Thursday, 28 January 2010
Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
The recent flooding in many parts of the country, leading in some cases to the virtual destruction of people's homes, has highlighted several deficiencies in local planning. It raised serious questions over where housing developments were allowed to be located and the procedures that resulted in permission being granted.
Before Christmas, I raised the issue of the building of houses in locations where there was an historical record of flooding. There may not have been flooding in some of those locations for many years, maybe even in living memory. However, where housing development was allowed to proceed in places close to rivers or on water basins that risk was always present. Some newer developments where flooding did take place were in areas where the actual placenames referred to water. That might have provided a clue. Planners and developers should have paused and considered why no one had built in these locations before, even though they were close to or within existing settlements. We now know the reasons but, unfortunately, that knowledge comes to late for those whose homes were destroyed. A more vigorous examination of planning applications in such locations clearly needs to be put in place.
This can be accommodated in section 5 with its stated intent to create an evidence-based and integrated process based on key aspects of the development of the areas in which the proposals are situated. Section 3 refers to risk assessment for flooding under criteria related to the use of land, the development of the land, the management of flood risk and changes in climate. Perhaps a specific clause related to the historical record of the location with a view to detecting possible periodic flooding might also be included.
Some property developers owe substantial amounts of money to local authorities which provided infrastructure and services for housing developments. Many of those developers are now claiming an inability to pay. I understand some local authorities have begun actions to recover these moneys. While I accept it might not be addressed through changes in planning procedures, it is a serious problem that has left local authorities at a significant loss. Could it be included under the provisions for taking action against and increasing the penalties imposed on those who violate guidelines?
The provisions regarding submissions from local authorities seem to be positive and will focus attention on how specific proposals fit in with overall development plans. I also welcome the provision in sections 7 and 8 to require that any changes to an existing development plan will need the support of two thirds of the members of the authority instead of a simple majority, ensuring that any changes would be accepted across a range of opinion and, therefore, less likely to be contentious or present a possible negative impact on the locality.
With regard to the changes to local area plans as proposed in section 10I, I will oppose the changes to the population size threshold and will submit amendments which seek to leave the threshold as is. This is the best way of ensuring local area plans are what they claim to be and that they properly reflect the character and needs of the place for which they were framed. The provisions to ensure that local area plans are consistent with overall county development plans make sense given that any conflicts obviously would lead to contradictory strategies which would be reflected in the planning process. Section 12 provides for greater linkage and coherence between regional planning guidelines and the national spatial strategy.
It is important that democratically elected local representatives have an input into how the broader strategies are implemented. There needs to be some flexibility to account for changing circumstances as it makes no sense to attempt to implement an existing strategy if economic, social or demographic factors have radically altered. This must be the case, in particular when the economic climate has changed significantly, as is now the case, since the original strategies were framed. For example, the national spatial strategy should be part of an overall strategy to stimulate economic recovery through a specific focus on indigenous strengths and requirements and planning policy should reflects this.
Section 17 contains references to the planning authorities' obligation to outline how they implemented the strategy laid down by the Minister. This could be interpreted as embodying a rigidly centralist approach in which local authorities are expected to simply follow departmental and ministerial directives even when there may be significant issues at conflict. That is not to suggest the Minister or strategy may be wrong but it is better to ensure that local authorities have a significant input into strategy and planning, reflecting local needs and are, therefore, on board with that strategy and its implementation rather than their having to follow guidelines with which they may have genuine difficulties.
Section 22 refers to public authorities placing documentation related to an application on its website. Obviously, the more information available to the public the greater the degree of transparency there will be, consistent obviously with the privacy of individuals who are making planning applications. It is vital, as we have seen in relation to the proposed Corrib gas pipeline, that the planning process is transparent and open to consultation and persuasion. This will not be assisted by reducing the number of members entitled to make decisions, many of whom may have a significant impact and some of whom may be contentious. Again, I will seek to address this issue by way of amendment.
While I welcome the general thrust of the Bill and will not oppose it on this Stage, there are a number of areas that need to be clarified or amended and I will seek to do so when the Bill returns to the House.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this Bill. Like the Acting Chairman, Deputy O'Shea, I was a member of a local authority for some considerable time. I am not sure that the innovations that have taken place in the planning area have been necessarily an improvement. I will speak more about that issue later.
I am concerned about the conflict of interest and focus in terms of planning between the two Government parties. The Green Party believes a flood plain to be a potential disaster area which floods on a regular basis and about which nobody can do anything. It believes that despite the fact that everything comes to a halt during bad weather it is a natural disaster about which nothing can be done. Of course, that is not true. Even though we have been trying to address problems in this area for years they occur again and again. There does not exist an area that cannot be drained. It has been done all over the world for thousands of years. That argument is rubbish. Fianna Fáil, on the other hand, believe a flood plain to be an investment bank, a potential area for unlimited development. This has led in recent times to intense development in particular areas, an issue on which I would now like to concentrate.
Not so many years ago, it was believed that developments would be of the type in which people would want to live, that they would include adequate space and recreational areas and would in some way tie in or be in consort with the area in which they were located. However, that idea quickly went out the window during the boom times. While there have been some good developments, we have had some atrocious developments some of which look more like what one would expect to find in a Mediterranean resort or like an idea somebody copied from elsewhere and gave up on half way through, leaving the development unfinished. Some appalling architectural contributions have been planted in the middle of this country during the past ten years.
The Minister of State, Deputy Brady, who is my constituency colleague, knows what I am saying is true. In the previous era, the quality of development in the area which we represent, although much criticised, was of high quality. Despite all the allegations in regard to local corruption and so on, it was of high quality and has stood the test of time. Only one conclusion will be drawn from any comparison of the two when we look back in ten or 15 years' time.
I have watched with interest the debate during the past few weeks in regard to the demolition of developments in particular areas. I have never heard such stupidity. It is stated that this should be done on the basis that these developments should not have been given planning permission in the first instance. It is proposed that to address what was considered a wrong-doing we should demolish these developments. The theory is that this will address the problem, but it will not. It will result in further problems, expense and will become another issue on which people can speculate and chatter for some time to come.
Another issue of concern is that of people seeking planning permission to build in a rural area. People in rural Ireland wishing to build on high ground which would not be flooded have been, and continue to be, discouraged from doing so on the basis that they must conform with the aesthetics of an area. In other words, if the house was built on low-lying ground it would not be seen and would not, therefore, interfere in any way with the aesthetics of an area although it might be flooded. Somewhere in the middle of that lies a contradiction.
In the past, development plans were drawn up by local councillors. Despite what has been said about them, they were fairly good. I recently saw a television programme on which councillors gave a good account of themselves. I would not dismiss them altogether. During the past few years the "experts" arrived from everywhere and were appointed to every local authority in the country. Consultants were engaged and they recommended what should be done. They knew better because they were experts in the area. It now appears they knew nothing and have been allowed to walk away without blame. We all know they were but guns for hire. Neither they nor the Minister has taken responsibility for the situation in which we now find ourselves. I hope that on the next occasion I will have an opportunity to conclude my remarks.