Wednesday, 16 December 2020
Planning and Development Bill 2020 [Seanad]: Second Stage
Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois".
I am grateful for the opportunity to bring the Bill before the House. As flagged in the Seanad and to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I intend to table further urgent legislative amendments on Committee Stage later this evening. The amendments relate to the operation of the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 and substitute consent provisions in the planning Act. I will now outline the main provisions of the Bill as passed by Seanad Éireann.
Section 1 provides a definition for "principal Act", which means the Planning and Development Act 2000. Section 2 amends section 11(3)(b) of the Planning and Development Act 2000 to replace the requirement to hold public meetings regarding the initial issues stage of a proposed development plan with a more flexible requirement for planning authorities to consult with members of the public in such a manner as it considers appropriate and to invite written submissions from members of the public. The proposed amendment will allow the planning authority to take such steps as it deems necessary, such as public newspaper notices and online communication, to ensure the public are consulted in compliance with the principles of the Aarhus Convention, which include public participation in environmental decision making. This measure is immediately required to allow planning authorities to adapt public consultation procedures in light of the current restrictions on the holding of public gatherings due to the Covid-19 pandemic. If this amendment is not made, such restrictions will delay the progression of development plans during the pandemic. The amendment is in line with the modernisation agenda for the planning system to increase online activity and ensure continued flexibility in communicating details of draft development plans to the public and it will, therefore, be a permanent amendment.
For the avoidance of doubt, there will always be some format of public meeting under section 11(3)(b) in respect of the initial stages of a proposed development plan, either by way of a public meeting attended by the public in person or an online public meeting. Indeed, a planning authority may hold both if it so wishes. I imagine that many will do just that. I hope this addresses any concerns Members may have around the public consultation issues that were also raised with me in the Seanad when I introduced the Bill. It is important to note that subsequent development plan public engagement phases remain in place.
Section 3 deals with emergency periods. The provision will allow the Government to make orders during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, if required, which would extend certain statutory periods applying under the Planning and Development Acts and the Building Control Acts.
This contingency measure is required to provide an essential legislative safeguard which can be invoked as necessary to ensure the public participation elements of the planning regime and certain decision-making and enforcement systems of the building control regime are not compromised in the event of further waves of Covid-19 infection that may necessitate a further period of stay at home travel restrictions or, indeed, may critically impact on the operation of individual planning authorities.
The provision in the Bill includes new flexibilities. More than one extension period order may be made within the combined operative period of the Bill, which is currently due to end on 9 June 2021. Extension period orders, if required, can be applied to specific areas or administrative areas of the country, as opposed to only applying to an entire county. The Government, at my request, may choose which statutory periods it requires to extend rather than applying the extension to all periods under the Planning Act and the specified Building Control Acts. While it is obviously hoped that the safeguarding provisions are never used, it may be necessary to use them to ensure the integrity of the planning and building control systems and to ensure that it is maintained throughout the pandemic in the event that there is a critical deterioration in staffing levels due to infections in one or more planning or building control authorities or where the public generally or particular groups of the public may not be capable of engagement with the planning system due to the introduction of more restrictive travel constraints.
Section 4 of the Bill provides the Short Title and collective citations to the Bill.
I will outline the proposed amendments to the Bill which I will introduce on Committee Stage. Regarding amendments to the substitute consent process in the Planning Act, to comply with the Supreme Court Ballysax and McQuaid judgment of 1 July 2020 it is necessary to urgently amend the existing substitute consent provisions of Part XA of the Planning Act to require that exceptional circumstances be considered in the second stage application for substitute consent, along with related provisions to ensure that additional public participation is provided, where required, with respect to the consideration of exceptional circumstances as well as the wider substitute consent application. These urgent technical amendments are being added to the Bill on the advice of the Attorney General, as they will facilitate the earlier resolution of the terms of the November 2019 judgment of the Court of Justice of the EU against Ireland in case 261/18, the second Derrybrien wind farm case. Without these proposed urgent amendments, to ensure that the substitute consent process is in compliance with the environmental impact assessment, EIA, directive, the ability of the State to meet the terms of the Court of Justice of the European Union judgment will be called into question, with all the significant costs of delay from the accruing daily fines that go with it.
The proposed amendments will amend the substitute consent provisions at Part XA of the Planning Act to provide for exceptional circumstances to be considered in a second stage application for substitute consent at section 177K of the Planning Act, along with the necessary ancillary provisions to ensure additional public participation is facilitated, where required, with respect to the consideration of exceptional circumstances, as well as on the wider application. Section 177K will also be amended to provide for additional public participation to allow exceptional circumstances to be considered where an application for substitute consent is currently pending before the board upon the enactment of these amendments. The public, prescribed bodies and those who have already made submissions on the application can make further submissions on the application, including on whether exceptional circumstances exist in this regard.
The Government has approved the provision of temporary modifications to the operation of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to provide, subject to certain conditions, for increased notice periods, from 28 days to 90 days, in respect of notices of termination served on tenants during the period from 11 January 2021 to 12 April 2021 for rent arrears and to prohibit rent increases for relevant tenancies during that period. The aim is to further assist tenants financially impacted by Covid-19, while balancing the constitutionally protected rights of the property owners. Section 8 is key and sets out that the new Part 3 protections shall apply where the tenant: makes the necessary written declaration that he or she is unable to pay rent due on foot of Covid-19 and is at risk of losing his or her tenancy; at the same time, serves a notice on the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, requesting
assistance to obtain advice from the Money and Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS; and within five days of making this standard declaration serves a notice on his or her landlord seeking a consultation to make an arrangement to pay the rent due. The new Part 3 also applies to tenants who have made a declaration under the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, subject to certain conditions. That is the Act that was passed by the House last July, which has had the positive and desired effect the Government wanted it to have insofar as protecting tenants who were most at risk of eviction. Provision is made under section 9 for a counter-declaration by a landlord to disapply the protections. Similar to a tenant declaration, it shall be an offence for a landlord to make a declaration that is false or misleading.
Under Section 10, a notice of termination served during the emergency period shall not specify a termination date earlier than 13 April 2021. This means that with the provisions we introduced in the last year there are more than 12 months of eviction protections and additional tenancy protections for tenants. Section 14 provides that RTB tenancy tribunals are not required to be held in public during the period to 12 April 2021.
I look forward to the debate on the Bill's provisions and I hope Deputies will appreciate the urgency of these measures, the increasing cost to the taxpayer of inaction and the ongoing need to continue to protect tenants during the Covid-19 emergency. I understand there are concerns over substantive amendments, but I emphasise the significant engagement my officials have had with the Oireachtas joint committee on these issues and the legal advice received by the Attorney General. We must act in a timely manner and I thank Deputies for the constructive role they have played in this heretofore. I will respond to specific questions and engage further on Committee Stage.
I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Minister for his outline. In my five years in the Dáil, this is the fifth year in a row that in the dying days or hours of the December term very complex amending legislation on planning and residential tenancies has been brought before the House. In each of those years the legislation was been brought to the House in an incredibly unconventional and, I believe, unhelpful manner. That is not a comment on whether I support or oppose the provisions of the Bill. Given the complex nature of legislation, the reason we have a legislative system with various Stages is to ensure the opportunity not only for the Minister to outline the intention behind legislation but for Members across the House to scrutinise, hear outside expert opinion, to deliberate and to try, in many cases, to improve the legislation.
The difficulty is that when legislation of this type is rushed, mistakes are made. That is not in any way to question the hard work of the officials, but to question the repeated practice of officials being put under undue pressure and unrealistic timetables to produce legislation to address complex matters. In fact, in my first December in the Oireachtas in 2016 we dealt with legislation on rent pressure zones. The Minister will recall that such was the rushed nature of the legislation, substantial mathematical errors were included in the formula for the rent pressure zones which meant that if the legislation had passed without amendment, there would have been an 8% cap rather than a 4% cap. I am not criticising or questioning any official who works hard and late into the night to draft legislation. It is the timescale in which officials are unfairly required to draft complex matters and the lack of adequate scrutiny by the House that are the problem, as was the case in 2016 and in each year since then. It is again today.
It was a mistake for the Minister not to allow the Oireachtas housing committee to scrutinise the substantive parts of the Bill before us today. I will speak to those in a moment. We had indicated that we wanted to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny, PLS, but the Minister chose to take another route through the committee. We offered a date for PLS in the same week the Minister wrote to us because we understood the need to expedite it quickly. In fact, rather than the Minister taking it through the Seanad and speeding the process up, because he himself has had to introduce substantive amendments not consequent to the Bill, it is now happening in the same timeline as it would have happened if the committee had been allowed to do its job. Pre-legislative scrutiny is important. It is important to adequately scrutinise and strengthen the legislation before us and therefore I think it is disappointing that we were denied that opportunity. I make this point constructively. We want to be able to do our job as legislators to scrutinise, even when we support the intentions of the Bill, so I urge the Minister to please let us do that. We will always facilitate the Minister with speedy meetings when required.
I am most concerned with respect to the substantive amendments not consequential to the Bill, both on substitute consent and the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act. In the briefing we got from the officials the week before last they told us that the Attorney General had indicated that this was one of the most complex areas of law that he has ever dealt with. If it is complex for the Attorney General, then for those of us who are not legal professionals it is inadequate to be given short briefings and insufficient time to scrutinise. The Minister is correct to state that because of the failure of the State to adequately transpose EU environmental directives and ensure adequate public participation in the planning process, it is currently being fined €15,000 a day. The fines to date are somewhere in the region of €10 million. Even if we pass the Bill today and it is signed into law by the President at the weekend, those fines will continue to accumulate until the summer of next year when the board is expected to make its decision on the case in question. This was confirmed to us by officials at the committee meeting on Tuesday of last week. The expected total fine arising from the European Court of Justice, ECJ, case of last autumn will be in excess of €15 million.
I am also concerned that there are some errors in the Bill. As the Minister is aware, there is a number of different pathways into substitute consent and a number of those exceptional circumstances are dealt with, as outlined in previous legislation. There is a real concern that where a case is brought before the board, that exceptional circumstances may not have to be fully considered. I will talk this through in more detail at a later stage with the Minister, but it is specifically related to the amendment to section 177K of the 2000 Act and whether those provisions adequately provide for what the Minister intends to provide in this legislation. At the heart of all of this is the repeated failure of the Government to adequately transpose crucial directives from European law, which protect the environment, and in protecting the environment protect the ecosystem and communities and the livelihoods of people, especially those in rural areas. There is a failure also by the Government to live up to its obligations under the Aarhus Convention to ensure full public participation.
Ironically, there are two other hugely important and complex pieces of legislation going through the Oireachtas. I refer to the water environment (abstractions) Bill and the marine planning and development management Bill. We are getting to have proper pre-legislative scrutiny of the general schemes of those Bills, but many of us on the committee are deeply concerned that the same minimalist approach to implementing and transposing EU environmental directives and public participation is being taken to that legislation as was taken to substitute consent legislation previously. It does not seem to be the case that the Government is learning from the mistakes of the past.
I will briefly deal with what are essentially the four substantive sections of the Bill. The Minister is making a wrong call on the provisions around public meetings in the initial stages of city and county development plans in terms of the permanent nature of this measure. There are people who will never be able to engage in writing or online on the Internet for all the reasons we know and, therefore, including a mandatory requirement for some form of public meeting at the very outset is crucial. I urge the Minister to rethink the post-Covid implications of what he is proposing.
While I have no difficulty whatsoever in extending planning notice periods or the decision-making periods of local authorities because of Covid, the provisions of the Bill are too ambiguous and too wide. My understanding is that the two main concerns are cases where local authorities, due to reductions in staff because of Covid-19, may not be able to meet their statutorily required timelines, as well as future potential lockdowns on a county or regional basis. There are substantial holes in the way in which these propositions have been worked into this legislation. We will try to get through them on Committee Stage.
The concern from this side of the House is not the principle of what the Minister is doing, but is because of the rushed nature of the legislation and the outworking of potential unintended consequences. I refer, for example, to a situation where there is a county lockdown in Meath and the good people of Meath want to engage on a planning matter with the board, and cannot physically travel to Dublin for that purpose, or go to a neighbouring county where such restrictions might apply in the local authority that is responsible for the planning matter at hand.
While the measure on substitute consent is a modest improvement and may just about get the Government over the hurdle of the Supreme Court decision of the summer, it is minimalist. I have tabled an amendment and I urge the Minister to look at the content of the amendment and to consider strengthening the process. We need to do more than the minimum. The community of Derrybrien, for example, has since 2003, if not 1998, when it was first faced with planning applications for wind farms, lived through a nightmare because the planning process is simply not up to scratch. Therefore, we owe it to those people as well as all others who want to engage in the substitute consent process to get this right and ensure that at all levels, environmental directives and public participation requirements are fully adhered to.
With respect to the section of the Bill dealing with the amendment to the residential tenancies provisions, it obviously extends the limited protections to a very small number of renters by a number of months. I have no problem with that. Therefore, I would not oppose the amendments. However, it makes the terms of engaging with that protection more onerous and I think that is a problem. The very fact that fewer than 400 or so people have availed of the protection to date is because the process as outlined in the Bill in the summer is simply too bureaucratic. It is too onerous. The criteria for accessing this protection are simply too narrow. That is why the vast majority of renters, once the ban on level 5 evictions expired, are still at the mercy of potential notices to quit on a whole series of other grounds. The Minister has still not adequately acknowledged or addressed that.
We are not going to be obstructive this evening. We are not going to oppose the legislation, but we are genuinely asking the Minister to consider some of the significant amendments that we have tabled to try to improve the nature of the Bill before us. I also urge him to please rethink the public meetings at the opening stages of the development plan process. It is simply a question of allowing meetings, post-Covid-19, as I think the permanent nature of that amendment is wrong. We will get into the detail on Committee Stage but that is Sinn Féin's outline of the Bill and the amendments as it currently stands.
When I came back into the Dáil and took on the responsibility of speaking on housing matters for our spokesperson, Senator Rebecca Moynihan, I felt like I was walking into a dressing room where everybody knew each other for years and I just had to get to know the dynamics.
I have other responsibilities in this Oireachtas in terms of education, enterprise and trade but I am taken aback because, as Deputy Ó Broin said, tomorrow we break up for Christmas and we have to deal with this extensive piece of legislation which is so crucial to so many lives. As the Minister is aware, we had a debate only last night on the causes of homelessness. It appears to me from speaking to Senator Moynihan that two Bills have been wedged together: a residential tenancies Bill has been wedged into a planning and development Bill in order to deal with two issues at the one time.
The Minister has decided not to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny. Without that, I agree with my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, that our ability to provide the type of scrutiny that is needed for these far-reaching measures that are incredibly important to the daily lives of citizens has been curtailed. I can hear the Minister's voice as an Opposition spokesperson in previous years.
If he was still the Opposition spokesperson for his party and a Minister walked in and tried to do this the week before Christmas, I am quite sure the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, would say the very same thing - that it is too much in too short a time.
The people who need this Bill are so vulnerable that we must do this right. We have put down amendments in good faith around a sunset clause etc. and the onerous process. Is it the intention of the Minister or the knee-jerk intention of departmental officials for this to be overly onerous on the tenant at all times? We will speak to this on various different amendments as we go through the evening.
The Minister has done many things since taking office that we have been quite pleased with. He has engaged with my party in a constructive way with the rent-to-buy scheme that I have raised with the Minister and we hope to get some progress on that. He took that on board as something he could work with. We applauded the Minister's move on co-living arrangements, and I made a statement on that a number of weeks ago. Last night he made a contribution in not opposing the Bill from the Opposition; that was also constructive. Many of the initiatives he has taken appear to be getting somewhere, and all of us want that.
This is crucial for the people who sent us here. It really feels that at this hour and this date, we are not doing the matter justice with the manner in which it is being presented to us. We have our amendments and we will try to work with the Minister on them and improve the Bill as we go through it. In saying that, I must contend that the manner in which this is being done is less than satisfactory.
I thank the Minister. We have all gone through the Bill as a committee and I make the point that it is critical to have public engagement in planning. I am a firm believer in that.
This Bill replaces the requirement on city and county council executives to hold public meetings about proposed city and county development plans. The obligation is then on the planning authority to consult members of the public and invite written submissions from them on the proposed development plan.
I welcome the Government's proposed amendment to this. It is vital that we provide for additional public participation, where required, in exceptional circumstances such as these trying times. We all know we are finding living with Covid overwhelming with the life changes we have had to accept. It is obvious we need this legislation to deal with it but I cannot accept how the virus is sometimes used as an excuse to keep out the public. It has been my experience that engagement with people has been left behind while we are trying to adhere to public health guidelines.
It is important that the public feels it can be part of this process. The main aim of public participation is to encourage the public to have meaningful input into the decision-making process, and this is very important when it comes to planning. Public participation provides the local community with an opportunity for communication between agencies making decisions that will affect the public. This will have a great impact on people's lives, which is why it is so important. I was a councillor for years and I know how important this process is. We must ensure we give full access to the public when it comes to the planning process.
I have seen at first hand how delays come about when people have appointments cancelled. People like to be able to go into a planner, sit down and go through a plan. They can discuss the timescale and the number of people who are not sure about dates for an application is amazing. This is all about communication with the public.
We must ensure that even in a pandemic we give access to the public so people can be part of the process. Giving the public a say is not a negative and contributions should not be seen as negative. People can be so positive and observations can be really good when they engage in the process. They can play a big part. We need not see this as a negative process. There are many positive people who would make really good contributions. That is so important.
I know we cannot do all we used to do, but if we can sit in this House and listen to each other, towns and villages around Ireland should have a place where experts and planners can sit and listen to the voices of the people. That is very important. This is a significant matter and we must get clarity on how we will operate in future.
I agree with some of the comments made about online forums. I have a big fear that going forward we will be disenfranchising a large section of the public that is not online. Perhaps people cannot read or write. People may need to go to meetings in order to engage with the process and I feel so strongly about this at housing meetings.
There is also the question of the residential tenancies legislation and evictions. It is important that we see no evictions at any time but in particular during Covid-19 when it is so hard to find somewhere to rent. What is the understanding with county councils and evictions during Covid-19? It was brought to my attention the other day and it is important for us to consider communication in these matters. We must know that the public is aware of what is happening. These have been horrific times for everybody but I compliment all the 31 local authorities, including staff such as planners. They have done their best in challenging times to try to do what they could to help people with housing and planning.
We all know the county development plans are being done as we speak but they have been delayed. That process is now going until the middle of next year. We do not know what way Covid-19 will affect it but we must be mindful of what is happening. Our local authorities play a significant part in people's lives so it is important for us to appreciate the work they do.
Staffing is also a major concern. I always talk about Carlow but all the staff in the local authority work so hard. Understaffing can be a problem in local authorities. We should examine it.
I echo many of the concerns of my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, about the legislation. As he said, we are not opposing the legislation but we ask the Minister to consider some of the amendments because of the rushed nature of this process and the absence of scrutiny by the housing committee.
It is most important to consider the Deputy's amendment to delete what the local authority might consider "appropriate" and to ensure effective public participation. As with many issues in planning, the question of trust is most important. If people are opposing wind farms or large developments in their area, for example, but do not feel they are being heard, the system could fall apart.
I support online public meetings but we must rethink this in the context of a post-Covid world. The permanent nature of what is being introduced is wrong. Many people find the process opaque at the best of times but if there is provision for the process continuing at the discretion of local authorities, it would be a step backwards.
I am thinking in particular of east Kerry from Barr Dubh outside Killarney up through Cordal and into north Kerry. Everybody in that area should be able to participate fully in a process. People feel that when appeals go in, the process is not clear enough. From the initial hearing of a proposal, there must be full trust and confidence in what is going on.
I will respond to a comment from the Minister. He said there was significant engagement between officials in his Department and the Oireachtas joint committee dealing with housing. That is absolutely the case.
It is also the case that the Minister wrote to the committee seeking a waiver of pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. Instead of agreeing to that waiver the committee, whose members take their constitutional role as legislators and scrutinisers of legislation very seriously, offered to facilitate the Minister by carrying out the pre-legislative scrutiny quickly but thoroughly. The Minister did not agree to that and introduced the Bill in the Seanad rather than putting it through the pre-legislative scrutiny process at committee. A substantive four-page Bill went to the Seanad and then last week, 17 pages of amendments and entirely new sections were introduced. For the record, this is not a good way to legislate, particularly when one element of the Bill is an attempt to correct legislative mistakes that were made in the past. One would hope that we would have learned some lessons at this stage but it appears not. I certainly cannot see any evidence of lessons having been learned.
The substitute consent element of this Bill is an attempt to fix a problem that effectively dates back to 1985 when the original iteration of the environmental impact assessment directive was adopted. The problem here is that Ireland has been taking a minimalist approach to EU directives. That is why we have ended up in difficulty on this and why we are now paying fines and dealing with a large number of court cases. It is also why the community in Derrybrien has paid such a high price for mistakes that were made in terms of legislation that was not thorough enough and was not adequately scrutinised. If one thinks of the time this has taken at Civil Service and Government level, as well as the costs involved, including legal costs, we really should have learned to process legislation properly at this stage and not to rush it. In terms of EU directives, we should have learned not to try to get away with the least amount possible in terms of implementation. That is not the right approach. There has been a lot of very good talk recently in this Chamber about our important role in the European Union in the context of Brexit, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Yet, when it comes to really important EU directives the approach time and again is to try to get away with doing the minimum amount necessary to comply, rather than embracing the spirit of the directives and thinking about the long-term benefits for us as a country of full implementation. The political attitude in that regard needs to change.
Specifically on substitute consent, I am concerned about the proposals in the Bill in terms of how we can be sure that in all cases the information under consideration by the board on the issue of exceptional circumstances, which will now take place at a substantive stage, will be fully available to the public. I am also concerned as to whether the wording and consideration for exceptional circumstances conforms to the high bar required by the European Court of Justice for regularising developments or consents in breach of the EIA directive.
With respect to the provisions to remove the requirement for public meetings in relation to proposed development plans, I am fully supportive of online meetings. They are a great way of engaging with people and there is a logic to these provisions in the context of emergencies such as Covid-19. However, I am absolutely against the permanent removal of public meetings at this stage in the development plan process because it will exclude people. In my own community, some of the best community activists are not comfortable with online participation. Indeed, even when people are comfortable with online fora, there is often a lot to be gained from real world, physical public meetings, including the potential for community building. We should be facilitating both options and not making this move which will result, in practice, in many local authorities choosing to go for the online option only. We could and should be doing both in an effort to include more people in the process.
On planning changes in the context of the Covid-19 emergency period, I am concerned that there may not be proactive communication from local authorities and planning authorities if planning timelines change. Will there be enough communication around that? Certainly all practice to date suggests that this sort of communication and information tends not to get out to people. There tends to be a lot of confusion around it when set times are involved. In that context, I am concerned that changes will lead to confusion about deadline dates and so forth. I am also concerned that there will not be sufficient safeguards in place with regard to the discretion afforded to local authorities. I understand the situation the Minister is trying to address and he is quite right to do so but I am not convinced there are sufficient safeguards built in. This aspect of the Bill may not be in compliance with EU law and the Aarhus convention in terms of public participation. We could see a situation where there are different planning timelines in operation in different parts of the country and that could be highly problematic in the context of citizens knowing their rights vis-à-visdeadlines and so forth.
The concerns I have just outlined must be addressed and I have submitted amendments to improve the relevant sections of the Bill. I ask the Minister to consider my amendments which were tabled in the spirit of trying to improve the legislation. A lot of the measures contained in this Bill are very welcome and their intent is to be supported. I will be supporting the thrust of the Bill; the amendments I have tabled seek to improve it further.
The Social Democrats will support the section of the Bill that extends protections for renters. However, it is problematic that these provisions will only provide protections for a limited number of renters. Fewer than 400 renters have been able to avail of the protections so far and some renters will potentially have their declarations cancelled under the measures proposed in the Bill, when landlords will also be able to make a declaration. This concerns me, as does the fact that the protections will only apply to notice of termination for rent arrears. All other notices for eviction will remain valid. In the context of an ongoing pandemic, when public health should be first and foremost in our minds and when we know that some of those most at risk from Covid-19 are people living in overcrowded conditions in the private rented sector, renters should be getting more and stronger protection. The measures in the Bill lack the kind of social solidarity that is needed and they lack ambition. Research conducted by Harvard University shows a direct link between evictions and an increase in the spread of Covid-19. This is not a theoretical issue but one that has an impact on the fight against Covid-19 which will continue to be a very real public health challenge at least until the middle of next year. The complex and bureaucratic process surrounding declarations and the timelines for same will ensure that some more vulnerable tenants who could be eligible for protection are more likely to miss out.
What we should be doing is putting in place protections for all renters who fall into rent arrears. We should also be putting in place permanent measures, protections and structures around debt resolution, payment plans and mediation as alternatives to eviction. We should be going further than the proposals in the Bill. We would be better served by long-term reforms in this sector rather than a limited extension of emergency measures. The Residential Tenancies Act provides landlords with seven different ways to end a tenancy when there has been no wrongdoing on the part of the tenant. That needs to be changed. We need to remove these no-fault grounds for eviction. That would reduce the number of people who lose their homes, bringing us in line with the European norm. The Social Democrats is taking a constructive approach to this Bill and I ask the Minister to look constructively at the amendments we have put forward to improve it.
I welcome this Bill this because, like so many Bills that have gone through the House recently, it shows that we can respond to issues in a way that will allow us to live alongside Covid-19 and avoid stopping developments, where possible. This Bill makes important changes to safeguard planning and building control systems during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Bill will amend the Planning and Development Act 2000 to remove the mandatory requirement to hold physical public meetings on proposed development plans while continuing to oblige planning authorities to hold meetings and engage with members of the public either in person or online. This measure will also have future application, thereby improving the flexibility of the planning system in the context of the development and proliferation of new technologies.
Section 2 of the Bill will amend the 2000 Act. The Act currently requires authorities to hold public meetings and to seek written submissions on proposed development plans while allowing them also to invite oral submissions from the public. The new provision will provide planning authorities with more discretion under new planning authority regulations, which will require consultation with the public.
I welcome the fact that many of my colleagues in the House have raised concerns with regard to hosting public meetings. I agree with some of the sentiments expressed. Perhaps this is a matter to which the Minister can give further consideration. It is certainly a concern for many older people and those who may not have access to online facilities. As a Deputy for a rural constituency, I know that this is quite a large problem. It is surprising how big of an issue communications and access to the Internet is for some rural settlements, including some across my own constituency.
It is also important to look at the ability of the Minister's Department to modernise the planning process as much as possible. As one of the youngest elected Members of the Oireachtas, I know from first-hand experience that the housing crisis is an enormous concern for many young people and that he has an enormous challenge before him.
The provisions outlined in the Bill are certainly proposed in good faith and with the aim of speeding up developments that have been slowed down due to Covid. It is important that we are realistic and acknowledge that in the House. Perhaps, however, when Covid has passed, we should review the issue of online meetings.
I thank the Minister for visiting my constituency during the week. It was fantastic to have him down to meet officials from Cork County Council. He was very aware of the challenges faced by that local authority in trying to speed up badly needed housing developments, both social and private. I look forward to welcoming him back when he is next in Cork East.
I too have concerns about housing needs, demand assessment and public participation in the context of this Bill. Instead of widening public participation in the planning and development process, this Bill narrows it through the curtailment of public meetings. The review of the Kildare county development plan started only this afternoon and this Bill could effectively lock out those who most need to access and participate in the process, such as the lovely elderly man in north Kildare in my constituency who is freezing in a mobile home with no running water, no electricity and only a gas bottle for heat. Though in urgent need of housing, what is proposed here denies him that vital access that is his right as a citizen. He can go to a public meeting but he cannot access one of the procedures in respect of planning and development because he has no laptop and no power, and I mean that both literally and metaphorically. We have a growing swathe of different cohorts of people in north Kildare who are experiencing this housing crisis. They are left at the mercy of the markets, which we all know have no mercy. Citizens need access and inclusion, not exclusion. I hope the Minister will give the public participation aspect of this Bill some more attention. We have to do better.
Two people contributed a very important concept to our understanding of modern society: Hegel and Karl Marx. They spoke of the concept of alienation, which was brilliantly captured by Edvard Munch's famous painting, The Scream. While there are advantages to meetings on Zoom and Teams, the substitution for real human social interaction of endless Zoom and Teams meetings for all time to come with regard to how we interact to discuss the future of society is the definition of alienation. We will have a nation of people mimicking the scream depicted in Edvard Munch's painting. It is a horrible vista which I find fundamentally objectionable. It is an unfortunate reality that, in the midst of Covid, we have to live on Zoom and Teams. Even in a world without Covid, there would be times where such technologies would be useful. We have learnt something from the use of this technology. The idea that such meetings would permanently replace actual public meetings of human beings - although God knows where it will end as it may spread to education and all sorts of other absolutely vital human interactions - is, frankly, a terrifying and borderline dystopian vista. I absolutely object to this.
This relates to another issue which has been alluded to. I object to the fact that we are dealing with all of these matters together. There are things in the Bill that are modestly progressive. I do not want to get in the way of these things, but I really fundamentally object to local authorities permanently having the option to replace public meetings with regard to development plans. There is not a shadow of a doubt but that it will set a precedent for issues far beyond those public meetings. It strikes at our fundamental nature as human beings. I mean that very seriously. Alienation is a reality and it has very detrimental effects on human well-being. We need to tread very carefully. To slip this provision into a Bill comprising three or four different disconnected elements at the last minute on the second last evening before the Christmas break is just not good practice. It is a very poor way with which to deal with very serious issues regarding how human beings come together to influence the future of their society.
That is what development plans are about. As emasculated as local authorities have become because of policy moves to centralise control over planning and other functions, this is one power they still have and it is an opportunity for ordinary people to get involved. Coming together and interacting in a live environment is absolutely critical.
I face a real dilemma. I do not want to get in the way of this Bill but I really object to this measure. I believe amendments have been proposed to address the issue. To be honest, we are a small party and do not even have representation on the Select Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage so we are scrambling even to get our heads around what is in this Bill. There is something about residential tenancies, which is a critically important issue. There is something on the issue I have just discussed, that is to say, development plans, democracy and public participation in development plans. This is also a critical issue. There is also something on the issue of substitute consent, to which I will get in a minute. This is another absolutely critical issue in the context of the aftermath of the development of the wind farm at Derrybrien. In building this wind farm, there was a failure to comply with the environmental impact assessment directives as they relate to public consultation. In that case, the result was that a mountain fell down and slid into a river with disastrous consequences for the environment.
Again, I cannot believe the Green Party is involved in this stuff. Its members have seen themselves as the guardians of good planning and so on yet the party allowed this to be rammed through at the last moment. It really annoys me.
On the issue of residential tenancies, I would like to alert the Minister to something, but he has left the Chamber. People who fall into arrears as a direct result of Covid, if they can prove that to be the case, will not be evicted during this emergency period. I will not object to that but, to be honest, it is so inadequate it is sickening.
I want to alert the Minister to this. This week I went to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, with tenants who are facing their fourth eviction attempt at the hands of ruthless vulture funds. These people really disgust me. They are using the window occasioned by the lifting of level 5 restrictions where a pause button was put on evictions. We could go back to level 5 again in January. As soon as the eviction ban associated with the level t restrictions was lifted, they went in ruthlessly to evict, in this case, eight tenants. They have already driven the previous 12 out through nasty tactics, grinding down the tenants, trying to exploit loopholes in the Residential Tenancies Act such as claiming sale, refurbishment etc.
These ordinary people who have always paid their rent are now facing eviction. They are in the RTB and will probably lose the case this time because these guys have found a way around the Tyrrelstown amendment by evicting eight people instead of ten, which is what they really wanted to do. They will then move on to the remaining two who are left in six months, which the law allows. The Government allows this to happen coming up to Christmas and in the midst of a pandemic. Putting an absolute pause on those kinds of evictions should be covered in legislation this week. Instead we have a token measure which we will support, but it will do very little for people who face that kind of ruthless activity. Another example of the same thing happened in Rathmines this week where the same vulture funds were on pause because of the eviction ban occasioned by Covid and they have moved in and evicted the tenants in Rathmines.
On substitute consent, again the measure seems to be at the absolute minimum of trying to deal with this. What do we call substitute consent? It is retention for developments that did not really comply with environmental directives, the need for proper public consultation or the environmental impact assessment of what these developments can do. We need to go much further in cutting out the abuse that is being done in this.
There may be a place for retention and occasionally for substitute consent in exceptional circumstances. However, in general it is an abuse of the planning process and it is systematically abused by developers trying to get around the planning process, as we have seen in the case of Derrybrien and we are seeing it again in Donegal. God knows, we may see it with the Dublin Array development which is proposed to be built close to the Kish Bank and the Codling Bank. Will there be proper impact assessment of what they will do to the Kish Bank and the biodiversity, marine diversity and so on that exists on that bank? These are very serious issues. I will not get in the way of the measures that marginally improve the situation from what it was. Deputies Ó Broin and Cian O'Callaghan have a good amendment which I hope passes, but this is not a good way to do business.
The permanent option to have online and not physical public meetings on development plans is not on and needs to be withdrawn by the Government.
A Fianna Fáil colleague of mine on Clare County Council, Councillor P.J. Kelly from Lissycasey, has repeatedly made the point about the Flemish decree. The European Union guarantees movement of people, yet in Ireland we still insist on people who apply for permission for a one-off house in a rural area to prove they are from the local area. In the south part of County Clare where I come from, not only do they need to prove they are local but also they need to prove they have an entitlement to live in a certain band of the county that is considered to be under urbanised pressure. That is not in the spirit of European Union law, the Treaty of Rome and all the treaties that guarantee European freedom.
Planning legislation needs to realise that Ireland is like a boat at the moment with one side, the east coast, tipping into the water because it is so laden down with overdevelopment, while on the west coast, towns like Lisdoonvarna are totally hollowed out because people do not live there anymore. The streets of towns in north Clare and west Clare are full of "For Sale" and "To Let" signs because of the exodus of people. Of course, there are ancillary services such as broadband, the rural post office network, local schools etc., but people should be allowed to go home and build in their locality. The Covid pandemic has proved that there is a capacity for people to work from home.
There is a flurry of applications for wind turbines to Clare County Council and local authorities throughout the country. Wind farm developers are rushing to get in ahead of new planning guidelines on wind energy which have been drafted but have yet to be issued to local authorities. It is wrong. They are trying to circumvent new guidelines that would allow for wind energy to co-exist at a reasonable distance back from houses. At the moment wind farms may be located right up alongside other properties to the great dissatisfaction and upset of residents. The new guidelines stipulate that wind farms are only permitted 500 m from houses. That is a reasonable rule and I urge the Minister to introduce those guidelines as soon as possible.
Onshore wind farms are only 40% as efficient as their offshore counterparts. We urgently need to revamp the licensing process, which dates back to the Foreshore Act 1933, to ensure that key infrastructure off Irish shores can get the go ahead.
In the last county development plan for County Clare and throughout the country several public rights of way were struck out because the Government and local authorities fear what happened in the Lissadell House case. In my locality and in many villages throughout Clare and the rest of the west of Ireland, graveyards are sited in the middle of a field. People need to go up through a laneway or a farmer's field to get to them. The people have had that right of way for over a century and nobody can deny them that. We need a mechanism in planning legislation to recognise that and, for once and for all, to codify it in the county development plan.
We have an acute shortage of planning enforcement officers. At one point we had only two in the entire county of Clare, which has a population of 118,000 people. We need that capacity beefed up when planning in the country is being overhauled.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill as it is particularly relevant to my county of Clare and specifically to the residents who are affected by the planning application for the wind farm development proposed for the Cahermurphy area. This development includes ten turbines reaching to 170 m and there is strong opposition to this proposed development among local residents who, as they describe, would ultimately be living in the shadow of these turbines for many years to come.
The planning application was rushed into the local authority and has caused major distress and anger among these residents. As far as they can see this application was pushed with little or no public consultation and during a pandemic. Employees of the developer arrived unexpectedly at people's doors with a glossy brochure. It is completely understandable that people were nervous and did not feel comfortable with a stranger arriving at the height of the pandemic. This development has been planned for the past seven years, yet the community affected got just six weeks. The people who live within 2 km of the proposed development were not even made aware of the application. Many in the area were left with little or no knowledge and could not submit objections. The residents rightly pointed out that many of them have poor broadband and lost valuable time accessing the planning documents as there was a long delay in these documents being scanned and made available to the public. This is not acceptable. Sinn Féin has tabled an amendment to strengthen public participation and I hope it is accepted.
I am sharing time with Deputy Fitzpatrick.
I am delighted to be able to speak on this legislation. As I was a councillor before being elected to the Dáil, I know the vagaries of the planning system and the differences that can apply in how people take on the legislation that is there. Fundamentally, we need to look at how we are dealing with rural housing.
I ask the Minister to look at that because several issues arise. One concerns people from a farming background not being able to build a house on that land, unless they are farming it. That is unfair because such people are being given a site by their family and access to the site may be through the farm. It is single access and not creating any more access onto the road. It is important we build in that point. One of the other speakers mentioned the Flemish decree and the free movement of people. It is important that we afford that right to people. The other issue which comes up regularly is that Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has such influence when people want to build houses. If TII puts in a submission to a local authority, that is it. No planning permission will be granted and that is unfair because people spend a lot of money on getting their applications together. Two issues must be examined in the context of the overall planning legislation, which we must look at and overhaul.
Another issue prevalent at the moment concerns asking people to live in towns, villages and settlement centres. In County Galway, and in east Galway in particular, no house can now be built in settlement or growth centres such as Craughwell, my village of Corofin, or Abbeyknockmoy, and there are many similar places. The reasons include the local authority being unable to grant permission for a private wastewater treatment plant. An Bord Pleanála has backed that up by also refusing it. Galway County Council will also not give planning permission for single septic tanks on these sites, and neither will An Bord Pleanála. We also do not have a central municipal treatment plant, as we used to call it, in place. What we have, therefore, is no planning permission being granted and no building going on. We do not want people to live in the countryside, but they cannot live in the towns and villages. It is important, therefore, that we get this issue sorted out once and for all.
I also want to raise the issue of subsequent consent. We spoke about Derrybrien and we must get that matter resolved. It is in my constituency, and it was a disaster. We are paying €15,000 a day in fines and we just cannot let that go on ad infinitum. What could we have done with that €15,000 per day in recent years, when we have been paying out so much money? There are issues concerning applications for planning permission, subsequent consent and leave to appeal which are worrying. I ask the Minister to look at those aspects. He might solve the Derrybrien issue with this legislation, but we still need further clarity and legislation in respect of quarry owners.
I refer to those who cannot get planning permission because neither the local authority nor An Bord Pleanála is capable of dealing with it for the simple reason that we have serial objectors and every move is being challenged in the courts. This is tying people up and wasting a great deal of resources. This goes back to one thing: EU directives. The way we have transposed them has resulted in a big log jam. We have inertia. We cannot get things done or move things on and that is costing industry millions of euro. We will end up with local authorities not being able to find quarry material in the not too distant future, just as we have similar problems now in the forestry sector, where it is not possible to find any native timber.
We have serious issues. We must take the planning legislation we have, have a root and branch examination of it and ensure we deliver something which is workable. One of the things which has crept into this area of planning, and we can see it if we look at the situation involving Apple in Athenry, is that the judicial review process is a sham. We must introduce timelines and we need to do that immediately.
One of the most contentious issues which I deal with in my constituency office concerns planning, and particularly those people looking to build in their home parishes. The opinion now seems to be that county councils, and Louth County Council in particular, do not want any one-off housing construction to take place. The current Louth county development plan severely curtails one-off housing. I completely understand the rationale behind the idea that it would be better for people to live in large urban areas, where services such as schools, shops and hospitals are more readily available. We must also understand, however, that people who are born and raised in certain areas would like to aspire to move back there, once they are in a position to do so. The situation in Louth now is so bad that many people are simply giving up on their dreams to live in the area or parish where they were raised. This is wrong.
It is also wrong that planning regulations do not allow so-called "outsiders" to apply for planning permission to build their homes in an area in which they would like to settle. I reiterate that this is one of the most contentious issues I deal with in my constituency office. Young people who are born and raised in local areas, such as Cooley, Kilkerley, Roche, Knockbridge, Dromiskin and Haggardstown, to name just a few areas, are now effectively being prohibited from living there through no fault of their own. One young couple told me recently that they feel these regulations are an infringement of their human rights to live in an area.
A great many issues need to be dealt with in this area. How is it right that the planning regulations can stop people living in an area they choose? I have great reservations about this aspect. If this was challenged in the courts, I wonder would it stand up to such scrutiny. I am sure many of my colleagues in this House are of the same opinion. As it stands, young couples are effectively being forced to move away from their home parish or area. County development plans, and in particular the proposed Louth county development plan, must be challenged and opened to more scrutiny. Many issues regarding those development plans need to be debated.
We have a situation now where one-off housing is being stopped in County Louth. However, if we look around the country, we see there is still investment in rural schools and services. How does this make sense? We are investing in rural schools and services. In 20 years' time, however, if these county development plans are allowed to come to pass, we will have no young families and no children to attend these rural schools or avail of any of these rural services.
Another aspect completely overlooked is that of local GAA, soccer and athletic clubs. How are those organisations going to survive if there are no children in the area? How is this right? The bottom line is that we need a more joined-up approach. At this rate, we are going to decimate the rural areas, not only of County Louth, but of all counties. Imagine having rural areas with no young families. As I said, we continue to invest in rural schools and services and yet the planning regulations want to stop families from living there. What about all-rural credit unions? If there are no rural families, not only will those credit unions disappear, but so too will the local shops. Nobody seems to want to provide a real solution to this situation. All the development plans seem to want to do is to stop one-off housing developments in rural areas. We must look at the knock-on effects of this approach, such as those I referred to regarding rural schools, GAA clubs, soccer clubs, rural credit unions and local shops.
Another area which needs discussion is planning density. In Dundalk, the county council's approach is that density has to reach a certain figure before approval for a development will be considered. I know of a situation where plans were submitted for viable and community-friendly housing developments, but it was advised that planning permission would not be granted unless more housing units were squeezed in. We have seen what happened in Dublin when high-density housing was introduced. Including too many housing units simply does not work.
Another matter which needs discussion is the amount of land zoned for development which will simply never be developed. It is common knowledge in Dundalk that there are situations where land has been zoned for development, but that land will never be developed. County development plans must address these issues. There is no simple solution to these problems. Planning regulations have been too severe in respect of rural Ireland. While I agree there needs to be some form of control of one-off houses, I do not think that having a blanket ban is an answer either. Surely, in this day and age, we can come up with a viable plan so that urban and rural Ireland can develop at a sustainable rate without prohibiting people from returning to the parish in which they were born and raised. This is a serious issue and one which needs further debate and scrutiny.
I will conclude by asking the county councils, and Louth County Council in particular, to have a more joined-up approach when drafting these county development plans. It is an opportunity to bring more life into rural Ireland, rather than sucking the life out of it. If we are serious about protecting rural Ireland, then we must be supportive of the idea that young families cannot be prohibited from moving back to their home parishes or villages. The closing date for submissions in respect of the County Louth development plan is 12 noon on 23 December. I plead with the Minister to intervene, contact Louth County Council and ask for that closing date to be extended. Many people cannot get into county buildings or use the Internet. Most other local authorities are doing what I requested, so I ask the Minister to intervene and ask Louth County Council to extend the deadline.
Currently, county development plans are being discussed by Members and as many members of the public as is possible.
Every effort must be made to ensure we have buy-in from the public so that the plan in each county is reflective of the desire of that county to develop, and to develop where it should. An Bord Pleanála should be taking note of these plans and of the desires and aspirations of local authorities in regard to how they develop their counties. While having some flexibility, it should not be allowed to deviate from the core of a plan.
Irish Water is a big issue in rural Ireland. In my own county, the villages of Thomastown, Inistioge and The Rower are deprived of continued constructive development because they have poor water systems. This must be addressed by way of immediate funding. We have waited far too long for this funding to be put in place. There is now an urgent need to prioritise, or to allow the county councils in each of the counties to prioritise, where the investment needs to take place. There are some estates that are not finished and require essential services to be provided through Irish Water but that is not happening. Some of the estates that are completed are having difficulty getting final clearance from Irish Water for the systems that have been put in place. All of this is being delayed by heavy bureaucracy and that needs to be lightened. I ask that the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, would immediately investigate and prioritise the rural schemes that are needed to allow villages to develop and move on.
I want to raise the issue of quarries. I have written to the Minister about this issue and I have also raised it publicly and with Laois County Council. In the case of a quarry which has been developed but for which there is no planning permission historically - it needs to fulfil its planning obligations by reinstating the land, but that is not happening - we need the Minister or the departmental officials to insist that the local authorities act to protect our environment, support the people who live in the area and expect the lands to be reinstated. Where this is not happening, there must be some mechanism whereby the Department or An Bord Pleanála can intervene immediately and deal with the matter. Otherwise, we are leaving the matter open to continued argument and contention between the local government in question - I am citing Laois County Council as an example - and an individual and that is an unfair playing field. Local government must put right the wrong that is being done in that county, allow the public consultation to take place and ensure the individuals concerned who wish to have the quarries properly wound up and closed have a voice. That is not happening at the moment. I urge the Minister to take a look at the representations he has received in relation to this issue and to take constructive action.
Maintaining and adapting the planning process in the midst of Covid-19 is undoubtedly a challenge, particularly in terms of ensuring adequate access to information and opportunities to contribute and participate in the process, be that by way of observation, submission or appeal.
I want to put on the record my concerns in relation to the ongoing review of the Meath county development plan, which is a central and fundamental process and part of our planning system. The plan is at a very advanced stage. Covid-19 has meant the development plan process is prolonged and is happening in a hybrid manner online and offline simultaneously. I am not for one second suggesting that people are not doing their best in difficult circumstances but there is, in my opinion, a failure to understand the nature of local government representation in Ireland. Many councillors are part-time, and most of them are holding down full-time or part-time work as well, some of it deemed essential. As a result, we have councillors missing votes, voting online while at work and, quite concerningly, in at least one case in Meath being reported to the Garda for Covid non-compliance for trying to do the work of development plan deliberation, which involves thrashing out issues. I am of the opinion that it can be done this way, but it cannot be done right this way. I ask the Minister to re-evaluate and assess the process that is being undertaken in terms of county development plan reviews, in particular the current Meath county development plan review.
I am sharing time with Deputy Mattie McGrath. The Aarhus Convention highlights the importance of public consultation and transparency. I would like to speak about the lack of consultation in an oral hearing, which was held virtually, involving Irish Cement Limited at Castlemungret and the Environmental Protection Agency. Is the Minister aware that the objectors were kept in a virtual holding room prior to giving their statement? Does that seem fair?
In Limerick, the biggest infrastructure project is the M20 motorway from Limerick to Cork. Earlier this week, I invited the project co-ordinator to speak to some of my constituents via Zoom, which will happen tomorrow evening at 7.30 p.m.. I never realised how important an issue broadband connectivity is until the phones in my office started hopping again this evening with calls from people saying they will be unable to connect to the meeting because their broadband speed is not good enough to allow them to connect to it. Some people do not have access to the Internet. I mentioned earlier today that there are over 21,000 houses in Limerick without adequate broadband services. This means they will not have an input into the meeting. The project co-ordinator is also holding one-on-one meetings and the deadline for these meetings has been extended until 15 January to enable people to raise their objections.
The 2040 plan will stop all building in rural Ireland. I have been involved in construction and building houses all of my life. I was a councillor before I became a Deputy. All of the regulations have been put in place. Fianna Fáil voted for 2040 plan. Is the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, aware that when a person goes to the expense of seeking planning permission in an area, even if he or she is from the area and meets all of the criteria, if another person objects for some unknown reason and the matter goes to An Bord Pleanála, the objection is being upheld under the 2040 plan? Did the Minister know this? People who are spending thousands of euro in order to live in rural Ireland, in the home place where they grew up, are being discriminated against by Fianna Fáil because it voted for the plan.
Some of the local authorities are moving to close down all consultation. This would allow those local authorities to move to online meetings permanently. The recent ESRI report highlights the goals of the national development framework, Project Ireland 2040, and shows an increase in housing demand, particularly in Limerick, Cork, Galway and Waterford. The report also highlights the urgent need for the national planning framework 2040 plan to be debated annually and voted upon in the Dáil. This is an absolute necessity. The ESRI collects independent research and remains committed to do this work, and it is free from political bias.
If the Minister wanted to build a house in County Limerick, he would have to pay planning contributions. Those contributions pay for infrastructure such as a sewerage system which is non-existent because the person has to put in place his or her own system at massive expense of €10,000 to €12,000; roads which are poorly maintained because the local authorities are not being given sufficient funding; and an upfront of contribution of €5,000 or €6,000. The upfront cost for anyone who wants to build to live in rural Ireland, in terms of planning for a biosystem, contributions and an ESB connection, is €23,000 to €24,000.
All the Government has done is increase the tax on fuel for people in Ireland who do not have transport infrastructure, so it will cost them more to go to work, to get their groceries, to go to school or to do anything because there is no infrastructure. This 2040 plan needs to be reversed and the Government should look after the people who are looking after it. It is taxing us to death with everything, including fossil fuels, because it has left us with no infrastructure. If people want to build in rural Ireland, it taxes them even more.
I too am glad to be able to speak to this Bill tonight, although I cannot say "glad" because this matter is scandalous and downright outrageous. The Minister was in opposition as spokesman on planning and the environment for long enough. To bring forward this kind of Bill in the eleventh and a half hour before Christmas, cúpla lá roimh an Nollaig, is shocking. The Minister is only new and I wish him well in his job, but there is huge disconcertment and disconnect between the Executive and the democratic system in this country. It is shameful that we could be fined up €15 million for ineptitude and for the lethargic and disgraceful executives who would not do the work they are paid to do, which they have a right to do and should do. They will not do it. They will pay these fines and there could be tens of millions more. How many other ways are we being fined by the European Parliament? Deputy O'Donoghue and I met a very eminent gentleman last night who knows a lot about Europe and what is going on there. There are many areas in Europe that we could learn from and get solace for our people who are in trouble, such as homeowners, farmers and businesspeople, but the Government will not invoke any of those. It will take the fines and be the good boys of Europe. This is outrageous.
There are many areas in the plan and this Covid situation is a silent takeover by the executives and by county councils. The county development plans should all be stopped in their tracks for the duration of Covid. We can amend legislation here and the Government can even bring in hearsay legislation to suit the banks and the vulture funds in the middle of this pandemic so we should stop this in its tracks, because people cannot have public meetings. They have to have public meetings. There is little engagement and a lot of disrespect for the public from senior planners. In my own county, up to 200 submissions have been made on the Cahir local area plan. My daughter, who is a councillor, was informed that there is a meeting on it next week and she is not happy because they are not listening to the public. It is just a token exercise. Our county development plan is the same, while the 2040 plan ruination is raining all over Ireland. Nothing can be done while all those situations are going on. It is just unbelievable.
The whole area around protected structures needs to be examined because it is putting crippling prices on people with thatched houses. They were deemed lovely and nice to keep but they cannot live in them and they cannot keep them maintained. Where is the money for that going to come from? It is the same with other buildings and facades, as Deputy O'Donoghue mentioned.
I also want to talk about the situation regarding the Land Development Agency. As I said, the plans should be stopped but when they start, and they will be starting soon, the councillors in Tipperary can do all they like about it, make the plan and the rest - as is their divine right and their reserved function - but they can be overruled by the Land Development Agency. It is another layer the Government put in. It is to hell or to Connacht for the people with this Government and successive Governments. This is part of the greater plan and this is why I am so suspicious about Covid, what is being done under the cloak of Covid and the silent takeover.
Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to the alienation of people. It is shocking. It is happening right across the world and more so in Europe. Béal dúnta and eyes closed, fear stalks the land. The Government arrested a publican in Mayo who was saving his business by doing antigen tests and it threatened a priest in Cavan. Six gardaí, including two female sergeants and four gardaí, visited him on a Sunday morning to strike fear into him. My goodness, where are we going to stop? Six gardaí came on a Sunday morning and they do not care about God nor man. They did not care. The Government is frightening the life out of people. What is going on right in front of us under the name of Covid is shocking. Covid is serious and we have to respect it, but there is blackguarding going on with the number of businesspeople who are going to be wiped off this earth. The musicians cannot play and many more people like the small self-employed people will be gone because the Government wants them all to be paupers. It throws them a few bob and thinks it owes them nothing.
If the Minister cannot wake up and see that is what is going on, he should not be where he is because that is what is going on. We are going to have the vaccine now. A minute's discussion for each Member in our group is all we are going to have tomorrow on the roll-out of the vaccine. Where is the democracy? The founding father of Fianna Fáil and Bunreacht na hÉireann, Éamon de Valera, must be turning in his grave at an awful rate with what Fianna Fáil is doing now with democracy. We only have a minute per Deputy to discuss something like the roll-out of a vaccine. The Minister should be ashamed of himself with what is going on and what he is bringing in here by rushing this legislation. He knows what has been done here in the last nine or ten years and he will do it again. The executives will go off on their holidays for Christmas. I mean no disrespect but they are not doing their jobs and many of them should be fired. They are doing the job of cloaking the people, diminishing the people and alienating the people. It is shocking what is going on.
The HSE is running riot. I just had another phone call to say it is moving another service out of Tipperary, or there are rumours of it which it will not deny or clarify. The abdication of responsibility is shocking and so is the way the Government is blackguarding the elected people both here in the Oireachtas and down in the county councils. It has no respect for democracy. It is a dictatorship it wants.
I will be contributing at length during the later Stages of this Bill but I wanted to take this opportunity to emphasise the importance of proper public consultation. In Cork, serious concerns are being raised by people at the minute regarding the consultation process for residents who may be affected by one of the routes of the M20. These residents feel they are being shut out of the consultation process. Despite my efforts, I have been unable to arrange a group meeting or consultation for the residents of Whitechurch, Blarney and the surrounding areas. Many people do not have Internet access and many are not comfortable using the Internet or going online. People would like to meet with engineers in person to discuss their thoughts and opinions on housing and road developments. That is why I ask the Minister to discuss this matter with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and work together to come up with suitable alternatives for developments going forward. I advise him to do that. I am very concerned that this Bill will allow local authorities to not have public consultations and to do everything online or over Zoom or Teams. We are trying to be positive and constructive and I ask the Minister to take that advice on board.
I am not sure if my colleague is here so I will take the ten minutes. I would happily take the Government time as well if I could because this is quite complex legislation. The manner in which this is being put through is quite unacceptable. I do not sit on the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage and I have done my best to come to terms with this Bill in the short time we have. To waive pre-legislative scrutiny for such complex legislation is unacceptable, and to then go to the Seanad and not accept its basic amendments to change the wording to "shall" as regards having public meetings on development plans is totally unacceptable.
The Bill started out at three and a half pages and it is really three pages because the fourth page is the Title. I would have no difficulty with it as a temporary measure to deal with Covid and indeed that is what the original Bill says. The original Title reads, "An Act to amend section 11 of the Planning and Development Act 2000; to provide, in connection with the crisis occasioned by the spread of the disease known as Covid-19" for specific periods. The Preamble goes on to use the word "whereas" three times, setting out each time that it relates to Covid. That is not what it will say now. The Minister has come forward tonight and has said that the change relating to no public meetings for the development plans will be permanent. I have no idea where that is coming from and the Minister should take that change out. It is ironic that the changes he is making tonight regarding public participation have come from the courts, namely, the European Court of Justice and the Supreme Court. On a night where he is forced to act in the most minimalist way possible because of the judgments of the Supreme Court and the European Court of Justice, he is taking with the other hand and minimising public participation.
I looked up the word "insidious" to make sure I had it right. It is, "Proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with very harmful effects." That is exactly what the Minister is doing here tonight and I will not support it. I do not know how many times the Government has come forward with legislation because of the emergency, which is ostensibly very good, and then transforms it into something else that makes it difficult for Deputies, because they are voting for something that is minimally good but contains something very bad. That has become a pattern with the Government since Covid came in. I find it dangerous, insidious, and unacceptable.
July was an interesting month with the courts. On 1 July there was judgment in the two cases relating to substitute consent on which the Minister is now acting in the most minimalist way possible. The judgment noted many issues, which I will not go into as I have limited time, but I will read from its conclusion:
i. That on Issue One, for the reasons therein stated, I would hold that section 177C(2)(a) and its corresponding provision, section 177D(1)(a) are inconsistent with the EIA Directive as interpreted by the Court of Justice, in that they fail to provide adequately for the exceptionality test as demanded by that court;
ii. On Issue Two, I would likewise hold that given the structure of s. 177, the failure to make provision for public participation at the leave application stage for substitute consent is inconsistent with the public participation rights conferred by and outlined in the EIA Directive.
The Minister has come forward in an emergency to act under that judgment from 1 July.
On 30 or 31 July, two other judgments were made which are interesting in the context of tonight's discussion. One related to the Government's policy, which was very good, on excluding trawlers of a certain size from the six-mile zone. The court said that the Government held a public consultation process which was not fair and just and was inadequate, and found that the policy was at nought. Here was a good Government policy, but when it came to the consultation process, it did not do it well, so the policy was at nought and big trawlers are now allowed in to fish for sprat. The Minister might ask the relevance of this to this debate. There was a fundamental failure to understand the importance of public consultation. Also on the same day, the Supreme Court found in favour of the concerned people who went forward on the climate action plan. That was also set at nought.
One would think that any Government that was sensible would learn from that the importance of public consultation. The courts consistently speak of the trinity in the planning laws: the developer, the local authority and the citizen. Without citizens' active participation, many bad planning decisions would have gone ahead. We should be thanking the citizens and residents who have who have come forward and shown courage and challenged very bad decisions. Instead of that, what the Minister is doing tonight is insidious. In the guise of emergency measures under Covid, he is making a permanent change and depriving the public of its right to a public hearing and telling us it is for our own good and in line with the modernisation agenda for the planning system. It is not modernisation to prevent people from attending a public meeting. Yes, there is a role for Zoom and online meetings. I have attended joint policing committees and various seminars, including one on direct provision, and none is substitute for a meeting in person. That was only in that limited sense. For something like the city or county development plan we need the active participation of our residents and citizens.
I agree with every word that Deputy Boyd Barrett said; I could not put it better. The Minister is building absolute alienation into this Bill and he is giving us a Hobson's choice. The part relating to the protection of tenants, which is extremely limited, is good. The part relating to substitute consent is good, but it is minimalist. Therefore, if we vote against the Bill, we are voting against the good parts, but we have to accept the bad part. I find that absolutely objectionable. I find it objectionable that complex legislation like this did not go through pre-legislative scrutiny. I find it objectionable that the Minister came forward with a three-and-a-half page Bill that was acceptable except in respect of public participation, and which was then transformed in a manner worthy of Kafka. It is absolutely Kafkaesque. There were three and a half pages dealing with Covid which were transformed into something entirely different, and the Minister tells us that it is for our own good.
I ask the Minister to see sense at this stage and realise the importance of public participation in the planning process, that without public participation we are on the road to disaster. We need active citizenry and active residents to keep us on our toes as politicians. We know that from the climate debate. The public - the people on the ground and the children - are way ahead of us. They were way ahead of us 20 years ago in Galway when they led the debate against incineration. They did not do so in the manner of "not in my backyard" but they said that they wanted zero waste, and we were led by the nose to do that. The response was to remove the power from the local authority to make a waste management plan. We we did everything right and the power was taken from us.I had the benefit and privilege of being a councillor for 17 years and presided over a city development plan with meetings until midnight or 1 a.m. as mayor of Galway. I would not like to repeat it and I would not be able to, but one thing I learned was that it is a David and Goliath situation with developers on the one hand and the ordinary citizen on the other. We lose the citizens' participation at our peril and at great damage to society.
At the very least, if the Minister wants my support, he should put public meetings back in the Bill, that there shall be public meetings, which is what the Seanad wanted. If the Minister does that and puts a time span on the Covid measures, he will have my support. Then we will go back to look at making better legislation on substitute consent. He will realise that he has been forced every step of the way by the superior courts of this country which have forced each Government to take action, which it does in the most minimal way possible.
I am happy to. I have listened to colleagues intently in quite a detailed debate. There has been some misinterpretation around public consultation. That relates to the pre-draft stage of a development plan only. The joint committee received detailed briefings. It is complex legislation but it is urgent and important.
The tenancy protections that we are bringing through are an extension of the protections that I put to the Dáil in July, which have worked and are very important to protect tenants and those most at risk from the pandemic. At that time many questioned whether those protections would work. Some said thousands upon thousands would lose their homes. Deputies Boyd Barrett and Barry said there would be tsunami of evictions, but that did not come to pass because the legislation is robust. It has worked and this Bill is an extension to it Its urgency is because the protections in that legislation expire on 11 January.
We have to bring in those protections now.
There was some talk about pre-legislative scrutiny and that we went into the Seanad having decided just to set aside the scrutiny process for this Bill. We did not do so and I have explained that in a very detailed letter to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Deputy Ó Broin knows that, as does the Chairman of the committee, Deputy Matthews. We secured a slot for the Bill in the Seanad in advance of the committee responding to the request we put to it. I gave a detailed response in writing to the committee, as I said, and I do not intend for the same thing to happen again. I said that in my response and I apologised for what happened. There was no slight meant on the committee and there was no attempt to get around the pre-legislative scrutiny process. I do not intend for that to happen again.
Deputy Boyd Barrett talked about the substitute consent process as a systematic abuse of the planning system. The facts do not bear that out, but that does not really matter when it comes to the Deputy. There are approximately 30 cases of applications for substitute consent before An Bord Pleanála out of 29,000 planning applications. That is hardly systematic abuse of substitute consent. The provisions in this Bill relate to the importance of addressing the issue of the Supreme Court decision. The State is being fined €15,000 a day. I must have regard to that, as must all colleagues. I have been in this job six months and I want to address that issue.
In the context of the planning aspects of the Bill with regard to Covid and some of the changes required, the advice from the Attorney General, which I absolutely accept, was that this legislation would be a good vehicle to bring in those changes. I explained that in detail here. Is it something I think we will be doing often? Absolutely not. I do not accept that it is an insidious, creeping type of process or set of proposals that I am bringing forward in any legislation. That is not the case. The two pieces of legislation relating to the rental market that I have brought to the House, which have worked and are protecting tenants, were opposed by some who are, fortunately, speaking for, and in support of, these additional measures I am bringing in. I am glad there has been a recognition that the stance taken by some people in July was the incorrect stance and that the Government's stance was absolutely the correct one. I assure Deputies that the provisions on substitute consent have nothing to do with whether a particular application will be granted. That will be a matter for An Bord Pleanála.
Regarding the provisions for online meetings, Deputy Mattie McGrath strayed into the area of vaccines in his contribution. I hope, in the minute he has tomorrow, that he might clarify his position in this regard. I say to him and Deputy O'Donoghue-----
It is hardly a dictatorship. I would say to the Deputies that these provisions relate to the pre-draft stage of a development plan process. They are nothing whatsoever to do with other public consultations. Local planning and zoning issues are not dealt with at the pre-draft stage. It is a development plan provision and there are some Covid-related provisions that are absolutely needed. What would we do if an outbreak of Covid within a planning authority in Limerick, for example, meant that the structures of that planning authority or of An Bord Pleanála were compromised? That is what we are dealing with in these provisions. They do not preclude public consultations or face-to-face meetings so long as the necessary health measures are taken. I ask Deputies not to say that the Bill is trying to do things they probably wish it did but which it does not. That is the reality of the situation. I hope we will address some of these issues in more detail on Committee Stage.
As fewer than ten Members have risen I declare the question carried. In accordance with Standing Order 82 the names of the Deputies dissenting will be recorded in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Dáil.