Wednesday, 20 January 2010
Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
In December last, at the time of the flooding, I was interrupted mid-stream, as it were. Since then, much water - and snow, ice, grit and meltwater besides - has flowed under the bridge. The vagaries of the weather and climate notwithstanding, a common theme to emerge is that proper planning is crucial to allow us to withstand the extremes of weather and climate. We have much to do to ensure people buy into the idea of proper planning and our planning authorities provide good models for development in their respective areas.
Over the past 30 years, through the boom years and beyond, the options in housing have been limited essentially to three, namely, a semi-detached house, an apartment or flat in the centre of a town or one-off house. The quality of design was poor, the quality of energy control was diabolical and little or nothing was done to improve building standards or the planning framework.
As I was saying before being interrupted by the Christmas recess, not only must we improve the quality of the county and city development plans, local area plans, regional planning guidelines and the national spatial strategy, we must join them together in a much more coherent and organised way. A local area plan should not be in conflict with the national spatial strategy or regional planning guidelines. While it may sound abstract to speak in these terms, we have had sufficient evidence in the past five or ten years of significant developments being built without rhyme or reason, other than padding developers' pockets. A substantial amount of the property which will fall into the hands of the National Asset Management Agency is indicative of the problem of bad planning or laissez-faire planning where county managers allowed people to build whatever and wherever they wanted. In response to this problem, the Minister, in this Bill, seeks to push the boat out by increasing standards in planning and, specifically, the zoning aspects of county and city development plans.
One of the positive features of the Bill is the requirement it imposes on city and county councils, irrespective of what stage their development plans have reached, to revisit the plan within a year to ensure it conforms to the core strategy. The core strategy is tight in that it poses the question as to what precisely is needed in the development plan in terms of housing, employment and social facilities. I expect planning to be much sharper and more focused as a result. Weather woes and their impact on communities over the past couple of months drew greater attention to the need to be much more careful about what we plan and where we plan it.
Before Christmas, I had a chat with one of my colleagues from the Fianna Fáil Party, Deputy Rory O'Hanlon, about a small town which I will not name. Residents were faced with the prospect of a major international food retailer seeking to build a large supermarket outside the town, rather than in its centre. The map I am holding shows a splodge of greenery with the town at its centre. The red marking, the site of the proposed development, is not in the town centre but outside it. The fear and concern of retailers in the town is that the old town centre will suffer once this large box development opens up beside the bypass on the edge of the town.
The problem I highlight, which is evident in almost every town, boils down to the decisions taken by city, town and county councillors during the development plan process. If one rezones every green field outside a town, one should not be surprised when big box retailers propose to build beside the motorway rather than in the town centre. The downside of this development is that businesses which have been the lifeblood of a town for generations will close down as a result of the car dominated planning policies which allow economies of scale to kill off town centres. We saw this process in England during the Thatcher era when an absence of planning resulted in people becoming much more car dependent. We have seen a similar trend in France in the past 30 years and we are seeing it again in Ireland much more recently. If ever there was an argument for being careful about what one zones and rezones, it is the example of small towns being killed off by a lack of planning and the failure to think through the consequences of councillors' actions in rezoning excessive amounts of land.
Within one year of the Bill becoming law, planning authorities must revisit their development plans and ensure they conform to the core strategy they must produce. This is a good development. One must look no further than my county, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, to see how a development plan is being formulated. I have significant problems with the actions of councillors who are increasing the amount of land they wish to rezone and raising the cap on the size of some shopping centres proposed or partially developed in the county. We have a choice between allowing more shops to be built on green field sites or ensuring the existing towns of Stillorgan, Dundrum and Dún Laoghaire are revitalised. If we continue to build big box developments on the outskirts of our towns and the edges of the M50 and south eastern motorway, the old towns of Dún Laoghaire, Dundrum, Stillorgan and Cherrywood will suffer.
I say to my colleagues across the Chamber in the Fine Gael Party and Labour Party as well as Independents that we must consider what type of a county we want to see in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown in the coming years. Perhaps Deputy Olivia Mitchell will have a good discussion with her colleagues on the county council about the type of planning they wish to see in the county. We face a stark choice between urban sprawl or consolidation. For my part, as a member of the Green Party, I believe we need consolidation on the periphery and outskirts of Dublin as we will otherwise become even more car dependent. This argument is not only theoretical but practical. It is also strong in terms of its social aspects because further urban sprawl will result in people without access to a car becoming remote from shops, pubs and, therefore, the lifeblood of their communities.
I attended a workshop this morning held under the auspices of the Dublin Transportation Office, which has been renamed the Dublin Transport Authority and subsequently subsumed into the National Transport Authority. As a result, we will have a new transport authority in Dublin. This embryonic organisation made a presentation in the Davenport Hotel, which noted that the transport demand of those living in the periphery of the greater Dublin area will be seven times greater than that of those who live near the centre of the city. This has been stunningly obvious to me for many years. One uses seven times as much energy for transport requirements if one lives in the rural hinterland compared to the city centre. This should concentrate the mind. We are not saying that people must live in Dublin city centre or Dún Laoghaire but in planning policy terms we should produce much better developments in town and city centres. We need to move away from the choices identified earlier of the small apartment, the semi-detached house or the one-off house. We must improve the build quality of those developments, improve the quality of design and give people more options.
All Deputies in this Chamber have travelled abroad and we have seen the gracious living in the centre of Amsterdam or Copenhagen and the good recent development one sees in parts of southern and northern Europe. We should look towards those models of development not in a prescriptive way, but in making it easier and giving people more choices. For far too long, people have been very restricted in their choices of where to live, shop, work or relax. Much of this was due to the overly strong influence of developers on the options available to people. The State should push the boat out to offer more options. This Bill does that and I am supportive of it.
I am dwelling particularly on the core strategy and the need to re-examine the zonings that were too flaithiúlach during the Celtic tiger years. The recession has concentrated our minds on the kind of Ireland we want to have. Suburban sprawl is not the way forward. High-quality, mixed-use development will make for better communities, which is what I want to support. Many other aspects of this Bill are worthy of support. I was heartened by the discussion with Deputy O'Hanlon, who starkly illustrated the choices in counties around Ireland. If we rezone every last patch of land, we should not be surprised if the big box supermarkets move to the periphery and kill off town centres. Choices must be made in my area, Dún Laoghaire, to ensure the county town of Dún Laoghaire is revitalised. This Bill will give us the toolkit to make the changes that will make Ireland more sustainable in the best interests of our communities.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I assure Deputy Cuffe that my colleagues in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and South Dublin County Council do not need lectures on sustainable development. They recognise, as do many, that if further development is required in our lifetime it must be in support of existing communities, putting in the infrastructure they need. Development in the future must be done in a concentrated way so that we limit the development footprint as much as possible.
Notwithstanding the need for belated reform, I was shocked by the content of the legislation because of its command and control nature in what is proposed as a new planning and development framework. I do not deny for a minute the need for a new framework, the need to learn from mistakes of the past, to prevent the recurrence of the abuses of the past, to equip the planning authorities to deal with very different problems and to equip the planning authorities to face the challenges of the future. I do not pretend that finding a new planning framework is easy - it is not easy to find one that will meet with universal approval. Our history, our near obsessive devotion to land and property and our inbuilt expectation of capital appreciation in property, passed down from generation to generation, combine to create resistance to change and generate strong and varying views on what constitutes good planning.
As a member of the local authority, I used to think I had seen it all but it was not until I came to this House and met rural Deputies that I realised the difference between what is considered good planning in Dublin and what is considered good planning in rural Ireland. What Dublin considers utterly reprehensible is considered good planning in the country and vice versa. Within council areas there are often differing views on what constitutes good planning. Some believe the emphasis should be on jobs, social gain and community gain while others believe the environment is all-important. The battle is over which should take priority. Is good planning more important than the other considerations or is helping jobs, people and communities more important? The truth is that any settlement policy will involve compromises. If we had no people we could have a sustainable environment because there would be very little degradation of the environment. However, we do have people so the objective must be to find the least unsustainable policy.
Whatever the difficulties, the solution is not to have ministerial micromanagement of every local area plan and development plan. This is what the legislation effectively suggests. This goes against the concept of subsidiarity and everything the Government says it aspires to for local government. It goes against the concept of devolution and self-government and, most of all, it is contrary to everything the Green Party has said about local government even though this Bill is published by a Green Party Minister.
The Green Party has always promoted the reverse of these measures. The Green Party wanted local government at the micro level and at local authority meetings I have often heard them refer to local government at street level, the concept of the self-sufficient commune. Such control from the Minister is a million miles from that concept. Where does the new departure, of centralising the most basic local decisions at Government level in the hands of the Minister of the day, come from? I do not understand how this could come from a Green Party Minister who has always articulated different ideas. What arrogance would make a Minister think he can know enough about every single local authority, the local conditions and circumstances in order to dictate a better future for every hamlet throughout the country? Perhaps the current Minister knows enough and I would not criticise him. Even if he does know enough to do a good job for everyone, could the same be said for every Minister with responsibility for the environment we have ever had? Would the current Minister want those past Ministers to have had absolute power as he suggests for himself? Is he confident it is a good idea to give the power to Ministers in the future?
I agree with the Minister that we must have a settlement hierarchy and that national plans and regional plans must be broadly consistent with the local development plans and local area plans. It is a great leap from that point to saying that it can only be achieved by having county managers make local draft development plans, which can only be amended by the Minister of the day. It makes a complete nonsense of local government and devalues local knowledge and aspirations as well as the input that only local people can have. It is impossible to know local conditions and to understand the dynamics of the local area or a town, no matter how wonderful the Minister. It is a complex social, historical and cultural issue. The best governed countries in the world have the best and strongest local government.
The Minister refers to consultation at pre-drafting stage. The Acting Chairman was a member of a local authority and he knows what the public thinks of local consultation. Regardless of how well-meaning the concept of local consultation is, as far as the public is concerned it is a farce, in effect, in terms of bringing about change in the concept or principle of what is being proposed. People feel that it might change the detail, but will not change the principle. Rightly or wrongly, the public regards the whole public consultation process - what used to be Part 10 but is now Part 8 - as a means for bureaucrats to tell the public what they plan to do anyway. The existence of a process of public consultation will not help to bring about much change.
God knows the local authorities have made mistakes in their planning. I confess I made such errors in the past. Many of those mistakes were largely due to the complete absence of a national spatial vision. The Minister was right in what he said in that regard. The national spatial strategy was eventually produced quite late in the Celtic tiger cycle, unfortunately. It was really a joke of a plan. Everyone knew it was hugely political. It had something for everybody in the audience. There was not a hamlet in the county that was not going to be developed. As the plan was based on a scattergun approach, it produced scattergun development. Such development escalated after the publication of the national spatial strategy. The then Minister agreed a plan that encouraged the kind of development that we are now saying must never be allowed to happen again, as it has caused so many problems.
The amazing thing is that the Green Party criticised the national spatial strategy when it was published, but it is now proposing a new framework that is based on coherence between the national spatial strategy, which is hugely flawed, and all other plans. That does not make sense to me. If the Minister is to pursue this framework, I plead with him to revisit the national spatial strategy. Having produced a hugely flawed strategy, the Government went on to ignore it completely. The only good aspect of it was the provision for certain urban areas to be designated as gateways or hubs of development that would support the local network of towns, villages and the rural countryside. It was planned to locate the main supporting infrastructure - the large hospitals, libraries, water works, buildings, development and transport facilities - in the gateways, but that never happened. The investment made during the Celtic tiger years was not focused on the gateways - it was based on a scattergun approach. The gateways did not get priority investment. There was never any hope that the hubs which were originally envisaged to give communities the support they required would be developed. The reality is that it will not now happen in this generation.
I wish to speak about the regional planning guidelines that were given to local authorities in poor old Dublin. Deputy Cuffe spoke about the guidelines in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. I was a member of that authority when the Dublin local authorities were asked to build houses to meet the population targets that had been set for them. The authorities were promised that if they did so, suitable infrastructural investment in schools, buses, sports facilities, hospitals, libraries and other necessary facilities would follow from the Government in support of new communities. Communities throughout Dublin are suffering because that never materialised. Young people have to travel ten or 15 miles from their communities to go to school in the city centre. Secondary schools are a precious commodity in my constituency. Primary schools were promised, but some children are lucky to have prefabs. In some cases, they do not even have prefabs. Little kids are travelling out of the community to get places in primary schools. The facilities that were promised are not coming. The development levies that might have been gathered are not materialising. Many of the levies pertaining to existing developments will not be paid and there will be no new developments for some years to come. Many communities have been completely abandoned.
Consistency is a two-way process. If we want local authority plans to be consistent with national plans, the Government must follow through on its national plans by investing the necessary funds, which should be funnelled to where they were promised. There will be no incentive for local authority plans to be consistent with a national spatial strategy if the latter strategy is not being implemented. The Government's failure to meet its obligations made local authorities try to do what they could on their own. I have spoken to many councillors throughout the country who saw it as their obligation to try to save their local areas because nobody else was doing it. When every authority works on its own, there is no consistency and no coherence. That is what gave us bad planning. It was Government policy to allow the construction of hotels in God-forsaken places. They never had any chance of being sustainable. When one drives around the country, it is tragic to see housing estates that were built on the edges of old villages. In some cases, the estate is capable of housing three times the original population of the village. There was never any reason for the local population to grow in a manner that would produce sufficient demand for such houses. It is a tragedy and a classic example of how not to develop rural areas.
If there is no coherence between the various plans, there is no incentive for local authorities to follow the national plan. Many councillors have started to see national plans as having no reality beyond the day they are announced with great fanfare in Dublin. To put it quite simply, population and jobs will follow the infrastructure. If there is no infrastructure, who can blame rudderless local authorities for doing what they see as the best thing for their local areas? I agree with the section of the Bill that calls for consistency with transport plans. No development should take place anywhere in the country unless there is a clear transport plan for that area. Climate change has made that critical. The transport plans that have been presented never came to pass, however. Transport 21, which has been largely abandoned, did not have more than patchy coherence across the country. According to the national spatial strategy, by contrast, almost every town in the country was to be developed. I do not disagree with what the Minister wants to achieve, but I disagree with any effort to try to achieve it by diktat.
The major flaw in his approach is that we do not know whether the required consistency between ministerial plans and ministerial actions will exist. The Government ignored the national spatial strategy it produced. If this Bill is to mean anything, the spatial strategy will have to be revised and implemented. One of my big problems with this legislation is that its whole tone is contrary to the objective of strengthening local government and transparency. I do not think any Minister, regardless of who he or she is, should dictate what happens at local level. When a national plan has been put in place, one should expect local authorities to comply with it. Indeed, sanctions can be put in place to ensure that happens.
I would like to mention a couple of other issues. I do not want to be completely negative because I support certain aspects of this Bill, such as those allowing for the extension of planning permission and for greater clarity about the taking in charge of estates. I am not happy about the idea of allowing local authorities to impose levies so that schools are provided. When newly married couples buy their first house, they should not have to pay for schools to be constructed. That is what this provision involves, in effect. I am aware of hapless people in my local area who bought apartments and are now in negative equity with no local facilities. They overpaid for their properties because developers felt they would have to pay development levies. Those levies were not paid, in many cases. Some of them were paid, but many of them will never be paid. The developers in question are with NAMA now, or will be shortly. I do not believe these levies should be extended to schools. If there is one thing kids are entitled to, it is a school and I think the State should provide it. In any event, levies are a discredited currency at local level. They played a part in the uncontrolled building frenzy and were ultimately paid by the hapless house buyers.
I would like to raise some other aspects of the Bill in the few minutes remaining to me. I have written to the Minister about Part V housing being built in areas that are separate to the developments for which planning permission is being sought. There is no transparency in that regard. The Minister acknowledged my letter and assured me he would respond to the issues in advance of the publication of this Bill but as I have heard nothing further, I ask him to respond. The lack of transparency is contrary to the notion that people should be involved in the planning process and be aware of what was happening in their areas. People purchased houses in what they assumed were private developments only to discover subsequently that they were surrounded by public housing. I support completely the Part V provisions and it is perfectly acceptable that the proportion of housing constructed in my area under that Part was 20% but when the proportion increases to 40% or 60% the intention of the provisions are unacceptably undermined.
Anybody living in an urban area would be aware of the increasing problem of oversize trees in urban gardens. Where people live in close proximity, some sort of control is needed over trees. They can cause more damage than walls or buildings because they keep growing. If I may be excused the pun, this is an old chestnut. I ask the Minister to follow the example of most other countries by introducing some form of regulation. One must take account of loss of sunlight as well as the potential damage to adjoining buildings.
In the context of the property collapse, it is urgent that some way be found to complete estates and other developments which were intended to be operated by management companies. In some cases, lifts and staircase were operated by management companies while open areas were to be taken in charge by local authorities. Other developments were to be managed entirely by management companies but many have not yet been completed by developers. It was previously assumed that a bond would cover completion of such developments but it has since emerged that local authorities are not entitled to seek bonds to guarantee completion. The fall-out is that nobody is responsible for completing developments or finishing paths and landscaping. The law as it stands appears to place the new owners of these developments in breach of planning permission. I am not sure whether NAMA will assume the obligations of the planning permission when it takes over some of these developments.
If Deputy Kelly arrives in the Chamber, I will share time with him. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, which is intended to update the provisions of earlier Planning Acts. It will support economic renewal and promote sustainable development by ensuring that the planning system complements and supports infrastructural development around the country.
I agree with Deputy Mitchell's contention that trees cause significant problems throughout the city. Dublin City Council had to dig up a number of cherry trees because of the damage they caused to footpaths along the quays. Given the height of some of these trees, they would be refused planning permission if they were buildings. In urban settings, it is important that the size of trees are appropriate to the areas in which they grow. Some people think they are living in Glenveagh National Park when they plant their trees.
Deputy Cuffe raised an interesting issue on rezoning of land outside town centres for supermarkets. This may be not as noticeable in Dublin and other cities but it certainly has an impact. Dublin City Council has battled with Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council over the construction of Dundrum Shopping Centre, which has had a significant impact on the city centre as a retail destination. Dundrum clearly has its attractions but it has also sucked people from other shopping centres and the city centre. This suited Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council because it brought vastly increased revenues which could be used to keep councillors and managers happy by making it easier to fund various schemes. The Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment received a number of submissions from city and town traders whose businesses are being suffocated by large shopping centres on the outskirts of urban areas. Town centres cannot compete with the attraction of free and easy parking at these centres. Small traders, many of whom have operated business in town centres for generations, have been badly affected. This has been permitted by councillors in every local authority and we must also examine our own role as public representatives.
The Bill before us will go some way towards dealing with the rezoning decisions made in the past several years by introducing a more robust and strategic planning system. Over the past decade, Ireland experienced an unprecedented property boom which drove demand to such an extent that planning permission was granted in completely unsuitable areas. In Milltown in my constituency, permission was sought for a development in an area which anybody could tell is subject to flooding. I hope the local authority does not allow that to proceed.
Over the past several months, we have seen pictures of inappropriate developments in rural areas. Dublin's big advantage is that it does not have an extensive area of open land for development. Dublin City Council has to build upwards or off-load people to the outskirts of the city. We have all heard about the housing developments built on lands that were prone to flooding or without sufficient access to essential amenities. This legislation will protect against that type of disjointed and fractured planning in the future and will ensure Ireland moves towards a more co-ordinated and holistic planning process in which the macro consequences of planning decisions are carefully considered and which supports and informs the targets outlined in the Government's national spatial strategy. For example, the Bill provides that the relevant city or county manager must demonstrate how local development plans comply with the national spatial strategy and must ensure that topics such as growth scenarios, transport plans and rural development are taken into consideration.
Correct planning decisions are pivotal to Ireland's future development and will feed into other policy areas such as transport, environment and community development. This is supported in the Government's action plan Smarter Travel - A Sustainable Transport Future, which outlines the pivotal role spatial and transport planning will play in tackling urban sprawl and, by default, the challenge we face in regard to carbon emissions. Under the Bill, local development plans must contain mandatory objectives for the promotion of sustainable settlement and transportation strategies in urban and rural areas and outline the measures that will lead to reduced emissions.
Section 23 is a timely and sensible measure in the context of the financial difficulties being experienced by many people. As I understand it, the current situation is that planning permission is only extended in cases where substantial works have been carried out prior to the expiration of that permission. However, this provision means that planning permission may be extended in circumstances where substantial works have not been carried out. This will be allowed to happen if there are commercial, economic or technical considerations. For example, in the current climate many people seeking to develop or extend property are under financial constraints which may be beyond their control. This provision will help applicants to plan ahead and to have some certainty within the planning process. It will afford those applicants who cannot immediately proceed with a project as planned the opportunity to proceed when their personal circumstances improve or certain technical difficulties are ironed out without having to go through the entire planning process again.
It is crucial that the planning process complements the national spatial strategy. I welcome sections 24 and 25 which have regard to the need to develop infrastructure in the designated gateway towns outlined in the strategy. The development of these locations in coming years and their projected population growth means there must be continued progress in providing them with the infrastructure necessary to support vibrant and sustainable communities. To facilitate this concept, the Bill grants local authorities much greater flexibility to use development levies, where needed, on a broader range of infrastructure such as school sites, broadband provision and flood relief works. The wider distribution of development levies is particularly welcome. Rather than introducing additional levies the Bill provides local authorities with greater flexibility and control over the distribution of existing levies.
The Bill provides that amendments to development plans will now require, rather than a simple majority, the support of two thirds of the total membership of a planning authority. This is a welcome and sensible move which will require support from a significant bloc for any given proposal. Moreover, it will reduce the scope for the lobbying of particular individuals or groups. The measures in the Bill are progressive and well thought out. They will result in a fairer, more constructive and more considered planning process. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am pleased to welcome my friend and colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, to the House for this debate. He is doing an excellent job in his portfolio.
Planning law is currently based on the Planning and Development Act 2000 which consolidated and modernised the planning system. This was followed by the launch by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government of the national spatial strategy in 2002. Regional authorities have been responsible for regional planning guidelines since 2004, and development plans and local plans are made by planning authorities.
The original purpose of the Planning and Development Act 2000 was, as stated in its Title, to "provide, in the interests of the common good, for proper planning and sustainable development." However, in the past ten years we have witnessed a litany of poor planning decisions and chronic over-zoning. The Bill before us today will once and for all put an end to the bad planning that has seen a deterioration in the quality of life of those living in housing estates without facilities, schools or proper public transport. There is no doubt that planning has been at times inconsistent with national, regional and local planning guidelines. This Bill will put an end to that by ensuring there is greater coherence between national, regional and local guidelines.
The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 is part of the Government's commitment to the development of a smart economy. The legislation introduces several key changes to the planning code with the principal aim of ensuring proper planning at local level, supporting economic renewal and promoting sustainable development into the future. It will ensure greater consistency between a local authority's development plan, the national spatial strategy, regional planning guidelines and ministerial directives. The legislation provides that any changes to a county development plan must include an indicator as to how the plan is consistent with the regional planning guidelines and the national spatial strategy. This strengthening of the status of regional planning guidelines and the role of regional authorities in the preparation of development plans is welcome. Their input on key issues will be hugely important and will ensure a cohesive relationship between local planning and regional planning guidelines. I take this opportunity as a former member of the Midland Regional Authority to pay tribute to the former chief executive officer, Mr. Jim Stone, his staff and all the members of the authority for their work.
This legislation will ensure that future development takes place at the right time, in the right place and at the right pace to allow for the necessary infrastructure to be built. Most important, the Bill will greatly strengthen local democracy and accountability and provide greater transparency for the public in the planning process. An important provision in this regard is that two thirds of councillors, rather than a simple majority, must approve the county development plan. It also ensures that the powers bestowed on councillors are exercised in a responsible way in accordance with good planning practice.
To ensure greater transparency, amendments to a draft development or local area plan which have been the subject of public consultation can only be changed now in minor respects. Previously, land zoning was often introduced in the latter stages of a development plan. However, this new rule will ensure councillors are forbidden from making any last minute changes. In addition, following the public consultation process, any further changes will be subject to the two thirds majority rule.
I welcome the increased role of the Minister who will have greater legal responsibility under the new procedures. One of the most welcome aspects of the Bill is that which provides for greater powers to deal with so-called rogue developers. That will enable local authorities to refuse planning permission to applicants who have been convicted of serious breaches of planning legislation or who have been involved in an unauthorised development.
In the news yesterday, it was reported that an estimated 300,000 houses are empty and approximately 200 ghost estates are scattered around the country. I very much hope that those developers who have littered our country with ghost estates and caused heartache for hundreds of home owners will be prevented from acquiring planning permission in the future. We must not only ensure an end to ghost estates but we must ensure that we never again have what Frank McDonald in The Irish Times has referred to as "tenements for the 21st century" in Dublin city centre. The legislation must take those kinds of developers into account.
I referred to developers who are guilty of abandoning home owners in ghost estates with no possibility of being able to sell their homes. On the other hand, there are also many honourable developers who would like to complete the developments they have started or who have been granted planning permission. Unfortunately, at the moment the main obstacle in their way is a lack of credit. As a result, I very much welcome the extension of planning permission for a further five years as outlined in the Bill. That provision has been well received, given the current slump in the property market. The takeover of billions in property loans by NAMA is imminent. I hope that will result in a greater supply of credit for those developers. The extension of planning permission will further aid the situation.
I do not agree with one aspect of the Bill, namely, section 28 which empowers An Bord Pleanála to reduce the quorum for its meetings from three to two members. That is being done to increase the efficiency of the business of the board in terms of handling a backlog of appeals. I suggest that this reduction to two members could slow down the process and result in greater indecision. With the number of appeals down dramatically due to the recession, there is no need to reduce the quorum. I wish to see the Bill progressed.
I warn the person who is due to speak after me that I will not use my 20 minutes. I will not speak on regional guidelines, spatial strategies or local development plans. I will focus on one issue, namely, one-off planning and the service that is provided to the public when it comes to local authorities and the planning process. I have read what the Minister said in his Second Stage speech. I accept that the Bill is an attempt to formalise and delineate the roles and relationships that exist between county and city managers, planners, councillors and, most importantly, the public.
The Bill refers to improving the quality of individual planning decisions and introducing greater coherence in the planning process. It mandates that a proposed or draft direction would be issued regarding local area plans in the first instance to seek local views before any final direction is issued. Interestingly enough, it also refers to the efficient use of taxpayers' money. Some might say the Bill micromanages planning matters throughout the country from the Minister's office. However, it is a genuine attempt to clear up certain ambiguities in the planning process and to clarify the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved, be it the councillor, official or member of the public. The reality is that to date the interpretation of planning Acts and how they were implemented on a daily basis has almost always been the realm of officials and management in local authorities.
As a former member of a local authority I always felt there was an unequal relationship between councillors and the arguments they made on planning matters and the policies that were and continue to be forced through by the manager and his or her officials. In other words, they would pretend to listen to the member but then they did what they wanted. An issue arose in Waterford recently that reminded me of just that, namely, what some see as the blatant insistence of officials in getting their own way in planning matters, to the detriment in some cases of the public, over and above the genuine concerns of elected officials in the local authority.
I would not speak on this matter were it not for the fact that a councillor, namely, Liam Brazil, has been systematically prevented from raising an issue of public importance relating to planning on several occasions in the council chamber to which he was elected. That has been going on since the end of 2009. The issue that has arisen relates to site visits and the pre-planning process in Waterford, and the attempt by Waterford County Council management to limit site visits. Some have described it as an insignificant issue, but I disagree with that. The measure would, first, adversely affect the public by limiting direct access to planners. Second, it would make the entire process potentially far more expensive for the public. Third, it would duplicate the administrative role of officials in the local authority. Fourth, it encapsulates an attitude prevalent with some officials in management that they know best no matter what.
My comments and criticisms are directed at the management of Waterford County Council. On occasion I have tangled with Waterford County Council and members of Fianna Fáil have used it as a stick to beat me with and suggested that I was making a direct attack on the employees of Waterford County Council. I am not; I am directing my criticism at senior management in Waterford County Council.
Aspects of the Bill make sense but the Minister should take a look at the basic day to day operations of local authorities and how management deals with the public in the area of planning. The general interaction with the public on planning is a huge source of complaint to my constituency office. I have been told that telephone calls are not returned, correspondence is not acknowledged on a fairly large scale and the level of one to one interaction over the years has become more withdrawn. It is more difficult to get definitive decisions. The service to the public, even at a time when there are far fewer planning applications, has regressed. The issue that has arisen in Waterford is a perfect example of that. The councillor in question was told last July that all site visits were being curtailed. The reasons given since then have been extremely unsatisfactory and unconvincing.
There are many Deputies in this legislative body who have had experience as councillors and would agree that the most efficient and satisfactory way of dealing with planning is to get on site and stand in the field or street, as the case may be, with the planner and the applicant to sort out the application right there and then. In the long run, it usually ends up saving the applicant money. Initial clear direction cuts down on unnecessary administration later - that is my experience and that of many others.
This is where the contradiction begins as far as Waterford County Council is concerned. I have a document which the council produced without debate for the last council meeting. Page 1 of the document states that pre-planning site visits are very valuable for applicants and councillors to help people in need of housing to get planning permission and, in so doing, reduce the cost involved, which can be substantial. That sounds good. The document goes on to state that such site visits enhance the level of co-operation between officials and councillors in dealing with the public on the complexities of the planning system, thereby improving the service and enhancing the concept of local democracy. Again, no one will disagree with that. Page 2, however, states that there is no entitlement in the legislation nor in the guidelines for the public to visit sites at pre-planning stage, and that the practice is hugely wasteful of scarce staff resources. The idea here is that the council would set up a three-tier administrative appeals process before a site visit would ever be contemplated. Waterford is not the only county inundated by planning applications. The percentage decrease in Waterford has been as bad as anywhere else. In other words, the council is saying it believes site visits are the way forward but it does not want to do them any longer, which is very strange.
I decided to inquire from other Deputies what the practice is throughout the country in their local authority areas and counties. By and large, it amounts to what could be described as a fairly loose but practical arrangement throughout the country, structured on the basis of what suits and what is more efficient for the public, not the officials. Interestingly, I got the strong impression from many Deputies that many local authorities conduct more site visits due to the smaller number of planning applications and the realisation that dealing with applications at source - in other words, on site - is the optimal approach. The attitude of management in Waterford is that the public are not entitled to site visits because these are not specified in the planning Acts and are a waste of their valuable time. Any issue, decision or policy change that substantially affects the service provided to the public by a local authority is not solely a matter for management. It is also clearly an integral matter for elected councillors, who represent people who have applied for planning permission. If the Minister accepts that premise, individual councillors should have the right to raise those issues in public in the chamber of the local authority to which they were elected.
It is appropriate that the Minister would consider outlining some pre-planning guidelines in the Bill. Matters such as this are clearly the remit of officials and elected representatives and are a matter for both parties, and are clearly not solely the remit of the executive and not solely a reserve function of the county or city manager. The Minister should address this with new guidelines in the Bill before us.
The management in question in Waterford needs to take a step back and ask itself what its function is. Is it to create additional administration or to provide a better service for the public? As to the reasons it gives for not allowing discussion and deliberation on this measure, its argument does not hold water. I agree with some of the measures being discussed in this Bill but I request that it be made clear that councillors have a clear and definite role in shaping how a local authority interacts with the public, in this case through the planning process, and that councillors are not obliged to conform with measures that ultimately disadvantage a service being provided to the public by a county or city council.
I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on the Bill. I am reminded by the tail end of Deputy Deasy's contribution that I spent happy days as a member of Dublin County Council and South Dublin County Council. I hope the Acting Chairman enjoyed his time as a councillor also. I was elected in 1991 for the then Tallaght-Rathcoole electoral area of the then full Dublin County Council, which was not broken up until three or four years later. When I was first elected, we went straight into the eye of the storm with regard to the development plan. There was much controversy and we are often reminded of those times. At the same time, it was a very important learning experience for me. I took every opportunity to consider these issues, and I am glad I did so.
The Acting Chairman will know I live and work in Tallaght, which is the third largest population centre in the country.
I remind Deputy Upton that I am from Crumlin, although I am now a proud Tallaght man. Following my re-election in 1999 and as a Dáil Deputy since 2002, I have continued to examine the whole issue of planning. To tell the Acting Chairman one of my little secrets, I would not be a Deputy today if I had not moved to Tallaght with an employer 40 years ago. When I moved there, and in the next years of its development following the implementation of the Myles Wright report, it was often said of Tallaght that it had the population of a city but still the status of a village. Facilities were very slow in coming but, happily, following the opening of The Square in October 1990, many good things happened in Tallaght, as they should. There should have been a parallel development of facilities but, other than churches and schools, it did not really happen for some time.
If one goes out to Tallaght today, however, it is really, to use a Superman phrase, a metropolis. One can go there by Luas and there are great roads, the Tallaght hospital, the civic centre and many other facilities that one would expect in a major town. I am particularly proud of the development of sports facilities, including the Tallaght stadium. Tallaght has come on.
If one walks around my town today, people still have views and concerns, and there are still challenges in regard to planning, just as in many other places. It is very relevant to this Bill that people ask why we need all these apartments. If one goes around The Square in Tallaght, which many Members will know and, I hope, visit on a regular basis, either going to The Square, the hospital, the theatre or otherwise, one will see many unoccupied apartments. I heard Deputy Cuffe making good points about villages today. A village should be a place people are proud of. I am proud of Tallaght village, which I am in every day because my full-time constituency office is based there. However, there are too many unoccupied apartments in Tallaght village and there are still more planning applications, including a current one for a nine-storey building.
What do we want all these apartments for? It raises issues in regard to the operation of the planning laws and it certainly raises issues, as referred to in the Bill, about An Bord Pleanála and how long it takes to do its business. I receive regular correspondence from a community leader in Tallaght who likes to keep a low profile. I will name him as Aidan Thomas and he is a good community activist. He has made many suggestions and I will relate one he mentioned to me recently. I do not mean to pick on my county manager or an other manager but he wonders why, when county managers are being interviewed and appointed, there is no community involvement. I am not sure how that would work out. For example, in Dublin South-West and south County Dublin, one could have a community person on the interview board. The person could be from Clondalkin so how would people react in Tallaght and so on?
I mention this because people talk about such planning issues. People discuss having a voice and a view on where we live and work. As with the Acting Chairman's area, Tallaght is somewhere that people have moved to. I mentioned the connection with Deputy Upton's Crumlin, where I lived. There are many people now living in Tallaght who were originally from Crumlin, Drimnagh and other suburbs. They have a view on how people should work, rest and play.
Decisions are often taken on planning that people cannot see. I am proud of Tallaght and want to stress that point. Like many people in the community I have worries about the number of apartments there and that kind of development. It is important in the context of this legislation that such a point is made.
I have briefly mentioned An Bord Pleanála. I am telling a few of my life secrets now. In 1990 I was nominated by the youth service to be considered as a member of An Bord Pleanála. I do not think I have ever said that to anybody, and I am unsure what my qualifications were. As it happened, the Minister of the day did not appoint me so here I am.
People have issues with An Bord Pleanála and wonder why it takes so long for decisions to be made. I hope the passage of this legislation will give some impetus to the issue and I am glad to see the Minister making proposals in that regard. I hope that will be followed through.
I hope the Acting Chairman does not mind being reminded of our great days together on the council before he went to Fingal and I went to south Dublin. In my constituency and certainly in Tallaght there has been much development, with some still evident in parts of Firhouse and Ballycullen. People have said there is not much joined-up thinking in some of this planning and one wonders who will grasp the nettle and tackle transport and schooling.
I am glad the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, has mentioned that Dublin South-West is among a group of constituencies where the need for more school building will be considered. People in Ballycullen and Firhouse say that should have happened a long time ago. I hope that with the debate on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill, such issues will again be considered, and people will get the sense that somebody cares about where they go and live.
We saw on the news what happened during the flooding, although my constituency was unaffected, like many other places. There are issues concerning where we put houses and infrastructure. There are difficulties in how such concerns are expressed. I hope this legislation addresses some of the issues regarding the taking in charge of estates. It is some 20-odd years after many estates in Tallaght were built - I represent Tallaght, Firhouse, Templeogue and Greenhills - and it has taken forever for taking-in-charge processes to be dealt with.
Only this week I made strong representations to South Dublin County Council in respect of concerns expressed to me in Citywest. In that new area people want to know why green spaces are not being taken in charge. We go backwards and forwards on such matters. An estate on the Blessington road, Newhall Court, had its first houses built nearly 20 years ago and the estate has still not been taken in charge.
There are issues and I am glad the Government has given some priority thinking to this planning and development Bill. It has been a while in gestation, although it is important. I have listened to many of the speeches and all of us share concern about the issue. I hope the Minister will grasp this nettle and understand there is cross-party support on the matter. I know people will fight about dotting the i's and so on but it is an important Bill that we should press on with. I am happy to concede to my good friend from Tipperary.
I am delighted to add a few thoughts this evening to a very important Bill. The Bill makes a number of amendments to issues surrounding compliance with planning permission. As Deputy O'Connor indicated, many of us have been members of local councils and we understand issues surrounding planning, the granting process and the importance of adhering to conditions laid down.
Section 20, for example, provides that a planning authority may refuse planning permission to an applicant who is substantially non-compliant with a previous planning permission. This was a significant issue in the Celtic tiger years which are no longer with us. Some developers got too big for their boots too quickly. They went from town to town and village to village building schemes rather than one-off housing. These are not the local builders we know and value and which are required in our communities. Such builders have provided many fine structures in a practical and architectural sense. They have always done good work.
We have seen cases with large applications and as land was zoned, we must take responsibility as politicians for that. In my village and other areas, too much land was zoned for building purposes. A builder might have wanted to build 80 or 150 houses but may have had unfinished work in other parts of the county or in neighbouring counties. The planners have always said they cannot consider previous history and every application has to be considered on its merit. I understand the reasoning but I welcome that there will be a change, as a previous record of work completion and adherence to planning conditions is vital. We are closing the stable door when the horse has bolted but I still welcome the provision in the Bill.
A case may go for final analysis with a senior planner; some counties have planning committees and they should be in all counties so that a case will not be determined by the views of one planner. This is not to condemn such planners as they are qualified but a group should consider each final application and have a broader view.
Social capital must be considered. Where there are defaulting builders and developers who have not complied with planning conditions - there are a number in my constituency - the matters go before the courts. That is an expensive business and a gravy train for barristers. We have seen tribunals in other sectors. It is a tough business and I know the law must be adhered to, which I accept totally. Matters may not necessarily have to be brought to court to get an injunction or permission to demolish a building.
There is a scheme of houses in a town in Tipperary where that position pertains at present. The court will give its decision on these matters and we must respect it but there should be some kind of social capital involved. Instead of demolishing fine buildings - although not built completely in adherence to planning conditions - they should be used. I am a member of the national board of the Irish Council for Social Housing and believe they should be used as social housing. Amendments could be made to the Bill to bring this about rather than force people to demolish such buildings, which would be a complete and utter waste. If the issues are small and the buildings do not interfere with landscaping and are not prone to flooding, they could be used. We must consider such social capital aspects. The rogue developer would be punished but there would be a gain for the State and the taxpayer above all, including ordinary people who are looking for but cannot find houses. The courts should examine that aspect and an alternative use should be possible for such a development other than a decision that this scheme of houses must be demolished by a certain date.
While An Bord Pleanála has a statutory role, long delays have been incurred in its decisions on projects, although the delays are not as long as the delays incurred of up to 12 months during the busy periods in the past. I understand it has a big workload but there should be more transparency and accountability in the system.
While I welcome the input of groups such an An Taisce in certain areas, a member of An Taisce who lives 40 miles away from a proposed development could lodge an objection to it and bring it to An Bord Pleanála. While people have a right to object to a proposed development and it is important that right is enshrined in law, the planning process for schools and community facilities should be fast-tracked. I am not saying we should break or bend the law but we, as politicians, are all aware of the planning stages that have to be completed to secure funding for a school project.
It takes years to secure funding for a school project that is badly needed. There may be overcrowding in a school or conditions may be such that from the point of view of health and safety or road safety the development may be required as a matter of urgency. There is a backlog in completion of school projects even though the Minister for Education and Science has invested considerable funding and effort into fast-tracking their delivery. Progress on these projects has been delayed on issues to be decided by an An Bord Pleanála. Some other mechanism should be provided to ensure that such projects should not be referred to An Bord Pleanála where long delays are incurred in arriving at decisions. The construction industry and our economy needs such investment now. The funding for such projects is taxpayers' money and such projects would provide valuable business to an area and valuable jobs for thousands of unemployed tradespeople. Value for money in the completion of such projects can be secured now, unlike times when those who worked in the construction industry were busy. Some fast-tracking mechanism for the delivery of such projects is needed.
In saying that, I am not undermining the work of An Bord Pleanála, but in many cases when an inspector's report is submitted to An Bord Pleanála recommending a decision, the board may make the opposite decision, and the reason for it doing so is hard to fathom.
An oral hearing on a proposed development in a town in my county was held some months ago and, thankfully, the decision reached was the one we wanted. The proposed development was too big for the town and worse than that it was to be sited in the middle of a flood plain. The incidence of flooding has been a major issue throughout the country and the proposed development was a massive one. As the old saying goes "people would say they would put legs under hens". The proposed development was to be built on stilts and the river was to flow under it. That is codswallop. I have never before heard of such a proposal. I live in the vicinity of a flood plain and anyone who knows about flood plains understands concerns in this respect. Architects can design any development one would want, but the planned siting for this development was wrong. It was a divisive issue in the town. The proposed development was granted planning permission and then the decision was referred to An Bord Pleanála. Objections were lodged and I made a submission.
I raised it with the previous Minister of State with responsibility for public works and with my colleague, the current Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh. I accept he cannot intervene in such a matter, but logic must prevail. The answer I would get from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government regarding this development is that he cannot micro-manage town councils. I accept that, but there is no point having grandiose plans for regional developments and flood plain guidelines if they are not heeded. Thankfully, following the oral hearing on this proposed development which was a major issue and on which many contributions were made, An Bord Pleanála made a decision, with which I was satisfied, that it was unsuitable because of its scale and its potential impact on the area.
Some €4 million was spent on building flood defences in that town some years ago and in the flooding that occurred there last February and recently, flood waters came within inches of breaching those defences. Therefore, that development would have had an adverse impact and proposed developments in such areas must be seriously examined.
Planning for community facilities needs to be fast-tracked to kick-start work on them. In doing that we should not break the law but get around it by ensuring an easier system is put in place and that there is a more transparent system in place in An Bord Pleanála.
The development contribution scheme is another issue. I supported and voted for that scheme when it was introduced at council level. I have never apologised for doing that because it is a valuable scheme in terms of the community facilities provided under it for many areas. Substantial moneys have been collected under it. However, there are people who have been granted planning who cannot pay their development contributions because of the collapse of the building industry. There must be flexibility in this respect. If we want to get these people back in business, to have buildings completed and to collect the contributions, this matter will have to be worked through and perhaps a site will have to be taken for a playground, as was done in my village, instead of money.
There is a myth that councils have a slush fund of such development contributions. I raised this issue with my parliamentary party today. Substantial moneys were collected during the Celtic tiger era. If this is myth, it must be dispelled, or if local authorities have this money, it must be spent now on the roads, building flood defences and driving forward our economy. There is no point in having it in the bank. If they do not have such money, we need to be told that. I thank the Chair for his patience and I look forward to having further input into this debate.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. The recent flooding and the consequences of the freezing temperatures have brought into sharp focus the need for appropriate planning regulations. There has been something of a philosophy of "getting away with it" in regard to the need for meeting standards and observing the regulations in regard to planning and development.
Unfortunately reforming the Planning and Developments Acts now is akin to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Housing estates throughout the country have been under feet of water. Such flooding affected Sallins in Kildare, Ballinasloe, Cork and the area from Roscommon down through the country. While climate change has a very significant role to play in this, bad planning has been clearly identified by many people who have spoken on this issue, it having caused huge damage to householders, farmers and other businesses. The senseless rezoning of land on flood plains is an extreme example of bad planning and we live with the effects of bad planning whether in rural or urban areas. In Terenure in my local area, a developer who illegally demolished a habitable dwelling was fined a paltry €1,000 on a site which was valued at the time in the order of €15 million, which is an issue to which I will return.
Many apartment blocks in this city are built to poor standards, which developers recognise at this stage. Now we have the eyesores of many of these appalling apartment blocks lying idle. We also have the problem of planning permission having been granted for various sites where, clearly, no development will take place. There are other sites where planning applications have been submitted. I am concerned that we will have a host of derelict sites around the city. We need to take action to ensure that these do not become a magnet for anti-social behaviour. This is an important point in regard to failure of planning to a certain extent up to now.
Developers have left estates and apartment developments unfinished. We are well aware of numerous examples of that. An unfinished development is often a euphemism for a wasteland with no pathways, no infrastructure or local school and unfortunate residents are left with no public transport in the area. They might have to plough their way through potholes to get to the front door of their house. We are very much aware of such developments. Landscaping is simply a far off promised land with no hope of it being done.
Planning permission was granted willy nilly for almost any development in this city. The refusal of an application for any substantial development by the local authority was more the exception than the rule. We are now reaping the benefits of another example of light regulation in the building industry. For example, one of the reasons put forward for burst pipes in relatively new developments was that the developer failed to place the pipes sufficiently deep in the ground to prevent freezing and subsequent cracking of the pipes, hence some of the flooding and the water shortages now being experienced.
I have acknowledged that climate change has had an important impact but our changing climate has brought home to us the cost of poor planning standards, the absence of any adequate regulation and the failure to enforce minimum standards. It is our job in this House to act as public legislators. I have serious issues with the Bill, as it stands, but at least it is an attempt to move matters forward and I acknowledge and welcome that. My experiences of the planning system in Dublin South-Central are, I am sure, similar to that in many other constituencies. The role of the local authorities is paramount to ensuring good planning. A significant portion of this Bill is dedicated to ensuring that local development plans are in keeping with national strategies, which is to be welcomed.
I refer specifically to a planning issue that was of recent concern to me. A planning application was submitted by a developer for a private hospital on the grounds of St. James's Hospital. While I disagree with the philosophy of building private hospitals on public grounds, that is a separate matter, and the developer was entirely within his rights to submit such an application. Of much greater concern to me was the response of Dublin City Council to a request to place a chapel located on the grounds of the hospital on the list of protected structures, which it failed to do. Coincidentally, as part of the development, there was an application by the developer to demolish the chapel. Prior to the submission of the planning application, a request to put the chapel on the list of protected structures was made to the area committee, which recommended that it be placed on the list. The normal procedure in such cases is that the proposal then goes before the next full meeting of the council. In fact, this is a reserved function of the councillors. The area committee agreed to this in May 2008. Now, after 18 months, the proposal still has not gone before the full council. Whether the chapel is ultimately placed on the list, it is a matter for the council to accept or not to accept the recommendation of the area committee. In effect, the council officials are thumbing their noses at the elected councillors.
A planning decision is due shortly on the application for the private hospital, which includes an application for demolition of the chapel. If planning permission is granted by the city council and it is permitted to demolish the chapel, this will raise serious questions about the transparency of the planning process and the meaning of democracy.
Last year I introduced a Private Members' Bill in the House on the issue of prior breaches of planning legislation. Section 20 of the current Bill is concerned with the sanctions placed on a developer if he or she is found guilty of breaching planning permission. I welcome the fact that this is included in the Bill, but the proposed sanctions are paltry, and I will table amendments to this on Committee Stage. The sanction, as the Bill stands, would only preclude the developer from seeking planning permission, which would have little or no effect as he or she will be able to appeal this decision. In the Private Members' Bill I proposed much stronger sanctions. The Bill stated:
Where a person is convicted of an offence to which section 4 applies and the court is satisfied that the relevant provision of the Principal Act was contravened deliberately and with a view to increasing the value of the land concerned, then, during the period of five years from the date of conviction or such other period as the court, on the application of the prosecutor and having regard to all the circumstances of the case, may order---
(a) a planning authority shall not grant the person permission in respect of any application for development that is made in the course of, or is connected with, the business of dealing in or developing land,
(b) that person shall not be appointed or act as a director or other officer of, or be in any way, whether directly or indirectly, concerned or take part in the promotion, formation or management of, any company the business of which involves dealing in or developing land.
This would, in effect, keep a developer out of the business for five years, which would be a significant sanction and more effective than anything proposed here. I urge the Minister to take account of this. I refer to the event in Terenure in which a convent was knocked down by a developer, who was given a paltry fine of €1,000 - a tiny amount compared to the vast value of the land at that time.
The purpose of section 28 is to reduce the number required to achieve a quorum for a board decision of An Bord Pleanála from three to two. This is a retrograde step. Three has traditionally been the number for a quorum. This will do little to improve planning law and I question the need for it in the current climate in which the number of applications to An Bord Pleanála has reduced substantially. An Bord Pleanála has been effective and proactive in addressing problematic decisions made by local authorities and I welcome the fact that it has this role. Thus, I question the necessity of reducing the number required for a quorum from three to two.
Section 29 seeks to increase the fines levied under the principal Act, mostly by a factor of three. While this is welcome, the fine does not fit the crime. We need to make the penalty such a disincentive as to prevent any breaches of planning law.
On the issue of information for local residents, any public representative who must deal with planning applications for substantial developments in his or her area will be aware of the impact they will have on local residents and the environment. I propose that a developer be obliged to provide information to every household within a specific radius of the location of the proposed development. As the law currently stands, developers must put up a site notice that may or may not be seen by local residents. Where a substantial development is proposed - for example, more than 250 residential units, although that is open to discussion - the developer should be required to advertise and hold a public meeting to seek to address the concerns raised by the local community. This would benefit the local community and the developer, because a consensus can be arrived at through discussion rather than confrontation later on. If a consensus can be arrived at, this could prevent later planning objections and appeals to An Bord Pleanála.
Around the country there are numerous examples of poor developments, with large blocks of houses and few or no services. I emphasise the need to ensure that the required infrastructure is there, particularly schools, as has been mentioned by several Deputies. Such a recommendation is contained in the Bill, but there is no requirement that a school be provided as part of a development. I ask the Minister to consider making this provision more substantial.
This Bill is necessary to amend the serious flaws in our local and national planning system. There are several positive aspects to the Bill, but there are also a number of areas in which there is much room for improvement.
This Bill is timely, given the ongoing issues with property development and planning matters. To that extent, it can be welcomed. I support the positive proposals in the legislation which are designed to introduce improvements in the overall planning process. However, while I will not vote against Second Stage, I will propose amendments on Committee Stage as there are improvements that could be made.
The recent flooding in many parts of the country - leading, in some cases, to the virtual destruction of people's homes - has highlighted deficiencies in local planning and raised serious questions about the permitted location of housing developments and the procedures that resulted in permission being granted.
Several weeks ago I visited Carlow, Sallins, the Shannon basin and parts of west Cork. In many areas it was evident to the naked eye that granting planning permission for developments was a recipe for disaster. I raised this issue before Christmas, mentioning the building of homes in locations in which there were historical records of flooding. There may not have been flooding in some of these locations for many years - perhaps even in living memory - but where housing developments were allowed to proceed in locations close to rivers or in water basins, that risk was always present. Some of the newer developments where flooding did take place were in areas whose placenames actually referred to water, which might have provided a clue to those dealing with the planning applications. Two years ago, not far from where I live, in Banna - part of which is under water for perhaps six weeks of the year - planning permission was granted for a mobile home park, although it was subsequently refused by An Bord Pleanála.
The dangerous phenomenon of developers using elected representatives to put pressure on council employees, planners and so forth, to secure planning permission to satisfy their own greed, needs to be addressed. Surely planners and developers ought to have paused and considered why nobody had built in locations such as I mentioned, even though they were close to existing settlements. We now know the reasons, but unfortunately that knowledge comes too late for those whose homes have been destroyed.