Thursday, 25 November 2021
Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister. The joint committee carried out extensive pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill and produced a report, which it submitted to the Department. It got a response back on the recommendations, some of which were accepted, some of which were partially accepted and some of which were not accepted at all. The committee is willing to proceed to Committee Stage if time is available for it. The members will be willing to work with the Minister on it.
I am not going to carry out an autopsy of SHDs; this has been done plenty of times today. What is significant to say is that this is the beginning of the end of SHDs. It was negotiated in the programme for Government that we did not want to continue with the SHD policy. Instead, we have introduced the LRD concept, which is committed to in the programme for Government, as negotiated by the parties.
I asked at a meeting of the committee why we need a fast-track planning system at all. One reason for my doing so was that when we were giving planning permission for significantly more houses than we are building now, we did not have such a system. From 70,000 to 80,000 house permissions were being issued per year. Therefore, we know the planning system is capable of operating at this level. That is why I asked why we need a separate channel for larger-scale developments. I understand some of the reasons but also question some of them. The reason I question some concerns the development plan process. The development plan has been described as a contract between the people, the local authority and the councillors who create it. It is a contract covering how an area will develop. Often what we get at a development's application stage is conflict with communities. The first time communities really take note of what is going on is when they see a drawing, the height and the density. They express concern. I do not believe I could ever say I was contacted by a constituent who was delighted that a load of housing was going into his or her area; it just does not happen like that. People have concerns about traffic, the construction stage and insufficient school capacity. There can be a myriad of reasons for concern.
Some of them are legitimate and some are not and it is always best to be honest with people when expressing one's views on planning applications, whether they are unpopular or not.
The development plan process is a two-year process. I think we could get more out of development plans by applying principles of master planning in certain circumstances such that we do not just have a map coloured yellow or red for residential, mixed use or whatever it might be, an aspiration as to what we should do and zoning objectives, with a developer then coming along and pushing for a little more. That is what developers do. That is their job. Public representatives, especially councillors, are there to defend our development plans. We are going through a process of reviewing the guidelines on development plans. As for future planning, we should consider the introduction of master planning, especially in larger towns, where we are likely to see these large-scale residential developments.
I welcome the expansion in the Bill of mixed-use development, accounting for 30%. It fits really well into the vision we have for ten-minute towns and 15-minute cities, where we will have that mix of retail and employment and other options. That is a positive move in the Bill and I welcome it.
I am concerned about the planning resources at local authority level. I have heard others express that view and it was expressed on Committee Stage by both witnesses and Members. I am talking about introducing master planning at development plan stage. It is a lot of work for our forward planning teams just to go through the normal two-year development plan process without introducing another layer onto it, but I think it would be positive. We have to resource our planning services at that forward planning stage so it is clear in people's minds what they can expect from their communities. When something is built, it is there for two or three generations and can have a real legacy impact on an area and an immediate impact where it drains resources or where there is competition for services because adequate services have not been provided and all we have done is supply the necessary services such as water in, sewage out and roads. We need to add more of those services that make these developments places where people want to live, that is, homes and communities rather than just a number of houses on a map.
As for the planning services, there is considerable pressure on our local authority planners at development management stage and consent stage because planning has become extremely complex and there is also environmental law and planning law. We are now going through a process of reviewing our entire planning code and system, which is absolutely needed. When I look through the planning Acts, there have been so many amendments to them over the years that they are really hard to follow, so that is a really positive move that we hope to address sooner rather than later. Our planners have to assess these large developments and there is complexity to that because flood risk assessments need to be carried out and there are often Natura impact statements or environmental impact assessment statements. Housing needs assessments will be brought into the process now. In my constituency, Wicklow, in Greystones, especially, and Bray, we have seen a lot of these SHDs applied for. I know the resource strains that puts on the local authority and I know the time pressures under which local authorities operate. Under this LRD legislation, when that final meeting is sought, notice has to be given within four weeks and the opinion then has to be issued four weeks after that. I am concerned that that will put further pressure on our planners. The decisions they make have to stand up to scrutiny. We have seen that in judicial reviews. The decisions they make at that point have to stand up to the judicial test if it ends up at that point. I want to see them act in a timely manner but I do not want to see excessive pressure put on them. The case may then end up with An Bord Pleanála, and the decision-making of An Bord Pleanála is another area I would like to look at at some stage because lately we have seen some decisions that I would question. Of course, with every planning decision people will have different views. I have been involved in planning applications in respect of which the decision went the way I thought it should, in which case you are happy with the planning system. It always depends what side of the decision you are on. We need to look at overall decision-making in An Bord Pleanála. Perhaps I will raise that at a later stage.