Wednesday, 22 June 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this topic this morning and the Minister of State for being here to respond. I am concerned by the decision by the Minister to issue direction to Cork County Council on the matter of section 31 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. That is following the recommendations of the Office of the Planning Regulator with regard to the Cork county development plan, which was recently adopted by the authority's members. The Minister received recommendations from the Office of the Planning Regulator to exercise his functions under the provisions of section 31 of the Act to delete certain paragraphs from the plan and also to delete the amended and additional provisions for retail outlet centres under MA 1.9.20, including objective TCR 10.2 on retail outlet centres and associated matters.
This means there is a stall put on the aspirations of the planning authority, which is Cork County Council, to make provisions for the development of a retail centre near Carrigtwohill. I am sure the Minister of State is very familiar with the outlet centre in Kildare, as I am. It is extremely popular and many people go there. They may not buy a lot but they might walk around if it is a nice day. Sometimes people cannot even get parking. Many people from the south of the country, including the Minister of State's constituency and mine, travel to that outlet. We are interested in having a similar centre, although perhaps not to such a scale, in the Cork and Carrigtwohill region.
I understand a draft direction was issued and it is open to public consultation for two weeks, after which the council has four weeks to prepare a response. The Office of the Planning Regulator will then have another three weeks to advise the Minister, after which he will give a final direction. This is in spite of a number of High Court rulings that quashed similar directions made by the Minister last year. There is a history here and I do not want to get into it too much because other legal proceedings may be ongoing and initiated by the council to clarify the matters.
My concern is that if the current direction is upheld, it will, in effect and at best, stall for an indefinite period the development of an outlet centre in the east Cork area. At worst, the opportunity to construct a €100 million centre could be lost forever. My interest is in the potential to create 850 jobs and the further development of tourism and business in the area, which will see a large rise in population in the next decade. Another recommendation of the Office of the Planning Regulator, which needs to be dealt with, demands very high density of housing in the area. That could forestall any housing being built.
Coupled with the rise of the cruise liner trade to Cobh, the potential for this centre is enormous. All we have to do is look at the success of the outlet centre in Kildare and the fact it has increased more than once in size, such is the demand form the public. The people want this. Why are we in the south of the country to be denied such a similar facility, which would complement what is already on offer in the area. The Acting Chairman is also familiar with the likes of the wildlife park at Fota Island, Spike Island and Barryscourt Castle, which is to reopen shortly. There is also the beautiful town of Cobh with its magnificent cathedral, the heritage centre and botanic experience, as well as the Jameson centre in Midleton. Cork city would also benefit.
I ask the Minister to keep an open mind on the benefits of such a centre.
The Office of the Planning Regulator may not always be right. We must also take into account the views and wishes of the elected members of Cork County Council who have worked long and hard on the development plan they have adopted. They know their area very well. I understand it is not possible for the Minister to withdraw the direction once it is signed but I want to put on the record the need to tread very carefully from here on out . Does the Minister have to obey the Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, without question?
We should at least let this go to planning and not stop it at this stage. Let it go into the planning process. It might end up with An Bord Pleanála but so be it. To kill the concept at this stage before it even gets a chance to get off the block is not right.
I note the Deputies representing Cork are out in force today. This is the third Topical Issue from Cork. Kudos to them.
I thank Deputy Stanton for his question on the Cork county development plan, which I am answering on behalf of the Minister of State with responsibility for planning and local government, Deputy Peter Burke, and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. The Cork County Development Plan 2022-28 was agreed by the elected members of Cork County Council on 25 April 2022. In accordance with section 31AM(6) of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, the chief executive of Cork County Council issued a notice to the Office of the Planning Regulator informing the office of where the planning authority had decided not to comply with recommendations made in the relevant report of the office.
The office considered this note and issued a notice under section 31AM(8) of the Act to the responsible Minister on 20 May 2022, recommending that he exercise his function to take such steps to ensure that the plan sets out an overall strategy for proper planning and sustainable development. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, subsequently issued the note of intention to direct the chief executive of Cork County Council on 3 June 2022.
The process now entails a number of steps. A two-week public consultation began on the draft direction on 17 June, which is open for submissions up to and including 1 July. No later than four weeks after the expiry of the consultation period, the chief executive must prepare a report on the submissions received which is given to the elected members, the office and the Minister. The office must then consider the chief executive's report and submissions and shall recommend to the Minister that the direction is issued with or without minor amendments. If there are no amendments, or the amendments are only minor, the Minister may issue the direction to Cork County Council.
The direction under section 31 has immediate effect. A copy of the direction will be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and made available on the website of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Where the office is of the opinion that a material amendment to the draft direction is required, further investigation is necessary or it is necessary for another reason, the office may then appoint an inspector no later than three weeks after receipt of the chief executive's report. The inspector has three weeks from when appointed to give a report to the office.
The office makes the inspector's report available to the chief executive and regional assembly and any persons who made a submission on the draft direction. Submissions are allowed within a ten-day time period after receipt of the inspector's report. The office has three weeks or can extend that period after receipt of the inspector's report on any submissions made, as the case may be, to recommend to the Minister with responsibility for planning and local government to issue the direction, not to issue the direction or to issue a direction which has been amended by the office to take account of recommendations in the inspector's report and any submissions made.
The Minister can then decide to issue or not issue that direction. The Minister has stated he can make no further comment at this time due to the fact that this is a live statutory process. I understand where the Deputy is coming from. As he stated quite clearly, he is coming from a perspective of perhaps 850 jobs and employment in construction. Furthermore, concerning the matter of a retail outlet centre in Cork, it is the subject of ongoing legal proceedings and, consequently, the Minister cannot make any further comment at this time.
I thank the Minister of State for her response. I acknowledge that there are legal issues involved and an ongoing statutory process, which I respect and agree with. The reason I have raised this issue is because, as the Minister of State acknowledged, this is a major issue for the area and the country.
We have to see where the balance lies. The members of Cork County Council are democratically elected. The vast majority of them, having spent a long time discussing and debating the matter, recommended that zoning go ahead to allow this to happen. In my view, that is democracy in action at the lowest level and we should respect that.
From an environmental point of view, it will keep people in the south of Ireland. It is envisaged that there could be 220,000 visitors to the centre annually. It would generate more economic activity in the south of Ireland and benefit the city and surrounding towns. As I said, there are now 100 cruise liners coming into Cobh every year, a figure which will grow. Those people would make a beeline to the centre. I mentioned earlier that 850 jobs are involved, which is also important.
The whole region is going to expand. The feedback I have received from constituents is that people want this in the area. On top of that, as I said it will be good for the whole region because it will grow enormously. There are plans for thousands of houses in the Midleton-Water-rock area. Irish Water has now, thankfully, decided to put in a pipeline which will enable development to happen. However, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has decided to block the upgrade of a road for the time being. That has the danger of stymieing growth.
I have had that discussion on and off with the Minister. We hope, to pardon the pun, the roadblock will be removed shortly and we will see the badly needed housing development go ahead. The rail link is due to be electrified and there will be rail services every 15 minutes, which is fantastic. There is a lot of potential and positivity, but this development has to be part of it.
I know the Acting Chair is also interested in this discussion. It is important to note that the two-week public consultation began on the draft direction on 17 June, which is open for submissions up to and including 1 July. The process is ongoing.
I have listened carefully to the views expressed today and I thank the Deputy for his valuable contribution. I will bring it to the attention of the Minister. I trust the process I have detailed is helpful to the Deputy and all Members present in understanding the arrangements, including the consultation processes in place for the public, local authorities and State agencies to progress with the adoption of county and city development plans in accordance with national strategies and legislation.
I would also like to reiterate, as I mentioned in my opening comments, the limitations as to what can and cannot be commented on at the moment. It is important that such processes are respected and followed by all participants in the process, and I know they will. I take on board what the Deputy has outlined from an economic point of view and the spin-off that would be available if such a development was to progress.