Thursday, 5 July 2018
Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016: From the Seanad
This Bill has been a few years going through this House. I thank everybody for giving of their time tonight, and probably tomorrow and later next week, to deal with this Bill. I am pleased we are here discussing the amendments to this Bill, which was initiated in this House in January 2016. It predated my time in this Department.
Everybody in the House is familiar with the purpose and the provisions of the Bill and, therefore, I will not go into great detail in that regard except to underline that the primary purpose of this Bill is to give legislative effect to key planning recommendations of the Mahon tribunal report, including the establishment of a new independent office of the planning regulator and placing the new national planning framework on a statutory footing. The Bill also provides for other updates to the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, to deliver greater transparency, efficiency and integrity in the planning system, including giving legislative effect to all other planning related recommendations of the Mahon tribunal report.
As the Bill was originally published in January 2016, it is at this stage important that it be enacted as urgently as possible to give legal effect to various provisions and, in particular, to facilitate the establishment of the office of the planning regulator.
The Bill concluded its passage through the Seanad in June 2018 and today we have 82 amendments that we are bring back to this House. Of those 77 are Government amendments. Our intention is that the overall Bill will strengthen our planning system by implementing them. There are also five non-Govenment amendments and we are not recommending that we accept all of those, but that we would accept perhaps one of them and change the other ones, if possible.
Amendment No. 1 relates to section 1, which contains the standard provisions relating to the Short Title, the collective citation and the construction and commencement of the Act. Given that the Bill was initiated in early 2016 with the expectation that it would progress more quickly than it has, the standard collective citation requires updating and it is also necessary to indicate that this Bill, when enacted, and the Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2018 may be read together as one. This is a very minor amendment of an administrative nature.
The remainder of this grouping of amendment, which contains 15 amendments in total, are all administrative in nature. This grouping collating various amendments, including further amendments regarding the citation of the principal Act, updates to the Minister's title and the Department's name, both of which have changed since the Bill was initiated, as well as correcting an almost insignificant drafting error.
I propose to take amendments Nos. 4, 61, 77 and 79 together.
This group of four amendments arose from amendments originally proposed by Fianna Fáil during deliberations on the Bill in the Dáil, which should not be accepted as drafted, but to which I was open. Following the examination of the wording of the Fianna Fáil amendments it was agreed that the planning regulator should have a role in evaluating transport strategies and ensuring that the transport strategy complements wider strategic planning.
Accordingly, consultations took place with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Agreement was reached that the proposed role of the planning regulator would best be incorporated as a specific function in the Planning and Development Acts and the existing framework of the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008.
It is proposed to give the planning regulator a specific function to evaluate and assess strategic transport plans made by the National Transport Authority, which is in line with the original Fianna Fáil proposal.
These amendments will make the planning regulator a statutory consultee in respect of strategic transport plans, within the provisions of the 2008 Act, and the regulator will have a role to advise on whether or not the draft plan is consistent with planning policy and with the goals and strategies set out in the national planning framework, and make recommendations for any amendments required.
The Minister of State referred to the Ireland 2040 plan. I do not have an objection to a planning regulator. We are aware of the housing targets in each part of the State but there is a fear, once a planning regulator is in place, that most of the houses in Leitrim, for example, would be built in Carrick-on-Shannon and there would be quotas in each Border, midlands and west area. Leinster and Munster and so on would have their own quotas. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify this. Will the legislation provide for the urban areas to take the bulk and if this is used up will it leave the rural areas in trouble with regard to housing? I understand this is being written in the Department currently. I am open to correction on this. I am just saying what I have been told. I have heard that it will be announced in the coming weeks. Under the 2040 strategy it would affect the future of rural housing.
I acknowledge the work by the Government and the Department on Fianna Fáil's initial amendment over the last number of years: it has nearly been too long at this stage. It stemmed from frustration felt at local level that it always seemed the National Transport Authority was the leading and driving force, and not the county development plans or the spatial strategies. In fairness, many of the National Transport Authority policies did not even acknowledge the county development plans. With the establishment of the office of the planning regulator with a complete oversight of planning, Fianna Fáil felt that it was necessary for the office of the planning regulator to have oversight of transport planning policy, because they are integrated into the whole planning process.
I thank the Minister of State, the Government and the officials for working with us on the amendment on transportation.
Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice has asked for clarity on what the Government means in its 2040 plan. The plan says that one-off housing may still be built if it does not detract from urban centres. People need clarity on this. As Deputy Fitzmaurice said, the interpretation is that if so many houses are to be built in a county then urban areas may use the bulk of the allocation. Where will this leave people with their own sites in rural areas? Where will it leave rural Ireland? It would be devastated worse than it is currently.
This has already manifested itself in Kerry. A couple was granted planning permission by Kerry County Council. Lo and behold, one of the serial objectors who has caused mayhem right around the country appealed the decision to An Bord Pleanála. After due time the planning permission was turned down on the grounds that the applicants lived too far from their place of work, which was 6 km.
Members are aware that farming for many today is part-time and people have to travel some 20, 30 or 50 miles to teaching jobs and to different kinds of work. This is the nature of employment. One has to travel to go to work today. I hope the policy will not deny people who get some or a greater part of their income in one area from living in the rural area where they were brought up. This is the fabric of their lives - where their parents are and on their own farms. They may want to be near their parents to see after them in their twilight years. Grandparents often have a great input with grandchildren. They could be the minders of the grandchildren while the parents are trying to secure an income to supplement or maintain the household as a viable unit. I hope the Government is not going to try to change this. The word is that this is what the Government is trying to do with this plan.
What direction has the Government or the Department given to the local authorities? Will this planning regulator supersede our county development plans, which our local authority members have worked so hard on to put together? They put a great amount of effort into those plans over the years and the decades. The elected local authority members' views were adhered to in the subsequent county development plans. Will the new planning regulator have a superior role to or supersede the county manager? Time will tell, but Ireland has not had a good result from regulators up to now. The energy regulator has ensured the gas project in north Kerry has remained at standstill for many years.
I am just giving an example. Where did the financial regulator leave us? He was asleep at the wheel. This is why Ireland is in the state it is and why the generations to come will pay for his inadequacy. He did not ensure that regulations were adhered to by the banks. He was asleep.
Planning permission is important for people who just want to put a roof over their heads. They are not looking for money or handouts, they just want to be allowed to build houses for themselves. The Taoiseach, who was the Minister with responsibility for the environment in 2012, signed an order ensuring that the then National Roads Authority could not grant permission for new houses on national secondary roads. We accept that national primary roads are a no-no, but five families along the national secondary road from Killarney to Barraduff were stopped from building houses for themselves on sites with existing entrances all because of a document signed by the Taoiseach when he was Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in 2012. One of the five families had to buy a house in Killarney town despite having a site. Four more are still in a quandary and denied planning permission. Why is that not-----
I am sorry. I absolutely respect the Deputy's desire to talk about all of these very important matters for Kerry, but we are debating four Seanad amendments - Nos. 4, 61, 77 and 79 - and we have to focus our contributions on those. I do not want to be awkward, but it is on those matters that we need to focus our attention.
It is only right that, instead of a fragmented approach, we take an approach where land use and transportation planning are linked. The lack of a connection previously led to considerable congestion that could have been planned for better. It is important that the national planning framework and the national development plan are to be related to each other.
I may not be a fan of the idea of the planning regulator being subservient to the Minister, but it is valid that the regulator be a notified party to strategic transport plans. I support the amendments from that point of view.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill. This amendment proposes to establish an office, to be known as the "Office of the Planning Regulator", which will have certain duties. We undoubtedly need more transparency and efficiency in our planning system. I am inundated with constituents in west Cork coming to me looking for help because they have been turned down for planning. They have been caught in a trap. Good, honest, hard working couples cannot get planning permission and are failing to get into the property market. Many have applied for planning permission on their parents' land. One would think the Government would welcome the idea of people wanting to remain in rural Ireland, given the significant positive economic benefits it would have. Time and again, I have spoken about how we need to protect rural Ireland and the people who live there. The people who are raised in rural Ireland should be entitled to planning permission on their parents' land. We constantly discuss our ageing population, but we need to be realistic: if a son or daughter cannot obtain planning permission at his or her own home`place, how are we going to protect our ageing population and those who wish to remain in their own homes? In fairness, many planners are co-operative, but the odd one here and there makes life difficult. We have found the main issue to be with getting a pre-planning meeting, where someone sits down with a young couple trying to start out in life to go through the process and reach agreement, before those young people start spending thousands of euro, which is only fair.
I know of a situation in west Cork involving a young man who got a farm from his family. After he had cattle on it and a tractor in his shed, he was told by the planner that he did not have cattle, a tractor or a shed. Who is giving that person that type of information? It was wrong. All the young man wanted was for the lady to sit into her car and drive to the farm so that he could show her all three. The tractor was in the shed and the cattle were in the field. When common sense goes out the window, it is easy to refuse and refuse, which makes it difficult for the senior officials - some of the ones we work with are extremely co-operative, fair and honest - who have to try to overturn such decisions.
This Bill promises to implement planning-related recommendations such as the national planning framework. During the negotiations on the programme for Government, I spoke at length about the regeneration programme for small rural towns and villages and the ability to rebuild those that have been decimated by emigration, for example, places in west Cork like Ballineen, Eyeries, Goleen, Kilcrohane, Kealkill, Timoleague, Durrus, Drimoleague, Ballydehob and Schull to name a few. Will we ever seen a regeneration programme rolled out in west Cork?
While we are discussing planning, let me tell the Minister of State about kelp planning. The mechanical harvesting of kelp-----
The mechanical harvesting is going to go ahead on 1,860 acres. The notice posted at the time was unfair to the public. The Minister could have revoked the licence. We need a planning regulator to ensure that something can be done. What about all of the people with solar farms? There is no planning regulation in that regard. Anyone can set up a solar farm beside a next door neighbour.
Give me one chance to discuss the kelp, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister can revoke the licence for the people of Bantry and the 1,860 acres. In the US, 4 July is Independence Day. God bless the people of America, but it was doomsday for the people of Bantry because the company in question will proceed. It has said that it does not care about court orders or any other order. It is a law unto itself. It is being backed behind the scenes, but the Minister can stop it and revoke the licence under condition 12.2.
I do. I will be brief. My apologies for not being present for the start of the debate. The Bill is necessary if we are to tidy up the agencies and ensure they are aware of issues. There are too many agencies, they are not working in unison and they are not cognisant of what is happening elsewhere. For example, the amendment reads: " ... the National Transport Authority in accordance with section 12 of the Dublin Transport Authority Act 2008 and to issue a notice as provided for by subsection (10)". There are too many solo runs and not enough joined-up thinking from agencies. I welcome that an effort is being made through the establishment of a regulator, of whom the agencies will have to be cognisant. However, I have concerns about many regulators, given what is happening across a plethora of regulated agencies. ESB prices are increasing, leaving one to wonder once again where its regulator is. What teeth and powers will this regulator have and how effective will it be? I hope that it will be, given the importance of having a national transport strategy, necessary infrastructure and so on while also having regard to other planning issues.
I look forward to the Minister of State's reply and engaging with this. Will the functions and their implementation be toothless, useless and fruitless as many other regulators are?
It would not be true or fair and it would not affect the policy of anyone in here. To be clear, Project Ireland 2040 does not stop anybody from building a one-off house in the country. I cannot be clearer than that.
It encourages proper development in all our towns and villages, and tries to encourage more people to live outside the pressure zones, and to live in the other regions, which one wants to see developed. We recognise that people need a choice. Some want to live in one-off houses. Some would like to live in a village or town. If planned and constructed properly, using Project Ireland 2040, one can plan nicer and better towns, and give people the option and choice to live in a village or town. If they want to live in a one-off house, that is facilitated too. There is no cap on that or confusion. It is asked in the regional plans that when population predictions are planned for in counties under this Bill, the number of houses that are going to be built are counted and one-off houses are allowed for. With regard to the notion that this Government or any Government is stopping one-off houses, thousands of one-off houses are built every year in this country. Some years it is up to 6,000. Please do not tell me that we do not allow one-off houses. It is not true. There are restrictions in some areas with regard to people's safety, and rightly so. If one proves that it is safe and that one needs to live on or farm that land, one generally gets the planning permission. There are reasons that there are restrictions. Roads and national roads can be dangerous places to be or to have entrances. There is a reason for it but there are ways of doing that.
With regard to the planning of an area and people wanting to live in areas, Deputy Michael Collins spoke about re-energising and renewing towns and villages. People have to have a reason to live there, which means having a job, which means companies need to be allowed to be there. Companies that want to work in and develop rural Ireland are objected to. That does not help rural Ireland. It is about the combination of planning for houses, industry and companies. All of that together, worked right and planned, helps rural Ireland. It is a two-way process. People object to different things, not always houses. They object to other things too. Bear that in mind. The kelp issue was raised again. I would be happy to sit down and go through this with Deputy Collins. I did not grant the licence. I had a role relating to the conditions of that. I take that role very seriously, as does my Department, and we made some very strong conditions there relating to the monitoring of that. It is now in front of the courts which will do their job too. Sometimes Deputy Collins portrays a different reality here than what happened. It was granted ten years ago. The planning laws are updated on a regular basis. Since that planning decision was made, planning laws have changed and things will be different for the next applications but it was granted at that time. This Bill is to update the planning laws. Please do not try to paint me in a certain light for doing my job quite seriously. It is a role I take very importantly.
I would be very happy to discuss it with the Deputy and go through all of that. With regard to one-off housing, this legislation probably came a little late for the planning framework development for Project Ireland 2040. We tried to honour the spirit of the law. We discussed it in this House and at committees, including the Joint Committee on Rural and Community Development and the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. We discussed at length the issue of one-off housing. If one takes a particular year in Galway, 77% of the houses built in Galway in one year were one-off houses. That is not sustainable and it is not good for rural Ireland. It is about allowing the people who want to build and have a right to build their houses but one cannot have it for every building in the country because that would not protect the country or make it sustainable. This is about getting the balance right. That is what we are trying to do. That discussion was separate from this. I want to clarify that we are not capping or restricting one-off housing in rural Ireland. We changed the wording to reflect the necessity for economic needs and social needs to continue building one-off housing. Members of this House and councillors requested that we change that wording and we clearly changed it. Please do not misinterpret what is in Project Ireland 2040.
These amendments address section 31AA and section 31AC of the Bill and will provide that the staff will be civil servants in the Civil Service of the State. Having examined the matter further since the Bill was initiated, it is clear that there are likely savings to be made through the use of shared services for areas such as payroll, human resources and IT, which can be accessed if the office of the planning regulator staff are employed as civil servants. Providing that the staff of the office shall be civil servants will also enable speedier recruitment of staff through the Public Appointments Service and access to panels from open competitions, as well as ease of staff secondment in the initial phases of the set-up, which will facilitate getting the office up and running in a shorter timeframe. This amendment does not affect the independence of the regulator, which is already clearly provided for in section 31R.
This group will amend sections 10, 12, 13, 20, 38 and 31 of the principal Act, as well as amending sections 31AL, 31AM, 31AN, 31AP and 31AR in the Bill. These amendments are proposed to strengthen the provisions in the principal Act relating to the adoption and derogation of statutory plans, that is, local authority development plans and local area plans, as well as regional, spatial and economic strategies. These amendments relate directly to the proposed establishment of the office of the planning regulator pursuant to this Bill and to the powers of the Minister to issue directions based on a failure by a planning authority to implement a recommendation made by the regulator or a recommendation made by the Minister prior to the establishment of the office of the planning regulator. The effectiveness of the regulator will be much stronger as a result of these amendments. Under the existing provisions of the Planning and Development Act, when adopting or varying statutory plans, in addition to setting out the usual objectives regarding zoning, etc., local authorities are required to take sufficient account of the proper planning and sustainable development of the area, the statutory obligations of the local authority and any relevant policies or objectives for the time being of the Government or any Minister.
The existing wording, which obliges the taking of sufficient account by authorities with regard to certain requirements, can give rise to issues where, for example, elected members do not necessarily implement the spirit of such requirements in the final adopted version of the plan. In such instances, these requirements will have been recommended to the planning authority in submissions by the Minister following his review of the draft plan, a function which is to pass to the regulator upon establishment. Consequently, the provisions in this regard need to be strengthened to clarify the need for statutory development plans to implement as distinct to taking sufficient account of national and regional planning objectives, all of which have been the subject of specific recommendations from the regulator to the planning authority. These changes require a number of consequential amendments to the existing provisions of the Planning and Development Act, including amendments to ensure compliance with strategic, environmental and appropriate assessment requirements. The ultimate effect will be to require local elected members of local authorities and regional assemblies to more fully incorporate and respect national policies and objectives in the final adoption or variation of statute development plans.
Since the question was asked, it is the gift of local authority members to pass and adopt their county development plan. That is what local authorities are elected to do among many other things. When doing that, they have to respect national planning guidance and guidelines. We are asking them here to respect them. It will be the job of the regulator to oversee that and do it with some clarity.
I oppose amendments Nos. 18, 23 and 28. I have a couple of contextual points. I will repeat my central criticism of the Bill that I have been making since we first debated it almost two years ago, that the way in which the planning regulator is designed and would be set up in this Bill is absolutely contrary to the spirit and to the letter of the Mahon tribunal recommendation.
Mahon was crystal clear that he wanted to see an end to the over concentration and over centralisation of planning powers, particularly within the Department and in the hands of the Minister. He wanted to see a range of those powers transferred to an independent regulator, whose office would not just be responsible for investigating but also then responding and enforcing. The fact that this Bill is such a departure from Mahon confirms what one other Deputy said, that we are creating another regulator which while providing a variety of valuable functions will not have the core power and responsibilities that Mahon recommended.
I was very disappointed to see a number of very substantial changes to planning legislation introduced on Report Stage in the Seanad. These are amendments that we will come to later on but they also relate to these three in front of us. These were amendments that have nothing to do with the core functions of the Bill as originally proposed. They make a series of profound changes in a number of ways to planning powers. We will debate them as we go through them. Once again, they run contrary to the letter and spirit of the Mahon tribunal recommendation in that they further concentrate and centralise power in the hands of the Minister.
This is said with no disrespect to the hard working staff in the planning section of the Department but I wonder if there is a competition between the rental section and the planning section of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government as to which one can keep us here latest into the night at the very end of Dáil sessions, dealing with very significant complex legislation without giving us adequate time to respond. Some of the things we are going to be dealing with here should have been dealt with on Committee Stage or Report Stage in the Dáil. Failing that, they should have been dealt with on Committee Stage in the Seanad but they were not. They were dropped in at a very late stage to the Seanad, namely, on Report Stage. They are not central to the core of the Bill. I think that is unfortunate and I just want to put it on record.
I have one big fear in terms of these three specific amendments. I accept that local authorities and elected members must have due regard to national policy. There is no question about that, but first, rather than an independent planning regulator ensuring that that is adhered to, this power is given to the Minister. I do not accept that is an appropriate location for that power. There is also no appeal mechanism for the elected members who might take a different view of the Minister's interpretation of the interaction between central Government planning policy and the democratic rights of elected members, in particular in terms of the debate on whether local authorities can exceed minimum standards or improve on the standards that are provided. I think these three amendments - Nos. 18, 23 and 28 - are very poor. They give far too much power to the Minister. They undermine local democracy. There is no appeals mechanism. They are the grounds on which I oppose the three amendments.
I have very similar concerns and I echo what was said about the process that has been followed in the Seanad in terms of introducing some of the amendments at a very late stage. If one gets a process wrong, very often one gets a poor outcome. I do not know how many times we have talked about that here. Sometimes we have had to come back and amend things later on.
We have had experience in Kildare of directions being issued by the Department. Essentially, it was at the transition stage between the regional planning guidelines and the new national planning framework, which fundamentally shifted things, yet the directions were made based on the previous regional guidelines. A substantial amount of rezoning was sought in Kildare up to 2024. The expectation was that there would be an additional population of up to 80,000. That has been changed with the national planning framework where the focus of attention is far more on city centres and higher densities. I supported some of that, and I took such an approach as far back as the early 1990s when it was considered in the context of the Dublin transportation initiative which took in areas outside of Dublin as well.
In the case of Kildare, both Celbridge and Leixlip were affected by zoning and a direction was given about Celbridge. All of the councillors, bar one, were in agreement, and the community was at one with the councillors. It was a case of exactly what local representation should be. There were high levels of consultation. When the direction was issued it was subsequently judicially reviewed and the community's position was vindicated. The development sought by councillors on a piece of land belonging to a developer was confirmed. The courts upheld the original decision. When it happened it made one realise just how demoralising it was given the serious attempt at local level to deal with the development plan. There was a very sizeable amount of land zoned in the local area plan and two sites ended up being judicially reviewed. Local democracy was completely undermined. I know that it is important for developments to be in keeping with national plans, if those national plans make sense, but there is a balance to be struck in terms of local government and its validity, which is referenced in the Constitution as well. I have a real problem with how that has played out.
It is interesting that in the previous group of amendments we talked about the planning regulator being notified about strategic plans for roads, because in the case of Kildare one other piece of land which was proposed for zoning would have required a helicopter to get in or out of it. People were not against the development of the land in Leixlip but issues such as access must be taken into account. That continues to be the experience in relation to the Leixlip local area plan. Having had some practical experience of ministerial directions, I have serious concerns about the very heavy handed approach that could be taken. At the same time I accept that when we adopt national plans we should be able to rely on them, but some of them were in transition. The result is that while one gets all the houses, one gets very few of the services that should go with them when one is in transition between, for example, the regional planning guidelines as they were for the greater Dublin area and then the introduction of the national planning framework which was changing the focus again. It is the worst of all worlds. I have a problem with the same three amendments and I will be opposing them.
To be honest, after studying this Bill more deeply, the way I should have done, I am disappointed, but there are lots of other things going on and it is hard to cover everything. Bringing in amendments at such a late stage rings all sorts of alarm bells. That is an extremely serious issue and it is going unnoticed in the Dáil by many Deputies. I hope they are in their offices listening to this debate.
For years I have been trying to give extra encouragement to build houses in rural communities where there was a shop, a school and a church, providing a village nucleus.
There should be more encouragement to build in such areas. Last week, Lisgriffin national school in Goleen, which is in my constituency of Cork South-West, closed forever. It had been open since the 1800s. When I was involved in local politics and county development and local area plans were being discussed, we tried to encourage villages to have a nucleus around schools such as that in Lisgriffin. We tried but nobody was listening. That is why rural Ireland has died.
The Minister of State, Deputy English, stated that there is no point in giving planning permission for housing if there is no employment in the area. Many people travel to Cork city every morning from my constituency, a distance of approximately 70 miles, and are happy to do so because they want to live in rural Ireland. The Minister of State referred to the 2040 plan but I wish to talk about planning in 2018. People are not receiving planning permission and we are not encouraging growth in rural Ireland. I hope that measures such as those I have suggested will turn that around.
I beg the indulgence of the Ceann Comhairle regarding the Minister of State's reply on kelp. It is a very important issue involving 1,860 acres. If there was 1,860 acres of destruction in the Ceann Comhairle's community, I would support any action he wished to take.
I have engaged with Deputies on this matter and had arranged to meet the group with them and with officials of my Department. I made that offer but could not fulfil it because the matter went before the courts.
I am very concerned by the number of amendments that are being put before Members at this late stage. I am very worried about how the county development plans of local authorities would be affected by the measures proposed in the Bill and the effect on the national planning and development of our country. Amendment No. 16 states, "such provisions as (i) are required to be included in a development plan by virtue of a direction issued by the Minister under section 31, and (ii) are not so included, shall be deemed to be included in that development plan". If we know what is included in a plan, we can assess it and decide upon it. However, this amendment is like signing a blank cheque. We know the Minister of State and trust him, thus far. However, this amendment may open the gap for some lunatic of a Minister who would destroy a county such as Kerry------
This is a very serious matter. It reminds me of a man who, long ago, was sent out to deliver a message by his sister, a post mistress, at a time when telegrams were the norm. He went up a road and met-------
It is the same thing. He asked my two uncles, who were young boys at the time, whether he had much further to go. They asked him where he was going. He told them to mind their own business and that he only wanted to know if he had much further to go. Amendment No. 16 is similar to that. We are being asked to agree to something but we do not know to what we are agreeing.
I know what is involved in county development plans having been involved in the creation of at least two or three of them. Given the effort that local authority members and management put into county development plans, I would not like some genius of a Minister to suggest something ridiculous which could damage a county or community. I will oppose the amendment and call a vote on it. I urge all Members to vote against it because it is ridiculous to give a Minister licence to supersede a county development plan put in place by local authority members elected by the people. I will not vote in favour of those amendments.
I too have major concerns about some amendments in this grouping. Spatial plans, area plans, county development plans and town plans are very important. I served on Tipperary County Council and had many engagements on such plans, as did many community groups. Some of the plans were very successful. Many of the community groups were genuine contributors rather than serial objectors. They had concerns and wanted to work for the greater good of their community through the spatial strategy. A national spatial strategy some years ago abandoned my county and my town of Clonmel.
I have concerns about amendment No. 16 in regard to the provision that allows certain actions to be taken at the direction of a Minister. Statutory instruments have been brought in by Ministers over the years but often the civil servants behind the Minister are responsible for the statutory instrument and the Minister merely puts his or her name to it. County development plans and the making thereof is meant to be very transparent and involve engagement with the public, whether those directly affected by the plan or with a genuine interest in the greater good of the community. Some may wish for land to be rezoned. A significant amount of work goes into county development plans and area plans and they then become the bible for development in the area and specify what can be done where and when. Under the proposal, those plans could be amended, superseded or bypassed by a Minister who would have the power to grant or stop something or change the course of planning, in spite of the period of public consultation the plan will have undergone. What limitations would there be on that power? I am not satisfied by the amendment. I have previously dealt with Fianna Fáil Ministers for the environment who were in charge of planning - I could mention the former Minister Noel Dempsey in particular - and were not good listeners. The Minister of State, Deputy English, comes from the same county as Mr. Dempsey - An Mhí - and might catch the same bug. I am genuinely worried for the work on county development plans by officials who meaningfully engage with the public and hold workshops, public meetings and open days.
Many people have gone to consultations and briefings held by Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, in regard to the design of bypasses and other road. Often, many of them feel very let down by the end result. They go to consultations and briefing but end up getting something very different from what they expected. I ask the Minister of State to explain in what area and for what reason a Minister may interfere or change a development plan. I have huge concerns and will not be voting for these amendments.
I agree with some of the other speakers that the number of amendments tabled in the Seanad is disappointing. The amendments have nothing to do with the office of the planning regulator. We seem to be using this Bill to sort out many other planning issues.
Regarding the amendments we are speaking to, I too have been through several county development plans and have been at the butt end of ministerial direction, whether in respect of policy or the zoning of land. Will the Minister of State clarify for Members the additional powers these amendments, if accepted, will give the Minister?
I think the answer to Deputy Casey's question might solve all the questions. The Minister is getting fewer powers because the Bill is giving the power to the regulator, who is independent of Government, politics or a crazy Minister who may be in this position in the future. The regulator will make suggestions to the Minister. The Minister will have the final say but that will be on foot of the work of the office of the regulator.
In terms of what they may be asked to intervene in regarding this situation, it may be on the national policy planning guidelines that we implement, one of which is on wind energy. We are always asked for guidelines on solar farms. There is none because we do not believe they are needed. If they are needed to make applications, we can do that. Planning authorities today recommend or refuse applications for solar farms through the planning system. If guidelines are required in the future and we implement national guidelines-----
I am sorry. The Deputy asked for an example. If, in the future, we set national guidelines on solar farms and a local development plan does not respect the national guidelines, the regulator will step in and suggest they should be respected, that the local development plan should be changed and recommend a direction by the Minister. Today, that direction is carried out by the Minister and very often our Department. On a weekly basis we analyse local area plans and any changes made and sometimes we have to point out that they do not follow national planning guidelines and may have to intervene with a direction. That is decided by our Department and formally sent then by me as a Minister of State. Under the changes proposed in this Bill, the regulator will do that work. The final sign-off with a direction is done by the Minister but the process would be started by the office of the regulator, which is independent of politics.
Some Deputies do not want the Minister to have that final say while others on this side of the House want him or her to have the final say. I believe we are getting the best of both worlds in that we will have an independent regulator who will make a recommendation. The Minister has to follow that. If the Minister of the day does not follow that, he or she has to come into this House and explain the reason he or she is not following that direction. It is a very transparent policy. The spirit of the Mahon tribunal is for transparency in planning laws. That is what this Bill is about and what we are trying to achieve. It is not to give a future Minister excessive or mad powers. It recognises that sometimes the regulator might suggest a change that the Minister does not like, so we are achieving a balance in that the final say will be democratic because it is done through this House but the regulator will be doing all the work and making all the recommendations. The wording used in the past was to take sufficient account of a national planning guideline, not implement it. That is a grey area. We are saying that national planning guidelines are there to be implemented and not just noted, which is not often satisfactory.
The Minister of State says this Bill is removing power from the Minister. There is not a single power removed from the Minister in the Bill or in any of the amendments. In fact, both the Bill, as we have discussed at length on Committee and Report Stages, and these amendments give additional powers to the Minister.
It is not that it is our view as Opposition Deputies that we do not want the Minister to take the decision. The Mahon tribunal recommendation explicitly stated it was concerned about an overconcentration of planning powers in the hands of the Minister and strongly recommended transferring a range of those powers to an independent regulator. It is Mahon that wanted that. There is nothing close to the spirit of Mahon in this Bill. We do not get the best of both worlds. We either leave the power with the Minister or increase the power of the Minister or give it to the independent regulator. It is not accurate to say that either powers are being taken away from the Minister and we get the best of both worlds. It is a betrayal of Mahon.
In terms of what the Minister of State is saying, I alluded earlier to the different powers of Ministers and regulators. We have so many regulators for everything now, we can hardly count them and their staff or civil servants, as the Minister of State said. Most of them are not doing their job. If we take the regulator, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and the whole lot of them, they are not doing their job. They either do not have the proper legislation, are unwilling or whatever.
The Minister of State said the Minister is not taking any more powers and that it will be given to the regulator. I get a whiff of the HSE from that in that we are all so anxious to disband bodies that we cannot control, and now the Minister is giving the powers to this officeholder. I have nothing against a particular officeholder but if we table a parliamentary question on an issue to the Minister, will we be told it is a matter for the regulator?
Let me finish. That is a serious issue. We have too many of these intermediary officers and yet nobody is accountable. When the councillors made the plan, it was one of the only functions they had. They made the plan eventually and often got stick over it. Some may have lost their seats over it but they made it in good faith. It was the accepted plan. When people come to see me in my clinic about a planning matter, I ask them where they live and always try to send them a copy of the guidelines in that area. That was the plan. It will be a case now of shifting sands. The plan will be able to be overridden by the regulator and the Minister of State seems to be suggesting that the Minister will have some engagement as well. We are making the process too cumbersome and are interfering with a sacrosanct document, which is the county development plan approved by the members after lengthy discussion and input from them. I am not happy with this.
One would expect the word "independent" to mean totally independent but who is the decision-maker here? The way this is structured, the decision-maker is the Minister. We cannot say it is independent in the way it was intended. That is a serious problem.
Amendment No. 40 states that local area plans should be "consistent with". That is the correct terminology. The terminology used previously was "having regard to" but that was successfully challenged in the courts. "Consistent with" is the correct approach. It deals with the objectives of the development plan and the national regional planning objectives.
We then have other legislation to the effect that if a development is more than 100 houses, it bypasses the council and goes straight to An Bord Pleanála, and An Bord Pleanála can ignore the local area plan provided the land is zoned for residential development. That is the critical issue. Everything set down in the plan relating to consistency, linkages with services, schools and all sorts of issues that are tested in a local area plan go out the window because An Bord Pleanála does not have to take the local area plan on board. That is a glaring gap in terms of what we are attempting to achieve by making a range of different issues such as national and regional planning objectives "consistent with" as stated in the amendment. It does not matter when it comes to large-scale developments.
I am becoming more concerned as the debate goes on. As Deputy Mattie McGrath said, we will be fobbed off when it comes to the Minister and the regulator. The Minister must ask the regulator and the regulator must ask the Minister. I am very concerned about that.
Regarding An Bord Pleanála dealing with developments of more than 100 houses, I am open to correction on this but my understanding is that the land does not have to be zoned. We will have to call a vote on this because it is too serious an issue and I can see what will happen down the line.
When I was a county councillor on the southern health forum asking questions of the HSE, it would give answers to the effect that it would have to ask the Minister for Health for information. When I came up here and asked the Minister for Health, he stated that he had to ask the HSE. I do not know. When we have a possibility of county development plans being interfered with, changed or being the subject of other directions, it is very serious. The original intention of the Bill was just to appoint a regulator but now we are changing and adding in an awful lot of addendums that could affect local authorities and people in a very hurtful way. I am totally against it.
To bring some clarity and put Deputy Danny Healy-Rae at ease, we are not bringing in loads of changes to give more powers to the regulator. This process has been going on for the past two years. I will not be able to satisfy the concerns Deputy Danny Healy-Rae has and those of the Sinn Féin Deputies because they want two different things.
The Deputies have other people who do that for them. At present, county development plans are put together by the councillors. It is their statutory right and most take it very seriously and put a lot of work into it. The Department recognises that. There are national policy guidelines that also have to be implemented in local development plans. Some councils choose not to follow the national planning guidelines. When that happens, the current role of the Minister in conjunction with our planning officials is to intervene and correct that and issue a direction to try to bring local development back within the national guidelines. While recognising that they have to have their own independence and do all that work on the local objectives, the plans must also comply with national planning policy in the context of telecommunications, energy and so on, things that go beyond just a local context. We try not to do that too often but, sadly, sometimes we must.
Responsibility in this regard currently falls to the Department and it is up to me, as Minister of State, to sign off on whatever is involved. I can do it in my office without consulting the House, hidden away in a non-transparent manner. Under the Bill, the office of the regulator will be given that job independent of politics, of me and of the Department. The office of the regulator will implement national planning policy guidelines and check development plans to ensure they are in order and that there is proper planning. If the regulator sees something that is not right, proper or in line with national planning policy, he or she will issue a notice to the county to change it. If that does not happen, the regulator will ask the Minister of the day - I am sure it will not be me for ever - to issue a direction. That is the process. It is independent in that the suggestion of the direction will come from the independent regulator to the Minister of the day who will then implement it. If the Minister does not implement that direction, he or she will be obliged to respond and clarify to this House why that is the case. It is a very transparent, clear process. Mahon wanted transparency and independence of planning and that is what we are doing with the office of the regulator.
It should satisfy Deputies Danny Healy-Rae and Mattie McGrath that there is accountability and that the Minister of the day cannot blame the regulator and say he or she cannot do anything because the Minister will have the final say after it goes through an independent office, and rightly so. It is a very clear and transparent method of doing planning, which is what the Mahon tribunal wanted us to achieve. I am of the view that the Bill will achieve it.
We have had this discussion a few times in the House during the past two years. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae might not have been here for it but it is not a new discussion. This amendment changes one aspect. In the past, local authorities could take sufficient notice of but not implement national planning policy. It was a grey area and did not lead to the best planning outcomes. That is what we are trying to correct. I apologise that there are amendments before the House that were brought in at a late stage. I acknowledge that. We teased this out at different points over the past two years in the context of both the majority of the work we have been doing and the main principles of the Bill. There are some changes here that were flagged in the Seanad. Members are complaining that they got short notice but they were watching the debate in the Seanad on the day and have had a couple of weeks to digest and analyse and so on. It is not the case that we produced something out of the sky tonight. I ask Deputies to be fair about that. They have had a couple of weeks. I am happy if people want to raise concerns. That is what we are here for. However, it is not the case that I produced the amendments yesterday or this morning. They were well flagged in the Seanad two or three weeks ago. Deputies are very well informed and watch everything that goes on. It would not be in our nature to surprise them with anything. That is not something we do.
Bobby Aylward, Declan Breathnach, Pat Breen, Colm Brophy, Richard Bruton, Jackie Cahill, Dara Calleary, Seán Canney, Ciarán Cannon, Pat Casey, Jack Chambers, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, Jim Daly, Regina Doherty, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Alan Farrell, Charles Flanagan, Brendan Griffin, Simon Harris, Martin Heydon, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, Seán Kyne, Josepha Madigan, Joe McHugh, Tony McLoughlin, Kevin Moran, Aindrias Moynihan, Michael Moynihan, Eoghan Murphy, Hildegarde Naughton, Tom Neville, Darragh O'Brien, Kate O'Connell, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, Kevin O'Keeffe, John Paul Phelan, Shane Ross, Niamh Smyth, David Stanton, Robert Troy.
John Brady, Pat Buckley, Michael Collins, Catherine Connolly, Dessie Ellis, Martin Ferris, Michael Fitzmaurice, Danny Healy-Rae, Alan Kelly, Martin Kenny, Mattie McGrath, Denise Mitchell, Imelda Munster, Catherine Murphy, Carol Nolan, Jonathan O'Brien, Louise O'Reilly, Eoin Ó Broin, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Maurice Quinlivan, Brian Stanley, Peadar Tóibín, Mick Wallace.
Bobby Aylward, Declan Breathnach, Pat Breen, Colm Brophy, Richard Bruton, Jackie Cahill, Dara Calleary, Seán Canney, Ciarán Cannon, Pat Casey, Jack Chambers, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, Jim Daly, Regina Doherty, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Alan Farrell, Charles Flanagan, Brendan Griffin, Simon Harris, Martin Heydon, Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, Seán Kyne, John Lahart, Josepha Madigan, Joe McHugh, Tony McLoughlin, Kevin Moran, Aindrias Moynihan, Michael Moynihan, Eoghan Murphy, Hildegarde Naughton, Tom Neville, Darragh O'Brien, Kate O'Connell, Patrick O'Donovan, Fergus O'Dowd, Kevin O'Keeffe, John Paul Phelan, Shane Ross, Niamh Smyth, David Stanton, Robert Troy.
John Brady, Pat Buckley, Michael Collins, Catherine Connolly, Dessie Ellis, Martin Ferris, Michael Fitzmaurice, Danny Healy-Rae, Alan Kelly, Martin Kenny, Mattie McGrath, Denise Mitchell, Imelda Munster, Catherine Murphy, Carol Nolan, Jonathan O'Brien, Louise O'Reilly, Eoin Ó Broin, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Maurice Quinlivan, Brian Stanley, Peadar Tóibín, Mick Wallace.