Thursday, 19 January 2017
Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed)
I very much welcome the opportunity to speak in today's debate on the Planning and Development Housing and Residential Bill 2016. Everybody from both sides of this house recognises that there is a housing crisis in Ireland. There is a lack of housing stock, either new or second-hand. The current Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, has made excellent progress to date and he is also the first to admit that a lot more needs to be done. The Bill has a number of main provisions including more fast-tracked planning for certain developments; further extension of existing planning permissions; amendments to Part 8 in respect of local authority-owned land; changes to the requirements for an environmental impact assessment on proposed developments; amendments to the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004-2015; and making provision for the housing finance agency to lend to higher education institutes for the purpose of providing student accommodation. I would like to deal with each of these provisions individually.
I welcome the proposals for fast-track planning for certain developments. As it stands the majority of large housing planning applications are appealed to An Bord Pleanála. It makes sense that in order to speed up the process these planning applications go straight to An Bord Pleanála. Instead of having a two-stage process we can now have a single-stage process. In real terms the Department estimates that the total process for obtaining planning permission can be reduced from 77 weeks to 25 weeks. This will be a major improvement and will be a factor in bringing houses to market more quickly. Some stakeholders have reservations in regard to this provision but if we have a situation whereby the planning process is streamlined it will be to the benefit of all involved.
The Rebuilding Ireland plan committed to extend certain planning permissions that have already benefited from one extension for a further period. The second provision in the Bill tackles this commitment in relation to permissions already granted for 20 or more housing units. Again this provision will facilitate the early delivery of housing by the fact that it will remove the requirement for a developer to re-enter the planning process. Another provision in the Bill which will fast track the delivery of housing units will be the amendments to the Part 8 process for local authority own developments. The new provisions will mean that a local authority own development proposal will take place a maximum of 20 weeks from the time of public consultation. This provision will make the process more efficient with the net effect being housing units delivered more quickly.
On a recent visit to Dundalk the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I met with the CEO of Louth County Council, Joan Martin and members of her staff. During that meeting Joan Martin outlined the current situation in Louth. At present there are 710 vacant properties in Dundalk and a further 758 vacant properties in Drogheda. An innovative pilot scheme developed by the council under the guidance of Joe McGuinness, director of services, has already seen approval for 24 vacant properties acquired under CPO. Of those CPOs, two have been allocated to tenants, seven are at refurbishment and 15 are at survey and tender stage. I have been calling for this innovative approach for the last eight months and am delighted that it has proven so successful. With nearly 1,500 properties in County Louth vacant, surely these present an opportunity to reduce the housing list with ready made homes in established neighbourhoods.
During our meeting with Louth County Council it was outlined that the council had the potential to deliver over 3,300 housing units under the local infrastructure housing activation fund. These housing units are planned to be delivered in Newtown, Drogheda, the northern environs, Drogheda and the Mount Avenue in Dundalk. At present Louth County Council has 25 schemes at various forms of approval which will deliver almost 550 housing units over the next three to four years.
In addition to the above, Louth County Council has other substantial lands but have substantial loans attached to them. This issue is one that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency and I note that the Minister is supportive of innovative solutions, possibly a public-private partnership, in order to free up the lands and the corresponding debt attached to them and, at the same time, deliver much needed housing stock.
The next provision on which I would like to comment is the new screening arrangements for certain types of works to see if environment impact assessments need to be carried out. The Bill provides that an application can be made to the planning authority before making a planning application as to whether or not a proposed development is likely to have a significant effect on the environment. The main benefits of this provision is that we will be in a position to fast-track planning applications and as a result deliver much needed housing immediately.
The amendments to the Residential Tenancies Acts as outlined are ones that I welcome with caution. The measures to provide more security to tenants are very welcome. We must prevent a situation where large numbers of tenants in a single development are evicted at the same time, such as happened in Tyrrelstown earlier this year.
I feel we need to protect tenants more. We need to extend the definition of landlords to include receivers and lenders in cases involving the repossession of properties. In my view, tenants should not lose their basic rights just because their landlords are in financial difficulties.
I welcome the provisions in this Bill which will improve the operation of the Residential Tenancies Board. The speeding up of the dispute resolution timeframe, the reduction in the number of members on the tribunal and the restructuring of the administration process will improve the experience of people in the private rented sector, including tenants and landlords.
I am concerned that the amendment in this Bill which proposes to allow an order of possession to be made by the District Court will simply speed up the process of securing the vacation of dwellings. We must protect the people who will be subject to these provisions. I propose that a robust system should be put in place to protect those affected. For example, a protocol could be put in place to allow information to be shared between the Residential Tenancies Board and local authorities to alert local authorities when tenants do not vacate properties because they have not secured alternative accommodation. I note that during the pre-legislative scrutiny phase of this process, the Department acknowledged this scenario and indicated that it would examine all possibilities.
I welcome the proposal to allow the Housing Finance Agency to lend to higher education institutes for the purpose of providing student accommodation. Institutes of technology like Dundalk Institute of Technology will now be able to access low-cost funding for these purposes. One of the knock-on effects of this measure will be to free up valuable housing stocks in towns like Dundalk.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Coveney, for the efforts he has made to date to tackle the housing crisis. While it will not be solved overnight, I firmly believe the actions taken by the Minister to date and his plans for the future will go a long way towards solving the housing crisis, which has come about as a result of the disastrous economic policies pursued by the most recent Fianna Fáil-led Government.
As my colleague and party spokesperson in this area, Deputy Cowen, said earlier in this Second Stage debate, Fianna Fáil strongly supports the passage of this Bill to Committee Stage, which is what we are discussing here today. The main purpose of the Bill is to give a legislative basis to the establishment of an independent planning regulator's office to oversee and assess decision-making processes in planning authorities. This was one of the core planning reforms recommended in the Mahon tribunal.
Fianna Fáil has put pressure on this Government and its predecessor to implement as many as possible of the recommendations in the Mahon report. We are committed to drawing from the lessons of the Mahon tribunal. We must improve transparency, consistency and good decision-making throughout the planning system. It is vital that we build on the strong action taken by Fianna Fáil in government by continuing to put in place the legal and institutional framework to prevent the corruption and planning abuses uncovered by the Mahon tribunal. There is no question about the seriousness of what was uncovered by the Mahon tribunal. Equally, there is no question that the public does not want to see such things happening again. People want to see transparency and consistency. They want things to be done correctly. There is an onus on everybody in this House to ensure the recommendations made in the Mahon report are put in place where possible.
We believe this Bill strikes an appropriate balance between giving the new planning regulator's office independence in evaluating local and regional development plans and maintaining some democratic control over the body by the Minister and the Oireachtas. It is very important for the Oireachtas and the Minister of the day to have some control. That is not to say we are fully happy with the Bill, however. We have a number of concerns about some of its key provisions. We believe they require further scrutiny and amendment. For example, some of the key recommendations made in the Mahon report in the interests of improving transparency in planning, including the disclosure of political donations by planning applicants and the noting of all submissions by political representatives on planning applications, have not been included in this Bill.
Some of the functions of the proposed planning regulator's office, as prescribed in this Bill, might not make it an effective overseer of the national planning strategy. For example, the new office will not be given any role in overseeing the executive transport planning agencies, such as the National Transport Authority and Transport Infrastructure Ireland. Such bodies have a major role in the development of roads and other transport infrastructure throughout the country. My constituency has had serious problems in this regard in the past. The bodies in question have seemed to act as a law unto themselves on some occasions in the past. I assume the Minister of State, Deputy English, knows they have often failed to take account of the views of people by meeting them, speaking with them and listening to their concerns. We need to ensure the National Transport Authority and Transport Infrastructure Ireland come under the remit of the proposed planning regulator's office.
The achievement of greater integration between land-use planning, such as local authority zoning decisions, and strategic transport planning was mentioned in the Mahon report as one of the reasons a planning regulator should be established. In that context, it is disappointing that the new office proposed under this Bill will not be given any role in overseeing the development or implementation of plans proposed by the National Transport Authority and Transport Infrastructure Ireland. I urge the Minister of State to take this concern on board and see what can be done.
We are concerned that the limitations on the powers of the planning regulator's office as prescribed in this Bill might cause the office to be toothless in some aspects of its work as an anti-corruption watchdog in the planning process. We also have some reservations about placing the successor to the national spatial strategy - the Government's national planning framework, which has yet to be drafted - on a statutory footing, given that it does not yet exist. It is clear that this needs to be sorted out and dealt with.
I believe that certain simple planning developments in local communities, such as the construction of a modest bungalow, the replacement of an old house or the establishment of a community centre, should go through the planning process without any major difficulty. The only vested interest in such developments is the good of the community. I am concerned that some of the regulations which are being proposed will end up making things more difficult for local communities. I would not like to see that happen because it would not be good. While I support the provisions of this Bill as they apply to more major developments, I reiterate that it is extremely important for us not to make things more difficult for ordinary individuals with simple planning issues. If this Bill frees up some land for the development of housing in areas where houses are badly needed, we will all welcome that in light of the major housing crisis that exists at the moment.
My party supports the progression of this Bill. I hope the Minister of State and his colleagues will take account of some of the issues I have raised. In particular, it is crucial that Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the National Transport Authority have some understanding of the needs and wants of communities. They should not be seen to ride roughshod over people by not listening to them. The least the public deserves is a proper listening ear from bodies like those I have mentioned. When this Bill is considered further, I hope provision can be made to ensure these bodies are accountable to people and communities.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this legislation. Housing is one of the serious issues we are facing in the times we are living in. Housing cannot take place without planning. One would always expect the highest quality and standards to apply to the planning of housing because people have to live in the houses afterwards. Decisions on the quality of people's lives are made when housing plans are prepared.
I would like to mention some of the particular challenges we are facing at present. We have never before faced challenges of this magnitude. We have never had as many people seeking homes, including those seeking their first homes. This problem can be attributed to a number of factors, including the collapse of the building boom and the consequent lack of availability of any kind of finance for undertaking building operations.
We now have a crisis on our hands. I know the Bill will take full cognisance of how rapidly the housing crisis is developing. It is getting worse on a daily basis. I have never in my time in public life seen more serious cases emerge on a daily basis, adding to what is already there, as I have over the last couple of months. It is sad that those most often affected are young. They will be given an impression of what society is about in their first major touching of base with a system they will have expected to provide them with a home by facilitating them with planning, a loan or directly through the local authorities.
Sadly, I listened to a playback of someone who was on "Morning Ireland" six months ago to expound the virtue of renting a house and state how much better it was than to own or build one. I wonder where he has gone to now. That is only six or seven months ago. It is one of the things we in public life see and hear all the time. Sadly and unfortunately, public representatives' views are not taken into account to any great extent any more, which is a sad thing. I am all in favour of regulation and regulators, which we need, but we must also have the human touch and local knowledge at local level too. However, that is diminishing rapidly and disappearing out of sight. I appreciate fully the Mahon report and the need to deal with things that were in need of attention for some time, but I wonder about the extent to which, every day, we are venturing into the marketplace and reducing the extent to which the views expressed to public representatives are passed on and taken into account. That practice is diminishing fast.
We were all members of local authorities at some stage or other. I remember the time not so long ago when the members of local authorities played a direct part in the allocation of local authority houses at their meetings. There is no greater possible expression of democracy than that. Elected public representatives sat directly around a table to give their views. There was fearful hostility to that at all times to such an extent that public representatives were eventually excluded. It is now done by a group of officials around the same table. I will not go into it at this stage because they have a difficult job. However, it must be said that it was not a good development to move away from a situation where public representatives were able to say whether they knew a particular family's circumstances and whether they were a most deserving case or, as happened on more than one occasion, they had another house somewhere else. That happened and I was directly involved and pointed it out at the time. However, nobody wants to hear that because it is all being done at a high level with the application of highfalutin values. Well, it has not worked.
Not only do we have that to deal with, we also have the problem of regaining the confidence of the younger generation. If we lose that confidence, which we are right on the edge of doing, we will have made a major mistake and lost a major asset that we require locally and nationally as a community. I hope the Minister will take into account the fact that every case local authorities deal with in planning terms as well as in housing allocation is a sad one. I have never seen situations so bad. There are people in the county I share with the Ceann Comhairle who have been moving around for two and three years from one temporary accommodation placement to another with their spouses and kids who have to move to different schools if they have a school at all. Certainly, they do not have regular schooling. If they are fortunate enough to have transport, they are being transported cross country 20 and 30 miles in some cases in order to get some modicum of education. It is very sad to see people in those situations. We should have learned from the recent past that family homes are hugely important. That means a place where the parents and one or two children have sufficient space in a home to exist without being crammed in and getting claustrophobia. I hope that is taken into account in the course of what is happening now and that we do not squeeze the biggest number of housing units into each acre in order to get the most cost-effective and efficient result. While we need cost effectiveness and efficiency, we must also take into account the quality of life of those who will live in those circumstances.
We must also be aware that time is not on our side. This is what worries me most of all. In the last few weeks, I have come to the conclusion that every single available habitable building must be converted as a matter of urgency, on a temporary basis or otherwise. There is no use in saying we cannot afford it. If we cannot afford it, there will be people demonstrating in the streets and we all know what that means. It is coming closer with every day that passes. We have a choice. We can plan for that and do something about it quickly and cost effectively. We cannot presume that we can take two years to achieve what we must because we cannot. It is not that kind of problem. The issue is much more urgent. I call on all of those involved in planning and in dealing with the housing crisis to concentrate on ensuring that we deal with the urgent cases as quickly as possible and then move on to ensuring that we do not have an accumulating housing crisis over the next two or three years because that is what will otherwise happen.
There are people now whose families have been broken up to sleep in two or three different houses. That is not just for a week, a month or even six months, but for the last couple of years. It has been going on for three or four years. There are people who have been sleeping on mattresses on the floor in temporary accommodation for the last three or four years. There are people who have been told by various local authorities that nothing can be done for them and that they should come back in a couple of years. That is cold comfort for a family with small children who need urgent accommodation now. We also hear in the background people who say that not all of these cases are genuine. Of course, there is the odd one that gets on board. That happens in every society everywhere. There is the odd fish who slips through the net and damages the credibility of everyone else. However, those of us who still deal directly with the public, face to face on a daily and weekly basis, should know who is genuine and who is not. If we do not, we should not be in this business.
One of the hardest cases I came across in the last year involved two young people dressed in summer clothes with a small child living in what I can only describe as a tin caravan on a roadside. These are people from the settled community. That is the settled community but I have not even begun to talk about the Travelling community. It breaks one's heart to have to face people in those situations. They expect us to be able to do something about it fairly quickly. There was a time when we could. There was a time when we could make a request which was attended to straight away. Things have changed, however, and those days are gone. Everything moves slowly now. I remember when technology was first introduced and we were all told that modern communications would make things happen very quickly. They did not. God be with the days when a hard copy of a file was available on a rolling bar in one's local authority.
One set of files could be pushed aside to enable one to walk down the middle of the aisle. They were all available in hardcopy. The length of time it took to access a file was probably in the region of 30 seconds. There was no problem at all. There was no technology, just simple good housekeeping. However, we cannot change those things.
Every method of providing a housing unit is one extra unit, which reduces the extent to which prices are pushed upwards, something that applies to urban and rural areas. We all know many people who are indigenous to rural areas in this country and who expect to be able to build houses on their property, adjacent to old-fashioned local authority houses in their gardens or on small pieces of farmland. It is not so easy to do that now; as a matter of fact, it is becoming more and more difficult.
Some people take pride in ensuring that they do not get accommodated. That is nothing to be proud of. The Minister will need to liaise with planning authorities and make it absolutely clear that if we are going to deal with the problem that now lies in front of us, we will have to ensure every means possible, in keeping with good planning concepts, are utilised to deal with the housing problem that currently exists.
We can build good houses, and build them well. We will make provision for roads and recreational facilities. That can be done quickly or slowly; there is no difference. People have been trying to tell us for years that if one prolongs something, it will be better, but that is not the case. Having to wait for a long period of time depresses people.
The Minister will take this on board, but we need to see a manifestation of it fairly soon. We need local authorities and planning authorities, in keeping with good planning concepts, to ensure that people who live in rural areas have a reasonable chance of building homes for themselves and their families and create no burdens for them. Only a few years ago local authorities built houses in rural areas on the basis that applicants for local authority houses could apply for local authority houses to be built on their sites. They did that well, and many are still in place.
We have all spoken about this issue in our various capacities. I remember a time when the housing issue was dealt with, to a significant extent in our county at least, through local authority loans. They have disappeared or are impossible to qualify for and it irritates me that a qualification barrier has been put on eligibility for local authority housing. The income threshold is low. The presumption is that a person who has been rejected on the basis of income should be able to buy a house or fund a loan. There is not a chance they can do that. Not only that, such people cannot even rent houses at today's prices.
I ask the Minister, as a matter of absolute urgency, to do something about that quickly. Let us have a realistic system, whereby people have the option of improving their position in some shape or form, in urban and rural areas, by being able to provide themselves with housing on foot of what used to be called local authority loans. Let us not make things so difficult for them that they become cynical when they read the criteria and decide the system is not meant for them because it is too difficult. If somebody thinks it is possible to qualify under the heading, from where do they get information?
I refer to services such as roads and access, which affect the quality of life in new developments. There is not much sense in building houses if people cannot access them. If a bridge has been in need of realignment and improvement for 50 years and permission is granted to build houses behind it, there will be no way in or out of the place. I can think of several such examples in my constituency, where infrastructure has been in place for 40 or 50 years and not been improved. In other parts of the country, we marvel at the improvements that have been made and similar situations have been attended to. Perhaps local authorities in some areas are better equipped to deal with these things, but perhaps not.
I hope what we are doing now will improve the situation, speed up the provision of housing, try to ensure that good planning procedures are applied and, as a result, we will regain the confidence that some of the public have lost in our ability to deliver the services they have normally expected.
After a tribunal lasting 15 years and costing over €150 million, the Bill will still leave key Mahon recommendations not implemented. Recently, there have been serious attempts to rehabilitate the legacy of Bertie Ahern and the wider Fianna Fáil Party. I note Deputy Micheál Martin was a leading Minister in previous Administrations.
The real legacy of decades of Fianna Fáil rule lies in the findings and workings of the Mahon and Flood tribunals. As there appears to be a bout of collective amnesia in the Chamber, it is worth reminding ourselves of the actual legacy of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael control of local and national democracy. The Mahon tribunal findings resulted in the imprisonment of Ray Burke in 2005 after he pleaded guilty to not paying tax on undeclared income. It found that Bertie Ahern had lied about the source of more than £215,000 that had been lodged in bank accounts connected to him-----
It also found that Pádraig Flynn had taken €50,000 in corrupt payments, that corrupt payments to 11 Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors were an abuse of the democratic system and that the late Liam Lawlor was hopelessly compromised by payments from developers.
This Bill is meant to be the final piece in the jigsaw of rooting out corruption in our planning processes and in rooting through the legacy of the rule of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael at local and national levels. It is worth remembering that the consequences of that era are not simply a long list of corrupt payments to leading members of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael from developers and builders. This is not simply about bribes to politicians to rezone land or to to grant planning permission. This is about the effect of these decisions on the lives of ordinary working class communities across the country. It is a legacy of badly planned housing estates, out-of-town shopping centres and developer driven plans that boost their profits but leave us with chaotic urban environments where there is little thought for the building of communities with decent infrastructure or access to schools, transport or sustainable homes and housing.
The wider legacy was an economy and society where the needs and profit seeking of developers and builders ruled and local communities had little say or control in fundamental decisions that affected their lives and environments. The consequences of the bribery and corruption are wider than the specific developments in respect of which Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael politicians were paid. These are the developments and buildings that got planning permission and were built on flood plains or in green fields well away from transport or any other infrastructure. The consequences include those of a wider system that permitted pyrite in homes, ghost estates, two-hour commutes for workers travelling to and from their homes and housing estates in the urban fringes of Dublin with little or no facilities. The boom in house prices forced people to go in those directions.
When I hear that Fianna Fáil wants Bertie Ahern to come back or am listening to a radio interview where his role in the Northern Ireland peace talks is being eulogised, I cannot help wonder when we will examine the real legacy of those decades of rule and misrule. To cite just one example, I think of Neilstown in Clondalkin where people lived and continue to live with the real legacy of those years and the corruption surrounding the building of the Liffey Valley shopping centre. I think of the generations of families that are living with no real town centre. Those communities are living without the services and infrastructure they need.
Will this Bill ensure that these things cannot happen again? Will it root out corruption from the planning process? Does it implement the Mahon tribunal recommendations in the area of planning and development? I do not believe so and I do not believe it will implement the key Mahon tribunal findings.
The Mahon tribunal report called for powers to be transferred to an independent regulator's office. This Bill sets up such an office but it does not divest the Minister of any power. The final decision still rests with the Minister. He may have to report to the Dáil if he rejects the regulator's findings that a development is, for example, in contravention of a national strategy. I personally do not believe that to be a big deal because I do not believe that a Fianna Fáil or a Fine Gael Minister would be shy about doing it if developers said we must get a particular development through. I can envision an argument on a whole range of developments where a Minister would tell the Dáil that it is in the national interest to allow particular developments to go ahead.
We now have a series of amendments to the planning and development Act, the main thrust of which has been the facilitation of the needs and agenda of developers and the building industry and their profit margins. It will not be presented as such, however. It will be and is being presented as a solution to the housing crisis, but the bottom line is that we do whatever developers and builders want us to do to boost their profit margins and encourage then to build. I do not see the requirement for the Minister to explain overruling an independent regulator in any specific case as a guarantee that will ensure there will be no political interference in the planning process.
The Mahon tribunal report recommended that the board of the National Transport Authority, NTA, should be appointed by an independent board and not the Minister. Not so long ago we saw that the decision of who gets to be on the board of the NTA is less than transparent and open. I wish to thank the former Fine Gael Minister, Deputy Lowry, who has wide experience of the workings of tribunals, for enlightening us as to what are considered the qualifications needed for appointments to the board of the NTA when he lobbied the Taoiseach for a position on the board for a friend and political ally who was, and I quote, "easy on the eye". The NTA is a hugely powerful agency that has, at the behest of the Government, been engaged in an ideological war against our semi-State transport companies, with the effect of undermining public transport and carving out services for effective privatisation and the driving down of workers' wages and conditions. We see this graphically in the current Bus Éireann crisis and before that with Dublin Bus. The project to tender out routes and to court private transport companies that are mostly fronts for global multinational interests is presented as being in the best interests of the travelling public when in reality it is clear that this is a neo-liberal agenda being dressed up as the public interest. Some scrutiny and oversight of who gets to be on the board that makes this hugely important decision on bus routes and rail and tram services is essential, but it is completely absent from the Bill.
There is also the recommendation whose omission from the Bill is the elephant in the room. The Mahon tribunal's key finding and recommendation to deal with the past corruption of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was a requirement that relevant political donations would be identified when a planning application is being made. This is neither mentioned nor acknowledged in the Bill. It is not true, as has been claimed, that we have acted on the key part of the tribunal recommendations. We do not have sufficient transparency in political donations and planning applications. After 15 years of the tribunal sitting and nearly five years after its final report, it is not good enough that we ignore this key finding. I do not accept that, for example, the regulation of lobbying register that came into effect in September 2015 is sufficient or what the Mahon tribunal report envisioned. Nor are any of the other measures which we were told would make planning and local democracy more transparent. What is needed is a clear and unambiguous section that requires developers and builders to disclose any and all political donations to any and all elected officials or politicians when applying for planning permission and that information should be made easily accessible to the general public. The professed reason offered by the Department to exclude such a register, namely, that it would be difficult to establish and verify, is simply not good enough.
I have no illusions that any simple measure can stop corruption in planning and development. The very definition of what we consider to be corrupt has changed over the years. The days of brown envelopes to councillors in a bar on Parnell Square may be gone, as is the bar, and the corruption of our political process may not be so crass or obvious, but it may have morphed into a more subtle and sophisticated form. Now there seems to be no problem with, for example, officials who worked in NAMA one week transferring to a private equity firm or real estate investment trust, REIT, the next. There appears to be no problem with the Minister meeting vulture funds or developers regularly and writing down their wish list for legislation and tax breaks and presenting them as being in the national interest. Brown envelopes are gone but the ultimate losers in both processes are ordinary people caught in a badly planned urban environment and a system that is utterly prone to a housing crisis.
We will seek to table significant amendments to the Bill and will try to implement the spirit of the Mahon tribunal report and the attempt of that tribunal to stop the corruption of the planning process. We will try to stop the over-centralisation of powers that the Bill ignores and will try to bring transparency to both the appointments made to powerful bodies such as the NTA and to the political donations made by those engaged in planning applications. That is the least we can do after spending €159 million and almost 20 years examining the matter. That is the least we can do after the tribunal unveiled corruption at the highest level of the State. The least we can do is acknowledge the real legacy of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the era of Bertie Ahern, Pádraig Flynn and company.
I thank Deputies for the contributions they have made since the debate on this Bill commenced on 28 September last. Their comments clearly indicate the importance of the Bill and the measures proposed therein. Many interesting and varying contributions were made over the course of the debate and while I may not agree with all of them, I fully accept that they were made in a constructive spirit and that most speakers were genuine. I welcome the broad support for the Bill and will work with all sides to deliver a positive final outcome.
As the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, outlined in opening the debate and as acknowledged by Deputies in their contributions, a properly functioning planning system is critical to the ongoing development of all parts of the country and ensuring that development takes place in accordance with the principles of proper planning and sustainable development. That is the primary purpose of the planning system and it is important that the highest standards are applied by and adhered to at all times by all parties engaged in the planning system.
The establishment of the new independent Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, to oversee the development plan process and planning system generally will, as outlined in the Minister's Second Stage contribution, add a layer of sophistication to the institutional arrangements within the planning system, with a view to ensuring the overall integrity of the system is preserved and, where possible, enhanced. In addition to the establishment of the new office, the Bill gives legislative effect to further planning related recommendations of the Mahon tribunal report, and I will address these shortly. First, however, I will respond to some of the broader thematic issues raised during the debate, after which I will elaborate on some further specific aspects of the Bill.
Transparency and accountability are key principles which must underpin the planning system. In this connection, and as specifically recommended by the Mahon report, the Bill specifically provides for enhanced transparency in the planning process by requiring the publication of submissions on local area plans and development plans, as well as the chief executive’s report on such submissions, on the website of the relevant planning authority, and the forwarding of any proposed grants of planning permission which would contravene materially a development plan or a local area plan to the relevant regional assembly for observations.
On national planning framework and the successor to the 2002 national spatial strategy, which will be titled Ireland 2040 - Our Plan, the placing of the new plan on a statutory footing, again as recommended by the Mahon tribunal, is focused on establishing a legislatively defined approach to its development and review. Deputies Barry Cowen and Eugene Murphy referred to the need to place the national planning framework on a statutory footing when it is not yet drafted. In this connection, the Bill outlines the procedures to be followed in the development and adoption of the forthcoming national planning framework and its successors. These procedures, including public consultation and participation in the process, the periodic review of the framework every six years, and the requirement to obtain Oireachtas approval of the framework or any revised framework, need to be set out in statute so as to ensure they are followed in future. Critically, and as indicated, the proposed new procedures provide a role for the Oireachtas in the approval of the national planning framework and its successors, unlike the previous national spatial strategy, which was adopted by government alone. This should be broadly welcomed by the Oireachtas in that it is being given a role in establishing the broad overarching national framework for the strategic planning of urban and rural areas throughout the country, the securing of balanced regional development and greater co-ordination of regional spatial and economic strategies and city and county development plans.
On the issue of the greater alignment of spatial and transport planning, I accept that this issue, which was raised by a number of Deputies, including Deputy Cowen, needs to be further examined. Many of the existing planning and transport problems which have resulted in unsustainable patterns of commuting and increasing congestion stem from a lack of integration between planning and certain land uses, including transport. Deputies Barry Cowen and Eugene Murphy made a good point in this regard and I agree that it is important that a more integrated approach is developed between these two areas. Consequently, I accept that there may well be a need for a defined role for the OPR in the assessment and evaluation of the transport planning strategies of bodies such as the National Transport Authority and Transport Infrastructure Ireland. I will reflect further on how this may best be achieved and, if appropriate, further initiatives will be taken in this matter.
With regard to the role of the Office of the Planning Regulator and the handling of planning complaints, the OPR will be empowered to examine complaints made by any person on a planning matter, including, where considered warranted, the referral of the matter and any related documents to one or more of the following: the Ombudsman; the Standards in Public Office Commission; the Garda Síochána; or such other State authority as may be prescribed.
In addition, the OPR may, on its own initiative, at the request of the Minister or on foot of complaints received, carry out reviews and examinations of the operation of planning authorities, including An Bord Pleanála. In this connection, the OPR will be able to form its own opinion and make recommendations to planning authorities and to the Minister where a planning authority may not be carrying out its functions in accordance with the Act; is not complying with guidelines or directions issued by the Minister; may be applying inappropriate standards of administrative practice; may be applying systemic discrimination in decision-making; or may be operating in a manner where there is a risk of corruption or there are serious diseconomies or inefficiencies in the conduct of its functions. These are significant new powers which will facilitate much stronger oversight of the planning system than has applied until now.
To address other specific contributions made during the debate, a number of Deputies questioned whether the Bill addresses all of the Mahon tribunal recommendations. In this regard, it is worth noting that the tribunal made 64 recommendations in total, of which only ten are planning related. Some of the ten planning related recommendations have already been implemented and the remainder, where feasible, are provided for in the Bill. Only two planning recommendations have not yet been implemented. The first of these relates to the proposal that members of the regional assemblies be directly elected. In this regard, I note that the new regional assembly structures were only established in 2014 further to the Local Government Reform Act of that year. Accordingly, it is premature to progress this recommendation at this time. However, the intention is that it will be reviewed after the new structures have run a full five-year term.
The other outstanding recommendation relates to the introduction of a requirement that planning applicants be required to disclose if they have made a political donation to a member of a local authority when making a planning application and indicate the identity of the donation's recipient. In this connection, issues relating to political donations generally are probably most appropriately addressed in standards in public office legislation. However, I will reflect further on whether it may be possible to address planning related political donations in the planning legislation. In this connection, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin called for the publication of progress reports on the implementation of the Mahon tribunal recommendations. As I indicated, the 64 Mahon tribunal recommendations extend well beyond the planning sphere and, accordingly, any reporting of this nature does not fall solely to the Department.
I will now briefly address some of the other issues raised by Deputies in their contributions. Deputies Barry Cowen, Eoin Ó Broin, Dessie Ellis, Eugene Murphy and others expressed some concerns regarding the remit of the Office of the Planning Regulator, its powers and independence, operational practices and resourcing. I am satisfied that the Bill, which has been drafted in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General, comprehensively and satisfactorily addresses all of these issues.
While generally welcoming the provisions in the Bill relating to the introduction of e-planning, allowing for the online submission of planning applications and appeals, Deputy Ó Broin asked if this would preclude people without Internet access from submitting planning applications in paper format or having access to or viewing planning documents. In this regard, the introduction of e-planning is in response to public demand for more streamlined and accessible planning processes, particularly from the planning and architectural professions. However the existing paper based arrangements will remain in place, whereby it will still be possible to submit planning applications in hard copy or to be viewed at the offices of planning authorities.
Deputy Ó Broin, who made many comments on the Bill, also asked for some background on the provisions in section 14 relating to the control of licensed premises and whether similar provisions could be extended to include fast food outlets. This section 14 provision relating to the controlling of the location of licensed premises emanates from the final report of the Commission on Liquor Licensing which stated that local authorities rather than the courts are the appropriate bodies to assess the suitability and location of premises for the sale of alcohol. With regard to the location of other types of premises and businesses which are not licensed by the courts, such as fast food outlets, it is considered better to deal with these on a case-by-case basis through the development management planning permission process. The issue Deputy Ó Broin raises needs to be addressed, not only by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, but also, in the context of other types of facilities, by the Department of Education and Skills. In that context, I note my constituency colleague, Deputy Shane Cassells, is present. He and I are aware of certain cases in our home town which may result in changes being required. The appropriate way to deal with these matters is through changes in the planning process, which should be made in consultation with other Departments.
Deputy Ó Broin also questioned if the powers of the OPR in dealing with complaints by members of the public could be strengthened. In this regard, the detailed arrangements for the investigative powers of the OPR were considered in detail in the drafting of the relevant provisions with the Attorney General's office.
The advice provided was that it would be best not to duplicate the powers and functions of the Garda, the Standards in Public Office Commission or the Office of the Ombudsman in this legislation. As I mentioned earlier, following the examination of a planning complaint the OPR will be empowered to refer the matter to the other statutory authorities mentioned for further investigation. This is considered to be the most appropriate and balanced approach in the circumstances, having regard to the already crowded institutional space in this area.
Deputy O’Rourke proposed the insertion of a provision allowing for the extension of the duration of planning permissions in respect of unfinished developments. Extensions of duration of planning permission where developments have not been completed during the original five-year permission are already allowed under section 42 of the planning Act. In recognition of the reality that many housing developments were not completed within the timelines originally envisaged due to the economic recession and the downturn in construction activity, provision has been made in section 28 of the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016, which was enacted before Christmas, for a second extension of duration of planning permission in specified limited circumstances. Deputy O'Rourke also referred to situations where planning permissions have been granted but the works cannot commence due to infrastructural difficulties. This is intended to be addressed, where possible, by the €200 million local infrastructure housing activation fund, which I announced some months ago, with a view to facilitating the delivery of large-scale housing developments which would not otherwise be delivered.
Deputy Broughan questioned if the provisions in the Bill relating to the prohibition on the disclosure of information by OPR staff members were in conflict with similar provisions in the Protected Disclosures Act 2014. In this regard, the Protected
Disclosures Act 2014 applies to workers globally with the objective of protecting workers who raise concerns about possible wrongdoing in the workplace. Employees of the OPR, when established, will be covered by this legislation. However, the
specific provision in this Bill about which Deputy Broughan expressed concerns relates to prohibiting OPR employees from disclosing sensitive confidential information which they obtain in the performance of their duties. This is a standard confidentiality-type requirement in bodies such as the proposed OPR and there is no conflict between the provisions of this Bill and the Protected Disclosures Act.
Deputy Catherine Murphy raised the issue of the establishment of a national register of planning enforcement orders and the taking into account of past non-compliance by developers with planning conditions when deciding on planning applications. With regard to the Deputy's first proposal of a national planning enforcement register, much of the information relating to enforcement notices is already required to be published on each planning authority’s planning register and so this information is largely already in the public domain. With regard to Deputy’s second proposal in relation to taking into account past non-compliance by developers with conditions attached to planning permissions when assessing new planning applications by developers, this also is already provided for in section 35 of the Planning and Development Act.
I have endeavoured to address as many of the contributions made by Members during this Second Stage debate as openly and comprehensively as possible. I would like to signal to the House at this point that I will be bringing forward a number of amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage. These will primarily relate to improving and streamlining the procedures in connection with the taking in charge of housing estates by local authorities, which is an issue in which I know Deputy Catherine Murphy and others have a particular interest and raised on Committee Stage of the Bill dealt with prior to Christmas last. I will also be bringing forward amendments to the Planning Act to address the issue of land hoarding by developers, which is an issue about which a number of Deputies and Senators expressed concerns during the discussions on the Planning and Development and Residential Tenancies Act 2016, which was also dealt with before Christmas and which my Department has since been working on. Land hoarding is unquestionably an issue that needs to be addressed as part of the measures to tackle the current housing shortage and bring forward housing supply.
I have outlined in some detail the main purpose and provisions of the Bill. I am sure Members on all sides of the House will agree that this Bill is aimed at delivering a number of fundamental, important and necessary revisions to the Planning Act 2000 arising from the final report of the Mahon tribunal. In particular, and as I have already indicated, the establishment of the independent office of the planning regulator will introduce a further institutional layer of sophistication and oversight to the planning system. The establishment of this new independent office, to take over the function of evaluating and assessing local development plans and regional strategies, to oversee the operation of the planning system generally and also to conduct reviews of its operation, where considered necessary, is aimed at ensuring the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the future and that the planning system is operated in an open, transparent and impartial manner in the interests of the common good.
I thank Deputies for their contributions to Second Stage and I look forward to their further constructive engagement on this important Bill as it progresses through the House.
I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to further engagement with Members on Committee Stage.