Dáil debates

Thursday, 7 July 2022

Planning and Development (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

1:20 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I had not intended to speak on this Bill because I like to be more prepared and to have read the documents, and that proved to be very difficult. I listened carefully to, and read, the Minister's speech and that is what motivated me to speak and say on the record that I have the most serious concerns, once again, about the way legislation is going through the Dáil. I have concerns for the staff, without identifying any staff, with regard to the pressure they are under to produce Bills and amendments in the manner they are being asked to do it. I have serious concerns about our ability as Deputies to scrutinise legislation.

When I looked at this Bill I was a little relieved by what I was told by the Minister and the Bill Digest of the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. Again, I suspect the Oireachtas Library and Research Service is under the most serious pressure and I do not think it is in a position to give us comprehensive digests in respect of legislation. I say this reluctantly because I have found the Bill Digest to be my greatest source of information and education since I was elected to the House, but it is under extraordinary pressure. When I was told it is a technical Bill, I thought that was okay and that I could rely on the Minister and on the Bill Digest. We are told by the Bill Digest that the Bill is very technical and its primary purpose is to amend Part XA of the Planning and Development Act 2000, which deals with substitute consent. The existing system is a two-part system where one goes ex parteand the public have no say, and then come back to the second part. However, the ex partestage, significantly, is where exceptional circumstances are laid out. At the second stage, where the public have a right to take part, they are not entitled to comment on exceptional circumstances. I welcome that it is now being streamlined and I welcome that change.

It follows a Supreme Court judgment that put the whole thing in perspective. The Supreme Court found that the use of the substitute consent procedure needed to comply with EU law, in particular, the environmental impact assessment, EIA. It held:

When the Court of Justice refers to retrospective regularisation as having to remain the exception, [In other words, we should only regularise planning permissions retrospectively on an exceptional basis and, significantly, the public had no say in the definition of what was exceptional circumstances] its justification is that otherwise developers may be incentivised to ignore or disregard the requirements of a prior consent EIA: in other words, national measures cannot act as an inducement to avoid EIA compliance. Therefore, such regularisation must remain the exception, rather than the rule. Consequently, the relevant provisions of domestic law cannot permit, allow or facilitate a situation whereby the obtaining of, as in this jurisdiction, a retention permission becomes in any way standard, typical or routine.

The Supreme Court placed a huge emphasis on the exceptionality test. Another issue decided by the Supreme Court was whether the public should have the right to know. The public were excluded. The Supreme Court held: "The evident intention of that part of the Act is to the effect that the leave stage is intended to be carried out without a general right of public input." It went on to point out that the EU requires that the public are enabled to make submissions at the first stage and therefore the Supreme Court found that the Irish legislation was inconsistent with the EIA directive.

I will go into that because it is always important to give a little background or perspective to what is before Deputies. Once again, we are introducing emergency legislation following a Supreme Court case. As I said, I welcome the changes. What concerns me, however, is the Minister's speech.

There are six pages in it. What concerns me is not the Bill as such, even though I have concerns about the manner in which it is being pushed through, but what the Minister proposes to do when we come to the amendments. On the proposed Committee Stage amendments to the Bill, he stated in the House yesterday:

I ... wish to inform the House of my intention to introduce Government amendments as the Bill makes its way through the legislative process on Committee Stage. ... [which] amendments relate not only to planning legislation, but to other [pieces of] legislation ... [under] ... the remit of my Department.

The Bills Office is under extraordinary pressure, but Deputies will not be able to deal with this. If the Government proceeds with these amendments, we will come back with a whole new Bill. I would like the Minister of State to deal with this for me. We have what is described as a technical Bill to comply with our obligations under the Supreme Court judgment becoming an entirely different Bill, where proposed amendments are not before us and we have one week left to deal with it.

I will look at the amendments the Government is proposing. They are amendments relating to short-term letting, ministerial directions regarding statutory plans and related provisions, flexibility in planning applications, which is a very complex and very significant area we need to look at, the judicial review process, the Valuation Act - I imagine those amendments will be somewhat technical - and the Maritime Area Planning Act. I have concerns about all those amendments but what jumps off the page are the amendments relating to the judicial review process, the maritime Act, which we only passed recently and are now going to amend, and the flexibility in planning applications.

I will run out of time in a few minutes. I took this time to register my concerns. I wish I was going through the Bill in detail to say what was good and what was worrying about it. I can only do so on a sketchy basis. I am doing that because, when we discussed the maritime Act, we were lambasted by the Taoiseach. That was extremely important legislation we needed to discuss. He said he was fed up and tired - I am paraphrasing - because important and strategic projects were being inhibited by opposition. Those were his words, more or less, and that mantra continues. It continues in respect of judicial reviews. I am calling it a mantra and a myth. Yes, of course, we need to resource the courts and the judges. We need to look at that, but not with the accompanying propaganda and spin that states projects are being stopped because of public participation.

Over and over again the superior courts in this country have stated there is a trinity in the planning laws, namely, the developer, the local authority or An Bord Pleanála, and members of the public, without whom we cannot have a functioning planning system. In my experience, since I was elected in 1999, every single hurdle has been put in the way of people participating in the planning process. They are called objectors and they are demonised. I call them active citizens who are sufficiently concerned to make their concerns known. At every stage of the process, whatever the planning application is, it is extremely difficult for them. Indeed, we brought in a restrictive system, where if people did not make an application at the city or county council level, they could not do so with An Bord Pleanála. We then brought in a fee. We have this constant myth, repeated by a number of Deputies in the House, that we have to stop the various organisations on the ground that are holding up planning permissions. We completely forget about the history of planning in this country and the Mahon tribunal, which found systemic corruption at every level of the organisations involved in planning, not to mention the very vivid pictures of money passing hands. Here we are, and we will come back next week with a brand new Bill that we will not call a Bill. We continue to misuse language.

When I spoke on the maritime Act, and the Taoiseach was very critical, many Deputies highlighted that only 2.13% of Ireland's maritime area is protected. The programme for Government commits to reaching 10% as soon as practicable and 30% by 2030. We fell short of that. We are now being told that, by way of amendment, we will have a situation where a developer or company that does not have planning permission can occupy a certain part of the sea conditional on planning permission. What is happening all the time, little by little, is an encroachment on public participation and in opening up the seas for development. We have learned nothing from Covid or from climate change. The maritime area is one of our greatest assets. The area it covers is seven times that of our land mass. This belongs to all of us. It should be part of the solution in a new sustainable world.

I object to the amendments being brought in the manner they are.

1:25 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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Like my colleague, Deputy Connolly, I will put on record my concerns about how this Bill is being brought forward in the rushed way it is, and how it is changing completely between now and Committee Stage next week. This is a real problem. It does not lead to proper democratic oversight of how the Bill progresses. It is symptomatic of how this Government treats the end of term that is now coming up. There will be 19 Bills before the House by the end of this term in July, while from January to July we probably dealt with approximately 12. Some of the provisions in this Bill, which are being rushed through next week because they are absolutely necessary, have been flagged since before last summer. It is not that these have suddenly been foisted on the Government and it has to deal with them; these have been sitting around. The Department has been sitting around on these provisions waiting for the summer recess so it can get them in the Bill and get them rushed through without any scrutiny. That is the reality of the situation. These provisions have been sitting around since last summer so why could they not have been dealt with before now, if that is the case? That really is a problem and it is worrying.

It can be seen, when looking at every year for the past five or six years since I have been elected, and probably in the years before that as well, that in July there is a mad rush to put Bills through. We get this process every summer in the run-up to the recess. The same thing happens in the run-up to Christmas, when a raft of Bills come through. Why is that? It is because there will be no democratic scrutiny and that is what the Government wants. We then get the Taoiseach coming to the House lecturing us about how there should be democratic scrutiny and so on, and that this is a legislative body and we should deal with legislation rather than motions and all that kind of thing. The reason we deal with motions is the Government has no legislation to put forward. That is why motions are on the agenda. The Government would not allow motions on the agenda if there was legislation to deal with. This scam that is played on the people by the Government every year is wrong. It has been highlighted very particularly by this Bill today. That is a problem.

There are some useful things in this Bill that are to be welcomed, but there are also many things that are very concerning. It is also interesting that it shows how the Government views and looks at the Supreme Court and how that court does its business. As Deputy Connolly said, if a planning application was properly constituted and properly submitted to a council, it would not get a hearing in the Supreme Court. The reason the Supreme Court allows planning applications to be heard is there are problems with them that have to be dealt with. We would not have this so-called judicial process and so on if there was not a problem with legislation. That is very important. This Department states that this legislation is correct and defers to the Court of Justice of the European Union. We then saw yesterday that the Department of Justice stated the Court of Justice of the European Union is completely wrong and should not be doing things. The contrast between both Departments and what they look at is interesting.

I welcome the streamlining of the substitute consent process for quarries in this Bill. That is very important. County Donegal is probably unique in the country in that there are many approved quarries there and many that are just quarrying building stone. The process has been tortuous for them. There was an attempt to rectify it a number of years ago but that led to major problems for very small operators who are quarrying very small amounts of craft building stone. They are being treated the exact same as very large operators of very commercial premises. That is wrong.

I welcome the fact that this sub-consent streamlining process is in there. I think that will make a difference. It is something positive that comes out of this legislation. We look at the planning process and the flexibility that is within the system. Some of these issues are very technical and it is important that they are considered prior to Committee Stage.

The exclusion of the public from various stages is nonsensical and completely wrong. The Minister will create more judicial processes by doing that. I always wonder what is so badly wrong with the planning process that we have to exclude the public until a very late stage so that we pull the wool over their eyes for as long as possible and not let them know what is happening regarding a proposed plan. That does not serve anybody. The Minister is actually doing a disservice to the people he wants to help. He is doing developers a disservice by putting this process on them. If they went out and talked to people in advance of an application, I believe it would do a lot more to streamline the process and make it work for everybody. That way, we would not have as many applications ending up before the courts.

While there are some welcome aspects to the legislation, there is an awful lot that is very worrying. These measures might be good if they were sorted out but the problem is that we will not have the time to deal with them and see whether they are or not. This might be horrific for the Government, but perhaps the Opposition could amend the Bill in such a way that it would make it better and make it work, but the Government would never accept that.

The process that we are going through here is wrong. It is wrong for this Department and for every Department. What is happening is that we are rushing legislation through in the jaws of summer and that is ultimately the real problem with this entire process. I wanted to put my thoughts on the record in regard to the Bill. I will deal with amendments at a later stage. This process could have been done an awful lot better. There was time to put amendments forward. The Government says there is not very much time for legislative debate and that it has to put all the legislation in together to get it through. If that is the case, there is something wrong with the process. There is enough time from January through to July to get legislation addressed because very little legislation is dealt with in this House in that period.

1:35 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister will probably get a great deal of agreement across the House that this process is very rushed. It is lastminute.com. We are dealing with planning. I think we could all accept that we started from a point of having very poor planning regulation in this State. We all know what the impact has been on regular people in that regard. Much of that has been in the public domain for many years. Reference has already been made to some of the tribunals.

We also heard from some of the major stakeholders such as Transport Infrastructure Ireland, National Broadband Ireland and many others, which point out the flaws in our planning process. That is the reason the Attorney General's review is ongoing. I believe there are stakeholders' meetings happening in terms of reviewing. I am very interested in how that process is working. I would like to think there is some sort of overlap with the process with which the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, is engaged.

Like many others, I have serious qualms about the substitute-consent process becoming a single-tier operation, as opposed to being a two-stage operation. There is room within the two stages for a greater amount of public consultation and involvement. I agree with the point many previous speakers have made to the effect that an awful lot of our planning difficulties and problems across the board are due to the fact that the pre-planning or consultation piece has not been done as well as it could have been. We have all seen where good planning has been put into action. We have seen where it has been done well by organisations in terms of wind farms, roads or whatever else and where there has been consultation with people who have been involved from a very early stage. Sometimes, problems have been caught early and they have been addressed. We have also seen where it has been done badly and where people's backs have rightly been got up in a community and then we sometimes end up with a situation where there are no winners. We must ensure that whatever changes we are going to make that public involvement and consultation are put at the top of the agenda.

A number of amendments will come forward relating to judicial reviews and a range of subjects that I do not have time to talk about at this stage. We do not like how this process is being conducted and we believe that there are serious qualms in regard to this planning legislation. The fact is that we do need to review the system and to improve it. It would be far better if we involved the Oireachtas in a longer, more elongated process to produce what would be better planning laws.

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this legislation, which updates the substitute-consent regime provided in the Planning and Development Act 2000. The Bill's purpose is essentially to streamline the substitute-consent procedure in the planning system. Streamlining of the substitute-consent regime is required to increase the efficiency and utility of the process in order to safeguard confidence in the Irish planning system by eliminating a surplus step in the substitute-consent process. It will also ensure that the system is fully in compliance with EU environmental requirements and recent court judgments. In this context, it is proposed to provide for a single-stage application process under the remit of An Bord Pleanála, which would replace the current two-stage process.

It is also proposed to amend section 37L of the planning Act, which currently allows simultaneous applications to be made for certain quarry developments for both future development and substitute consent to An Bord Pleanála at the same time, so that simultaneous applications will be open to all types of development.

Amendments are also proposed to section 34(12) of the Act which will require planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála to screen an application for retention permission for EIA and AA, and refuse to consider applications for retention of unauthorised development where either EIA or AA are screened in.

While we are considering this legislation, it is appropriate to mention the current situation at An Bord Pleanála. Recent revelations have resulted in a loss of public confidence in the organisation. I know the Minister has ordered an inquiry, which is currently under way. Of course we await its publication, but it is clear the issue of public confidence in the board must be addressed. It is critical that the public and stakeholders can have confidence and faith in our planning system. Ireland's international reputation is at stake. I look forward to measures being taken quickly to restore confidence when the inquiry concludes. As regards, this largely technical Bill, I thank the Minister and his officials for introducing the legislation. I hope it will streamline the process and deliver a more efficient planning system.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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This is a very technical Bill that deals with a process called substitute consent. In Kildare, we have seen substitute consent relating to unauthorised developments such as quarries that have breached the water table and ended up as lakes. These lakes can be an unintended swimming destination in rural Ireland. They have many dangers including cold shock. There have been a number of deaths in south Kildare over the years and I appeal to young people in particular to stay away from these quarry lakes.

Substitute consent seeks to regularise planning permission retrospectively where an environmental impact assessment or appropriate assessment is required. The most prominent and controversial case of substitute consent was an ESB wind farm in Derrybrien, County Galway. A landslide during excavation work for the wind farm caused extensive environmental damage, resulting in the European Commission taking Ireland to court in 2008. It ordered a retrospective environmental impact assessment, but this was not carried out. In November 2019, Ireland was fined €5 million by the European Court of Justice for the State's failure to carry out an environmental impact assessment at the site.

Since then, a further €15,000 a day has been added to that fine by the court, meaning the Irish taxpayer is currently facing a €17 million penalty.

The Bill makes some changes to the existing substitute consent process as the previous legislation on this was rushed and needs further amendment. We have seen successive housing policy initiatives making a mess of the housing and planning situation and doing more harm than good. We saw this with the strategic housing development legislation, which was slated by most councillors, including those who are members of the parties in government. I question the need for this Bill. There are existing mechanisms for substitute consent in exceptional circumstances. The Bill gives the power of initiation to developers and makes it easier for them to access the process of seeking substitute consent. This is another example of the Government looking after its developer friends, while substitute consent will no longer be available to local authorities to initiate. If someone who has been breaking planning laws wants to apply to build a new development, that should be done through the mainstream planning process. Access to a fast-tracked process for new developments should not be slipped in with the substitute consent process. We must not reward bad behaviour in planning.

We need wider consultation on this Bill. The Government is ramming legislation through with little thought for the consequences. We need a review clause to ensure the best interests of the public and the State are being pursued. Further consultation with councillors is a must if we are to leave them with any semblance of having the power to represent their constituents. We need to listen to them. They have been elected to represent the people and their powers have been diluted far too much by the Government and its predecessor. It is time to respect local democracy and show we place a value on it by investing in local authorities in order that decisions can be taken as closely as possible to the people.

1:45 pm

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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I will not speak to the Bill as I prefer to take this opportunity to flag several issues in regard to planning generally. The Minister has intimated there are further amendments to come, which will give us a chance to revisit the provisions.

There is an obvious need for affordable housing, whether by way of private sector delivery or State-supported schemes. With the cost trajectory and affordability index rising all the while, State spending is more and more required to supplement runaway costs. Does the Minister have any plans whatsoever to look at the tax take on new housing in the State in terms of VAT, stamp duty and development fees? The latest figure I saw showed it is somewhere close to 40% on a new house build. One of the main blocks that is occurring in the construction process at this time, particularly for housing development, arises from the role of what are, in essence, two State quangos, namely, Irish Water and the ESB. I have spoken to a number of developers who pointed to those bodies as creating significant problems when it comes to getting schemes finished and certificates issued and being able to pass properties on to the end user. I ask the Minister to look at that.

Why will the Planning Regulator, having given a series of recommendations to deliver high-density housing in both urban and rural settings, not make himself available to local authority members to discuss their drawing up of development plans? The regulations were given but we do not really know whether they have a statutory footing or are just recommendations. It surely is incumbent on the regulator to make himself available to local authority members to ensure they are fully guided on what he is trying to deliver and what is required in terms of sustainable strategic planning at local authority level.

The judicial review process, which has been referenced by other speakers, is farcical. Many of the reviews relate to strategic housing developments. Out of 34 judicial processes taken to date, the Government has lost 30, conceded one and three have not yet been heard. There is a plethora of cases coming behind the ones that are already in train. The legal cost to the State in respect of judicial reviews is horrendous, yet the Department continues to fight these cases, even though, based on the present trajectory, it has an almost 100% chance of failing. How much longer will the Minister continue to put that cost onto the State when the judicial reviews are showing significant problems with the planning process?

The quango that is Irish Water is almost dysfunctional in its failure to integrate with new planning schemes. In Waterford, it has asked developers for €30,000 per house for a connection to wastewater and €5,000 for a connection to water. I am sure the Minister of State is aware that the south-east region is probably the most disadvantaged in the country at this stage. Where are buyers supposed to find €35,000 just to connect to water? The ESB is the other State quango that is throttling investment development and adding significant costs to the building of private and public houses. The delays in connections and in the issuing of certificates are imposing increased costs on many developers in terms of accessing tranche funding before they can pass properties over to the buyer. I ask the Minister and the Department to start looking at this in a serious way.

We have a crippling lack of rental accommodation across the country, which is increasing the risk of homelessness for many people. The Government must prioritise the delivery of cost rental housing and not just in large cities. It needs to be done in rural areas also. Likewise, affordable purchase schemes must be made available in coastal towns, including Dunmore East and Tramore in my area, where property prices are being driven way beyond the means of young people to get on the property ladder. This is not acceptable and it is eradicating community into the future.

I see no clear strategy to expedite the renovation of vacant housing. We in the Regional Group brought a motion to the House setting out an interim accommodation measure in this regard. In Waterford, the local authority has been very successful in rolling out a repair and lease programme that offers property owners the opportunity to access build finance, with the authority then renting the renovated property for a period of 20 years or so. I understand Waterford accounted for nearly 55% of the total houses delivered under this scheme in the past year. Why is it not being delivered in our large urban centres, where it could add significantly to the capacity of housing stock?

Public sector procurement contracts need to be looked at and modified. The fixed-costs model with a 180-day price guarantee is no longer suitable to the dynamic market trends. That is why tenders are coming back unanswered. What is the Government doing? It is putting those tenders back to the market again as if something has radically changed, when, in fact, the same restrictions apply. This is A, B, C stuff. Why can something not be done about it?

The amount of oversight, regulation and bureaucracy involved in delivering public sector contract builds is retarding output and driving up finished-cost prices. Even for development on public lands, the time taken to expedite the build and receive settlement payment is too long and the price is too costly. In my area, I have seen private sector housing delivered in half the time public sector builds take. Hard-pressed taxpayers and the State are paying for these delays. Ultimately, it is falling back on the Exchequer to support cost prices by way of first-time incentives and so on.

Several parties in this House are talking about a constitutional change to give a right to housing. If such a proposal is brought forward, it will be meaningless without the ability of the State to deliver it. The Government continues to adopt the position of a detached onlooker to the issues around costs, many of which it is driving, and appears to have no appetite to remodel the system. That is a significant flaw in Government policy. The recent report outlining the significant fall in house ownership among 25- to 35-year-olds is a significant clarion call for our future economy and the welfare of those who are welded to rental opportunity only. This is the most productive demographic sector and it now faces significant disadvantage arising from the rampant cost escalation in the general construction sector and the failure of the State to regulate that cost base in any significant way or remove some of the burdens that are being placed on hard-pressed families. We should be trying to ameliorate those pressures as soon as possible.

As I said, we will get another chance to consider the Bill that is before us today. I have far more pressing concerns in terms of the development of policy around housing and planning. I have outlined areas in which the Government could, if it wished, take significant actions to help people trying to get onto the property ladder, including those who are welded into rental accommodation and will be for the rest of their lives. They could have an opportunity to buy a house if the Minister would give serious consideration to those issues. I wait to see what actions he will take.

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill.

I want to concentrate on planning first and what is really happening in that area. Taking County Galway, we have just passed the county development plan. It has been operating for two weeks. We are being told now, and it is being put out there in the newspapers, that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will be producing a review of rural housing and the strategy for planning and development in that regard. This creates uncertainty. Coming up to the passing of our county development plan in Galway, the submission of applications for rural housing was undertaken in a frenzy because people were fearful that something would happen in the context of that plan. Now, another rush of applications is going to come because people are afraid of what the Minister will bring in to restrict people building houses in rural areas.

At the same time, we have many growth centres in County Galway, such as Craughwell, Corofin, Abbeyknockmoy, Ardrahan, Laban and others. It should be possible for houses to be built in towns and villages, but we cannot do that because we do not have any wastewater treatment plants. When I say wastewater treatment plants, I mean publicly-owned wastewater treatment plants. In effect, what is happening is that Galway County Council’s planning department and An Bord Pleanála are refusing to allow development in any of these towns and villages if a municipal wastewater treatment plant is not available. They call it "premature development". At the same time, we do not want people to live in the countryside. We are trying to push them into the towns and villages, where they will have services. Equally, people are being pushed into the cities and away from their families. Therefore, we must look at this issue in respect of how we are providing housing and ensuring that people can live, work and raise their families in their own parishes. It is important that we go back to the grassroots on this issue.

Similarly, with zoning, policy decisions that have been made and that are being implemented by the planning regulator are forcing high densities and restricting the amount of land that can be zoned for development. This is creating scarce supply. Additionally, regarding the zoning that is being designated, the land concerned may not be available because the owners may not be able to sell it, perhaps due to the legal title not being right. All these things are done on a desktop, however, so we end up with lands that are zoned as R1 in our towns, cities and counties, but which cannot be built on. Therefore, we are creating an increase in the value of zoned land that is available and, in turn, increasing the price of our houses.

I had an interesting conversation last week with a mother whose daughter is building a house and who must get a water connection from Irish Water. This shows how bad the situation is. The water connection must come from the mains, which is 250 m from the road. Irish Water has estimated a cost of €300 per linear metre, which would add up to a total of €75,000 to get a water supply to the house. We have gone way beyond any kind of real common-sense approach to building houses if that person must pay €75,000 for a water supply, and all because Irish Water has set a national rate for laying pipes and will not allow anyone else to lay pipes along public roads. So be it. In the commercial world, however, that piping could probably be laid for about €5,000 and I would even argue that that might be a bit too dear. We must be realistic here and ask who is paying for what and who is conning whom.

Turning to this Bill, the substitute consent process was flawed when it was initiated. I have seen cases where An Bord Pleanála awarded decisions on substitute consent that stipulated that a development or project was fine up to the date of the said decision, but that it was necessary to go back in again and seek planning permission for future works. Effectively, that closed quarries badly needed for infrastructure. I know of a case involving one quarry that has been in the courts. Every time the quarry makes a move to do something to regularise its position, judicial reviews are brought to the courts. At this stage, that quarry's planning application is not in Heaven or in Purgatory but down in Hell, because neither the county council nor An Bord Pleanála have any legal mechanisms by which they will accept an application for future planning concerning this development. At the same time, several years ago this same quarry was deemed qualified to supply stone to Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, for a major project being undertaken in Galway.

Therefore, something is completely amiss here. There is a mystery as to who is putting in all these objections, who is taking all these judicial reviews and who is going to the courts at such a cost. The Minister and the Government need to examine what is going on in the quarry industry now. If they do not, then we will be closing quarries by stealth and we will end up with few suppliers. There may then be a cartel-type operation. Therefore, I strongly urge the Government to have a look at this issue, because I am not comfortable with what I see going on in respect of the objections going in. There are serial objections and there is no fear that money will not be found to do what the objectors are doing. I would like to see transparency regarding where the money is coming from to put in these objections.

A case in point, and it is mentioned in the briefing notes, is Derrybrien. From day one, that was a sordid mess. It continues to be a mess because we have now lost the capacity to generate green energy. We are going to decommission the 45 wind turbines up there. They are a valuable asset in Galway now and they are going to be decommissioned, which means they will have to be taken down and taken out of there. That is going to create a risk of further landslides and mudslides. We have gone from bad to worse to crazy in what we are doing now. I would like to see legislation enacted to allow the ESB to try to regularise what has been done at Derrybrien and to keep that project live so we can benefit from it. We have paid enough fines on that development and now we have to take the equipment down. It just seems to be completely off-the-wall stuff and our hands are tied because of things we cannot do because of legal matters. I challenge that perspective. It is not the legal matters that are the problem, but the policies we have put in place. The legislation we put in place was not good enough and the transposition of EU law into this country has also been flawed. There is much to be answered for in the area of planning and this kind of crazy stuff has got to stop.

We will have an opportunity to discuss this Bill next week. There are many technicalities in this legislation and many issues that we will have to tease out. I am glad that in the meeting of the Business Committee today the Government acceded to there being an extra hour to debate this Bill and accompanying amendments. Planning has become a burdensome process for our public works. If building to provide hospital beds, a flood relief scheme, a road, a railway or whatever is to be undertaken now, in the normal set of circumstances, the processes we have put in place for ourselves to try to be perfect people in how we do things mean there is now a seven-to-eight-year timeframe from the inception of a project to the date we will be able to go to tender. The Government has announced that it is going to build an accident and emergency hospital department in Galway. The project has been announced, but we must wait eight years before we will see a building contractor on site. Equally, we have to tell people who have been flooded out several times that it will be seven or eight years before we will have a plan in place to allow us to deal with the problem. There is something wrong. Housing is an emergency right now, so we need to be able to do things in an emergency to ensure we can build houses immediately.

I believe the construction industry can build the houses we need. We will have to innovate and change some of the techniques by which we undertake building, but I believe that if the projects get to the contractors, then they will build them. The big stumbling block now, however, is trying to get through these processes. Another bugbear of mine is this issue around the public spending code, PSC. It is another one of these things that was used when we had no money as a reason to delay projects. It should not now be used as an excuse to stop or to delay us building houses, the necessary infrastructure for our health services and works to relieve flooding around the country. Nobody is talking about flooding now because nowhere is flooding.

I can guarantee that when the next flood comes, the people who were flooded five years ago will wonder what happened in the meantime. Someone will say that consultants and hydrologists were brought in to do feasibility reports and whatever else, and that planning permission and appropriate assessments are needed. They will look at the amount of money spent on all of that, yet we have achieved nothing. It is important that there is a common-sense approach to planning.

The Government must take the planning and procurement processes by the scruff of the neck in order to ensure that certain facets of our development can be done on an emergency basis and that, first, housing and, second, health infrastructure - be it hospitals, community nursing homes or whatever - are built. Nobody will thank us in five or six years' time if we get all the paperwork right but have nothing done. The biggest tragedy in housing is that we are not able to move from this great, big inertia that we have put in front of us in terms of getting things done. We have to do it and be brave. We have to do it for a short term in order to get things going again. It is very important that we do it for the people who are hard hit as a result of everything that is going on. If we do not show some initiative, bravery and forward thinking, we will be talking about this in ten years' time and have nothing done.

2:05 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The updated list indicates that Deputy Matthews is the next speaker, but it is between the Deputies to decide. There are two Government slots: one now and one later.

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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I will let Deputy Leddin take the first slot and I will take the second.

Photo of Brian LeddinBrian Leddin (Limerick City, Green Party)
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I thank Deputy Matthews and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I somewhat agree with my colleague across the House, Deputy Canney, when he said that planning has gone from bad to worse to crazy. While I agree with him, it is probably for different reasons because we look at planning differently, but his points were well made.

The Minister referred to several new amendments in respect of planning and other legislation relating to his Department. I am worried that we are rushing through legislation without the necessary scrutiny. The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill is very important legislation that covers a very complex area and such scrutiny is essential. The Minister mentioned his intention to introduce a substantial number of amendments that will amend the Maritime Area Planning Act that was passed at the end of last year. We still do not know what these amendments are. Introducing entirely new amendments to legislation at the last minute is neither wise nor prudent.

The Maritime Area Planning Act went through legislative scrutiny and it would be unwise to now make changes to the planning legislation without any scrutiny. We have seen, again and again, the unintended consequences of changes to planning legislation, which is the basis of my concern. Any changes will introduce uncertainty between the relationship of the new provisions and existing provisions of Irish planning law, as well as the European Union legal obligations, to which Irish planning law gives effect. All of this is within the context of our international law obligations under the Aarhus Convention. On the face of it, I do not see any unavoidable conflict between these new proposed provisions and the rights of public participation, access to justice, and access to information as protected under the Aarhus Convention. However, I am concerned about the unintended consequences. I ask the Minister to go on the record and formally confirm that this is his understanding and to commit to the Dáil that the State, in responding to any litigation under these provisions, will do so consistent with such interpretation of these provisions.

I refer to the national planning framework, which is one of the major macro-effects of the Planning and Development Act. The planning framework was introduced in 2018. The idea behind it was that we would build up regional cities at a faster rate than the capital. We need to build homes as fast as we can but we also need to build them in the right places. The spirit of the national planning framework was that the regional cities would grow at twice the rate of the capital over the next 20 years. We are told that this is about balanced regional development, but colleagues will agree that we have paid lip service to balanced regional development in this House over many decades. The national planning framework is not doing what it set out to do. Looking at it in real numbers, even though the target population growth of the regional cities is 60% versus Dublin's 30% in the next 20 years, because the regional cities are coming from such a low population base, it is not as impressive as it sounds. We will be well into the next century before we see a convergence of those trends and actually achieve the balance that we say we are trying to achieve.

Notwithstanding the problem with the national planning framework, there is strong evidence that suggests the framework is not doing what it intends to do and that it is not the straitjacket on planning and developing that it was supposed to be. It increasingly looks like it is not even a useful guide. We are seeing most development and population growth taking place in the counties of the greater Dublin area. The gap between the capital and regions is widening and the all-roads-lead-to-Dublin approach, which has been the unwritten policy of the State for the past 60 years, seems to be the outcome if not the stated approach today. We have to make a concerted effort to change this for undeniable economic and social reasons, as well as for environmental reasons. It is not good for the capital to be burdened with such growth when it does not have the infrastructure to cope and when providing that infrastructure in the capital is difficult, slow and costly. A better approach for Dublin and Ireland would be to genuinely target significant growth in the regional cities that have latent underutilised infrastructure and development land.

Will the Minister confirm that there will be a review of the national planning framework in 2024? That review, if it happens, should embrace the original spirit of the national planning framework and do away with the predict-and-provide approach and move to a plan-and-provide approach, as is the norm in other jurisdictions. In my city of Limerick and in the mid-west region in general, we have grid, water and rail infrastructure as well as development land. Limerick could grow at a very fast rate if the State decides that it is the right thing to do, which I firmly believe it is.

I wish to raise a concern about An Bord Pleanála. As a State agency, it is unusual in the way it was set up in the context of governance. It does not have the required operational independence. Unlike other State agencies, the board, which is appointed by the Minister, is involved in decision-making. It simply does not have operational independence. This is an issue that needs to be examined.

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this highly technical Bill about the process of substitute consent. It also addresses some issues and gaps caused by the rushing of earlier legislation. In addressing some of the detail, changing substitute consent from a two-stage process to a single-stage process is problematic given how critical scrutiny and accountability is to the planning process. Public participation is vital. The public should not be excluded from a planning process that affects it. Far from removing public participation, the Bill should seek ways to strengthen it, which we are obliged to do under the Aarhus Convention. Early public participation would also prevent delays down the road.

That is not our only concern. The fact that the fast-tracking provision in the Bill applies to substitute consent applications pending with an Bord Pleanála is equally problematic. In addition to those difficulties, there is the further matter that substitute consent is meant to be granted only in exceptional circumstances. Fine, one might think, except that the definition of exceptional circumstances is very broad, far too vague and just not satisfactory. We believe that where substitute consent is refused, An Bord Pleanála should be required to set out clearly what remediation actions are taken in respect of the site of the unauthorised development.

Similarly, we are extremely concerned at the apparent intention to introduce on Committee Stage significant amendments relating to a range of planning issues and to the matters of judicial reviews and short-term letting without there being adequate time to consider those issues or to open them up to the necessary scrutiny. Judicial review is an important recourse open to the public, not least - in fact, most importantly - on planning matters with a climate, environment and biodiversity impact and on matters of the public good over private profit or private interest now and into the future. That is especially important as we grapple with the rapidly unfolding impacts of climate change and seek to meet our emissions targets.

As for the matter of short-term lets, public scrutiny must be facilitated. This sector is wreaking havoc on the housing market and, through that, on our people's lives. Far too many people in north Kildare are spending their children's childhoods waiting and waiting on housing lists while the market, political parties and political ideology in thrall to the sector prioritise short-term tourism needs over longer term living needs. Homeless families live in hotels while tourists live in Airbnb homes. It shows that our priorities are all wrong. We need to bring more light onto the planning process and a lot less heat into the market. We would be a lot better off.

2:15 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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This is a very technical Bill. In my view, it needs a lot more time for discussion. I said in the Dáil last week that we need more time for Bills rather than rushing them through the Dáil. However, it looks like the way this Government works at present is to talk little, to push through everything and to give very little opportunity to people in the Opposition to scrutinise these Bills in the way they should be scrutinised.

There are a number of issues with the Bill. Many Deputies have raised issues with planning. I certainly have many concerns about planning in my constituency, Cork South-West. Deputy Leddin said that Limerick must grow. He is well entitled to say that because he represents Limerick. I appreciate and respect that, but west Cork should grow too. With every plan and county development plan, the councils have done everything in their power to make sure it does not grow and, if it is to grow, that it is to grow only in a bigger town. Rural communities and areas need the life built back into their areas too. A lot of one-off planning permissions, which have to be deemed as being extremely safe, once they are carried out in a proper fashion, are being discouraged in every way. Many young people have had their lives ruined because they have been forced away from their own bits of land and their own home areas and are being rammed into towns or villages that sometimes do not have the resources or the facilities their old rural communities had. In a large number of cases they may have had broadband and many more services in the areas they left and may not have them in the places to which they moved. There is no point in saying they have better sewerage systems because I know a lot of towns in west Cork that are pouring raw sewage into the tide, including in the parish I live in, Goleen. It is sad we find ourselves in the situation we are in, where we have a Green Party in government and that is the case. There is no progress whatsoever on that issue in my area, and there are more similar areas. I could name them. I commend the movement in Castletownshend. We had discussions there last week because this is hugely important.

Then I looked at the county development plan, however, and saw that quite a lot of areas that were zoned had become unzoned for some reason or another. Who came up with that miraculous plan behind the scenes to zone an area maybe five or ten years ago and then to pull the plug? People had plans in that area to build their community. Those plans are gone to the wall now, and it is very unfair. That needs to be explained.

The planning process is extremely difficult to navigate. Young families try to get off the ground, get up and get going in their lives. The first thing they want to do is meet the planner. Now that is not allowed either. Since Covid the planners have gone into hiding and there are only online meetings, which is terribly unfair on young people who want face-to-face meetings and want to work out what is suitable and where and to get a feeling as to whether they are going in the right direction, instead of spending a lot of money - and a lot of money is being spent. I know of one planning permission in my area - obviously, I cannot name the person - in respect of which the amount of work to get it across the line was shocking. I do not know how many thousands it cost the family and the young man trying to get on in life. There was this report for this and worms and snails, and I do not know what other reports in the name of God they had to draw up before he got planning. Halfway through the family said to me, "To hell with it, we are packing it up." I urged them to keep at it. They thought it was a terrible exercise. The same people who devise it are very careful about the environment and whatever else. There are so many rules and regulations attached to planning now that it is making things extremely difficult.

There is also reference in the Bill to quarries and to the changes in that regard. I was talking to Deputies Danny Healy-Rae and Mattie McGrath about this yesterday evening. We are very worried about these changes. Obviously, there have to be rules and regulations in respect of quarries, but if these changes come into effect, the small quarry owner, if he has a slight infringement, could be closed down very quickly. That will suit the large quarry owners who have a monopoly in the market already. If the Government starts closing the small quarry operators around Ireland, in rural areas in particular, the large quarry operator will price projects and deliveries out of all means. It will break the local authority and break the ordinary couple on the street in the countryside who are trying to build their house and trying to pay for material. They will not be able to pay for material because the large quarry operator will already have a monopoly in the market. My worry is that this is a nice way to shut off the small quarry operators who have been great to local people, supplying goods at a fairly reasonable price and keeping these large operators on their toes. I would like the Minister of State to clarify that for us later. I would also like him to clarify that the latter is not what is intended and that if there is regulation - and there needs to be regulation - and if there is an infringement, at least the person gets a slap on the wrist and is told to put it right. Okay, if after a second time they are not willing to do that, then the Government should move in. However, if the Government is willing to shut down the smaller operators who are struggling as it is because of fuel costs, energy costs and everything else, the Government is only really putting them out of business.

Many Deputies have spoken about the Irish Water connections. It is astonishing to hear the prices some people - people, again, trying to get on and to get going in their lives - are being charged for a basic water collection. Many people tell me they can run the pipe up themselves and can do everything else. All they need is for Irish Water to do the final connection. That is not allowed, of course, because somebody wants to take a nice tap of money out of it before finishing up. That is an area that has to be looked into seriously because people cannot keep being penalised day by day and night by night. We have to ask the questions of Irish Water and the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications.

Why did I read a recent report to the effect that areas such as Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Bantry, Durrus, Goleen and Crookhaven are running out of water? Imagine Clonakilty running out of water. Development is no longer allowed there. The people of Clonakilty want development in their area, as they deserve, because there are opportunities there. The areas I have mentioned have had no works done to their reservoirs. It looks like it could be a dry summer but not ragingly dry. I know that the Minister of State or some other Minister will get up in a minute and say it is all to do with the environment. For God's sake, that has been going on for the past 40 or 50 years. The Government should stop that old nonsense talk. The reality of the day is that if there is a dry summer in some of these areas, there will be no works. There have been no works on some of the sewerage systems in Goleen and places like that - and it is not just Goleen. They ran out of water in Coppeen, which is near Ballineen, two weeks ago for 24 hours. What is wrong? Why is the Government not investing in areas in west Cork? Is it keeping all the money for the capital? Is that where the money is going? Will this Bill tackle those issues? That needs to be addressed.

These people could be without water within hours which would be a scandal. I am very concerned about the people in Skibbereen, Bantry, Durrus, Goleen and Crookhaven if that is to happen for the summer months.

I have spoken about areas such as Ballinspittle also. It has significant issues with sewage. The town is very close to Cork city and could increase in population. It would be a super boost to that area of Ballinadee and Kilbrittain. This work needs to be carried out. It seems like a great deal of money has been spent but it has not been spent in the constituency that I represent.

2:25 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am happy to speak on this Bill, although I am very perplexed about the manner in which it has arrived in the Chamber which is as a result of a Supreme Court judgment. Why has this happened at half past the eleventh hour of the Dáil term? What is of more concern is the question of where the planning and environment Ministers are? I have no issue with the Minister of State present with whom I have worked for a year. Perhaps the brief of the Minister of State covers this but I believed his was an education brief. These Ministers could do with an education on how to treat this House. We are elected to pass and to consider legislation and to put forward amendments, and the Minister said he intends to table Government amendments to this Bill next week. Where is the time to discuss those amendments, because we do not know what they will be? The debate today could be void and empty because Government amendments are going to be brought forward. I have never seen the beat of it and I am nearly 15 years or more here. It is shocking.

This legislation is being rushed and 19 pieces of legislation have come before the House in the past number of weeks. We had 12 such pieces of legislation in the year before that. This is a pattern that has crept in. The Ceann Comhairle is here. We divided these up this morning at the Business Committee meeting but it is not right, if you ask me. This would appear to be a carefully laid out plan because none of the backbenchers is coming in. I appreciate Deputy Leddin is present but no backbencher from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Green Party was present when legislation was being dealt with this week. It is as if as they said let it off and let the Opposition huff and puff and bring the house down but we will pass this legislation in any event. Being an Independent Group, we could not watch it. There was a list of speakers, but they were not turning up to speak because they do not have time.

There are very significant issues in planning. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle has left the Chamber, which I appreciate. She raised issues on which I differ fundamentally around the area of An Taisce. An Taisce has done great work in the schools with the green schools flags and on many other issues, including on the environment. I resent, and I have raised it on this floor, the way it treated an industry in south Kilkenny, in respect of which, thankfully, a sod was turned last week after several court challenges. I have no problem with people taking court challenges but the Taoiseach said to me one day that we have to limit the number of judicial reviews taken, which we must do. An Taisce had no issue with the plant, the emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, licence or anything else but had an issue with the cowherd. How weird is that? The building itself is a pristine cheesemaking plant where there is a ready market for its products with Dutch investors and we almost lost it.

Meanwhile, we were ferrying last summer and this summer milk from the south Kilkenny, all of Tipperary - my area - and other counties up to the Strathroy Dairy because we could not cope with the processing.

What about the CO2 levels there and the emissions from the trucks? How narrow-minded and perverse are the members of An Taisce? Deputy Collins, myself and my colleagues met with its members and we got nothing but disdain from them. We were to have a follow-up meeting with them but we never did. They need to be reined in as do all of these NGOs.

In reply to a parliamentary question put recently by Deputy Nolan, it was stated that there are 36,000 NGOs costing €5.5 billion of taxpayers’ money annually. What would that not do for back to school costs or to lessen the cost of living crisis if half or nine tenths of that were applied to it? These bodies have mushroomed all over the place and are effectively dictating policy to the Government. This Government and previous Governments have given them too much of a hearing. The plant I mentioned almost disappeared because of people who have good jobs, who are retired with big pensions, who have public jobs and who live in nice places where they themselves were granted planning. They do not want anybody else to have planning permission. This is a case of the fox minding the henhouse. These people were granted planning in lucrative areas, such as in Ballina in my county and other lovely areas, but they object to anybody else being granted such permissions. It is a shocking situation.

We did not meet the president of An Taisce, Fr. McDonagh. We would have loved to have done so but we met his colleagues. We might as well have been talking to Petticoat Loose and the Legend of Bay Lough, which is down in south Tipperary also. Like other people here, I am shocked to think of the amendments because we do not know what the Government will bring in next week.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I will be telling the Deputy about all of these when I reply to the debate. If the Deputy meets me on Monday, we can go through them.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Of course, but why not even on a Sunday? We are here four days a week already but I know that none of the Government Deputies is.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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Sunday is a working day.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I accept that but we have some constituents to represent as well. I know the Government Deputies are hiding from them, but they will find you with the peann luaidhe istigh sa bhosca ballóide. They will find you and you will be fairly low down the list when they start using that pencil if you treat the people like this, and you will know what to expect.

We are treating the House very badly. I am not blaming the Minister of State present but I am blaming the Government as a whole. It is one piece of legislation after another with the guillotine. We had 45 minutes for a very important legislation last night. The Opposition wants to be helpful and to pass legislation, such as in the area of special needs schools, and so forth, but this is just stretching it beyond what is acceptable, and it is just incredible that the Government can do so.

On the issue of the quarries, some quarries can do what they like, such as the big conglomerates, which I will not mention, but everybody knows who we are talking about. I was an admirer of Seán Quinn for decades because he brought competition to the market with ready mix cement. When I used to travel from Omagh and Monaghan on a Monday morning, an-luath ar fad, I would meet a couple of hundred green trucks moving around and it was a breath of fresh air. What happened was a pity - if he got greedy or whatever - but he brought that badly needed competition. Most of the small ready mix owners in my county were wiped out by big conglomerates. Are we going to do the same with the small quarry owners? If there are blatant infringements, yes. They have to operate within the law. If we bring the heavy hand of the law down on top of them, the big conglomerates can wheel out best barristers and can hold the process up for a long time. This is not only happening in Ireland but is a pattern internationally. I have great concern for the jobs and for the self-employed quarry owners who have built up a business over the years and may have ten, 20 or up to 50 employees, with the cost of electricity to run the crushing plants, the cost of fuel and of everything else. If they go we will have no competition, then what will happen? We will be in real trouble.

Someone asked why we need the Office of the Planning Regulator because, in respect of the county development plans - our one in Tipperary is going to be finalised on Monday after two and a half years - the power that the county councils had in the making of the plan, through debate and discussion, is being overruled by this new office. Why do we now need to create these great and powerful positions to take away the power from the democratically elected people on the councils? It was the one power or function they had with which they dealt fairly and reasonably in most cases. Shenanigans obviously went on in the past. They were and had to be rooted out but now it has gone to one man who can do what he likes and does not have to answer to anyone. Yes, he looked to meet me several times and with several members of my group but we did not meet him. We have people now in big comfortable chairs, in nice plush offices with a brass plaque on the wall and they wield the power and have the ear of Government.

In respect of An Bord Pleanála, I will not stray into discussing it, a Cheann Comhairle, because there is an investigation going on at the moment and there could possibly be legal challenges, or whatever, but it is not functioning. A simple decision is required in New Inn in County Tipperary which is very important to people living there. There is a phone mast right on top of a house and people in the local area are objecting, and rightly so, because there are plenty of other options. It is right beside a listed building and three or four other listed buildings, including a reilig or an old graveyard, are in the curtilage of this mast.

An Bord Pleanála has postponed the decision deadline three times and although the application is still in the system, it has given no deadline as to when it may make a decision. It was a month, then it was put off for a further month or two, and a further number of months, and now it is vague and there is no decision date on the application. That is happening with many projects. An Bord Pleanála is not fit for purpose.

There is too much political influence, as Deputy Leddin alluded to. It is not transparent. We will see this when all the dirty linen is washed. If the clothes were hanging out on the line on a good summer's day like today they would be fairly well stained. They would need the washing machine and Daz or whatever is used now. They have gone away from Daz. I am not saying that I am a bad homemaker and I do not do some washing but I am not up to speed with the capsules that go into the washing machine. It used to be Surf and Daz when I was a duine óg. The Ceann Comhairle will also remember them. We have a lot of clearing up to do.

The Bill is not fit for purpose. It is emergency legislation long after the Supreme Court made its judgment. Why the rush with not enough time? I will sit and wait to see some idea of the Government amendments. Imagine we have not yet had sight of them. There will be a briefing on Monday and next week the Bill is scheduled to go to and from the Seanad to be passed. I have never seen the likes of it. How will we have time to table amendments, study the Bill, study the briefing we will get on Monday and have the resources for amendments? Anyway they will be ruled out of order, and if they are not ruled out of order the guillotine will be coming down on us like a big sharp tool to cut off all debates.

We need a re-examination. We have gone backwards with regard to debating legislation and the Opposition having an input. We have regressed during my time in the Dáil. Then we get lectures from the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach that we are bringing in reports and Private Members' motions. It is our duty. The Government was not acting. Now all of the actors have come together. It is like the opera house. We have opened again and we have 19 pieces of legislation that we are trying to get through in a mad panic. Rushed legislation is bad legislation. Justice delayed is justice denied. We are not dealing with the real issues or the elephant in the room. People must have a right to object but frivolous objections from NGOs that are well-paid with taxpayers' money and are objecting to taxpayers trying to put a roof over their heads are bonkers. It is not fair on Seán Citizen and Mary Citizen. It is not what Cathal Brugha and others fought for in the War of Independence. The Ceann Comhairle mentioned him this morning and I want to be associated with his remarks.

2:35 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Is Deputy Matthews a baritone or a tenor?

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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I am a tenor.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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I hope the Minister will get a chance to correct some of the statements made during the previous contribution. It is always disappointing to come in here and hear the type of attacks that go on against our environmental non-governmental organisations especially An Taisce. It has been commented on at EU level. It is unfair.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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For the sake of cows we cannot even-----

Photo of Steven MatthewsSteven Matthews (Wicklow, Green Party)
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I did not interrupt Deputy McGrath. I listened to what he said. It is entertaining a lot of the time but it is factually incorrect. I reiterate my support for An Taisce and the fine work it does throughout the country. Much of the environmental protection we have in the country comes from EU directives. I do not think we would have introduced it ourselves. We should acknowledge the contribution of Europe.

I agree with some of the previous contributors that planning is complex. When we introduce changes to the planning system they can impact further down the road in a way we may not be aware of. This is why we should take considerable time when we seek to change aspects of the planning system. Much of the planning system is very good. The Act has been amended many times since it was introduced in 2000. It is difficult legislation to follow. I welcome the Attorney General's project to review the planning system and put some shape and form back on it so it does what it is meant to do, which is to provide for proper planning and sustainable development in the common good. We need to put these three principles back at the core of planning despite some Deputies who might think that because planning does not suit them it is wrong.

I will speak about the Bill before us. We had pre-legislative scrutiny on this in September 2021. At the time we were notified this was urgent legislation and we should expedite it. We did so and we produced a report in November 2021, conscious of the urgency because of the judgment in the Ballysax and McQuaid cases. It is disappointing to see the legislation not come before the House until one week before we finished. I am concerned about it. We have organised a briefing for members of the Oireachtas joint committee on Monday at 11.30 a.m. and I thank the officials and the Minister for assisting us with it. All members are invited to attend and if they contact the committee we can issue the link. I welcome anybody to attend.

The Bill seeks to regularise developments that should have required an environmental impact assessment at the time. There is nothing in EU law that precludes this. It does allow it. It is a positive move and will put us right with Europe. I have several concerns and I look forward to getting better detail and discussing them on Committee Stage. The substitute consent process is being streamlined to bring it from two stages to one stage. I now understand why one of the stages is surplus as public consultation on the exceptional circumstances has been brought into both stages. A two-stage process provides time for members of the public who may have an interest to be alerted to the fact a substitute consent process is happening or that somebody is seeking a substitute consent process. We will now have a single stage and I am concerned members of the public will not have much time to react to it.

I note the comments made by the Minister yesterday that he will extend the period from five to eight weeks. It needs to be longer than this. Normally the substitute consent process goes through the leave stage and then the substantive stage. There will be a longer period of time for this. I am open to correction on this. It is important that we allow every opportunity for public consultation in the planning system. Generally, the more people, the more stakeholder engagement, the more notification and the more information is available, the better the outcome. Everybody may not be satisfied with the outcome but at least they will have had an opportunity to participate and make their opinions known. We are used to hearing the word "objection". There is no such thing as an objection in planning. It is an objection that could be negative, positive, seeking a change in conditions or seeking conditions to be attached.

I ask the Minister to detail the planning process in lay language for ordinary understanding. Planning in is very complex. I have experience of it but I do not think any of us in here has huge expertise in it. It is difficult to make decisions on it. There is the whole area of exceptional circumstances. I would like the Minister to put into plain lay language the list of these. There is a provision that somebody could reasonably demonstrate they did not know they needed planning permission. It is hard to buy because everybody knows and everybody is aware of the planning system. People would know if they were in an area where a development would need an environmental impact assessment or if they were extending a development that might be unauthorised. They would be aware of it. It is a very weak exceptional circumstance.

Having a few minutes to discuss five or six significant areas of amendment the Minister has introduced is ironic. We have only a week to deal with this and I have only a few minutes to deal with six points. With regard to section 31 directives, we have a planning issue in local authorities whereby we have councillors who make decisions against the advice of senior planners, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, the National Transport Authority, the Department, An Taisce and many experienced professional planners. Councillors go ahead and make a decision anyway not because it is in the interests of planning but because they have the numbers to make those decisions. This decision is then kicked up the line to the planning regulator, who must then notify the Minister who must issue a directive. My concern is that there are small matters that do not comply with core strategies, national guidelines or regional planning guidelines and the Minister may not seek to issue a directive on the cumulative impact of all of these measures. They have a cumulative impact. When councillors make decisions, proposals or objectives they need to apply a strong rationale and logic that they can stand over. They need to be accountable for going against professional experience and recommendations.

I want to mention short-term lettings. In somewhere like County Clare rent pressure zones do not exist but there is tremendous pressure for rental units. My colleague, Senator Róisín Garvey, constantly raises this with me with regard to the pressures in seeking residential rental units in Clare. We need to extend rent pressure zones throughout the country because the pressure exists throughout the country.

The design envelope is a sensible approach to take, especially when we are dealing with highly-technical developments such as wind turbines. In two or three years they could be larger or smaller. The technology could have improved. The size of the wind farm may get bigger but the number of turbines may be smaller.

It is sensible to have that. I do have concerns that this seems to be extended to all aspects. We are told that for maximum flexibility it is intended that the amendment would apply to the main land-based applications under the Planning and Development Act. Is the design envelope not being applied to all planning and development? It is a pity that we do not have more time. I can take it up with the Minister on Committee Stage.

2:45 pm

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I agree with some of the points Deputy Matthews made in relation to An Taisce. The organisation has played a really important role in protecting Irish culture and heritage. It has held people to account who need to held to account. The organisation has done the State a good service. I wish to acknowledge that. Planning and development is an important issue in every community right across the country. The recent controversy in relation to An Bord Pleanála has been a huge blow to the confidence of the communities that I represent. It has undermined the belief and sense that there is any integrity around An Bord Pleanála. That feeling has been badly damaged. I am not sure if people are aware of the anger that exists among the public following events surrounding An Bord Pleanála. The allegations around Mr. Paul Hyde have done serious damage to the integrity of the entire planning process, and not just An Bord Pleanála. The anger has also spilled out towards Dublin City Council and other local authorities right across the country, even though there is no evidence of any link there. People will always talk, but in my experience as a member of Dublin City Council the planners that I worked with were nothing but professional and showed great integrity. We agreed and disagreed on different elements of planning applications and developments, but the reality is that the they always showed complete professionalism. I am aware that the Minister has sanctioned an inquiry into the deputy chairman of An Bord Pleanála. The online publication The Ditch has highlighted the rot that has set into An Bord Pleanála. We are lucky to have such strong investigative journalism in the country. In 2016, a review into An Bord Pleanála was carried out. Little has come out of the recommendations of that review. Mr. Remy Farrell, SC, has been tasked with investigating the deputy chairman. It is essential that the Minister publishes the findings of the investigation as a matter of urgency. The fact that the deadline for the publication of Mr. Farrell's report has been extended by a few weeks is worrying in and of itself. The report is not due to be published until the end of this month. Of course, that means that the Dáil will be in recess when it is published. We need to know, and be confident, that all of the allegations that have been made against members of An Bord Pleanála will be investigated. It is important that the report does not go the way of the 2016 report.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I had not intended to contribute to this debate, but I have found it quite interesting, and in particular, the idea that the Bill is going to be fundamentally changed following the debate today and amendments that we do not have any information on as of yet are going to be introduced. I appreciate the Minister of State's offer to enlighten us as to what will be contained in the amendments in his reply. However, inevitably, his reply will come at the end of Second Stage. Therefore, we will find out at the end of Second Stage what we are actually debating. It is a bizarre construct, by any stretch, that we are going to find out what we are talking about at the end of the debate. I see that the Minister of State is disagreeing with me. Perhaps he contributes to debates without understanding what he is contributing to, but I must say that I find it difficult to do that. I do not know what this Bill will look like, what the Government wants it to look like or what legislative changes it is intended it will introduce.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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There is nothing to stop the Deputy coming to the debate on the next Stage.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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The only thing that will stop me coming to the debate on the next Stage is that it will not be in plenary session. It will be held at a meeting of the Joint Oireachtas Committee of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Some of the Minister of State's colleagues are less than forthcoming with giving people time, if they are not members of committees, notwithstanding Standing Orders. I must say that Deputy Matthews is not among them. I appreciate the fact that he does give people time. If the Government is going to change the law, there is a way to do it, which is to bring legislation through the Houses so that everybody can debate everything fully in plenary, before going to Committee Stage, and coming back to the Houses for Report and Final Stages before the legislation is passed. Invariably, legislation is passed because, as Deputy Matthews discussed in an entirely different context, it is all about having the numbers. If the numbers are there, legislation can be bulldozed through, whether it is good, bad or indifferent. It is a case of territorial pissing sometimes, the idea being that we will do what we want to do because we have the numbers to do it, and screw everyone else. That is a little bit of what this Government does on occasion with legislation. I am not saying that the Minister of State agrees with it. I am certainly not saying that Deputy Leddin agrees with it. However, there is a tendency to do that sometimes, and to ram legislation through at the end of term. This is one example of that. Why are we debating this legislation now, at the very end of term, when pre-legislative scrutiny was completed, as Deputy Matthews pointed out, months ago? We have had months of sitting around and discussing statements instead of debating legislation, praising our wonderful Government for this, that and the other and for what it is doing, or criticising our Government because it is an abomination and the worst Government ever. Either way, it is pretty short-lived stuff. I cannot even remember what it is about. The Minister of State cannot remember either. The excuse frequently given is that legislation is not ready to go.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I do not normally interrupt Members, but in fairness, the great bulk of requests for statements come from opposition Deputies who want to discuss practically everything from a needle to an anchor.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I do not think I have ever put down a request for statements.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Deputy might not have, but if he came to the Business Committee meetings, he would see where the requests for statements come from.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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From my limited experience of chairing a committee in this House, I can anticipate where some of those requests come from, perhaps even within the Opposition. However, that does not change the fact that it suits the Government agenda to accede to those requests and not debate any legislation, then ram all the legislation through at the end of term. This Bill could have been debated on Second Stage a lot sooner. Pre-legislative scrutiny was completed. I do not know this for a fact, but I presume that a committee had to change its schedule at short notice to get pre-legislative scrutiny done so that it could be discussed. Instead, it almost seems like it was intentionally held over until the amendments were ready to roll, which is legislation-----

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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There is no conspiracy to hold over anything. Mass conspiracy does not exist.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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We are debating legislation.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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Let us hear the Deputy's views on it rather than on the process.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I do not have a problem with the contents of the Bill whatsoever. As I said at the outset, I had not intended to contribute to the debate.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy did not say that. He is saying it now.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I said had not intended to contribute to the debate. If I had a problem with the legislation, I would contribute to the debate. I do not vote on stuff that I have not read, if I can help it. I certainly do not purport to vote on matters if I am not here to vote or anything like that. I do not want to go down that road. I want to strike that from the record. I withdraw that comment. It is important that we have proper legislative scrutiny. Pre-legislative scrutiny having been carried out months ago, there is no reason being given by the Government as to why this legislation could not have been debated before now. Instead, we are now being told that we are not actually debating the legislation that is before us, which I have managed to look at and do not have a problem with. I had not intended to contribute to the debate. We are now being told that a load of amendments are going to be brought on Committee Stage, and they are going to be rammed through. A guillotine procedure might even be used so that we will not get to discuss them. That happens. If the Minister of State does not believe that it happens, then he was not here last night. At a conservative estimate, €2.4 billion of taxpayers' money will be spent on the pyrite scheme, but everybody believes it will be a lot more. It is fundamentally undemocratic. There is a lot of celebration of Irish independence, the fact that the Dáil is the only body that can make laws for Ireland and that we can elect our own people to the Dáil, and rightly so. Yet, here we are legislating by decree, almost.

If the Government wants to legislate by decree then it should do so and bring in regulations but if it wants to actually legislate, it is important we can discuss and tease out fully the content of that legislation.

I greatly welcome the comments in that regard by my colleague from the mid-west, Deputy Leddin, that we need time to discuss legislation and that there is plenty of time available to us generally to discuss legislation, though we might use it for other things. Regardless of where all these statements come from - and I am not going to labour this point any more - there is this tendency to bulldoze legislation through at the end. It has been commented on by another component of the Oireachtas, namely, the President, that it is troublesome. We should also bear in mind this legislation arises out of a Supreme Court judgment and seeks to address an anomaly in the law, but the response to it then is to ram legislation through without considering it fully and to add amendments to it that cannot be considered, at least on Second Stage, because we do not know what they are. We are, therefore, going to bring in legislation to deal with an anomaly in the law by ramming legislation through and possibly, at least, creating more anomalies in that law in that regard. Legislation may not be the most interesting or glamorous part of a Deputy's life but it is what we are elected to do and we should be allowed to do it. A Government should not, like a power-drunk county council, abuse numbers to just ram stuff through.

I accept there is occasionally a need for emergency legislation that must be rushed through overnight. The legislation dissolving the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC, is one example. If that had not been brought in by the next morning it would have had considerable financial repercussions for the State but this is not legislation like that. It simply is not, and most of the legislation that is being rammed through is not like that. It shows a disregard for democracy. That is an easy statement to make, one the Opposition makes regularly but one you rarely hear Government Deputies making, though when I was one I made it with regard to legislation that was guillotined. I should say I was not a Government Deputy but rather I was a Government-supporting Deputy. You are either a member of Government or you are not. Hearing these concerns from some on the Government benches is very welcome. I hope the Government will listen, if not to the Opposition making these points then to its own backbenchers making them.

I reiterate I do not have a problem with what is in this legislation but it is what is proposed to be put in at short notice that concerns me and the corrosive effect that has on democracy if that is how it is done. That sets a precedent not just for this Dáil but future Dáileanna and future Governments. Members of the Government will not have a majority forever and they will probably be complaining about legislation being rammed through once they lose this majority.

2:55 pm

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all those who engaged in the debate on this Bill and for the facilitating of today's debate and for the further work that is going to go into this legislation, including Committee Stage amendments and trying to get the Bill through the Houses before the summer recess.

As the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, mentioned in his opening speech, the chief purpose of the Bill is to amend the substitute consent process, which concerns retrospective environmental impact assessments or appropriate assessments in exceptional circumstances, by removing the superfluous initial leave to apply stage. This initial stage did not involve public participation. Related provisions clarifying EIA and AA screening processes for planning authorities are also included.

Just to say, the delay in producing the legislation was unavoidable due to the complexities of the Bill as published in terms of the drafting from the Attorney General's office and notwithstanding the fact pre-legislative scrutiny had taken place a long number of months ago.

The Bill also provides that an existing provision that is presently solely available to certain quarry projects alone, to allow a simultaneous application for future development at the same time as a substitute consent application, is expanded to include all development types. This is to encourage remediation of existing unauthorised developments. Any perceived benefits to a section 37L future-facing application of being able to apply directly to the board, instead of having to separately apply to the relevant planning authority first, will be significantly outweighed by the inherent vulnerabilities and significant potential financial exposure if the related substitute consent application is refused. In such cases the relevant planning authority will be statutorily obliged to initiate enforcement proceedings against the unauthorised development seeking remediation of the site. Furthermore, the future-facing planning application on the same or adjoining site may also be refused as a result if, for example, it relies on any elements of the refused substitute consent proposal. In other words, the legislative proposal to allow parallel substitute consent and planning applications does not on balance provide an advantage to developers, noting the significant constraints and vulnerabilities for any developer attached to progressing a substitute consent proposal relating to unauthorised development, as well as noting the clear benefits to the public in allowing a parallel and holistic assessment of two related proposals on the same or adjoining sites to take place at the same time by the same assessment authority.

In the context of the wider planning system, substitute consent applications make for a very small, statistically insignificant percentage of the overall number of planning applications. However, this does not recognise the important role played by substitute consent in bringing certain unauthorised developments back into the planning process where they can be subjected to appropriate environmental oversight and regulation.

The Bill also serves as a vehicle to introduce a number of important legislative amendments that fall under the remit of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I will detail them now.

The first Government amendment to be introduced on Committee Stage relates to short-term letting provisions in the Planning Act. The Government recognises the issue of the significant number of properties withdrawn from the long-term rental market in recent years that have instead been diverted for use as short-term lettings and the associated negative impact this has had on the supply and availability of private residential rental accommodation with associated knock-on implications for rental prices. Further amendments will be brought forward to address the issue. Supplementary to these new legislative provisions, the Minister proposes to issue new guidelines to planning authorities updating the criteria to be taken into account in determining applications for change of use planning permission in respect of short-term let properties in rent pressure zones, RPZs, having regard to the extraordinary pressures for properties currently prevailing in the private rental market.

The second set of Government amendments to be introduced on Committee Stage relates to ministerial directions on statutory plans as provided for in the Planning and Development Act. Since the April 2019 commencement and operation of the Office of the Planning Regulator on foot of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018, a number of technical matters have come to light regarding the legislative procedures of section 31 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 including, but not limited to, sections 31AM and 31AN on development plans and variations, sections 31AO and 31AP on local area plans and the interrelationship of such. Minor and technical amendments are required to address cross-referencing, standardised wording, notifications and consistency in procedure for both the draft direction stage and the final direction stage. The technical and procedural amendments introduced by this Bill will provide clarity and consistency of language and procedure for all stakeholders including local authorities and the wider public.

The third set of Government amendments to be introduced relates to flexibility in planning applications in the Planning Act. These amendments address the decision of Mr. Justice Humphreys in the case of Peter Sweetman v. An Bord Pleanála, Ireland and the Attorney General and Bord na Móna Powergen regarding the design envelope approach for the submission of certain planning applications which require a degree of flexibility at planning application stage as the final details of the development may be unconfirmed at that stage.

The High Court judgment disapplies all such flexibilities and replaces them with a very limited range of flexibilities, which is insufficient for the operation of a modern and effective planning system.

The amendments contained in this Bill introduce a pre-application procedure for planning applications seeking a level of flexibility with regard to the details of the proposed development to be submitted as part of the application and are intended to legislate for an approach which facilitates flexibility while providing sufficient clarity to allow planning authorities to consider what level of information is appropriate on a case-by-case basis, while also providing appropriate safeguards for environmental assessment. While it is intended that the amendments will be of assistance to renewable energy applications in particular, the amendments are drafted to apply to all planning applications generally. Any request for flexibility must be considered by the planning authority or the board and an opinion will only be issued where the planning authority or the board considers, given the specific circumstances of the planning application, that it is appropriate for the application to be made on a flexible basis.

The next set of Government amendments to be introduced on Committee Stage relate to the judicial review proceedings in the Planning and Development Act. New amendments will require the court to consider whether there is an adequate appeal or other available administrative remedy and if so, it should not grant leave. This is not as absolute as the amendment that was originally proposed but it is compliant with EU law and creates a presumption, which the court is required to implement, that issues arising from determinations of planning authorities ought to be appealed to the board unless there are special circumstances. In effect, an appeal rather than a judicial review challenge should be the default position in the first instance.

There are two further amendments which will assist in reducing unnecessary judicial reviews and help to achieve Government policy in this regard. The first will confer on the board and planning authorities the power to make an amended decision where there is a challenge. If the challenge demonstrates that the board has made an error which nullifies its decision, the board will be able to have the matter remitted to it to make a new decision and it will not be necessary for the court to make an order invalidating the decision prior to the board doing this. That will enable the board and planning authorities to correct any errors on the face of the record that would otherwise lead to the quashing of the decision.

The final amendment introduced is designed to assist developers in obtaining remittal and address the judicial reluctance which has manifested itself recently to remit matters to planning authorities following a successful judicial review challenge. At present, some judges refer matters back to the planning authorities to make a new decision while other judges are reluctant to do so. To address this, it is proposed to provide for an effective presumption that the matter can be remitted to the board at the commencement of the legal proceedings in order that the errors can be corrected quickly, thereby avoiding associated delays with such proceedings.

The fifth set of Government amendments to be introduced on Committee Stage relates to amendments to the Valuation Acts. The purpose of these amendments is to enable the Commissioner of Valuation to defer the roll-out of the national revaluation programme. In February 2022, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage agreed with the Commissioner of Valuation that the commissioner will further defer the revaluation of rateable properties. It had been agreed to delay the dates for the revaluation of the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown rating authority on two previous occasions of foot of the impacts of Covid-19. This amendment gives effect to the most recent review of the commissioner and agreement to the further postponement of the revaluation programme.

The sixth set of Government amendments to be introduced on Committee Stage relates to technical amendments to the Marine Area Planning Act 2021. The proposed amendments, which are technical in nature, have been recommended and drafted by the Office of the Attorney General. Section 56 is amended by this Bill to allow for the appointment of a chief executive officer designate by the Minister ahead of the establishment of the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority. Other amendments provided for are technical in nature and to support the establishment of the new marine planning system.

In concluding the introduction of this Bill to the House, I thank Members for their contributions and confirm that the Minister will engage further on Committee and Final Stages next week. I also point out, as has been mentioned, that the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department officials will host a briefing next Monday morning for committee members and any other Member of the Oireachtas who wishes to partake. We look forward to a positive engagement. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put.

3:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Insofar as a vote has been called, it is deferred until immediately before the Committee Stage of the Bill.