Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
To pick up where I finished last week, there is no doubt that the impact of the weakening of the planning laws dating back to 2015 has been very negative on local communities, including in my constituency and particularly in Santry and Finglas. The strategic housing development, SHD, process has squeezed local people out of the planning process, leaving them with little choice but to pursue judicial reviews. As I said last week, the majority of the judicial reviews that have been taken have been upheld, which is further proof that this is bad planning law. The changes represent a sustained attack on the planning process. They make a mockery of development plans and local area plans where the purpose of a development plan is to respond to local circumstances and need. The SHD process has also squeezed out locally elected councillors and very much sidelined the professional planners in the local authorities. All of that has been very bad, so I welcome the fact that the intention of the Bill is to eliminate the SHD process and return to the two-stage planning process.
My concern, however, is that the SHD process is only one element of the weakening of the planning laws that has taken place in recent years. Sometimes the SHDs are used as shorthand for all the other negative things that have happened over the last five or six years. In 2015, the then Minister, Deputy Kelly, introduced mandatory guidelines. Irrespective of what local authorities or even An Bord Pleanála think, the local authorities are obliged to adhere to the mandatory guidelines that were set down. For example, one of the things the then Minister, Deputy Kelly, did was reduce apartment standards. He introduced studios that could be 27% smaller than was the case previously. That was followed by a later Minister, Deputy Coveney, introducing the SHDs and the following Minister, former Deputy Eoghan Murphy, introducing new mandatory standards in 2017 and 2018. Those standards allowed up to 50% of any development to be one-bedroom or studio and there were no minimum requirements for three-bedroom or bigger sized apartments. The minimum area of studios was reduced to 37 sq. m. That is smaller than the smallest hotel room in the InterContinental Hotel, so they were tiny shoe-box apartments. Dual aspect was reduced to 33% near city or town centres and close to public transport or strategic development zones, SDZs. The standards also allowed car free developments, which can only result in car parking in surrounding areas.
In addition to that, there was the buy-to-rent phenomenon, which was facilitated by the then Minister, Mr. Eoghan Murphy. There was no restriction on the dwelling mix in buy-to-rent developments. It was outrageous stuff. That is why 70% of the units in the Clonliffe Road development are one-bedroom or studios. There was no maximum number of units on floors in respect of buy-to-rent units. There could be long corridors, like cheap hotels, with any number of apartments opening out on them. There was no requirement for a crèche, for example. Also, there was a reduced number of stairwells and lifts. There was a huge race to the bottom in the standards for apartments, with implications for fire safety. Our planning laws have taken a very negative direction over recent years.
I wish to make a point regarding the mandatory standards. I acknowledge the fact that the current Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, introduced a change to the guidelines which eliminated the co-living phenomenon. Again, that was a retrograde phenomenon. That has been a good change, but I hope the Minister will use his powers to get rid of all those other aspects which have led to very poor quality apartment developments, particularly in the buy-to-rent sector. There should be a drive for better, not weaker, standards with regard to what we expect people to do. If we are aiming to achieve a situation where apartment living is regarded as a standard and a good thing and where people would buy apartments, although one cannot buy any because of the buy-to-rent stuff at present, and put down roots and settle in them, there is no reason that families cannot do that if they are high-quality apartments. However, they currently are not and that is a major problem. If we are to move to that European model, and we should be encouraging that, there must be good quality apartments and there have to be reasonable heights. The idea now is that the sky is the limit. There is no height limit. People living in two-storey houses could have an 18-storey apartment block at the end of their gardens. That is simply not on.
The Minister has made a start with the SHDs. If housing developments are to be sustainable and of a quality people require, and the Minister should be ensuring that quality exists, then he has no choice but to ensure that the low standards are removed. The Minister has the power to do that. On Committee Stage later today, I and other Members have tabled a number of amendments seeking greater consultation with communities at the pre-planning stage and publicity for what is being proposed at an early stage. In addition, there are other amendments tabled by me and others to remove the mandatory nature of the national guidelines. I strongly urge the Minister to accept those amendments because that is the only way to achieve good-quality, sustainable apartment developments.
I welcome the Bill, particularly the changes relating to the importance of local authorities. They have been taken for granted for far too long. We have moved away from the full meaning of local authorities and what they deliver to the people they represent. In the context of the pre-planning phase, I fully agree that there must be greater consultation with the local communities involved. That can be enforced or enhanced by having proper planning through the councils in terms of what they want the land used for or what the desire of the local community might be. There can be an input from long before the pre-planning stage to establish what type of development is required or wanted in that area in terms of housing, infrastructure and facilities. When a developer comes in at a pre-application phase, that must be opened up more by involving people, publicity and ensuring people know what is happening. Much of the angst that can be created by lack of information at that point can be relieved through the transparency that will be provided at the pre-application phase.
I am glad there is an eight-week timeframe and a 16-week timeframe for the other two phases. I have seen many worthwhile projects being delayed repeatedly by lack of information of some kind and by misunderstanding. Good applications simply get caught up in the system, thereby depriving people of the possibility of having their own home in their locality. I encourage the Minister to ensure that local authorities, from the pre-planning phase, have their plans in place, know what they want and are prepared to engage with local communities. If the Minister is spending in excess of €4 billion per year and trying to eliminate one of the worst housing crises in the history of the State, there must be greater efficiency where this all begins, which is at planning level.
We have spoken of the involvement of communities and of local authorities being imaginative in how they present their plans. As some sites are shoehorned into local communities or become additions, I hope we are not creating difficulties for ourselves down the road. It is essential to have high standards in the units being provided and the amenities within the development. We need to ensure that the houses are not on top of each other, that there is ample car parking space and that there are facilities for children to enable families to develop and establish local communities. A community cannot be retrofitted to a housing estate that is poorly developed or badly managed. I encourage all concerned, developers, planners and the Department, to have those rules and regulations in place to ensure we get the best outcomes for the families who will live in these housing estates in the future.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and I also welcome the Bill. The bureaucratic system surrounding planning is fundamental in blocking or stopping development. That bureaucratic system has been allowed to develop because local authorities, An Bord Pleanála or others are unwilling to take decisions. We need to strip it back if we are serious about proper planning. We have seen the effects of negative planning but we have also seen how objections and delays have impeded welcome development in communities across the country, not just in the large urban centres but also in rural communities.
This Bill will help to tackle and resolve those issues and certainly brings into focus the role of local authorities. There is a reluctance by local authority planners to give a clear direction to people building houses as to what would be allowed. They simply outline the regulations, the development plans and so forth. Then they say it is entirely up to others to make decisions on it. I think that is a retrograde step. There should be clear guidance in any engagement between the local authorities and those who are willing to build. When they are leaving the meeting or series of meetings everybody should know what is acceptable to both sides. There is too much confusion and an inability to make clear decisions on some of these issues which is leading to frustration. That frustration is leading to people leaving the building and architectural industries.
A critical planning and development issue is local authorities' interpretation of the various planning and development Acts. Small community organisations in rural communities have been forced to engage senior counsel to get advice on the correct interpretation of the various planning and development Acts. It is unacceptable that they should need to do that and spend money they do not have to try to build a badly needed community facility.
Autonomy should be given to the local authorities allowing them to make decisions. I have seen a case where a layman's interpretation of the law would side with the local community organisation to build a community facility. The planning authority is refusing on the basis that its interpretation of the law is different. It is totally unacceptable for a local community to have to engage legal people to get advice. There is frustration with the entire planning system. Whether for large developments or smaller developments, there needs to be goodwill to meet community organisations face-to-face to try to thrash out the issues.
I join other speakers in complimenting the Minister on the introduction of the Bill. I am not a great admirer of development at all cost; we need to have quality development. From all the speakers so far, the same theme has emerged that we need to have quality, particularly with large-scale developments. There must also be regard for local residents who have already paid for their houses or are in the course of paying for their houses by way of mortgage and may have their houses devalued by the nature and density of the development superimposed upon them, for want of a better description.
I will give an example of how this works. In a local rural community in my constituency, numerous applications for one-off houses have been refused on the basis of water levels and all the usual reasons. I accept that if it is not acceptable, it is not acceptable. In the case of a recent planning application for a private mental health facility - which is laudable and I fully agree with the need for it - the local people felt it did not have any regard for their views or entitlements. On their behalf, we lodged an objection which proposed a modification of the proposal. However, the applicant sees other ways and means of doing it by bulldozing and denigrating anybody who stands in their path, which is not acceptable. They think they can bulldoze their way through the planning system regardless of what the neighbours think. Notwithstanding that none of them live in the area, they do not mind superimposing it on somebody else. We need to be careful about allowing too much scope for such people.
I will certainly accommodate anybody who wants to facilitate a debate on that issue which is fundamental to what we are trying to do in this House. We need to acknowledge the rights and entitlements of people who are already here. We know we will not be here for too long; we will be replaced by somebody else who will represent those needs. I strongly support the building of houses and other essential services.
An application has been made for a development that encompasses 28 or 29 houses in an area where countless applications have been refused. It is on a site which is virtually landlocked behind council houses that were built years ago. Residents were sneered at when it was brought to the attention of the authorities that building right at the rear of those houses could be a security issue. Of course, it is a security issue. Building behind and overlooking existing houses is obviously a security issue and is certainly a privacy issue.
I support the points made by the previous speakers. I know the Minister will take these into account because they are fundamental to what we need to do at present. We need to provide desirable development of a quality that is not a blight on society or the landscape and does not override the rights and entitlements of the existing population.
Like other speakers, I welcome this legislation, which seems to be getting universal acceptance in the House. It implements a commitment given in the programme for Government not to extend the strategic housing development provisions beyond the expiry date of 25 February 2022. The SHD planning system has had an adverse impact on my constituency of Dublin Bay North. Planning permission was granted for enormous build-to-rent apartment schemes backed up by vulture funds. This was facilitated by ministerial guidelines. In the process, sustainable planning went out the window. The need for mixed-tenure developments which foster community development and integration was ignored. Communities felt under siege.
Those wishing to buy new houses were frozen from the market. Local authority area and development plans were cast aside. Areas in my constituency particularly affected by the strategic housing development provisions include Baldoyle, Clongriffin, Belmayne, Clarehall, Howth village, Griffith Avenue and, of course, it all kicked off in Dublin Bay North with a controversial planning application for 657 apartments on the playing fields of St. Paul's College at St. Anne's Park in Raheny.
One of the worst examples in all of this was in respect of the former Chivers site in Coolock. City councillors were duped into supporting the rezoning of this industrial site for housing and planning permission was granted by An Bord Pleanála for 471 build-to-rent units up to nine storeys high. Now, Platinum Land is flipping the site on for sale, which is outrageous.
In any event the strategic housing development process has been a complete failure. Many of the applications were bogged down in judicial reviews, as other speakers said, and the process did not deliver the much-needed housing throughout the country. That is why this legislation is so important and welcome. This Bill restores decision-making powers on large-scale residential developments to local authorities in the first instance, providing greater transparency and clarity and enhanced public participation in the process. In addition, local authorities must now ensure owner-occupier tenures are provided for and accommodated in their housing strategies. I understand that amendment was made in the Seanad. This is all good news.
I also take this opportunity to welcome the decision of Dublin city councillors last month to finally vote in favour of the proposed housing scheme at Oscar Traynor Road in Santry. There will be 853 social and affordable homes built on this site, with 40% as social housing, 40% as cost-rental housing and 20% to be sold to low- and middle-income workers qualifying under the new affordable housing scheme. This has been a very sorry saga that has gone on for years. Of course, Sinn Féin voted against this scheme last month in Dublin City Council. My hope now is that construction of this much-needed housing can commence next year. The Minister is familiar with the site on the border with his constituency. I am sure the planning process must take its course but if there is anything the Minister can do to speed up the development, it would be more than welcome for the many people on social housing lists in my constituency and also those seeking affordable housing.
I mentioned the impact of the strategic housing development provisions on my constituency. I briefly mentioned one area in particular earlier on the north city fringe bordering on Dublin Fingal, as the Minister knows. There have been massive planning applications for housing units with no consideration given to local communities. I think in particular of The Coast at Baldoyle, where only in the past few days a planning application was granted for 1,221 units. This is on top of a planning application granted during the summer in the same area for 882 units. Another planning application is apparently expected for that small site. We all want housing but there must be sustainable planning and local communities must be facilitated. That is why this legislation is so welcome.
Deputy Shortall outlined the problems with the ministerial guidelines introduced by the Minister's predecessor and the previous Government. We can see a litany of problems that the ministerial guidelines have brought about. Again, it is something the Minister must consider.
I welcome all the other measures taken by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, since he became Minister with responsibility for housing. In particular I welcome the Affordable Housing Act 2021 and the facilitation of the various schemes in that Act. I hope all the schemes remaining to be finalised can be up and running as early as possible in the new year. There is also the Land Development Agency Bill 2021, and these are two landmark pieces of legislation brought forward in record time. I have no doubt that they will make a major combined impact on the housing crisis, both here in Dublin and throughout the country.
I welcome this legislation and the Minister is fulfilling a commitment given in the programme for Government. Damage has been done because of the strategic housing development provisions and communities will have to rally around to undo it, particularly in the areas I mention on the north city fringe in Dublin Bay North, including Clongriffin and Belmayne. Fostering community development in those areas will take time because of the build-to-rent developments. There is a need for commercial development in such areas, as well as mixed tenures, so the work by public representatives and their local communities should begin. A start has been made with this legislation and I welcome all the time limits in it. The planning process should not be unduly delayed and this gives certainty to developers and others who will make these planning applications. All that is to be welcomed.
The strategic housing developments were probably one of the worst changes to our planning regime for many decades. It is not the only bad change made by the previous Government and other Deputies have correctly identified the section 28 mandatory ministerial guidelines and there are also key aspects of the national planning framework that are continuing to cause us significant problems.
I welcome this Bill, although there are elements the Minister should still consider changing. It is worth reflecting on the passage of the strategic housing developments legislation in 2016 and early 2017, when many of us on the Opposition benches and some in Fianna Fáil rightly recognised that the legislation was not fit for purpose. We argued strongly at the time on Committee Stage that it would not speed up the delivery of homes. We said it was a developer-led change to the planning system that would cause very significant problems in terms of the type of proposed developments and lead to a significant increase in judicial reviews, which would delay the delivery of much-needed housing.
That argument that many of us made was subsequently confirmed in a very important piece of academic research done by academics from University College Dublin and Queen's University Belfast, who interviewed over 40 individuals involved with that process including development lobbyists, Ministers, officials and Opposition spokespersons. The research had an anonymous basis and it confirmed that this was a classic example of industry capture of the planning regime with all the negative consequences we have seen since.
I have a slightly wry smile when I hear Deputies opposite criticising the legislation, particularly those from Fine Gael, given that they supported it and were warned not to do so. Some Fianna Fáil Deputies who were very vocal in their criticism of strategic housing development applications have been very quiet in accepting the fact that while they abstained on the original legislation, they facilitated it. I say this because the same thing happened, albeit under this Government, when we gave Deputies the opportunity to remove those two sets of mandatory ministerial guidelines that Deputy Haughey has correctly criticised. Recently he voted to maintain those mandatory ministerial guidelines in a vote on legislation in this House. They will come back to cause difficulties for him and his constituents in the time ahead. That is a matter he will have to explain to those constituents.
The real problem with the SHD legislation is that it was never about speeding up the delivery of homes; it was about, in the words of one senior official who was involved in the drafting of the Bill, removing the idiosyncrasies of the city and county development plan to make things easier for developers at their behest. The consequence was the undermining of the democratic decision-making power of the local elected representatives in those city and county development plans, the alienation of local communities by not having the right to appeal and, ultimately, not delivering much need homes. Only 15% of the approximate 70,000 units of accommodation that have been approved to date by the SHD process have commenced. This is a tiny number, which shows that even when projects are not judicially reviewed, they do not get built.
At the time, I and others argued strongly to the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, that instead of the SHD process he should do something very simple, namely, put in place statutory timelines for pre-planning, for further information requests and for An Bord Pleanála appealed decisions. Thankfully, that is what the current Minister is doing in this Bill and I welcome the fact that he is returning primary responsibility for decision-making in planning to local authorities and improving the system with statutory timelines. That is an eminently sensible thing to do and it is on that basis that we will support the Bill. However, often when Opposition Members make proposals, they do so out of genuine intent. The measures we propose should get better consideration from the Government. There are six issues I want to genuinely highlight that the Minister has got wrong in this Bill and urge him to reconsider key aspects of it.
First, there is no provision for public participation in the pre-planning stage of development. I know there are issues with commercial sensitivity, etc., but the greater the involvement of local communities and third parties at the outset of the development process, the less likely there will be large-scale concerns and subsequent legal challenges. There are different ways to do that. It can be done, for example, through greater use of placemaking or master planning by the local authority or some form of public involvement in the pre-planning process. There is a way of doing that, which would deal with many of the problems Deputy Haughey and others raised earlier, and I think it is an omission in the Bill.
The second issue is on material contraventions of the city and county development plan. The reason 90% of the judicial reviews of SHDs were on material contraventions was the changes to the ministerial guidelines by the former Minister, Eoghan Murphy, on building heights and design standards and the misapplication by the board of aspects of the national planning framework national planning objectives. That created a tension between the city and county development plans and those other planning policies. That should all now be ironed out of the system with a new round of county development plans and a planning regulator involved directly in ensuring compliance between local and Government policy. We need to return to a position where contraventions of development plans are the exception. No planning application should be accepted with a material convention to the development plan without justifying why. I am not saying such applications should be automatically excluded, but if a planning application proposes a material contravention, the developer should have to justify in explicit terms in the application why that is being done, otherwise we will continue to have these problems in the future.
I am very concerned about where we might go with the restrictions by way of regulation on further information requests. I urge the Minister in his reply to this debate to give more information on where he plans to go with those further information request regulations. A local authority should not be prohibited from requesting any information at further information stage that it believes is necessary to make its final decision.
I am still not convinced by the Minister's justification for the leapfrog provision in section 6. I heard his contribution in the Seanad. I do not believe this is anything to do with residential development, because appeals to the Court of Appeal have been incredibly rare in SHD cases. This seems to me to be something that probably came from the Attorney General for some other purpose. The Minister needs to tell us why the provision is in the Bill. If he tells us why, that will allow us to make an assessment of it. I think it is to do with strategic infrastructure developments and not large-scale residential developments, but until we have an adequate explanation, I am not in a position to support it. I am all for speeding up the process; I do not object to that. I just do not see why this provision is in the Bill and, therefore, greater clarity would be very welcome.
The final two issues I wish to raise relate to the transitional mechanisms. There were always going to be transitional mechanisms - I was clear on that - but the Minister is being excessively generous, and I say that in all honesty. Allowing those with a pre-planning approval from the board a period to put in a planning application is completely legitimate, but we should have given them until February of next year. Everybody knew this process would end in February. I do not see why the period is 16 weeks; eight weeks would have been more appropriate. I do not accept that developers can come along at the last minute and put in a pre-planning application through the SHD process on 16 December, for example. The developers will get all the benefits of the SHD process into the middle of next year for the application, into the autumn for the decision, and if it is judicially reviewed into the courts at the end of next year and the year after. I see no reason the Minister could not have allowed them to go through pre-planning in the old SHD process and if they were approved after nine weeks by the board next year, they would have been redirected into the large-scale residential development process. I suspect it would have been quicker to do it the way I have proposed because it is less likely to be judicially reviewed. I urge the Minister to consider that option again, because giving people nine weeks for the board to make its pre-planning application decision, 16 weeks for submission of application and 16 weeks for decision means that Deputy Haughey, in north County Dublin, could face SHD decisions in his constituency in October next year, with all the consequences of that. I accept the transitional mechanism. I think the Minister has got this wrong and I urge him to rethink it.
Even when we get rid of the SHD process, which I welcome, we will not get rid of the real problem, which is the negative impact of Eoghan Murphy's mandatory ministerial guidelines on building heights and design standards and the misapplication by the board of the national planning objectives. National planning objectives are high-level strategic objectives, but they are currently being used in decisions by An Bord Pleanála to approve plans that are in direct contravention of new country development plans that have the approval of the Planning Regulator. That makes no sense whatsoever. Some of those developments are in or very near Deputy Haughey's constituency. If people think that moving from the problematic one-stage approval process to the two-stage local authority and An Bord Pleanála process will resolve the problems that other Deputies have mentioned, they will be sorely disappointed. So long as those mandatory ministerial guidelines on heights and inferior design standards for build-to-rent apartments remain on the Statute Book, we will have a problem. So long as the board is misapplying and misinterpreting the national planning objectives in conflict with new city and county development plans, we will also have a difficulty.
I know we have very little time on this Bill. Committee Stage is to be taken later today. I ask that the Minister listens to us on some of these issues. If the former Minister, Deputy Coveney, had listened to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien's colleagues on the Oireachtas housing committee and to me in 2016 and 2017, we would not have the mess we have today. If we work together more collaboratively, we can come up with an even better Bill. Sinn Féin supports the Bill, notwithstanding the problems in it, but, in my view, it is inadequate. We need further changes and I ask the Minister to work with us between now and Christmas so that we get the best possible planning system with the best possible outcomes for the people who currently live in those areas and those who will move into those areas once the new homes are built.
Sinn Féin is clear in its support for good quality, affordable and well-planned homes. We support this Bill, despite some of its flaws, as it repeals the SHD legislation. The legislation was undemocratic and undermined democratically agreed local, city and county development plans. It also reduced public participation and led to an increase in legal challenges. It was yet another deliberate attempt to erode the public and the community's engagement with planning matters.
Sinn Féin opposed the original legislation that was rushed through by the then Minister with responsibility for housing, Deputy Simon Coveney. It was a throwback to the good old Celtic tiger days, and some developers are getting very rich by flipping land on which planning permission has been granted. We are still playing the price for developer-led planning today. Poor planning decisions have led to poor quality developments, a lack of quality public open spaces, a severe lack of public services; and a lack of public transport infrastructure, in particular. They also failed in the provision of housing supply. According to the Dublin Democratic Planning Alliance, of the 70,000 plus units for which permission was secured through the SHD process, only 10,000 have commenced. The ministerial directive also opened the flood gates to material contraventions of the development plans. As a former councillor, I spent many hours, weeks and months working on county development plans with planning officials and consulting local community representatives, and democratically decided what we believed was a sustainable plan for our county.
The ministerial directive rode roughshod over those democratic decisions and further diminished the powers of local government. It is not often that I welcome a Government decision but I welcome the Government finally seeing sense and rowing back on this legislation. We said it would not work then and we were right. As the Minister knows, Sinn Féin is not in opposition for the sake of opposition. We offer solutions to the problems the Government creates. Sinn Féin proposed solutions, including the provision of statutory timelines for decisions from planning authorities, but these were rejected by the Government.
We have concerns. Due to the generous transition periods provided for in the new legislation, the flawed SHD legislation will, unfortunately, be with us through most of 2022, with the process remaining open for planning applications until June 2022. Some applications will be allowed up until October and there is a possibility of legal action late in 2022. The Minister delayed the introduction of planning restrictions on co-living and is now providing developers with the opportunity to benefit from the SHD legislation long after it expires. This is typical bad policy and bad governance. Sinn Féin submitted amendments to halve these timelines but they were unfortunately rejected by the Government, leaving the door of financial windfall ajar. I have no doubt that developers will walk through that door.
There is also no provision in the legislation for public participation in the pre-planning stages. Does the Government not believe it is best practice to involve the local community early when planning decisions are being made?
We also have concerns regarding the motivation for section 6. We oppose this leapfrog provision. The Minister has not made the case for this provision's inclusion in the Bill. It has nothing to do with residential development. We suspect it has been inserted for other reasons relating to large infrastructural projects. I call on the Minister to explain honestly why this section is in the Bill.
We introduced legislation that would remove the undemocratic power of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to issue mandatory local planning guidelines for local authorities. This eats into the already diminishing power of local authorities and local councillors who are democratically elected to make decisions on county and city development plans. These powers were introduced by the leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Kelly, and were used twice by Eoghan Murphy to bring us co-living, build-to-rent accommodation and mandatory height limits. Sinn Féin has introduced legislation that would repeal these powers and the guidelines issued under them. Again, we are working on solution-focused responses to bad Government policies. SHDs, co-living and material contraventions of development plans are undemocratic. They undermine local city and county development plans, reduce participation and confidence in the system and have led to an increase in the number of legal challenges as people rightly believe this is the only route they can take to ensure their voices are heard. I ask the Minister to take these concerns on board and to explain honestly and openly why he has opposed the amendments proposed by Sinn Féin.
I call Deputy Danny Healy-Rae of the Rural Independent Group. He has six minutes. Does he know if his colleagues are coming? This is a 20-minute slot and the Deputy is listed to speak for six. He can take the entire slot if he wishes.
I appreciate what the Minister is trying to do here in Dublin with regard to housing. I appreciate the urgency and the number of people who are looking for housing. I know there is a very real problem and that his number one consideration is to deal with that and to get the numbers down. I raised an issue here in the Dáil with the Taoiseach a week or two ago. I was grateful for the Minister's response at the time but it is not the response I want. Heretofore, there were always extensions of five years to planning permissions for one-off housing. That is now being ruled out. I ask him to reconsider that because many people who got planning permission now find that their time is now running out because they were not able to build during the coronavirus pandemic or because they were not able to get loans for one reason or another. Work has not been great and some were not able to get going. Such people now face another conundrum because materials have become so expensive that many will not be able to start building their houses for the foreseeable future. There is also a scarcity of contractors. There are many different problems.
Perhaps the Minister does not know but there is an awful problem with getting planning permission for one-off houses in rural Ireland. People can get over all the hurdles, provide further information when sought and have their permission duly granted only for the application to be appealed to An Bord Pleanála. It is now the case that 90% of decisions appealed to An Bord Pleanála are overturned. Even if the inspector who comes down is of the view that the permission should be upheld, what do the members of the board do, people who have never been down in Kerry, but refuse the permission? Most of these objections and appeals are vexatious. We are now going to put people who have planning permission through that rigmarole again.
I appreciate that the Minister wants to get big sites here in Dublin going but this is affecting the ordinary person in rural Ireland who wants to put a roof over his or her head and who will only be doing this once in his or her lifetime. I understand what is happening here in Dublin. It is a different scenario. People get planning permission for a site and then hold that site until they see the time is right and sell it off. The next owner may do something else with the planning permission. They may increase the density and make the site more valuable. That is holding things up and I appreciate that but the scenario I am outlining to the Minister is totally and absolutely different. I ask him to change that.
Surely this issue is affecting Deputies in other rural counties, such as Clare. This five-year extension must have been available there as well. I ask the Minister to look at that again because it will hurt people. I know he wants people to build homes but this will stop people doing so. They cannot get going right now because they cannot get loans or meet the current exorbitant building costs. Some are trying to get on their feet because they have not been working for a couple of years. There are many other little reasons, although they are big reasons for the people who are being held up. They would not have sought planning permission in the first place if they had known these things would arise. These sites are for themselves. They are not sites for sale or anything like that but sites to build a house on. People want to put a roof over their own heads and young couples want a place to rear their families. Such families may be needed to keep local schools going because numbers are going down in rural areas. I represent and adore people in places like Shrone. These areas need people to build houses around their schools. There are several other such places.
There are also other issues. From time to time, local authorities have zoned lands around towns and villages that belong to farmers and other landowners who have no notion of ever selling these lands or building houses on them. Zoning these lands makes them more valuable and the owners have to pay more stamp duty on them. That has to be looked at as well. These people cannot be forced to build houses on land they never wanted to sell in the first place.
What I honestly believe, even regarding land here in Dublin, is that there should not be any such thing as zoning. Let every applicant apply for planning permission and let that be decided on the merits of the place involved. I refer to all this wasting time with zoning land, and all the time it takes. Let applicants, whether the land is zoned or not, apply for planning permission and let every case be decided on its own merits. That is the real way of building houses.
I appreciate the whole aim of what the Government is trying to do, with the removal of the initial phase regarding the local authorities from the planning process for large-scale developments. I, of course, appreciate it and in a workingpersonlike way. We are talking about the housing crisis. Whether that concerns a local area level, like in our county of Kerry, allowing a single person to build one house for himself or herself or allowing the small- or medium-sized builder to go into a field and build five or ten houses, the only way that we are going to deal with this housing crisis is by making more houses available in the market. It is very simple and straightforward. No rocket science of any kind is involved in any aspect of this matter; none whatsoever.
I am proud and glad that Kerry county councillors are working diligently on formulating a county development plan. We all know that sets out the roadmap for the county for the next several years and will seek to ensure that the council will know how to go about building in an orderly fashion and the rules and regulations that will apply in that regard. However, there are things that are distorting the market completely. At the start of a debate like this, by the way, I always say, in case anyone might be saying anything about me afterwards, that I of course have an interest in this area, because I have been at this type of affair since I was 19 years old. I have no denying of that, and if more people were doing the same as me, maybe we would have much more housing available. I have no denying of that either.
Coming back to the job we are at here now, namely, trying to make more houses available, when a local authority, a developer or anybody goes to apply for planning permission, we must try to streamline the process and make it more user friendly. Local people have a right to object; of course they do. If a development is taking place and if it is going to adversely affect another property owner or people living in the locality, then of course those people have a right to object. I wish to ask a simple and straightforward question, however. We have excellent Deputies here from County Donegal, for example. As a person living below in Kerry, is it not total insanity that if I stick my hand in my pocket and put down €20, that I can then object to any man, woman or person building a house above in Donegal? Can anyone tell me why that is right? Can anybody tell me why it is right or normal behaviour?
As the Acting Chairman knows, I will not say anything wrong or name anybody, but I am going to talk about a category of person. Right now, this minute, I know of individuals who have five, ten, 15 or up to 20 objections on the go. I will not name those people, but I will say what those people are. They are not normal people. They are not living normal lives, because if they had anything better to be doing, then they would not be objecting to other people's business and planning. They have sad lives, in the context where it is now possible to live to be between zero and 100 years of age on average. I will not use the language that I would like to use in this regard, but we have people who think it is normal to be objecting to other people's hopes, dreams and aspirations. That is not normal behaviour, and they are not normal people. They are not living normal lives, and the sooner that God takes them out of the world, the better it will be for themselves, because they are miserable, useless and horrible people objecting to other people's business. I mean it. If any of them are listening today, I tell them, from here on the floor of Dáil Éireann, that they are useless, horrible and miserable. I say that because it is crazy for any person, for no good reason, to want to be objecting to some young couple. I know the Acting Chairman would agree with me.
I turn now to another level, that of An Bord Pleanála. It makes no sense in the world to me. Again, regarding vested interests, and because someone will say that I am giving out about them because of my own interest in this regard, I am not. People who have come to me have experienced the same type of scenario. Let us take an example of a person who goes to the local authority and gets the required planning permission for a project. If that decision is then appealed to An Bord Pleanála, it will send down an excellent inspector, who will look at the issue on its merits, completely impartially. Let us suppose that inspector agrees that the development should go ahead. That decision would then go up in a paper form and it is thrown up in front of everybody. Anybody at home who might be watching and who thinks that An Bord Pleanála is this great, big organised thing, it most certainly is not. It is an ad hocorganisation that meets whenever it suits itself. It could be 7 o'clock or 8 o'clock in the evening, and all that is needed to convene a meeting is three people.
To continue with my example, the inspector could produce a report saying that a development should go ahead. Let us think what such a development could be. It could be a hotel in Ballinskelligs, 50 houses in Cork, ten houses in Tralee or any size of a development, and the inspector's recommendation could be for such a project to go ahead. Lo and behold, then, the other two people, who know nothing about the project, nothing at all in the world, can go against the decision of the inspector who examined the development and read all the reports and who made a positive decision. It is possible for those two people, who may never have stood in the county where the development they are deciding on is located, to say that they do not agree with the decision made by the inspector. It has happened, over and over again.
There is often talk about what other people get paid. When we start talking about how much these ad hocpeople in An Bord Pleanála get paid, and the Minister might respond on this point, I believe it is somewhere in the region of €70,000 or €80,000 for a part-time job. That is not bad work, if people are above here in Dublin and have nothing else to do but be a member of An Bord Pleanála. After saying this about them, I would not like anyone to have the job of getting a positive decision from the board if they were in my shoes, but I will tell the truth because I am not afraid of those people. Perhaps other people around the country are afraid of them, but I am not. I am not afraid to stand up here on the floor of Dáil Éireann, call them out and ask them how they can justify that type of a decision. If those people have not read the reports, how can they go against the local authority, the local area planner and their own An Bord Pleanála inspector, who might be a head inspector, because a tiered system operates? We have had situations where a chief inspector could go out from An Bord Pleanála, do up a positive report and bring it before the board, but if the board members do not like the smell off the project, for some reason or other, they can dash it. That could be worth millions of euro in building and infrastructure, but, most importantly, such a development could represent beds, kitchens and living quarters. It could have been a place for people to bring little children into the world and to have their own unit for them. The Minister is trying his level best and trying to provide housing, but how can we stand over that type of nonsense? I am not attacking the Minister about this issue. I am saying "we", and including every one of us. How can we get rid of that type of nonsense?
One of the things I have a great interest in and that I have been studying for years and years is our planning process. I know an awful lot about it. I know the rights and the wrongs, and the one thing I always say to the planners at home, and the one thing I like about it so much, is that we learn something new every day. Nobody has all the knowledge in planning because the rules change so much. However, rotten things are happening in planning, and I have referred to one example. We have seen situations before where politicians did what I would call bad things or things that were not right, proper or above board regarding zonings, etc. I would like to think and hope, however, that we have gone away from all that now.
What I want to see is transparency. I wish to see how the system of An Bord Pleanála, that ad hoc organisation, whose members meet when it suits themselves to draw their €70,000, €80,000 and €90,000 salaries, can stand over some of the decisions it has made. The board has taken away projects such as hotels, restaurants, houses and even individual houses in the countryside, where the sons and daughters of farm owners wanted to build a house. How can the board justify some of these decisions and how can it go against its own inspectors? How can the members of the board turn around to an inspector, who goes up to Dublin after doing a lot of work and being diligent about it, and refuse planning permission for that project? How can they then say as well that they may not have had a vested interest, perhaps, in some way or other in making that decision? I will tell the House one thing. If it smells, looks and acts like it is rotten, then it is rotten. That to me is An Bord Pleanála.
I still have time, do I?
I am delighted to have stepped into the breach as an emergency service for Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. I appreciate the legislation is about expediting arrangements to build large-scale developments, but there are related matters the Minister might want to address. First, touching on points made by Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, when are we going to address the issue of vexatious appeals? They are costing us housing and other investments in the country. It is beyond time for that issue to be addressed.
In terms of impediments to development, housing or otherwise, Irish Water and its resourcing is probably one of the most significant roadblocks. I had an engagement with Irish Water recently on a project in my own constituency related to quite substantial housing delivery, for which the funding was committed. Irish Water told me the best case scenario was four and a half years and in a worst-case scenario it could be seven years before the infrastructure was in place. I accept there are a lot of complications in this particular case but if we are really committed to resolving these issues, we need to resource Irish Water sufficiently.
It feeds into the issue around zoning as well. It is one thing for local authorities to zone land and allow Irish Water to follow suit in terms of providing the infrastructure on this identified land for development. However, we need a kind of traffic light system so that all local authorities would be identifying the land they are going to develop in the next five years and the infrastructure that needs to be put in place, be it roads, footpaths, public lighting, water, sewers or whatever. They also need a line of sight, as do builders and developers, of what is coming on next so that they are confident to make the required investment that makes sense in terms of their businesses. They need to know what will happen in the next five years. Irish Water also needs to have a line of sight of where the required investment would be in the period after that. Without that, proper planning is impossible. We need to put more money into Irish Water but we must also give it the vision it needs to plan infrastructure beyond the five-year horizon. That is what it is constrained by currently in development plans.
I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle and Deputy Michael Healy-Rae for the time.