Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government

Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (No. 3) Regulations 2021 and Planning and Development (Street Furniture Fees) Regulations 2021: Discussion

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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We will commence then with the Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (No. 3) Regulations 2021 and the Planning and Development (Street Furniture Fees) Regulations 2021. We are joined this morning by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O’Brien, accompanied by Mr. Terry Sheridan, Mr. Conor O’Sullivan and Mr. Jason Taylor from his Department. The members have been circulated with the opening statement and briefing material. I will first ask the Minister to make his opening statement. If members wish to contribute on this I would ask them to keep their contributions as brief as possible as these are quite straightforward exemptions to the planning regulations and, as the members will know, we are pressed for time on the second item we have on the agenda.

On privilege, members are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their participation in this meeting. This means that they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything that they say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty, as Chairman, to ensure that this privilege is not abused. All members are fully aware of the rules regarding privilege.

The opening statement submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting. I call Deputy Ó Broin to speak.

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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On a point of order and very briefly, as members know news has broken that a former member of this committee and former Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy has resigned his Dáil seat this morning. Notwithstanding the very significant policy differences I have had with the Minister and his Government, I want to state that the Minister worked very closely with a number of us, including myself and the now Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on a number of pieces of legislation, including legislation which protected student renters. Notwithstanding the political and policy disagreements, I want to acknowledge the work that he did during his time, in particular in those areas where we were able to find common ground and to collaborate in the better interests of those sections of society that we worked on.

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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I thank Deputy Ó Broin and echo his comments that that is the spirit in which all of us on this committee work, which is in a collegiate and collaborative manner to try to forward, as best we can, housing policy.

I invite the Minister now to make his opening statement.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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I am aware that the Chairman is tied for time so I will keep my remarks brief. I wish to follow in the vein of Deputy Ó Broin. I spoke with Deputy Murphy this morning. Even though we crossed swords quite a great deal, members of the committee worked well together, particularly in respect of student rent. It is quite coincidental that tomorrow we will begin with student rents again in the Dáil. I wish former Minister, Deputy Murphy, all the very best. He is a decent guy. We had policy differences but he certainly tried his best, was very earnest and was a good person to get on with. I wish him very well in whatever his new choice in life is and in his new career.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and the members for affording me the opportunity to present to the committee today the two sets of proposed planning regulations which have been circulated. First, we have the Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (No. 3) Regulations 2021, which concern planning exemptions for restaurants to maintain operations as takeaways for the remainder of 2021. That provision would have expired without these regulations. Second, we have the Planning and Development (Street Furniture Fees) Regulations 2021, which will waive section 254 of the street furniture licence fees for the remainder of 2021.

A third set of regulations, which do not require the approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas but about which I also want to advise the committee, is being progressed simultaneously and provides for the erection of awnings, coverings and other similar apparatus for outdoor dining to be a licensed activity under section 254 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, when it is linked with a street furniture licence for tables and chairs under that section. This means that we will take it out of the planning piece and put it in under section 254. This will mean that proposals for the installation of awnings, coverings - which we do need from time to time this country, as members will know - and other similar apparatus to facilitate outdoor dining will no longer be subject to planning permission and will instead be dealt with under the street furniture licensing regime in association with the provision of outdoor tables and chairs.

As we all are acutely aware, like many other sectors, the hospitality and restaurant sector and the wider tourism sector has suffered the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic both last year and this year. We want them to have a summer where they can make up for lost ground. They have been subject to both temporary closure and long-term closures for considerable periods. It has taken a very heavy toll on their own businesses and staff. I, as Minister, and the Government are committed to providing any necessary supports to assist these sectors as much as is possible with a view to facilitating recovery as the current Covid-19 restrictions are further eased and lifted. Big decisions are to be made this week with regard to the next phase from May onwards.

The two sets of planning regulations that I am presenting to the committee today, in conjunction with the third set of regulations that I have just mentioned on the provision of awnings and coverings, are practical measures that have merit, are within my remit, can be done and will help businesses. There is, thankfully, light at the end of the tunnel and with the further expedited roll-out of the vaccination programme and continued business supports, we want to ensure that those in particular in the hospitality and the food sector have an opportunity to recover and that any potential barriers are removed particularly for the summer. I propose that we then, later in the year, review these regulations further.

There is one permanent change on awnings and coverings and, second, the extension of the takeaway provisions for restaurants which will allow that to continue until the end of the year, together with the waiving of the fee for street furniture across the country.

In conclusion, I note that some local authorities have already done this which I welcome, but I want there to be no ambiguity across all of our local authority areas that businesses are not to be charged for street furniture and that there are now practical changes in the regulations. Hopefully we will have a good summer and when businesses open back up again they will be able to utilise the public space that we all enjoy for the safe reopening of their businesses. I thank the committee.

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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I thank the Minister. These are entirely sensible amendments to the exemptions and they support that funding of €17 million that was announced through Bord Fáilte for outdoor dining equipment and the announcement yesterday of a further €15 million to enhance those public, outdoor and open spaces for local authorities. This goes hand in hand with those measures and it is entirely sensible.

I have one comment on the requirement now that one does not need to apply for planning permission for awnings and other structures as long as they are associated with a licensing application; I ask that care and consideration for protected structures is included in this also.

Do members wish to contribute on this? I call Senator Seery Kearney to speak and then Deputy Ó Broin.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Chairman and the Minister for his opening comments. I congratulate the initiative and the pro-business and pro-living nature of these measures, for the living of our lives in all of the areas and businesses that will be impacted by this.

I have a number of requests for consideration. First, as to disabilities where we have street furniture now being used to a greater extent, I ask that we consider having some mechanism in place to ensure that we are not inhibiting in any way ease of access for people, particularly those in wheelchairs, or, where there is visual impairment. We must be accommodating and give these requirements some consideration in terms of where we locate street furniture on the footpath left after its installation, if provision is not made out on the street, as has been very sensibly done in Dublin city. We need to consider ease of access for people to ensure they are able to sit if there are raised plinths or some such feature.

If we learned anything from "Claire Byrne Live" on RTÉ last night it is the level of waste. I would certainly be in favour of considering the added cost and added services that will be required if we allow continuity of takeaway, which is eminently sensible, to ensure that we are maximising the potential covers in sales for restaurants. At the same time, if there is an associated waste we should make provision for being pragmatic, in the words of Councillor James Geoghegan last night, in how we address that. We should take the dual approach of, ideally, educating people to bring home their waste but also putting in place adequate bins and ensuring we have that complementary provision.

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for his presentation. We were all heartened watching the scenes of the opening up of a variety of outdoor activities and certain sports yesterday, particularly for younger people and children. That is giving people the sense that we are near the exit, which is to be welcomed. Citizens, residents and businesses have had a hard number of months and anything we can do collectively as an Oireachtas to ensure we make the transition back to some level of normality as easy as possible is to be welcomed. I fully support the two propositions. I have some questions and I ask the Minister to come back on them in his résumé at the end.

Can the Minister clarify the timelines for the extensions about which he is talking? With respect to the takeaways, can he confirm that the regulations are only for existing, operating and licensed restaurants, as opposed to new businesses that are looking to establish themselves? Regarding street furniture, while local authorities will not be charging for that, there is obviously a cost involved. I ask the Minister to outline what the Department is going to do to support the local authorities to address any costs incurred and any revenue lost.

I have two questions about awnings and coverings. First, when does Minister intend to lay those regulations before the Oireachtas? Second, some of our villages, and particularly urban villages, have much more stringent planning rules about street signage and signage on buildings. How is the Minister going to deal with the interaction of those rules? Those of us from Dublin Mid-West will know that Lucan, for example, has very strict rules about what people can and cannot do. Is the Minister designing these regulations in a way that will remove the requirement for planning permissions while at the same time ensuring that is restricted where there is a certain heritage element or planning restriction in a given area, so as not to change the heritage character of said village?

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I will start by paying tribute to my colleague, Eoghan Murphy, who was my director of elections in the by-election in 2019. As Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, he initiated an awful lot of the policies that we discuss at this committee. He introduced Rebuilding Ireland, he went for the acceleration of social housing and he laid the foundations for the affordable housing and Land Development Agency, LDA, Bills, about which we are talking at this committee. I wish him well with the next chapter in this life.

The regulations that are before us to support cafés, restaurants and gastropubs are reasonable, sensible and will support small businesses that really need support right now. It is great to see them backed up by Government funding and we are all looking forward to availing of outdoor dining as the country reopens. This move will support us all to get back to normality but it will also support jobs in each of our local areas.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister and join others in wishing his predecessor, Eoghan Murphy, well. He was an exceptional Minister who had a fantastic record of engaging with all people on all sides of the Houses at this committee. I also thank his staff because sometimes we forget it is the staff who serve the Minister and provide support. They were a formidable team and I want to record my sincere thanks. One of the great things about this is that there is life after politics. Many people come into politics with a lot of experience but they go out with another set of experiences. I wish him well in whatever he does because he is a gentleman. He was diligent in his work and was always respectful of difference even if we had difference of opinion. It is important that we put that on record. I again welcome the Minister and I would apply the same principles and considerations to him and his staff. I wish him well in what is a challenging job.

I have one main concern in respect of this matter, about which people will have known over the past few days. I happen to live out in Dún Laoghaire. I went around with shame on Sunday morning and took 22 photographs, which I sent to my local authority. What disappointed me more than ever was that the streets were full of bottles, human faeces and urine. The evidence was clear everywhere. There are no public toilets. We have public toilets within the local authority area that have been locked up for years. People are consuming large volumes of food and alcohol. In Dún Laoghaire - and I want to be specific because that is where I live and have worked and that is where I know best - we have bye-laws that do not permit any citizen to consume alcohol in a public place. Those laws have not been suspended. The elected members of the council took that decision and have continued to keep that stipulation in place. Therefore, we need clarity. If we are to have outdoor tables and so on, of which I am supportive, we need absolute clarity that the Department and council officials will be empowered to support the elected members who seek to uphold bye-laws. We talk about giving power to local councils and communities but if they put bye-laws in place and the establishment does not support the elected members in seeing those bye-laws through, there is a deficit.

I welcome having more outside trade and I welcome the development of the public realm. I would go so far as to say that that development should not only be temporary. We could see the potential of keeping some of these public spaces, subject to proper planning and regulations.

I also want the Minister to bear in mind the people who are disabled, the visually impaired and the problems they encounter on some of the many narrow footpaths there are, particularly in areas of architectural conservation and small heritage villages, of which we have many in the north and south of Dublin and all over the country.

I support what the Minister is trying to do but we need to give councils resources to clean up. Great credit is due to the staff and the grounds maintenance people in local councils who are out there in Bray, on the seafront, Seapoint, Galway, Donegal and Fingal. They are the people who have to get out at 6 o’clock in the morning and clean up this absolute filth, dirt and rubbish that is dumped. There is a price. We can talk about greening and recycling and the responsibility of our citizens but that is not happening. It is not the Minister’s problem or my problem but we need extra resources for the council staff. We have to acknowledge that they may need additional staff on a temporary basis to deal with the cleaning up of these areas. Ultimately, we have to make the traders and owners of these businesses responsible because while they are rightly gaining and profiteering from their businesses, they also have to be involved in the cleaning up of this mess.

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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Three more members are indicating so I ask everyone to keep their contributions as brief as possible because we have further items on agenda with which we have to deal.

Photo of Mary FitzpatrickMary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister and thank him for coming in. I apologise for being late. I was in my office and thought we were having this meeting on Teams. I would have hated to miss the party.

I pay tribute to the former Minister, Eoghan Murphy. I served with him on Dublin City Council and while I disagreed with his politics, I always admired his energy, commitment and enthusiasm for the role. I wish him well. He is a bright and capable person and I hope he has much success after politics.

I thank the Minister for these proposals and amendments. He is true to form. He has supported businesses during this pandemic through the local authorities. The decisions and proposals he is making are pragmatic. My understanding is that while the Minister is waiving the fees, he is not abolishing the process by which businesses have to apply for the permissions. It is important that that is understood by both the businesses and the local communities.

The issues that have been raised in respect of mobility and access are very important. The Minister knows this and does not need any of us to tell him. There is a valid point to be made that, while we are supporting businesses with the waivers and the Minister is supporting them by allowing them to operate a takeaway service, those businesses need to take responsibility for the waste that has been generated from those takeaway services. Public space has never been more valuable in the city and around the country.

Our public spaces are there for all of us to enjoy but we must all protect them. I urge the Minister, through the local authorities and their offices, to communicate with the businesses that are benefiting from the rates waiver and to actively encourage them to engage in responsible packaging and clean-up. I also urge the Minister to ask the local authorities to review their cleaning schedules for our public places. The schedule of once a week, or once every 12 weeks as it is in some residential and more suburban areas of Dublin, is not sufficient in Covid times. I would appreciate it if the Minister could take those issues up with the local authorities.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I would like to support the amendments that are coming today. It is a time when we need to support local businesses and to do everything we can. It is only part of the issue. A few members have touched on the fact the whole issue consists of providing the local authorities with resources for extra staff and bins and for more collections. I was in Cork city centre last Saturday night and there was a fabulous atmosphere in there. The business community has done its part and the city council is trying to work with it but it needs more resources to make this work.

Cork City Council has implemented a great initiative in closing off a lot of the streets to have more on-street dining, which was a tremendous success last summer. The side effect of that last year was that it moved disabled parking spaces from where they were on these streets to peripheral streets. All that was done in the majority of cases was to just paint a disabled parking sign. That is not good enough. There are areas in Cork city that have had disabled parking spaces that people cannot access because when they open their doors, it is onto a main road, and there are other examples affecting such people and others with limited mobility. This is not acceptable for Cork City Council or any local authority. The local authorities need the resources. We welcome the initiative. On-street dining is a good thing and we want to support businesses but we have to make it accessible to all.

I have raised the following issue a number of times in the Dáil. There is a plan to carry out walkability audits for all local authorities. I asked Cork City Council if it would carry out a walkability audit in Cork but the problem is there are no resources to do it. I do not see why people with disabilities must always campaign and fight to get things that every citizen is entitled to, accessibility being one of them. They have the same rights as everyone else. We welcome the amendments today but this is only part of the issue. The whole issue is that of disability. As other members have mentioned, everyone needs to have the same rights.

Photo of Paul McAuliffePaul McAuliffe (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I am anxious to move on to the votes on the affordable housing Bill so I will keep my comments to welcoming the amendments, which are positive. I might forward the Minister a copy of the Dublin City Council cafés and restaurants working group report from 2015, which looked at this area long before Covid. It examined the positive impacts of the passive policing elements of having street furniture and so on.

One issue the Minister might look at between now and the end of the year when these amendments will lapse is fully devolving this responsibility to local authorities. A Minister should not be setting the fees for tables and chairs in each local authority. That is a power we could give to local authorities to allow them to be more nimble. In places like Glasnevin, where we want to encourage the use of tables and chairs and where we do not have the same demand, we could have a different policy than we might have on Grafton Street or O'Connell Street. This is an area where we could enhance local government over time if the right consideration is given to it. I will be happy to forward the Minister that report.

Photo of Cian O'CallaghanCian O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay North, Social Democrats)
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I strongly welcome these necessary measures. On the measures to combat excess packaging, I am familiar with some of these high footfall areas where there have been huge problems with litter. Some of them are well serviced with bins and everything else but there is a massive amount of excess in unnecessary packaging. Is the Minister is looking at giving powers to local authorities to be able to deal with that or will some other measures be put in place? That needs to be tackled. It is worse now than it ever has been.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the members for their input. I will be as brief as possible and any items I do not get to I can return to. I thank members for their support for these measures. They are practical and they will help. There are other issues that have rightly been raised but I will deal with specific questions about the extension of the two regulations.

The extension of the takeaway provision and the waiver is until the end of 2021. Senator Fitzpatrick has rightly said we are not waiving the process, just the fee. It means the appropriateness of a set of tables and chairs or awnings would be a matter, under the licensing arrangement, for each local authority to decide upon. I had asked them about this and I will be issuing a circular next week to every local authority. I want them to be expeditious in their turnaround of applications as we need to get ready for the summer and the reopening of outdoor dining. I will be saying clearly to all 31 local authorities that this should be treated as a matter of priority but it is only in the areas where they are appropriate.

Access for those who have mobility impairments, disabilities and are blind has rightly been raised. Senator Seery Kearney mentioned that at the start. If it is not appropriate for a table and chairs to be put in a certain area, that permission will still not be given. We have looked at this in detail. I mention awnings and the question about protected structures. That will bring the awnings to be a licensed activity. If it is deemed that awnings are not appropriate for a certain type of building, the local authority will still be able to decide on that. I know our heritage towns and some local authorities like Fingal County Council are already looking at a uniform nature of certain awnings in different towns and villages. I would encourage that to be done. Our local authorities have quite a deal of autonomy. Already some of them have moved with the installation of parklets as well. That happened last summer.

I mention disabled parking. I am certain Deputy Gould has raised it with Cork City Council and I have seen other local authorities that have dealt with it in a different way. Disabled parking bays cannot be removed in some local authorities and the same goes for the new age-friendly parking, which I welcome in my local authority area of Fingal. It is question of what is appropriate and where it is appropriate for these to be taken in.

This is a different summer. We all recognise the fact that most of the businesses in our hospitality sector, in particular our restaurants, cafés or gourmet pubs, are family-run businesses. Thankfully, a lot of them have been here for generations. Any help that can be given to help them trade more easily should be given. We have had in excess of €900 million so far in rates waivers and there will be up to €1.2 billion in such waivers by the time they are finished. Let us remember we have given a 100% rebate to local authorities, even those local authorities that did not collect 100% of rates. Local authority budgets have never been bigger. There are vacancies in local authorities I want to see filled. I believe in local government and it has performed incredibly well throughout the pandemic. It has been the tip of the spear of the national response on the ground.

Litter is something I am actively looking at with regard to additional crews and the system of cleaning. I saw the Phoenix Park, St. Anne's Park, Malahide Castle and all of our beauty spots last weekend. A small number of people are engaging in disgusting behaviour and showing no responsibility. They should take their litter home with them. Even if the bins are full, they should not be packing them up. Some of the stuff you see is awful and it is our staff who end up cleaning the mess of other people. I ask people in general to be much more responsible. I will be asking the local authorities to look at their cleaning schedules and the provision of temporary bins, particularly as we come into the summer months and the two bank holiday weekends in May and June when we know we tend to have more people congregating.

This is an opportunity for us, and we are doing it as a Government and some local authorities are doing it to great effect, to reimagine our public spaces and realms. It is an opportunity to look at our roads and streets in a different way, to make them friendly for pedestrians, cyclists and families, to start moving the car away from the middle of our towns and villages, and to let people get back into those open spaces.

I know the Cathaoirleach has a lot of work on this morning. If there is anything I have missed I apologise and we will come back on any specific queries. I will be moving these motions tomorrow in the Dáil now that I have briefed the committee.

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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Two motions?

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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I hope the other one will also be signed this week. I will sign all three together but the two will be moved tomorrow, the other being the change in the planning regulation. I will sign all three of them together. I intend that will be done in the coming days. Certainly, by the middle of next week, they will be in place. A circular will then go out to all local authorities. I encourage members to make sure their own local authorities are fully in tune with what is happening. This is a priority for our SME sector and our hospitality sector, and I do not want any barriers put in place for businesses to trade through the summer months. I thank members for their indulgence and input into the process today.

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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That concludes our consideration of the draft Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (No. 3) Regulations 2021 and the draft Planning and Development (Street Furniture Fees) Regulations 2021. I thank the Minister and his officials for attending the meeting.