least, this amendment is simply asking for a factual based result, to do a little bit of study, which should have been done before we came here today. I therefore have no hesitation in supporting it.
We do not propose to accept this amendment because we believe it is unnecessary to provide for it in primary legislation. We do not think it is needed. To be clear, much of what the Deputy is asking a report to do, is in train and is happening under pillar 3 of the existing strategy Rebuilding Ireland - An Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness. We have the Dublin Housing Supply Co-ordination Task Force, which is a local infrastructure housing activation fund; the NTMA is financing a large-scale on-site infrastructure; while the planning reforms, as we are discussion today are putting in place a national planning framework and nine managing actions. We are focusing on key sites and trying to force the issue on these sites and track what is going on and what is causing the delay in construction. Efficient design and delivery methods to lower housing delivery costs are part of what we are trying to do as well, in both social and private housing. There are measures to support construction innovation and skills, which is key, and we want a conversation around design and build as well.
We had a discussion in the Seanad on whether the Bill is developer driven and also during the Second Stage debate in the Dáil. The Bill does not guarantee that planning applications are given a "Yes", but that there is a timeframe for a decision. The decision can be a "Yes" or a "No". I previously said that I think it strengthens the hands of some councils in the planning process. This was analysed and three or four different reports on the Dublin Housing Supply Co-ordinatrion Task Force also fed into the analysis behind this as well.
There are some serious delays in the planning process, not in all cases and not in all councils. Deputies know that it takes up to two years in some cases to get a decision. What the section is trying to do is encourage people, who might be of a mindset not to develop their land, to activate their plans to develop the site and deliver housing. That is the motive for introducing a temporary change that will be reviewed in three years time. It is a genuine attempt to inform people who have sites about a process that will given them a decision in six months or thereabouts. It does not guarantee the applicant planning permission and applicants are rightly encouraged to engage in preplanning and consultation with the local authorities. In response to Deputy Ó Broin, it tightens up the timeframe for pre-planning and it is now down to 13 weeks in total. We believe this amendment is unnecessary, because a lot of the work it proposes is ongoing and in any event, we discuss this most weeks during Question Time in the Dáil.
-----to rush a Bill through the Dail by Christmas? Members will stay here until midnight tonight, but the Minister will not accede to our request for a report in three months time.
Local communities rarely object to planning applications but object to major developments because of traffic issues, overlooking and other major concerns. I do not believe that removing that stage of the process will have any impact on bringing housing on stream quicker.
We all know that the developers have been on strike. They have been on strike for the past year and a half. They have held on to the planning permissions that they have, not progressed them and waited for prices to rise. Even NAMA, in which the Government is involved, has plenty of land that it could have developed over the past number of years but it let the housing crisis escalate. Maybe that is why the Minister is not keen to do carry out a report because a serious report might emphasise these aspects more.
I said the following on Second Stage. We provided data for 15 planning applications and I accept that 83 weeks is far too long. I read the breakdown or evidence provided by the Department's officials and three questions arose. Did the Department consider shortening the pre-planning process through legislation? If it did then the length of the delay would be dramatically reduced from 33 weeks to something shorter. In the period where a formal planning application is made, did the Department consider shortening the length of time an applicant has to return information? Again, the measure would shorten the delay.
My next question is on appeals made by An Bord Pleanála as its jobs differs from that of a local authority. Did the Department consider shortening the length of time statutorily that An Bord Pleanála has to reply and, if necessary, will the Department provide additional resources? The reason my three questions are vital is due to the concerns many of us have with Chapter 1 that are as follows. The Minister said in his remarks that in some respect the provision could strengthen the hand of councils. The provision takes the responsibility for making a planning decision away from the local authority. The provision leaves the local authority with a consultative role but takes the decision away. One of the consequences is that the role of the county or city development plan in the planning process is changed because local authority planning departments must adhere more rigidly to the text of the county or city development plan than An Bord Pleanála does, which only has to have regard for same.
The provision also removes the right to appeal, which is significant. I am not criticising the staff of An Bord Pleanála by saying the following. Let us assume that the process could be available to more than ten local authorities. The Department then expects the staff of An Bord Pleanála to have the same level of detailed knowledge of the city and county development plans, the local authority policies, the context and the local domain on the ground as the consequent officials in countless local authorities. I have no difficulty with shortening the timesframe but I am concerned for the four reasons I have outlined that other ways to shorten it could have been considered. I look forward to hearing the response of the Minister of State to my questions.
I agree with some of the points made by Deputy Ó Broin and his questions. One usually only gets public interaction when there is a large scale development of 100 houses or more. This is a particular category that draws public comment but the opportunity for meaningful public interaction has been cut out.
A developer has six months to respond to a request for additional information. The delay is down to the developer. There are 83 weeks but a developer might take 26 or 20 weeks to respond. One can hardly blame the planning process if a developer has not responded in a timely framework.
This legislation should not be called a planning Bill as it is a development Bill because it cuts out the type of details that allows a local authority subsequently to ensure an application complies with planning permission. Very often local authorities find it difficult to interpret the conditions stipulated by An Bord Pleanála that were not originally written by local authorities but are then adopted and lead to a favourable decision being made in response to an appeal.
Has a risk analysis assessment been carried out on what can go wrong with the decision-making process for planning permission? Has a risk analysis been carried out on the kind of problems that will be picked up by the public purse later where there has been inadequate scrutiny at the planning stage? It is at the planning stage that scrutiny is needed. Planning decisions must have a local input and be properly interpreted by local authorities. Has a risk analysis assessment been carried out? If not, then costs will be incurred by those who live in the building, the people who live in close proximity to the project or the local authority.
I shall try to answer all of the questions. I did not mean to skip the questions posed by Deputy Ó Broin. I believe the reason that I did not answer them is because I asked the same questions at the start of the process and so did the officials of the Department. We went through the logic of shortening each process as part of the overall process. Our consideration still did not do away with the risk. It was easier to have a one stage process that guarantees a timeframe. We considered all of the options. It was the first question in my head and was not a case of me avoiding answering the Deputy's questions. We analysed what was the best way to achieve greater certainty in terms of activating sites and moving them along. We also wanted to encourage people who probably do not want to rush the development of their sites. We want to convey to them that this is a process that will move planning quicker and the Department will work with developers. The aim of the provision is to shorten the time it takes to activate sites and provide a guaranteed timeframe. We considered all of the options but chose what we thought was the best option. I accept that people have different opinions. We have done our homework and chosen the best way to proceed.
I assure Deputy Coppinger that the Government is not rushing this legislation through the Dáil. Months ago we said that we wanted to deal with the legislation this week and there is any length of hours available to do so. About a month ago we debated it in the Seanad for two or three weeks. The legislation was not dreamed up yesterday and has been well discussed. I do not want her to think that we are rushing through the legislation. We are here all day tonight, all day tomorrow, Thursday, Friday or whatever time it takes to tease out matters. It is desirable to get the legislation through. It is important that we do so for the people, not just from a planning context but from a rental point of view as well. The Deputy seems to think that a couple months of a process is rushing but I do not share her opinion. It is not a reason to table an amendment and I cannot accept her amendment.
Deputy Coppinger has outlined in her amendment certain work that she wants completed. We have done the work as part of the action plan and publish quarterly reviews. The reviews are honest and everything is open to scrutiny. The reviews are published on a website and we can tease through them. This committee has a role to track the reviews of the action plan. I was involved in the process that led to the Action Plan for Jobs. Every couple of months the plan was scrutinised by the relevant committee, the media and the Dáil. The process worked and the same process will work to deliver housing. All of the Deputy's concerns are in the action plan. We share her concerns and want to drive construction. We will analyse the measures. To provide that we have to bring back the report is therefore an unnecessary amendment.
I wish to assure Deputy Murphy that we are discussing a planning and development Bill following consultation. There is no reason for inadequate scrutiny and planning decisions because there are plenty of opportunities for scrutiny, overview and input at all of the Stages of this legislation. I do not share the Deputy's view. I believe that the planning system has gotten better having been a councillor who was involved in planning and because I have a great interest in planning. If people do their jobs properly then poor decisions will not happen. The change in timelines and guaranteeing a decision should not affect scrutiny in any shape or form. I feel strongly about this matter.
In terms of the development plan process, the provision applies to zoned land and land that has come through a development plan process. It is one of the most important roles for councillors. Most of them take it seriously but some do not and I wish they did. One of the most important jobs for a councillor is his or her role in decisions on the development plan, the zoning of land, the targeting of land, what one wants to develop on lands and the overall plans for a community. Even when it comes to a rental strategy, we ask councillors to bear it in mind when analysing development plans. We also ask them to set aside lands for rental plans.
An Bord Pleanála judges an application based on all of the different reports. The development plan is key because it is the rulebook for the planning of a local area. An Bord Pleanála must adhere to a development plan and will do so. Likewise, with all of the other guidance. However, the development plan is key. There is no danger of its benefit being eroded through the process. We had this conversation in the Seanad. The provision does not allow unzoned land to enter the process. The provision only applies to zoned land.
Does the Department not see fit to ensure that An Bord Pleanála is always bound to adhere to a development plan? What is the argument against that? It is dangerous enough to cut out the local authorities' planning sections and going straight to An Bord Pleanála, but there is no rationale for not subjecting An Bord Pleanála to the development plan, lock, stock and barrel. Can the Minister of State give me an argument against that?
This is a very important debate. I have serious problems, not with this legislation, but with some of the planning decisions made in my area. In the Meath County Council area just outside Drogheda, the councillors made appalling planning decisions, overruled development plans - the whole damn lot - and left a community without proper services. I am sure the Minister of State is aware of that.
I am very concerned about the variations in approach to planning in some local authorities. As specific identified people in An Bord Pleanála deal with the planning applications from particular counties, they have the knowledge of the development plan. The problem is where councillors have run a coach and four through the development plan, leaving housing with no amenities, infrastructure, connectivity, proper footpaths, shops etc. That is the problem I see.
I do not have a problem with what is proposed, but we need to be very clear that there can and will be cases where development plans will be overruled by councillors. I am worried about that because what I have seen is appalling and a shame and needs investigation at a national level. Unfortunately it happened in an area that I did not represent until recently. I am concerned that in this rush things might happen that should never happen. The oversight of An Bord Pleanála is a good thing because it will take a more objective view of some of these issues. I would be concerned about that issue, which is serious.
I wish to respond to what the Minister of State said. I am not saying the legislation has not been flagged, but we all got these amendments last night and we will be staying here potentially until late into the night. That is quite rushed and will create pressure on people in terms of proper debate. The Minister of State has proposed to add on 15 amendments relating to the private rental strategy. When will we get to discuss those? Will that be later on? Will the Minister of State be here, because we are breaking at 3.30 p.m.?
They will be coming on Report Stage, but there will be a chance to discuss them and get the gist of them during the break at 3.30 p.m. That is not an issue. They are part of the rental end of it. There were many calls for them during the Seanad debate and also on Second Stage in the Dáil. They are reflective of those calls and are also reflective of the rental strategy consultation that has taken place over recent months. Most politicians that I am aware of got involved in that and many made submissions - there were over 500 submissions and the amendments reflect that. There will be a chance to discuss the consultation. If Deputies want to do that during the break or later on tonight, we can do that. They will come in on Report Stage, which I believe will be taken on Thursday. There will be a proper analysis of that with plenty of time set aside to do that.
I can get them for the Deputies. There is no issue. We will get them. Some of them are ready. We will get them for the Deputies. I am saying they are not for discussion - as in formal discussion - until Thursday.
I just want to make a point. If they are taken on Committee Stage, there is a full debate on them, whereas on Report Stage there is less of an opportunity to debate whatever the issue is. I urge that they should come in on Committee Stage. I am in favour of the Bill, but we need a proper debate and do not want it truncated. We need transparency and accountability. If this extra document was prepared in good time for today, I do not see why the amendments cannot be put in for Committee Stage tomorrow.
Let us have it transparently. I want to support the changes. However, I do not want any allegations of not giving proper time. I sat in the Minister of State's seat not long ago with a water Bill. I argued for certain things to happen that never did. That very debate is probably one reason I am sitting here and not where the Minister of State is.
We need transparency and accountability; this Government has nothing to hide. These are very important changes that we need to discuss openly and properly. Ideally it would have been discussed on Second Stage but as that was not possible, let us have it on Committee Stage.
Those amendments could not have been included today because there was a deadline for amendments today. I know what the Deputy is saying about tomorrow; we can look at that. If I understand correctly, it is possible to recommit to Committee Stage during Report Stage on the floor of the Dáil on Thursday. That is probably the way to do it if there is no chance before that. There is no desire on my behalf or that of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to shut down debate on this whatsoever.
We think the amendments are good and knowing the Minister, Deputy Coveney, he could talk about them all day if Deputies want. We can do that on the floor of the Dáil at some other stage if need be. As the Deputy is aware, a Bill can be recommitted to Committee Stage on the floor of the Dáil for a temporary period of time. I recommend that process if it is an issue for the Deputies.
I think I missed Deputy Wallace's second question. His first question asked if An Bord Pleanála is bound to a development plan. As it stands, it is not. It needs to take it on board along with all the other national policies. That is because the development plans do not always reflect national policy or national guidelines. As that sometimes can be a negative, the board is not bound by it. In the past, lands were zoned despite being in a flood plain. If An Bord Pleanála were bound by that, I would have difficulty with it, as would other Departments. That is not in legislation at the moment, so it is not bound by it. I understand the point the Deputy is making. It certainly has to bear it in mind but sometimes the development plan does not get everything right. I acknowledge it is not just to do with zoning land. The overall aims and objectives of the development plan have to be taken on board and that is what it would do.
I ask the Deputy to repeat his second question.
In the old process I could understand the logic of An Bord Pleanála, as an overseer, not necessarily being subject to the development plan because it is trying to see if things are done as they should be done. However, now that the local authority planning section is being bypassed and things are going straight to An Bord Pleanála, it becomes a serious issue if it is not subject to the development plan. I asked for a rational argument as to how the Minister of State can justify not having An Bord Pleanála subject to the development plan now that we are getting rid of the initial process. I did not have a problem with An Bord Pleanála having the role it had up to now. However, now that the local authority planning section, which was supposed to be subject to the development plan, is being taken out of the equation, I believe we need a proviso that An Bord Pleanála must adhere to the development plan in some form or other.
An Bord Pleanála has to take it on board; it is obliged to use it. It is the planning book for the county or local authority area. However, it is not bound by it. That is not proposed in legislation at the moment. If we go down that road after consultation down the line, that is a debate Deputies can have. We are not prepared to do it in this legislation and do not think it is necessary. I totally understand the point the Deputy is making. From my reading of planning, I think it would be wrong for it to be bound by it. That is not something we are proposing. That does not stop Deputies considering it at a later stage. We are not taking it on board at this stage.
Obviously, I do not agree with the local authority planning section being bypassed anyway. I am bemused that the Minister of State thinks this is holding up developers because I do not believe it is as big an issue as he makes out, given that developers have loads of permissions already granted and are not building on them. The Minister of State is saying that An Bord Pleanála may adhere to it but in legal terms it is "may" rather than "shall". If we have "shall" rather than "may" for An Bord Pleanála regarding the development plan, we will get better decisions at the end of the day.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 6, to delete lines 13 and 14 and substitute the following:“ “prospective applicant” means a person who—(a) is the owner of the land concerned, or
(b) has the written consent of the owner to make an application under section 4 in respect of that land, and who intends to apply for permission under that section in respect of that land;”.
This amendment amends the definition of the term "prospective applicant" in section 3 relating to definitions for purposes of chapter 1 of Part 2 of the Bill dealing with proposed strategic developments. The amendment is required in order to make it clear that a prospective applicant for planning permission for a proposed strategic housing development includes a person who does not own the land on which it is intended to build a development, provided that he or she has the agreement of the person who owns the land to make the necessary planning application. The existing text already provides that a person who has an interest in the land may be a prospective applicant for the purposes of this chapter of the Bill. The amendment will bring the provisions as regards entitlement to apply for planning permissions for strategic housing developments broadly in line with those for planning applications generally. To this end I intend to make regulations under section 12 of the Bill requiring an applicant for permission for a strategic housing development who does not own the land concerned to include in the application the written agreement of the person who owns the land to the making of the application.
In this connection, I should point out that subsection (6) of section 10 provides that person shall not be entitled, solely by reason of a permission under section 9, to carry out any development.
I propose to speak to amendments Nos. 6 to 9, inclusive, together. In essence, there are two aspects of the proposed changes to the definition of a strategic housing development. The first is the necessity to remove a possible interpretation that the existing definition requires that, in order to qualify as a strategic housing development, a large housing or student accommodation development must include a mixture of other uses that are permissible under the zoning for the land. The revised definition clarifies that a large housing or student accommodation development may include a mixture of others such as still qualify as strategic housing development for the purposes of the Bill.
The second aspect relates to the extent for uses to be permitted in a strategic housing development. Under the proposed revised definition the amount of other uses that can be permitted will increase according to the overall size of the development, with a dual limit on the amount of other uses of not more than 15% of the total gross floor area of the development and not more than 4,500 sq m.
It is also proposed to enable the Minister to prescribe alternative area measurements to those specified in the revised definition in order to enable the area required to be refined in light of experience with the first developments to progress under the new approval arrangement.
My amendment No. 5 is probably rendered obsolete by amendment No. 7, but I would like the Minister and his officials to clarify that. My concern with lines 22 and 23 under "strategic housing development" mean that by including the "or" it was possible through an unintended consequence to allow a mixed-use residential development which would have had less than 100 units to be included under the Act, which is why I tabled my amendment. However, if what the Minister has proposed in amendment No. 4 deals with that point, then I am happy to withdraw amendment No. 5.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 6, between lines 26 and 27, to insert the following:“(c) development that includes developments of the type referred to in paragraph (a) and of the type referred to in paragraph (b), or”.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 6, to delete lines 30 to 35 and substitute the following:“each of which may include other uses on the land, the zoning of which facilitates such use, but only if—(i) the cumulative gross floor area of the houses or student accommodation units, or both, as the case may be, comprises not less than 85 per cent, or such other percentage as may be prescribed, of the gross floor space of the proposed development or the number of houses or proposed bed spaces within student accommodation to which the proposed alteration of a planning permission so granted relates, and
(ii) the other uses cumulatively do not exceed—(I) 15 square metres gross floor space for each house or 7.5 square metres gross floor space for each bed space in student accommodation, or both, as the case may be, in the proposed development or to which the proposed alteration of a planning permission so granted relates, subject to a maximum of 4,500 square metres gross floor space for such other uses in any development, or
(II) such other area as may be prescribed, by reference to the number of houses or bed spaces in student accommodation within the proposed development or to which the proposed alteration of a planning permission so granted relates, which other area shall be subject to such other maximum area in the development as may be prescribed;”.
Yes briefly, although I will not repeat the points I made earlier. I will call a formal roll-call vote on this, although I will not call for a similar vote on all the other sections under this chapter. However, I want to put it on record at this point that I am deeply concerned with this overall chapter. I therefore want to take the opportunity to register a vote against the chapter by opposing this one section. I listened to the Minister of State, Deputy English, earlier but he has not answered any of the questions I raised either here or on Second Stage. On that basis I am very concerned that in attempting to solve a genuine problem we are creating a whole series of other difficulties within our planning system that I think we will come to regret further down the line. On that basis I will press my opposition to this section.
I also think this section is very dangerous. We have already made points to the Minister and will certainly make them again on the floor of the Dáil - in particular, the removal of local residents' and councillors' ability to have a say on these developments. Having served on a council, I am aware that local planners know an area better. An Bord Pleanála is much more divorced from a local area. In fact, this legislation could lead to huge problems in future. In my experience, local planners work in a borough for an extended period and are familiar with developments. They are also familiar with developers, including those who have not completed work on other developments. They are able to put requests for additional information based on that knowledge. That will be completely removed now, however, and it will go to An Bord Pleanála which is divorced from local communities and is at a much higher level. This section is not justified and no objective evidence has been presented by the Government that it is needed. The Irish Planning Institute has called it a serious attack on the say of local communities and councillors in being able to put checks on developers, particular concerning developments over 100 houses, which can have major implications for traffic and other issues.
I want to try to reassure members. I spend quite a lot of time travelling to different parts of the country to speak to councils on this issue and many others. To be clear, we are not bypassing local authorities . The process will be that a developer who wants to develop more than 100 houses, or more than 200 student accommodation units, will have an informal consultation with local authorities for a two or three-week period before the formal statutory pre-planning consultation begins . However, during that nine week statutory period there is a requirement for management and planning authorities to brief councillors. We actually made amendments in the Seanad to respond to concerns Senators had to ensure that councillors were involved in that process. At the end of the nine week process the views of councillors can be reflected in the manager's report. Local authorities can then make a recommendation on whether or not they think an application should be granted. They can also make recommendations on conditions that should or should not go with that planning application.
An Bord Pleanála will be involved with the local authority in that statutory nine week period to make sure it understands the intricacies of some of the local issues. There is a serious statutory process underway for a formal pre-planning consultation which is not there at the moment. It is a very informal process at the moment, with no timelines. In effect, there is a very serious look at the planning application and there is a recommendation made at the end of it. It is not a formal planning decision, it is a recommendation by the local authority. The planning application then goes on to An Bord Pleanála for the 16 week assessment which includes taking account of the recommendation. An Bord Pleanála then makes a decision.
There is an idea that the process is by-passing local authorities but that is not the way it is going to work. We have changed the language, through amendment, to reinforce the point that even though councillors do not make planning decisions they certainly have a right to know the detail of what is going on and they have a right to make comment on it. Planners at local government level will be able to put a detailed report together which will then get full consideration when An Bord Pleanála gets the formal planning application. We have spent a long time with An Bord Pleanála to make sure it will be properly resourced to do that through a new specific housing unit within An Bord Pleanála that has been set up for this purpose. It is a robust process that will have learnt lessons from the past and will make sound planning decisions. It will have much more predictability, to use a term from today, in getting a decision within a certain timeline.
The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has outlined his rationale for this measure and as he is entitled to his view on it I feel that I am entitled to mine. This is a monumental error. It is the kind of stuff we would expect to be written by the Construction Industry Federation. This is more to do with development - or a hope of development - rather than planning. With a really robust planning system one anticipates problems. A lot of very good stuff happens but I do not disagree with the point made by Deputy O'Dowd that bad decisions have been made in the past. There has, however, been a change. For example, the regional authority of Dublin and the mid-east regional authority have met in joint session for several years. I have found that there is a substantial difference in the tone of debates around county development plans and that they are much more strategic. That change will be undermined by virtue of the fact that the work they do could now be set aside.
My second point concerns the degree of public trust. People understand the current system of a site notice going up. Now there may or may not be a site notice and if there is a site notice it is going to be a guideline. Currently, a site notice requires that a council official visits the site to make sure the notice is in place so the public will be alerted to the fact that a decision on development is to be made and then the public can then go onto the council's website. This will not happen in this case as the application will not be on the council's website; it will be hosted on An Bord Pleanála's website in the same way as a strategic infrastructure project would be. Essentially the public is going to be very badly caught out with this measure and certainly do not appear to have been considered as a central player in the process. I have seen very many planning applications because I am in an area of large scale development and County Kildare's population has quadrupled in the past four decades. We are well used to planning issues. We are well used to looking at the terms for additional information and to seeing the kind of positive engagement that can happen between the local authority, the developers and the community, where they make objections. That process is all gone with this measure. We are losing certainty in relation to a culture that has been long developing around the regional authorities and the county development plan. We are going to lose the trust of communities and the certainty about how the planning process will happen. The Minister may get a pile of planning permissions but whether houses follow will be another matter. I can point the Minister to high demand regions in my own area with land zoned for development and with planning permissions yet there has not been development. I know this is also the case in Dublin. This particular section of the Bill is really offensive and the Aarhus Convention provides for the public to be consulted on planning matters. The reality is that the public is not being consulted on planning matters in any meaningful way. This issue was raised at the regional authority of Dublin and the mid-east regional authority session recently and there was absolute uproar. They issued a joint statement, which is almost unheard of. This planning system is the same planning system that is used by all local authorities. It only provides for decisions to be logged and tracked that are decisions of that planning authority. That is normally where the public will go looking for information. That information will not be there.
There may be a site notice. There will be uncertainty about ways to allow public engagement.
I acknowledge that I have misread the matter. The provision is at serious variance with how people have engaged with the planning process to date. This section is a monumental error and one that will cost. For example, local authorities will consider compliance matters at a later stage. They must interpret some of the conditions that will be applied without having an opportunity to avail of local indepth knowledge. I hold a different view on the matter from that of the Minister.
I welcome fast-track planning on the basis that it is transparent and accountable. The Minister has said that the notice is transparent. It is accountable in terms of going to a statutory body with a lot expertise and must have due regard to the development plans as presented.
My concerns remain in terms of planning abuses and I refer to my Dáil ceantair, particularly the portion of east Meath. I have studied the minutes of meetings and discovered instances where officials were over-ruled by councillors, shopping centres appeared in areas that they were not supposed to be, houses were built on flood plains and the most appalling, and in my view, disgraceful planning took place. Notwithstanding the views of members, this was clearly stated on the record of the council officials. I believe there should be a planning checklist and it is up to the Minister to decide whether he wants to legislate for same. Notwithstanding the fact that this matter will not go to a local authority in this case, there should be a checklist to ensure connectivity within the existing communities. I believe there should be an assessment of the educational needs of the area concerned and footpaths, lighting and other issues should be connected. If that does not happen then housing estates will be badly supported in terms of services available and there will be issues with shopping. I accept and acknowledge that we are talking about housing today. The Minister must ensure that there is social infrastructure, particularly community buildings and health centres, which are missing from many housing estates.
The Minister mentioned housing estates consisting of 100 houses. What happens if a person applies for planning permission to build a significant number of houses, multiple applications or concurrent applications? In such instances we need to ensure that all aspects of the community are connected. It is critical that each development has open spaces for recreation and sports that are open to the public. All of these issues were lost sight of in previous planning histories that I have examined. I am in favour of this section of the Bill given the current housing crisis. I hope that my view will not amount simply to nice words that one hears at a meeting from the likes of me but can be followed through in order to avoid the hassles of previous years.
I am old enough to remember a building scheme that was built by a company called MFN. The company was nicknamed money for nothing because it built houses without exterior walls and chimneys. It also built in part of the estate that had no access to a road and, therefore, bins could not be collected. In the past some crazy planning applications were successful. We also experienced what is called Walt Disney houses where one could look out one's front door and straight into the parlour of the house next door. There was no privacy. We need to ensure that the quality of the planning and standards are up to scratch. All of these issues should be vigorously tested at the planning stage.
I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I suggest we forget the politics of this matter for a moment. I would be genuinely concerned if people thought that we were trying to put in place a fast-track system that did not deliver robust decisions or facilitate the public in terms of offering their opinions, objections or whatever. The vast majority of proposals on this scale go to An Bord Pleanála. The board nearly always does so but it is not required to be consistent with existing zoning. In this legislation, An Bord Pleanála can only make a decision on lands that are zoned accordingly in terms of consistency with the development plan and so on.
I will respond to the idea that local authorities do not have a role. As I said earlier, they have a nine week statutory consultation process where the local authority plays a central role in virtually everything. The planning authority must put its opinion in writing before submitting it to An Bord Pleanála which, in turn, gives it consideration in respect of proper planning and the sustainable development of the area concerned. An Bord Pleanála must bear in mind the local area plan and all of the other things on which councillors have made decisions.
I agree with Deputy O'Dowd and others that there were terrible zoning and planning decisions made in the past.
Not that many of them came through An Bord Pleanála, but I suspect that some of them have done so. From my experience, with some exceptions, the public has a lot of faith in An Bord Pleanála to make fair, balanced and responsible decisions. The legislation refers to a small segment of developments. In County Galway there has been one application for a housing estate in the past seven years and in County Tipperary there has not been a single application for a housing estate in the past seven years. In this section we have tried to reassure developers and investors that we will have a streamlined and predictable planning system in terms of timelines but not in terms of outcomes. The process will now be more onerous for developers. It means that if a developer does not submit a professional application that is consistent with the local area plans then his or her application will be thrown out at the formal statutory pre-planning stage.
We have tried to ensure that there is a process. We have spent a lot of time talking to An Bord Pleanála about ensuring there is one. We have made changes in the Seanad that were brought forward by non-Fine Gael Members in order to ensure that the core concerns of councillors were responded to and addressed. Members should vote whatever way they see fit. My Department and I have made a big effort to ensure that nobody is bypassed in the legislation. We know from the applications that have come through the system for big planning applications this year that it has taken, on average, between 78 and 80 weeks from start to finish. Our aim is for the process to be completed in 25 to 30 weeks. The shorter time would make a huge difference in the amount of funding available for many of these projects. Let us not forget that housing supply is the core problem. I would not be working on this legislation if we did not have a crisis in many sectors of the country where we simply have not seen the kind of development that needs to come forward.
I wish to make a final point on the concerns expressed by Deputy O'Dowd. Deputy Ó Broin has tabled amendment No. 24.
We are looking at that to see if we can accept it, or a version of it, between now and Report Stage with a view to dealing with some of those issues. This is not about building houses but building communities. This involves everything from houses to schools to open spaces, with mixed tenure developments and a series of other things linked to local area plans on which councillors decide. They never decided on planning applications but they do decide on rezoning and on development plans and these will essentially design the applications.
In the last session the Minister talked about not bypassing local authorities. The problem is that the role of local authorities is being diminished by this legislation, though the role of elected members is not being diminished because they do not, as the Minister said, have a direct role. The local authority will no longer be the primary body responsible for taking the decision. The Minister was not present when I made this point to the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy English, earlier today so I am repeating it now. The strength of a county development plan, which is not about zonings but SLOs and other policy elements, will be diminished because An Bord Pleanála has a different statutory relationship to the city and county development plans from that of the local authority planners. He is correct to say he is not bypassing councillors but he is not correct to say he is not diminishing the role of local authorities and the city and county development plans.
The Minister said there had not been a single application for an estate in Galway but the primary reason for this in the past number of years has been the lack of credit and the insolvency of many developers. The Rebuilding Ireland plan, however, seeks to achieve 25,000 units per year, every year for a set number of years and consequently there will be an increase in large applications. I do not believe the Minister has deliberately designed this to have negative consequences but, in his rush to solve the problem of lengthy planning applications, there will be a whole series of unintended consequences, which will lead to much more negative planning outcomes at a later stage. I did not hear anything from the Minister today or on Second Stage to allay my concerns.
There is a big difference between influence and power and the power is where the decision is made. County councils will not be making the decisions on these planning applications and An Bord Pleanála will now make them. A court-based process like a judicial review is not an appeal process because it does not deal with substance but with technical arrangements around which the decisions are made. There is no real appeals process. A substantial number of the decisions made by An Bord Pleanála overrule a recommendation of the report of the inspector, who tends to be a planner looking at the totality of the issues. I completely accept the need to build communities and to have mixtures of tenure and size etc. in larger developments. There has to be an interventionist approach to deliver that outcome, rather than just a market-led approach. There also has to be certainty within the planning process because that is a driver of costs. There are other ways of reducing the timeline than bypassing local authorities. For example, a local area plan is going through my own area at the moment with large-scale development proposed. It is proposed to zone the land and then include a master plan as a requirement. It will be open to An Bord Pleanála to take a different view on the need for a master plan for a housing development where 2,000 houses are planned in one location and significant risks are associated with that.
Section 9(13) states "Where the Board fails to make a decision within the period referred to in paragraph (a), it shall pay the appropriate sum to the applicant." The sum referred to is a large amount of money. If I am reading it correctly this is a penalty for not producing a decision within a certain timeframe. Where is the funding for this going to come from? Could this not mean decisions will be made more quickly and, as a result, will be more likely to be flawed? Is it possible that this will produce negative decisions arising from caution and a desire not to make a mistake? What is the rationale for this?
I am not a member of the committee and I was at a meeting on water earlier but I support what Deputies Ó Broin and Catherine Murphy have said. I have concerns around the proposal to go straight to An Bord Pleanála with large developments. It is important to get a balance and nobody is questioning the reasons the Minister wants to do this as he obviously wishes to get building going as quickly as possible. I am not sure, however, that this proposal will achieve any great speed. The Minister quotes figures for how long it takes but a lot of that is around the preplanning stage and some councils have more efficient preplanning meetings than others, for example, bringing in different sections of the council. This proposal bypasses local areas - though not local democracy as councillors have no role in these decisions. It is important that things are done locally where possible and that, where possible, decisions are not removed from the local area. I agree with the point that we will be more likely to have judicial reviews if they are the only option.
The Minister says this does not bypass the local council. If a resident or a community wants to make an observation on a planning application of over 100 houses they can, at present, write a letter and insert a cheque for €20 or do it online. It is easy enough to do and they can also get advice from councillors. What will the fee be for an individual to make an observation to An Bord Pleanála and how will people be able to do it? Fees to An Bord Pleanála are usually much higher. Does the Minister not accept that, as everybody seems to be saying, this is a real infringement on local councils, if not councillors? In one Fingal development plan there were 90 hours of meetings at the height of the boom. Does he not accept it is an infringement on local planners, who sat in on those meetings and were at the coal face when the decisions were being made or if an application came in? There is no way An Bord Pleanála would have the same knowledge of the local area or the local community.
Will the Minister therefore outline how this will impact on a planning application observation?
Deputy Catherine Murphy had a question on the penalty. We felt that, if we were going to provide for them, there had to be a consequence if the statutory periods were not delivered upon. The truth is that my Department will probably be funding the fine, but the fact that it is being paid at all is what will ensure compliance. Having spoken at length with An Bord Pleanála, I am confident that it can deliver. I do not think the fine will ever be triggered because I think the board will ensure that it will not happen.
This was about ensuring that there was a consequence for not delivering on the statutory requirement in the legislation. It would be a farce if the law provided that a decision was to be made within 16 weeks but it took 20 weeks and we could do nothing about it. We had to provide for some consequence where a decision is not made within the timeframe set in the legislation. No one in An Bord Pleanála will personally be out of pocket. However, although it does not like it, the organisation recognises that there will be a consequence if it does not deliver. The consequence will be that the applicant will get a payment because the State has not delivered on its side of the bargain, as provided for in law.
On the involvement of councillors and the public, the fees for planning objections in this situation will not be higher. This is not the same as the process provided for in the Strategic Infrastructure Act. If it was, we would have simply extended that legislation. This is different. The pre-planning consultation process is much more formal and involves the local authority in a meaningful way. It will result in a report, which will be like a planning report. An Bord Pleanála will also have been involved in the pre-planning process so that it understands the local issues, consistency with the local area plan and some of the quirky local issues that sometimes must form part of planning considerations.
Whether councillors should have to pay a fee to make an observation or an objection was raised in the Seanad. We have indicated that we will examine the matter in the context of the broader planning Act that will come through the Houses next year. I am minded to ensure that there is no obstacle to councillors, as representatives of the people, making a formal submission or objection. We will examine and debate the issue when the legislation is coming through. However, there will no increased cost for a member of the public to make an objection or an observation. That is the intention. In the upcoming amendments, we will speak about the planning fees. In terms of the public's ability to make a submission and its access to information in advance of An Bord Pleanála having an on-line information system, which will not be in place until the middle of next summer, local authorities will be asked to ensure that information linked to planning applications is made available to the public. There will be no problem with any member of the public getting details on applications.