Dáil debates

Wednesday, 14 December 2022

Planning and Development and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill 2022: Second Stage


1:00 pm

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am very pleased to bring the Planning and Development and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill to Second Stage in the Dáil. I will go through this much-needed legislation in a minute. However, I first wish to deal with some confusion that may exist. The Planning and Development and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill is entirely separate from the consolidated planning Bill that I brought to Cabinet yesterday. That is very important legislation which has been worked through with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage on a module basis as well, but the consolidated planning Bill is once-in-a-generation legislation. It is the culmination of 15 months' work by the Attorney General and a team of legal planning experts. It will be published early in the new year. I expect it to be published by around 9 January. It will then go through pre-legislative scrutiny and through both Houses of the Oireachtas. I assure Deputies that all views will be taken on board. We can, we must and we will get that legislation right. There is no question of the consolidated planning Bill being rushed through in any shape or form. That just will not happen.

I thank the Dáil for facilitating this important and urgent legislation. The urgency of the issues at hand to address the housing crisis require immediate legislative action and I appreciate both Houses assisting in achieving that. I will briefly set out the background and why such swift actions are required.

This Bill was part of the An Bord Pleanála reform agenda agreed by Cabinet on 4 October. I indicated to Opposition parties on 22 November that I intended to introduce additional measures in the Bill to expedite supply. At its meeting on 7 December, the Government approved an amendment to this Bill relating to housing delivery which I will discuss in detail on Committee Stage later today. I have made officials available for briefings as required on all aspects of the Bill, including a briefing which was arranged for Deputies last Monday, 12 December.

In particular I emphasise two points on which we need to move forward quickly and which require the urgent approach being taken with this legislation. First is the immediate need to put in place an interim chairperson for An Bord Pleanála to help unlock the planning delays that are impacting our housing system. Overhauling and reforming An Bord Pleanála to rebuild and restore public trust after a turbulent period and to ensure it can play an efficient and effective role at the apex of our planning system cannot be delayed.

Second is the pressing need to ramp up supply. The impact of inflation, higher interest rates and supply chain issues means we need to take further steps to boost housing delivery. In this light I am bringing forward accelerated measures to support local authority social and affordable housing delivery through the planning system and building modern methods of construction homes with a very specific focus on that. I know all Deputies understand the urgent need to prioritise tackling our housing crisis through all means available. This proposed amendment, which received Cabinet approval on 7 December, reflects that.

I will now go through the broad policies underpinning the Bill. Since its establishment in 1977, An Bord Pleanála has become an integral part of our planning system, providing an independent, impartial and objective appeals process in addition to many other functions. The provisions relating to the board of An Bord Pleanála that are contained in this Bill are necessary to ensure the full functioning of the board to allow it to process its significant workload efficiently.

While the main legislative provisions relating to An Bord Pleanála are being examined in a new consolidated planning Bill, which I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, this Bill deals with certain initial matters requiring immediate action on foot of phase 1 of the action plan for An Bord Pleanála, which was carried out by the Office of the Planning Regulator, and other matters relating to addressing board vacancies and the board's caseload in light of its new marine functions. They include providing for the appointment of a chairperson of An Bord Pleanála for an interim period while a permanent chairperson is recruited through open competition; increasing the limit on the overall number of ordinary members of the board to ensure the increasing caseload can be managed and the appropriate quorums and suitable allocation of case files can be assured; expanding the provision to appoint temporary ordinary board members to allow for the appointment of serving or former civil servants, public servants or employees of the board for a term of up to one year; providing for a suitable, independent, objective and transparent procedure by which recommendations may be made to the Minister on the recruitment and appointment of ordinary members of the board through an open competitive process, replacing the archaic list system and nomination system that has existed since the board's establishment; clarifying and streamlining the investigative powers of the chairperson under section 110; and removing the option for a two-member board quorum so that the minimum quorum will be at least three. As Deputies will know, I instructed the board to cease that and it has ceased it, but this is to underpin it in legislation.

The Bill enables the establishment of a new appointments process for board members of An Bord Pleanála through open competition, where any member of the public may apply if that person believes he or she has the relevant experience or qualifications to serve on the board. This process will replace the outdated panel process with a new structure to replenish the board into the future. The reform of the process to appoint board members to An Bord Pleanála is a critical step to ensure impartiality and transparency in An Bord Pleanála as an independent planning body, which is foundational to the success of the planning system in Ireland.

I am also bringing forward an amendment today on Committee Stage to provide for virtual meetings of the board. This includes meetings for the purpose of making any decision on any appeal, referral or application. The provision to hold virtual meetings is in line with similar statutory initiatives such as the holding of virtual AGMs under the Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Covid- 19) Act 2020, which has recently been extended to December 2023. This is an efficiency measure to facilitate the board in processing its caseload.

Finally, in relation to An Bord Pleanála I wish to update the House that the Government yesterday approved a new consolidated planning and development Bill, which will be referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for consideration in the new year. The Bill will implement one of the key measures in the action plan for An Bord Pleanála, agreed by Government on 4 October, which is to move to a new organisational structure for An Bord Pleanála, to separate the decision-making and the corporate and organisational roles.

An Bord Pleanála will be re-named as An Coimisiún Pleanála to bring greater clarity to the understanding of these distinct roles. The new Bill contains a number of provisions reflecting the new organisational structure and will clearly outline the role of the planning commissioners, who will be responsible for all decision-making regarding consents and applications made to it. There will be a chief planning commissioner and up to 14 planning commissioners. These will be full-time posts and will replace the current chairperson and board member roles.

The governing body, which will be responsible for the governance and organisation of the body, will comprise a chief executive, up to two additional ex-officiomembers and up to four non-executive members.

I will now move on to the housing-related amendment to the Planning and Development and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill 2022. I wish to confirm that Government amendments will be tabled on Dáil Committee Stage to provide defined and time-bound circumstances for the accelerated delivery of social and affordable housing on local authority or other State-owned land which is zoned for housing.

In essence, the proposed amendments will seek to disapply temporarily the Part 8 planning approval process for local authority-owned development proposals, as provided for in section 179 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, in respect of social, affordable and cost rental housing developments only, in strictly defined circumstances where the land is owned by the local authority or another State body; the land is zoned for residential development; the proposed development does not materially contravene the development plan or a local area plan for the area; the proposed development is in accordance with the relevant local authority' s housing strategy; the land is serviced or will be serviced with the necessary supporting infrastructure or facilities within the timeframe of the development; and the proposed development is not required to undergo environmental impact assessment, where it is not required already to undergo such an assessment under the environmental impact assessment, EIA, directive, or appropriate assessment, AA, under the habitats directive. There is no question, therefore, of setting aside the EIAs or AAs. The chief executive will also be providing plans and particulars of the proposed development to the elected members of the local authority to enable consultation on the proposals, as well as the local authority giving public notice and enabling public inspection of the proposals in a prescribed manner. Finally, the development works are to be commenced by no later than 31 December 2024. It will be our desire that many of these developments will commence in 2023.

This measure is time-bound, is important, is urgent, it needs to be done and I request Deputies and party support for that amendment and, indeed, for this urgent legislation which moves us towards the reform of an Bord Pleanála.

1:10 pm

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I am aware that the Minister had more to say.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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Yes, but I have circulated my script.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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Everybody should have a copy of the script. I call Deputy Ó Broin now from Sinn Féin.

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I want record my extreme disappointment at what is essentially the cutting short of pre-legislative scrutiny of this significant legislation following the Minister’s decision to introduce the Bill in the Seanad. I do not accept that the emergency amendments which the Minister wants to bring forward had be done in this way. They could have been attached to another Bill and I will speak to that in a moment.

The really concerning thing is that the Minister asked for pre-legislative scrutiny. We were on schedule and, in fact, would have had it completed within seven weeks and not the eight weeks as is now required. That would have then meant that the Seanad, and indeed ourselves in the Dáil, would have had the benefit of all of that, something that was effectively denied, because the Bill was published and introduced before that process was concluded.

I say this as I have said so many other times, that rushing through complex planning legislation, even where we may agree on some aspects of it and that will not necessarily be the case today, is not a good way to make planning legislation. We have too many examples of legislation being rushed at the last minute with unintended consequences, or errors subsequently being found and changes having to be made. As it was before I suspect it will be in respect of this.

I thank the officials for the two briefings they gave us, both at Seanad and Dáil stages, and they were exceptionally helpful. Unfortunately, it does not deal with the many concerns I have with aspects of this Bill. I will take the three sections of the Bill in turn.

The Minister is making a fundamental mistake with the proposed changes to the appointments' process of An Bord Pleanála. The panel system needed to be changed and I have no doubt about that. I have argued before and will continue to argue for a hybrid system where we have nominating bodies updated on a regular basis with professional expertise and knowledge appointing into an open and transparent public competition process, what I call a Public Appointments Service plus, to enable the Minister then to ensure that the very best, most qualified and competent candidates get the job.

We do not even know what is the Minister’s process. He is asking us to support a provision whereby:

The Minister shall establish a suitable, independent, objective, and transparent procedure (which may include the establishment of a committee), in accordance with which recommendations may be made to the Minister [for appointments].

Basically, the Minister is asking us to trust him to design a process which may or may not be the things said in the Bill. That is a mistake and I agree with commentary in the public domain that this is a return to a period where there was far greater ministerial and Government influence in appointments and, therefore, in the shape and direction of the board. That is a backward step and one I cannot support and we have amendments to deal with that on Committee Stage.

I understand the need to appoint an interim chair. That could have been done by way of a single amendment but it is a mistake to appoint somebody from within the Civil Service. That is no disrespect to the individual the Minister has appointed. What the board needs right now in order to help restore public confidence is someone from outside the Government sector and of the Civil Service who is clearly qualified to do the very specific sets of jobs. The problem is that by appointing somebody from within the Civil Service, this is compromised in terms of both perception and reality. The way in which the Minister has constructed that facility is a mistake.

Most of what the Minister has included for An Bord Pleanála in this legislation could have been dealt with in the planning Bill and we could have had a much more rounded discussion through PLS next year on all of that. I see no reason why this has to be rushed through in the way it is being done.

On the Planning and Development and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill 2022, we understand from the officials that this is simply clarifying what was the understanding of the existing 1933 Act, although if the 1933 Act was clear we would not have required a clarification of it. My concern here, therefore, is less profound than in respect of An Bord Pleanála but we received very strong evidence at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, both from the wind farm and offshore wind industry, and from the environmental sector, of a whole set of problems. I have some sympathy, in particular, with the environmental sector that there could either be unintended consequences both in respect of the subsoil and where that starts and ends, but also in respect of the possible exclusive licensing use of the water column, which could have significant impacts for other users. Due to the fact that we have not had adequate time to scrutinise or tease that out, we are left in a difficult position. Again, I and others have amendments to deal with that.

Finally, with respect to the suspension of the Part 8 planning process, we have always said that if the Minister brought forward proposals which helped to accelerate the and increase delivery of social and affordable housing we would look at them with an open mind and support them, if necessary. What the Minister is proposing is very controversial. We should not dispute that at all. It will cause enormous difficulties for elected members. There will be many managers who will be very reluctant to use this as they have been reluctant to use emergency powers to date. It will also cause very significant difficulties with communities because their right to public participation is being withdrawn. In fact, if the Minister had come to some of us to ask us our view on how to expedite the delivery of social and affordable housing, we would have pointed to any number of ways in which he could have done it more effectively. Even after the 14 to 20 weeks of Part 8, in many instances there are two to four years of stage 3 and stage 4 in the four stage approval process which delays projects and in many cases completely unnecessarily. I still think there is a better way of doing this but we will not oppose this amendment and will not stand in the Minister’s way of doing what is going to do. I want to place some concerns on the record and make a very specific request.

It was not clear from our discussions with the officials what would be gained. If Part 8 is 20 weeks, but during Part 8 managers do a series of other things which will still have to be done under this procedure, we asked the officials would it involve five, ten or 20 weeks and they did not know.

Given that there is invariably a 12 to 18-month period of design approval, cost appraisal, tendering and procurement after planning is granted under this procedure, we asked how long the procedure will be available for. In real terms, people will not be able to avail of this at the latter end of next year or early in 2024 unless we change stages 3 and 4 in the process. It is not clear what the gain will be and how many units could be provided. The more clarity we get on that the better. It is not yet clear, in the public domain at least, what additionality this will bring on top of the existing pipeline.

There is also, inevitably, a concern about litigation. If we completely remove public participation, that opens up the possibility of litigation and would have the effect of slowing down projects. We raised this matter with the officials and they gave us an answer but I do not think any of us on the Opposition side of the briefing were satisfied.

I have come into the Chamber over and over again to ask the Minister to take emergency measures. In fact, one of the most bizarre exchanges in our meeting was when I asked why we were not asking managers to use the existing emergency procedures they have rather than this. We were told it was because the power was for an emergency and we were not in an emergency. We were also told this was not an emergency provision, but rather an expedited provision. That was a wonderful use of the English language by hard-working officials in the Department. The Minister can be proud of them.

It is not clear what we will get out of any of this, but we call on the Minister to take emergency measures. He is bringing this forward as an emergency measure by another name and, therefore, we will not stand in his way. I urge the Minister to bring forward to the committee, on a regular basis, a specific report, which could be an addendum to the social housing pipeline report, setting out clearly where the sites are, how they are being progressed and what they are being progressed for.

There has been some speculation that this is specifically related to those lands for which the Supplementary Estimate is providing additional finance in order to pay down the historic debt. The Minister knows that while we would have preferred that money to have been spent on social and affordable housing this year rather than forgoing the money, it is better that it is spent on that debt. If that is the case, the Minister should give us as much information as possible, including where the land is and the number of units. The Minister's officials spoke about consultation with elected members, although that involves a report at a municipal or area committee. There should be as much engagement with elected members as possible as these provisions go through.

There are any number of ways to accelerate the delivery of social and affordable homes. There is no need for such a complex design and approval process between the local authority and Department. It takes too long and the process should be shortened or scrapped.

Given that there are unit cost ceilings in the Department and a tendering and procurement process, cost appraisal is a complete waste of time. Tendering in and of itself takes far too long. We need to move to three or five-year regional and tiered agreements, rather than having to go out to tender for every single job. In a climate where every six to 12 months of a delay adds 5%, 10% or 15% to costs, the sooner we grapple with the real problem in terms of delivering social and affordable housing, which is the cumbersome and outdated four-stage process imposed by the Minister's Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the better.

We are not opposing the proposals. We will monitor them very carefully. We would like the Minister to give us full transparency and maximum information in order that we can scrutinise the Bill in committee. As time goes by, we will see whether it will deliver anything at any greater speed than is currently the case.

1:20 pm

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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In the limited time we have available, I have to be straight with the Minister. We cannot and will not support the Bill, which should come as no surprise to the Minister. Our colleague, the Labour Party's housing spokesperson, Senator Moynihan, made the party's position on this Bill very clear. She did so both in the Seanad and in correspondence with the Minister. We are opposed to the thrust of the Bill and the way in which it has been developed and presented to us today for a number of reasons.

The Bill originally started out as an intention to appoint an interim and deputy chair to An Bord Pleanála. It now turns out to be what we might describe as an eye-watering power grab by the Minister and Department. The board is in bad need of reform - there is consensus about that - but this is not the kind of reform that An Bord Pleanála needs and is certainly not the right place to start.

One of the Christmas staples is the screening of "Back to the Future". In one fell swoop, the Minister's plans are taking us back to the future, as referenced by Mick Clifford in the Irish Examinerthis week. It is back to the future without the craic and entertainment because this is deadly serious. The Minister is travelling back in time to an era in the 1970s when An Bord Pleanála was a statutory independent board but only nominally so because, in effect, it was a creature of the Minister of the day. Ministers appointed the entire board until Dick Spring's reforms in 1983. He reformed the way in which An Bord Pleanála operated for a variety of reasons. He changed the appointment processes to include panels of experts and so on in order to help make An Bord Pleanála independent of the Department. He did so at a time when the Irish people were genuinely and legitimately concerned about the direction of planning and development in this country. He did so to restore confidence in a system that to an extent had lost any claim to be independent and impartial, arising from some high-profile cases at the time. In 2022, legitimate questions are being asked about the way in which the board is being run and the Minister's answer is simply to go back to the old and discredited way of doing business.

This Bill will radically change the way which appointments are made for ordinary members of the board and that is our primary concern. The panels and so on used to make appointments may be imperfect but they are capable of reform if the Minister is prepared to consider that approach. However, he is patently not doing so. He is able, at the stroke of a pen, to give himself the sole power to appoint up to 15 ordinary members, narrowly defined in terms of civil and public servants, and to appoint them for up to two years.

My suspicion is that this is no accident. The Minister plans to bring in his planning omnibus Bill next year. It will be the case that under the Bill before us it is very likely that many of the same people charged with developing these important once-a-generation reforms that will ultimately limit democratic oversight of planning will find themselves at some point or another possibly appointed by the Minister as ordinary members of the board, albeit on a temporary and maximum two-year basis, to do the Department's bidding. That could happen as the new system beds in and precedents are set under the new regime.

This is no criticism of the independence of the Civil Service, an independence that is hard earned and a Civil Service in which we all trust. However, the risks are evident. The clear expectation will be that Government policy ought to be adhered to. This will end up, in my view, being a case of "Lanigan's Ball". People will leave the Custom House, go to An Bord Pleanála and head back again. One steps in and one steps out again. There will be a revolving door between the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Civil Service and An Bord Pleanála. An Bord Pleanála is being brought fully back into the orbit of the Minister and Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to be again a creature of the political system at a time when confidence in the board at a corporate level is on the floor.

I am also seriously concerned about the proposal the Minister is making in respect of changes to the Part 8 system. He is doing so in a bid, as he sees it, to expedite public housing on publicly owned land. I want to express my gratitude to the Minister for the proposals he has developed to allow local authorities to clear the debt they owe on public land they bought at the height of the Celtic tiger. One such local authority is Louth, in my constituency. It is important that the Minister has done that but I do not understand why he feels he needs to change Part 8 so fundamentally. It is a system that has worked very well over the years. I was a councillor for 12 years and it was a section of the planning process that appeared to me to work very well. This provision seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

We need to hear evidence from the Minister about the deficiencies in Part 8 approvals. Where is the problem? Where has Part 8 caused a logjam? We need to see evidence of this. We are evidence-based policymakers and require that evidence before we can take a position on that particular reform.

1:30 pm

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I thank Deputy Nash for sharing time. I will read into the record some of the contents of an email I received on Monday from a Mr. Justin Moran of Wind Energy Ireland in respect of its concerns about the foreshore aspects of this Bill.

Our industry is concerned that the effect of what is proposed will be to slow the development of renewable energy and undermine efforts to deliver the legally binding carbon emissions reductions required by the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021. This is because the Act, by widening the definition of the foreshore to include the water column above the seabed, will now require any project wishing to carry out non-invasive geophysical survey activity in the water above the foreshore to obtain a Foreshore Site Investigation Licence to do so, even though this activity is already regulated by the National Parks & Wildlife Service.

Since it is taking more than 2 years to get such a licence the actual effect of this Act will be to block any new geophysical survey activity by renewable energy projects until the establishment of the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority in Q2 of 2023. We lose time, when we have none to lose.

Mr. Moran goes on to state that he is writing to me to ask me and, by inference, the Minister to support the recommendation contained in the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage's pre-legislative scrutiny report on the general scheme of the Bill. The relevant quote from that report is:

The Committee recommends that the Department obtain and publish expert legal advice and stakeholder consultation, namely, with marine environmental stakeholders, the fishing community, and the offshore renewable energy industry, so as to inform the provision of safeguards in respect of the amendment in Head 9 of the General Scheme.

The email, which I am sure the Minister has, and he certainly has been made aware of it, goes on to state:

As part of our submission to the Pre-Legislative Scrutiny of the Bill we requested a legal opinion on the General Scheme which was provided by Arthur Cox and which was given to the committee. I would be happy to share it with you ... [etc.]

The legal opinion states:

We expect that the rationale behind this is to facilitate the licencing of geophysical surveys which take place in the water column. However, it is not clear why such surveys require regulation, as part of the foreshore licensing process, when those surveys are already regulated by another process.

That is the question Wind Energy Ireland is asking. If we had some response to that in reply to this debate, we would be grateful. The email goes on to state:

This makes it all the more confusing that a Bill is being advanced to amend the Foreshore Act to regulate an already regulated form of survey activity when it will slow the development of offshore wind energy which will serve only to increase carbon emissions and our dependency on imported fossil fuels.

We need MARA to succeed but we want the processes now to be such that they are streamlined and do not create any impediment to the development of offshore wind so as to increase the potential for energy independence on this island. That is ultimately what this email is about.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I welcome anything that will move on housing in this country. I will make just a few observations.

First, as for the board, the chairman of the board and the way the board will be picked, I greatly resent that we always look for public servants in this regard. I tabled a number of parliamentary questions over recent weeks and went to every single Department and State agency. I do not know how public servants, health board officials or county managers can do their jobs because every second one of them is on boards, and it is not right. When this board is set up we have to put on it people who are for planning, people who may be against planning and professional people who know about planning. Even retired builders will have to be put on the board to show how they have to work and operate. I am not a builder and none of my family are builders, but the people who build houses are builders.

I will give the Minister an example of what happened during the summer in Geesala. They run a fantastic festival there every year, with horses on the beach. Thousands of people come to it. The week before the event they got a call from the foreshore section in Cork telling them they could not have the event and needed to go looking for maps and this and that. Every single thing they had to do they had to pay for. Everyone in the foreshore offices and the National Parks and Wildlife Service was getting paid for by the State, whereas the volunteers who were putting on the races were expected to do so on their voluntary time, trying to do good for their community and trying to help their community. We are over-regulated in this country. Such events went on for years and years when there was no regulation. We have just gone too far.

Does the Minister talk to the county managers or the county managers' association? Are they serious about building houses? Three major developments in my county over recent months have been refused. They go to An Bord Pleanála. You would be as well to send them to hell or to heaven because by the time you get a decision you would be dead, having waited for months. When your time is up and you are told your decision will be done, what happens? I will tell you what happens. You will be another six months and another six months. Anything the Minister can do to try to speed up that process has to be done. Also, if there are cases going to the courts, they have to be sped up. We cannot expect people to wait for years and years. We have a housing crisis and we need planning laws that will move this on. If something is wrong, it should be refused. If it is right, it should be moved on as fast as it can be instead of everybody looking at it and making decisions, with an appeal here, there and everywhere. Something has to be done.

I really want the Minister to put in place a board that represents all sections of society. Too much is happening in this country now. With every single State board being appointed now, it is public service people who are put in. The Government that is there all the time is now running things. The Minister brought into the development plans provisions that the councillors could zone land and send it up to the Department. Then it is sent back from the Department. Then it is sent to a regulator and he scraps off what he wants or does not want. That is not proper local government. That is not democracy. For the past three nights I have been watching on the television a programme about the Irish Civil War and the setting up of this State. I thought we had a free State and democracy. I thought we had a Minister. This is his job. When I was a Minister, I was a Minister. Public servants have a job to do and they do a good job, but they are only the public service. They are there to advise the Minister. The Minister of the day is the one who should make the decisions and not be afraid to make them. I listen to the Opposition and the media speak of conflicts of interests and conflicts of this and that. We need people on boards who know what is going on out there, not people who make rules that make it more difficult for people to operate under those rules.

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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There is an explicit and important recognition of the value of the work our environmental NGOs do in the planning process, whether through European Union directives or the Aarhus Convention. Traditionally, this aspect has been reflected in their treatment by the Government and in the legislative process. The Oireachtas housing committee engages with environmental NGOs on pre-legislative scrutiny of schemes and their unparalleled expertise inform the report ultimately produced by the committee. However, by the time we produced this report, the Minister had already introduced the legislation. That is not the way it should operate. Do not get me wrong. There are times when the process has to be fast-tracked, but it seems to be happening too often. This flies in the face of the participatory nature of environmental decision-making and the legislative process. I ask the Minister to look at those actions going forward. We want to be supportive and constructive.

When the Minister announced last week or the week before the €100 million targeted towards local authorities' debt, I welcomed that. I think there is another €200 million in debt there. I remember that that debt was a huge burden on my council, Cork City Council.

We want to see those sites developed with housing. The biggest barrier to solving the housing emergency is staffing and resources for local authorities. That is what I hear on the ground. If we want to deliver the housing we need, we need to resource them.

1:40 pm

Photo of Cian O'CallaghanCian O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay North, Social Democrats)
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First, I want to object very strongly to the way this Bill is being rushed through and not given proper time on Committee Stage to allow for full scrutiny and discussion of amendments and that it was brought to the Seanad before the pre-legislative scrutiny, which the committee was doing in the new reduced time. We were ahead of schedule but that was done before that was completed. It shows absolute contempt for the legislative and democratic process. When the Government brought in the reduced time for pre-legislative scrutiny, an absolute commitment was given by the Government that if committees were going with the reduced timeframe, Bills would not be introduced before it had been completed. It did not take long for the Government to break yet another cast iron commitment that it gave. It is hard to regard the Government with credibility when that is the way it behaves towards the democratic process.

One of the problems this Bill is trying to fix is the result of rushed legislation. The lowering of the quorum for decisions by An Bord Pleanála to two members was a direct result of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010 which was rushed through the Oireachtas by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party to avoid proper scrutiny. Time and again, rushed legislation shows itself to be flawed legislation. Legislation that seeks to cut corners actually ends up creating delays instead of saving time. The strategic housing development legislation is a prime example of that.

At the moment there is a very deliberate strategy and narrative around blaming the planning system for the failure of the Government to deliver housing. The facts simply do not match up to that. There are currently 80,000 planning permissions which are not built out and are not commenced. People are really being gaslighted by the Government with a developers agenda which it is parroting here. You can see that in how the crisis at An Bord Pleanála is being used to ram through changes to concentrate more powers in the hands of the Minister and undermining the independence of the board.

We are having the wrong conversation entirely on planning. We should be talking about how to make the planning process better and stronger so that we can build more sustainable, cohesive, successful and thriving communities.

On the specifics of the Bill and some of the difficulties I have with it, first I refer to the changes in An Bord Pleanála and the Minister’s attempt to go backwards to pre-1983 to centralise power in his hands to appoint members of the board. It is a regressive step and a return to the bad old days. There were very good reasons that those changes were made in 1983. The power and discretion to the Minister that this Bill allows for are extraordinary and are not subject to Oireachtas oversight. In recent days I have heard Government Deputies misrepresenting the text of section 6(b) of the Bill, saying there is no issue with the appointment process to the board because the Minister “shall establish” a committee. They failed to say that section 6(b) gives the Minister discretion on this and that while establishing a process, he may include the establishment of a committee. It is an absolute flaw in the Bill to give the Minister such discretion.

We have to ask why the Minister did not use his existing and substantial powers under section 104 of the Act to fill vacancies that have arisen on the board. Is it because that process is subject to Oireachtas oversight and to very strict time limits in terms of any of the appointments made?

Section 3 relates to the amendment of section 106 of the 2000 Act and the key skills and competencies of members of An Bord Pleanála. The list proposed in the Bill by the Minister is highly deficient. Amendment No. 20 which I and others tabled sought to deal with this but it has been ruled out of order. It is a very significant amendment. My amendment No. 22 also deals with it. There are a number of key skills listed as recommended by the joint committee in its pre-legislative report. It was recommended unanimously and was a good list of the skills that would be needed on the board. I would ask the Minister to take on board the all-party recommendation.

Along with the list of expertise around built heritage, archaeology, marine ecology, terrestrial ecology and so on, the knowledge of planning matters and how it affects Gaeltacht areas and Irish language speakers in Gaeltacht areas in particular is something that is needed on the board. The Minister took an interest in that before.

On the foreshore aspects of the Bill and the water column, I fully agree there is a need for regulatory clarity here. I do not agree that there is no need for proper regulatory oversight. We must comply with our obligations under European law. Article 12 of the habitats directive states that we must give the highest protection to species and their habitats that are listed in annex IV(a), including whales, dolphins, turtles and otters. Ireland has already been found in breach of this directive in the European Court of Justice case 183/05. It is critical to note that surveys that are invasive may require an environmental impact assessment. I have concerns about the redefinition of subsoil and that there is a risk of unintended consequences from this. It is worth saying that seismic surveys can kill the marine food chain. They can fatally maim and kill whales, dolphins and porpoises. That aspect of the Bill needs to be very carefully considered.

There are very significant concerns about renewable energy and the long delays of two years to obtain a foreshore site investigation. There is a potential to create huge delays in developing renewable energy and impacting severely on our meeting our climate action targets and meeting our needs around energy security and sustainability.

Finally, I want to raise the temporary abolition of public participation in the planning process for social, affordable and cost-rental homes. I will welcome any measure that speeds up the delivery of much-needed social housing. However, while we must build fast, we must also build well to last. Many mistakes have been made in this area in the past. It is highly questionable whether these provisions comply with EU law and the Aarhus Convention which Ireland signed up to and which requires public participation as part of the planning process. It is worth noting that the real delays in providing social housing are not caused by the planning process or indeed public participation. They are caused by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the very cumbersome bureaucratic process around approvals and the delays around that. I do not think that process is necessary. In my area, very close to where I live, social housing was meant to be built. Every time I have been on to the council about it over the years, I have been told that it is waiting for go-ahead from the Department and the next stage of approval. This has been going on for years in respect of these much-needed social homes. It is nothing to do with the planning process or public participation and everything to do with the Department.

When we had a briefing on this with the Department a few days ago, the officials were asked what evidence there was on which to base these changes. They said there was none. They were asked if there would be a regulatory impact and they confirmed there would not be. They confirmed that zero analysis had been done to see what benefits have arisen from public participation and what problems were identified that were fixed. There was no analysis done on that. They were explicit that the public participation process and Part 8 had worked very well since it was streamlined in 2018. They were exceptionally clear on that point and that zero issues, as far as they knew, had arisen from the public participation process and there were zero examples of it running into any difficulties or creating any delays. It is quite extraordinary given what the Department is telling us that these measures are being brought forward.

There is a cost to abolishing public participation in terms of reducing accountability. That will inevitably lead to the reduction of design and planning standards. Part of the reason we have the housing disaster we have at the moment is that millions of euro was spent and thousands of social homes were built that were not planned well and were not designed well and they ended up having to be demolished at huge financial, social and environmental costs. We must be very careful about any measures that will reduce the oversight and accountability and may lead to a reduction in planning and design standards.

The Minister often says the Opposition comes forward with no solutions, but here is one: if he insists on going ahead with this, he should provide dedicated funding for amenities and community facilities such as playgrounds, for which all the social housing providers tell us they have no funding models or funding streams. That would provide some amelioration in respect of getting rid of the public participation process concerning social housing.

1:50 pm

Photo of Joe FlahertyJoe Flaherty (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the planning legislation and long-overdue overhaul of An Bord Pleanála. The Bill will ensure the recruitment arrangements for the appointment of members of An Bord Pleanála are updated, streamlined and more appropriate to the complex environment in which they now operate. It is planned to introduce amendments to the Bill to enable expedited planning for the construction of social and affordable homes on local authority-owned lands. Crucially, these emergency powers, when enacted, will apply to lands owned by local authorities and will be very time-limited and specific. I welcomed the Minister's reassurance on these when he spoke earlier.

The proposed planning amendment will enable us to make quicker progress in providing much-needed housing, including for the most vulnerable on our waiting lists, while also providing an opportunity to accelerate affordable and cost-rental delivery.

It is important that I take this opportunity to reflect on the progress the Minister and his team have made in providing housing in rural Ireland, specifically County Longford. County Longford and a coterie of other rural counties face the same issues as the rest of the country, namely, soaring rents, supply shortages and rapidly increasing building costs. More troubling, Longford's local authority and several others face a unique scenario in that they were locked out of the affordable housing scheme due to an inability to meet the affordability criteria. Effectively, it was still cheaper to build a house than to buy one in Longford, with the average second-hand price being €150,000. The local authority was paying €289,000 for new three-bedroom semi-detached homes, which are the standard homes of those entering the housing market.

The Minister and I discussed this issue many times and both of us realised that what was faced in Longford and probably nine other rural counties was a unique problem. It was, in fact, an availability issue. Under the Minister's direction, Department officials worked with Longford County Council. I am pleased we are now on the cusp of a solution regarding affordable housing for Longford town. The moral of the story is that Housing for All offers us an unprecedented suite of measures to support and drive housing supply. More important, Housing for All is a fluid document and the Minister and his team are ready and willing to work on bespoke solutions when local authorities and elected representatives are prepared and willing to come forward with them. I am in no doubt that the planned affordable housing scheme for County Longford will be a success and will be replicated in other counties.

The housing challenge is vast. We are making genuine progress, much to the dismay of the Minister's detractors. It will not be an overnight project, however. As much as our affordable housing scheme is a critical component in addressing a very specific issue in County Longford, so too is the planning and development legislation before the House.

Today proves the Minister's ability to tackle the issues, identify the deficits and put in place the building blocks that will ultimately resolve a crisis that has defined our generation.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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The proposed changes to the appointment process for ordinary members and an interim chairperson of An Bord Pleanála are of significant concern. Sinn Féin totally opposes them. The Minister is seeking to centralise the power of appointment in a way that will further undermine the independence of the board. Although we will not agree on much, we can all agree that confidence in the board is paramount. This is coming at a time when the board is already in a state of crisis and public confidence is at a very low ebb. Sinn Féin favours a hybrid model of appointments combining a panel system with open and transparent competition. The Minister proposes to give himself wide-ranging powers to decide on the appointments process. This is too vague and broad and is open to political interference. It will set the board back years and further erode public confidence, although that is the last thing that should be done.

We are also concerned about the proposals to appoint an interim chairperson and board members from within the Civil Service. This, again, has the potential to undermine the board's independence. For proper planning, you need trust in the process and institutions. You also need transparency, consultation to bring people with you and planning that is accompanied by the necessary checks, balances and resources where need be.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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To say this is a mess would be understating the situation. It is difficult to know where to begin. I cannot really see credible justifications for some of the provisions in this Bill. It is being rammed through Second, Committee and Remaining Stages in one day, although it is dealing with such serious matters. This is being done without proper scrutiny or any real evidence or justification for what the Minister is trying to do. In the brief time allowed to me, I will summarise the rationale behind what I have just said.

We all know An Bord Pleanála needs radical reform in respect of how the board is nominated, the number of people on the board, the board's quorum and so on. I would take the Minister's point on the rationale for this rush if we needed a chairperson just to make the board function briefly, but if the justification is to give the Minister power to decide on the appointment process, possibly for up to two years, we should proceed differently. If it is just a matter of keeping the thing functioning for a short while - the Minister could tell us who he is actually proposing or how he is planning to proceed - there should be no question of this power grab, which is what it is, or going back to the very situation we had to move away from because of all the scandals around political interference in the planning process.

I do not accept, after all we have been through in this country, that we should effectively give total political control in respect of the board and who is to be nominated to chair it, although I do of course agree, as we have been arguing consistently, that we need a much bigger quorum. It was unbelievable that two people were effectively making planning decisions. The whole nomination process was, to put it mildly, vulnerable to corruption, massive conflicts of interest and so on. There needs to be a considerable, radical and fundamental overhaul but that should not entail centralising power in the hands of the Minister. Rather, it should be about ensuring genuine independence and genuinely having a broad spectrum of stakeholders, experts and people to protect the public interest and ensure sustainable development. It should also be about ensuring all these matters are adjudicated fairly and objectively according to the law. What the Minister is doing is without justification.

On the foreshore issues, it is pretty telling that environmentalists are urging us not to proceed with this because we do not know the possible implications. They are very worried about what changes to the foreshore Act might mean. Representatives of the industrial wind energy sector are saying the same thing, but from precisely the opposite point of view. They are saying their ambitions may be inhibited. It is pretty extraordinary in and of itself that the two ends of the spectrum of concern around our maritime area, insofar as this Bill impacts upon it, have radically divergent views about what this measure actually does and what its unintended consequences, including legal consequences, might be. The occupancy rights of people such as fishermen to fish in certain areas might be affected if foreshore licences are given for certain things within the foreshore area.

We are not quite sure because major debates have been going on within the Department dealing with the foreshore as to exactly what the foreshore is anyway, and where it begins and ends. That is not acceptable. All of these things need to be thoroughly scrutinised in here and cannot be rammed or rushed through. It gives huge scope for dodgy unintended consequences. The Minister should press the pause button on all of this so we can have the proper scrutiny and understand what we are doing, what the legal consequences are, and what the impact on the various stakeholders and on our environment might be.

I now turn to the Part 8 planning process and the right of the public to be consulted on Part 8 planning proposals. I went to the briefing, which on Monday. We asked the Minister's officials if they had any evidence whatsoever that this is necessary. There was none. They were quite frank about not having any evidence. There is no evidence at all that Part 8 planning process and the public consultation on it has been, in any shape or form, a blockage to development on public land. Not at all. In fact, insofar as the officials were pushed they said that since the reforms in this area, it has been working very smoothly. It is certainly my experience of the Part 8 process. It is time fixed and is efficient from a time point of view. It gives people the opportunity to be consulted and it works. Why on earth is the Minister doing it? The Minister's officials could not tell us. Not a single shred of evidence was provided. We will see. To me, this smacks of something bigger, which is the myth - I am not allowed to say "lie", so I will not say "lie" - or the falsehood that the Government keeps peddling that the reason we cannot deliver social housing and housing generally is because of all these terrible objectors, and that this is the problem.

In his article in the Business Postat the weekend, Killian Woods referred to various Government publications, one of which was Build 2022: Construction Sector Performance and Capacity, and fair play to him. Mel Reynolds has often pointed me to this document as well, and it is something we should all read. It is the Government's own analysis of why we are not building to a sufficient degree. Does it mention public consultation or the planning process once? Not once does it mention public consultation, objections, or times of planning.

Far more telling, the article states there are 75,000 planning permissions for apartments, some 32,000 of which are in Dublin. Only 5,000 are being delivered annually. It then explains why this might be the case. It could indicate the speculative holding and purchasing of land with a view to greater future resale value - in other words, speculation. It is the acquiring of planning permissions to hold as an asset. The report states that the building up of planning permissions is largely linked to apartment schemes, which can be very valuable assets.

Another report, Planning Permissions and Housing Supply, states that acquiring permission for apartment development, rather than housing developments, could be the most attractive option for speculative land holders and thus yield the most amount of value added upon resale. The same report states that one of the most significant knowledge gaps that constrains the Government from addressing land speculation with new policies is the lack of data on land transactions. This report identifies, explicitly, land speculation by private investors in land and property.

The Build 2022: Construction Sector Performance and Capacity report goes on to state something interesting, which applies directly to Part 8. The report points out another problem. It states, "...one of the biggest barriers to improving productivity is the design time waste created by the lack of a collaborative approach between client, [which in this case could be the local authority] designers and the delivery team/contractor." The fragmentation of planning, construction and design is brought about by lots of multiple private operators. Rather than the State and local authorities having their own construction capacity to design, build and put the whole thing together, there is constant switching between one private operator and another, designers and contractors and so on. The report identifies this as the problem.

Does the Minister propose legislation here tonight that deals with speculation? No. Does the Minister propose or support the setting up of a State construction capacity so we can overcome these problems? No. Instead, the Minister wants to blame people who put in submissions to planning applications, while there is no evidence they have any impact whatsoever on our ability to build houses or infrastructure. It smells a bit fishy.

2:00 pm

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to contribute to this debate today. I thank the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, for making his officials available for briefings on this Bill to the Oireachtas committee, and for engaging with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to address all our questions, our concerns and our ideas. I understand the concerns about the limits on debate time and the pre-legislative scrutiny report not yet being published. I also appreciate the reasoning behind the need to progress the Bill and why these issues are so urgent. We all appreciate that the housing crisis is exactly that. It is an emergency and a crisis. Some areas, therefore, require immediate legislative action. This Bill is one of those areas.

The Bill forms part of the An Bord Pleanála reform agenda. One of the reasons we need swift action on the Bill is the immediate need to put in place a new interim chairperson for An Bord Pleanála to help unlock the planning delays plaguing our housing system. An Bord Pleanála has gone through a very turbulent time recently. We know this. We need to overhaul and reform the board, not only to restore public trust and confidence, but to also make it an efficient key player in our planning system. That cannot happen quickly enough.

It is important also to highlight that the main legislative provisions relating to An Bord Pleanála are being examined in detail as part of the review of planning legislation currently being led by the Attorney General. This Bill will deal with initial matters requiring immediate action. The legislation provides that the board will have 14 members but that can be increased where the Minister deems it necessary. Given the massive challenges An Bord Pleanála faces, and the delays in decisions that are plaguing developments, I believe the decision to extend beyond 14 members is now necessary.

It is important to remember that it is not just housing developments that are hit with delays and timeline issues. Offshore and wind energy projects are also impacted. The importance of progressing our delivery of offshore wind projects does not need to be overstated. The foreshore piece in the Bill is a minor amendment but will ensure that the body of water above the seabed is included in the definition of the foreshore. I am aware there are some concerns in this regard from Wind Energy Ireland and I hope its concerns can be heard and allayed by the Minister, if he has not already done so. We all know how important offshore wind is in meeting our 2030 targets for emissions reductions. Improvements in the planning system need to address the decision delays that are preventing us from getting to those crucial targets.

Clearly the most vital and pressing need we have is to ramp up housing supply. In the current climate, the impact of inflation, supply-chain issues and higher interest rates make increasing supply all the more challenging and the need all the greater. In this context, the Bill will bring forward accelerated measures to support local authorities to deliver social and affordable housing through the planning system and by using modern construction methods. The proposed planning exemption will, hopefully, allow us to make quicker progress on housing vulnerable people who are on our housing waiting lists while also providing an opportunity to accelerate affordable and cost-rental delivery, which we need to do.

If we are allowing for accelerated housing delivery on certain local authority and State-owned lands, and if this is to be driven by local authorities, then we will need to look at the tenure mix on these lands to cater for everybody.

2:10 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Last-minute amendments are not the way to deal with legislation but enough has been said on that. Many of my colleagues have brought up the fact that environmental organisations and the likes of Wind Energy Ireland have brought up particular difficulties with the Bill. They have stated this legislation could deal with a slow-up in being able to deliver on renewable energy. Those are issues the Minister will have to address when he replies. There is no one here who would not say An Bord Pleanála is in need of reform and resourcing, but wedding it further to either the Civil Service or the political system is hardly the right direction to take. Deputy Ó Broin and others questioned about how much time will be saved by the suspension of Part 8. Are we getting any time saving? I welcome that we are dealing with the debt issue. I have spoken to the Minister about the Louth local authority's debt and it is a necessity that it can build on land that was bought during the Celtic tiger, under instruction. We also need to make sure it has the capacity to be able to follow through on builds. "Prime Time" detailed the difficulties local authorities and approved housing bodies, AHBs, have, that they sometimes go to turnkeys because there are too many bureaucratic obstacles. We need to make sure they are removed as soon as possible.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on this Bill and highlight some of the problems it will cause. The Planning and Development and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill 2022 will entirely change the appointments process of An Bord Pleanála board members for the worse. It will seriously compromise the independence of the State's top planning body. The Bill hands unchecked powers to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, with complete discretion in determining the board appointment process. It also provides no safeguards or provisions for Oireachtas oversight, and it specifically removes existing safeguards on ministerial powers. Where there are no provisions for Oireachtas oversight, unchecked powers and the removal of safeguards, what we effectively have is the removal of accountability. Many will argue we do not have much accountability across Government and Departments, and this Bill will help to endorse that problem.

Appointments to An Bord Pleanála are made via a series of panels, representing a range of civil society groups that can nominate candidates. This system is by no means perfect but it provides for significant input from civil society. This is something that is key for the independence of the board to ensure there is a limit to the extent of ministerial control over it. This existing system can and should be reformed to ensure transparency, accountability and public confidence and to uphold An Bord Pleanála's independence. The Bill removes all safeguards, Oireachtas oversight and checks and balances on these powers, essentially giving the Minister the power to stack the board with his appointees, including ones who have not gone through a rigorous and open recruitment process. Such a process is vital to ensure the balance and mix of appropriate skills and knowledge is maintained on the board. For the board to function at the expert professional level we need it to, and given its vital role in making decisions in the public interest, it is key that An Bord Pleanála is fully independent from Government.

The Government claims this Bill is urgently needed to fill vacancies on the board and to address the growing backlog of cases. However, the Minister already has powers under the existing system to fill those vacancies. The Minister has failed to do that. The Government is exploiting this failure to change the An Bord Pleanála appointments process to concentrate power into the hands of the Minister and entirely remove existing provisions for Oireachtas oversight. I do not necessarily disagree with the need for An Bord Pleanála to have more board members to help deal with its workload and speed up cases but I look forward to hearing the Minister's explanation for why this increase is necessary.

During a housing crisis it is important that planning decisions are made in as timely a manner as possible to give confidence to the sector. As I said, that can be achieved without this legislation and by using the existing appointments process. I am strongly opposed to giving the Minister unchecked powers in the appointments system. The changes will not solve the crisis of the flawed decision-making in An Bord Pleanála and would likely make things even worse and further compromise public confidence in the board. It is an entirely irresponsible and inappropriate political response. The problems stem from under-resourcing, workload overload, unrealistic time constraints and excessive power given to the board through strategic housing developments, SHDs, and specific planning policy requirements, SPPRs.

The proposed amendment to section 106 will simply make the situation worse by removing any possibility of independence and concentrating excessive power in the Minister. The proposed amendments to sections 108 and 110 of the principal Act are tantamount to locking the stable doors after the horse has bolted. The quorum of two was only revealed during interrogation at the Committee of Public Accounts and should have been addressed. This should never have been the situation and we should not need legislation. We should have proper governance in these structures and common sense should apply.

I could be here forever and I have been back and forth with the Minister on this for two years. If the Minister thinks anybody thinks this legislation will improve housing delivery, that is a misguided notion. It will do nothing for housing delivery because the Minister has not tackled the problems that relate to housing delivery. This is a mask. The media is questioning why we are ramming this Bill through. Why are we doing so? We are doing it because it detracts from the notion that we would tackle specific planning policy requirements or that we would tackle the zealots the Minister has in planning in the Custom House, who continually make provision to increase the cost of housing delivery. They are zealots. The Minister just does not have the guts to come out and tackle them. Instead, he comes up with something that will have no bearing whatsoever on increasing the delivery or that will see to it that we will have housing where there is planning. There are many grants of planning on which we see no commencements. Why is that? It is because viability is the issue. That is an issue the Minister will not tackle because he does not how and we are two and a half years in.

If the Minister had done something, if he had taken one big step and shown us he knows what he is doing, I would have voted for him in the motion of confidence last night. It is because of this type of rubbish that I cannot do so. I cannot do so because the Minister continues to allow high-density developments. Because of where we are today, we have no housing delivery because we cannot deliver housing viably. There is no amount of nationalisation that will change it. High-density developments worked once upon a time in Dublin, but with the advent of interest rate increases, we can no longer even get funding for high-rise developments in Dublin. The Minister is well aware of that. What we have in housing this year will probably halve by next year. The Minister can shake his head, but he should show what he has actioned that will allow for houses to be built viably. So far we have a vacant site tax that will add 3% per annum to the cost of any site, a concrete levy that is coming forward that will drive up the cost of concrete in construction further, and there are many more increases. The Government has doubled the price of large-scale planning applications, for example. Will the Minister show me the action he has taken that reduces the cost of building and that allows us to build houses people want? These are houses with front and back gardens and side entrance access. People do not want duplexes or apartments and they certainly do not want terraced housing, but that is all the Government’s high-density housing allows for.

We have no three-bedroom semi-detached houses. The typologies I have seen at the Government’s density levels allow for about one semi-detached house per acre. Will the Minister get all his councillors around the country to have a look at what they are being forced to pass in county development plans because they do not know? However, the zealots in the Custom House are insisting these are the densities we will build at and outside of Dublin nobody wants those developments. No matter what the Government does, nothing in this Bill will increase or change that. Next year and the following year the delivery will be even worse.

I will give the Minister a statistic. There were 262,000 applicants for personal public service, PPS, numbers last year.

They all need housing alongside all of those who are here already. We are preventing people in their twenties, thirties and forties from ever owning a home with the prospect of trying to obtain a mortgage of 25 or 30 years. There is a good chance that we will have three generations during the Minister's tenure who might be in danger of never owning their own home. When he can show me the actions that will improve the delivery of housing then we will have a confidence motion where I can vote "Yes".

2:20 pm

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the discussion on this Bill. I welcome the discussion about An Bord Pleanála, local authorities and the delivery of houses. If one reflects on what was said yesterday during the debate on the motion of no confidence on the Minister, one will realise that most of the problems we have stem from local authorities or the bureaucracy of the State being inefficient and not fit for purpose. It is those issues we should be addressing.

During my time in local government and the Dáil, I always told anyone who came to inquire about planning that An Bord Pleanála was beyond reproach, that it had a job to do, was independent and so on. Boy was I naive about that. The recent controversy has exposed so much in An Bord Pleanála that it will require considerable work to mend its name and put it back on track. I refer to many of the decisions that were made around telephone masts and masts for mobile phone systems - the usage of them, access to sites, the value of those sites after they are developed and so on. In an awful lot of those cases, the initial planning is now suspect. I know that from my involvement in the local community group in Kells in County Kilkenny where the erection of a mast has stopped all because the planning was an issue. It has ignored the recommendations of the Minister in terms of where masts should be and just ploughs on as if it has no policy and no direction but can do what it likes.

I wish to raise the issue of quarries. I raised it with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications in the Dáil but he just turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to it, which is amazing from a Green Party Minister and the Green Party leader. The amount of destruction in George's Tree Quarry in Kilkenny is appalling. It is essential that some intervention be made to support the local authority in stopping the damage that is being done in that quarry. I have appealed through the Oireachtas for an intervention but nothing has happened. It is the same in County Laois. Again there are issues relating to quarries and there are a number of illegal quarries. I have put two questions to Kilkenny County Council on two quarries. It is so reluctant to reply, it is staggering.

Wind energy is another issue. We see where wind farms are being objected to. The Minister has the county development plan and the strategy for wind farms in his office waiting to be signed off on. Areas like Castlebanny, Templemore and Mullabeg are waiting for a direction. I believe an awful lot of the decision making should be left to local authorities, which should apply their county development plan to each of the applications. If it should go to An Bord Pleanála, An Bord Pleanála should then ensure there is independence and the decision-making process is open and transparent. I encourage the Minister to look at the further measures that are needed to put An Bord Pleanála on such a footing that it is again respected.

Photo of Johnny MythenJohnny Mythen (Wexford, Sinn Fein)
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Transparency, separation of powers and proper legislative scrutiny are pillars of any proper planning procedure. However, the structure of this Bill and the way the Minister introduced the Bill in the Seanad through Standing Orders will do nothing for public confidence and leaves it open to possible challenge through litigation. Even more alarming is the fact that the Minister is seeking to autonomise the power of appointments in a way that will further erode the independence of An Bord Pleanála. We know only too well from past and current experience the damage and mistrust caused when wide-reaching powers and political interference is allowed to manifest itself in any independent institution. This cannot be allowed to be repeated.

Clarity must be forthcoming from the Government side on how many additional social and affordable houses this Bill will deliver. The Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage should at least be given quarterly reports on the implementation and use of this provision. Sinn Féin will be tabling amendments to deal with these issues and calling for votes on same. We hope the Minister will consider their merits and support them considering and unscrutinised manner in which this Bill was scrambled through.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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A total of 35,000 homes are being held up in the planning system due to delays in An Bord Pleanála. There is total disarray in An Bord Pleanála. Only four people are on the board and it seems they are unable to make decisions regarding strategic housing developments, SHDs.

I have concerns about planning delays. An Bord Pleanála should have a high-level screening programme before objections get to the inspector to be judged by the board. However, I also have concerns about this Bill and the way it has been rushed through. Number one, it has not been debated properly.

I understand what the Minister is trying to do and what he is trying to do in building houses. The Land Development Agency, LDA, was set up for city building, not for rural building. That is what it was set up for because you are talking about projects within 15 minutes of the city from a transport network point, which wipes out two thirds of my county.

We spoke last night at length about infrastructure in our areas that would allow us to build houses. Eli Lilly is coming to Limerick with a first investment of €500 million and a total investment of €1.3 billion. What is the biggest concern in the area? It is housing. We have planning permissions that are running out because they involved projects that did not finish. The banks have told these developers that they want two years left in respect of planning permissions and there is only a year and two months, which means they cannot get the funding. The planning authority then tells these developers the projects must be substantially completed by the time planning permission runs out to get retention of the existing planning permission. On the one hand, banks are telling these developers they need two more years of planning permission while on the other, the planning authority is saying the planning permission is running out. The Minister has allowed everything else from Covid to be extended but what about planning permission so that people who want to start these houses but are short eight months on planning permission can do so? I am talking about 300 houses in an area that would help us with regard to businesses like Eli Lilly and help us with transport networks. The infrastructure is there but now planning laws are stopping it because the financial side will not help.

I said last night that we have been looking for more than 30 years for infrastructure in County Limerick so we can build houses, be sustainable, ensure businesses in the local area are sustainable and put a transport network in place. Planning permission will not happen unless we have infrastructure, and infrastructure in towns and rural areas outside the 15-minute radius for which the LDA has been set up wipes out two thirds of Limerick.

We do get serial objections in our rural areas. Somebody from Dublin can object to somebody in Limerick building a one-off house and delay it. Around 90% of those houses were failing due to somebody who had nothing to do with the area submitting an objection. We need to tackle this as well. I would have preferred more debate on this and I would not like to see the Minister of the day have full control over this.

I have reservations about this. Something needs to be done with An Bord Pleanála. We must ensure that building can go forward.

2:30 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I want make a few points. I have many issues with An Bord Pleanála; we all have. The public has lost confidence in it. Is maith liom an Gaeilge. Níl a fhios agam an bhfuil Gaeilge agatsa. Changing the name from An Bord Pleanála to an coimisiún pleanála is only playing tricks with people.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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That is not in this Bill.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Sorry, I stand corrected in that. It is another trick. In a reply to a question earlier from Deputy Boyd Barrett about community groups being able to object to planning applications, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform told him they would still be able to object but they had to give their names.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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That is not in this Bill either.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am just telling the Minister what is going on. Does he want not me to ask him any questions?

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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I am just trying to be helpful. That is not in this Bill either.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Is the Minister saying that just because I criticised him for being part of Rambo's team out in Dublin North? Is that just to get back at Mattie, is it? The stench of the planning corruption that went on is still coming from Dublin North, and the carry-on that went on with money. I met every one of them when they came to Clonmel, supposedly canvassing, with their pinstripe suits and big Mercedes. They would blow you away. Thank God they are nearly all blown away.

Ordinary people want to get houses. There were plans for a very valuable plant, on which the whole south east and part of the midlands depended. It was a Glanbia and Royal A-ware project. An Taisce brought the company to court three times at different levels and exhausted the process, even though it had no fundamental issue with the planning process, the use of fertilisers and everything else. Are these geniuses in the NGOs and An Taisce going to be named as well? They have to be named. We could not get their names. They are faceless, but they are causing havoc in rural Ireland for people who are trying to build houses.

As Deputy O'Donoghue said a minute ago, there is a hotel in Clonmel, the Clonmel Arms Hotel. I danced, courted and did everything there. The building is derelict now and it is a shame to see it. A gentleman objected to plans in the name of somebody else who was from Limerick, miles away from the hotel, and now the site is derelict. It was with NAMA. I remember former Deputies Mick Wallace and Clare Daly talking about Project Eagle. I called it project jackdaw because it stank. The owner has the hotel back again. Now there are slates falling from the roof and threatening people. There are people there on the site abusing drugs and all kinds of issues. What once was the hub of the town is now a disgusting site. That has not been rectified in this Bill, when it should have been. Out of greed, that man objected just to stop someone else developing the site when there was money in the good times, but now níl aon phingin ag aon duine for that hotel to be done up.

There are a lot of things that need to be rectified here. There is a lot of playing games, to ensure we keep paying homage to developers and increasing the money for them all the time. Let the ordinary people who can build houses build them. There are many in my county who have the sites, own them, can get a mortgage - or could anyway - and cannot get planning permission because An Taisce and others are breathing down their necks with frivolous objections. They build fine big houses on the lake in north Tipperary and in Ballina and other places, but they will not let anybody else build. It is like when the crows come into the field. They take over and keep out the rest of the crows for an auld snail.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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There is nothing wrong with crows.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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That is what is going on. We have to protect the NGOs at all costs. They are causing a wreck to this country. There are some very good NGOs, but many of them are causing a wreck to ordinary people's lives, and they are getting well paid to do so. They are getting almost €6 million of taxpayers' money for vanity projects and good wages. Croppies lie down, is their attitude.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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If there is a degree of confusion about what is not in this Bill and is in future Bills, it is a bit understandable, because there is a broad discussion going on about necessary reforms of An Bord Pleanála. I am the first to acknowledge that a lot of reforms are necessary. I have written to the Minister on many occasions calling for reforms around the timelines on decisions, in particular. Obviously, if we want faster decisions, we will need more resources, including human resources. I do not have a problem with any of that. However, if we are brining forward a Bill early in the new year that is going to change the planning Acts profoundly, why are we bringing this Bill forward now? I expect this Bill will be passed today. The Minister has the numbers, as he conclusively demonstrated last night. I believe it has already been passed by the Seanad. I accept the need for new members. Are these new members going to be appointed before Christmas, and are they going to be working over Christmas? The Minister is appointing civil servants as members. It is fair to say that most official agencies do not work very much over Christmas, so what is going to be gained by the rush in doing it now?

The concern I have around the loss of independence is that there is a lot of discussion about the judicial reviews that are taking place. The bigger problem is that many of them are successful. If there are a lot of successful judicial reviews of the decisions of any decision-making body or process, then there is a problem with how it makes decisions. The problem is not the fact that people are challenging the decisions. If bodies cannot stand over those decisions, that is a problem. Sometimes bodies make decisions to please the Government, because they want to be seen to be implementing Government policy. If the Minister is appointing more members with less scrutiny in how they are appointed, the fact they are civil servants means they are inherently part of the State apparatus. My fear is it could lead to a greater amount of that.

One thing this Bill does is amend the definition of the foreshore, but it does so retrospectively. Previously, when a foreshore licence was granted, certain matters had to be taken into account. They were taken into account by reference to what the foreshore was and what was being licensed. Now it looks like the Government is effectively going to license something retrospectively when some of the considerations that might accrue to a broader of definition foreshore would not have been taken into account. I would have a slight concern as to whether that would be in accordance with the EIA directive.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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Deputy, you are over time.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I appreciate that. I thank the Cathaoirleach for her latitude.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome this legislation, but the discussion has been quite broad. I, too, will speak about the planning system more generally. I have to confess, at the outset, that I am one of the 30,000 or so people with an application before An Bord Pleanála at the moment. We are trying to build a family home. I will say no more about that, but I should declare it on the record of the Dáil. I think it is wrong that, for a €20 objection fee, a person can take a project through the ringer. It could be a project to build a family home or to develop a multimillion euro piece of public infrastructure. With the payment of a €20 fee, a person can object and bring a project the whole way through the objection process and the appeals process. The objector still has a foot in the door if he or she wants to go all the way to judicial review. There should be a scaled fee, depending on where the objector is based. For those who live locally, the fee should be €20, but for those on the opposite side of the country, the fee should be far higher. I will reference an example. Mr. Peter Sweetman, of The Swan and the Snails Limited, which has its headquarters on Lower Rathmines Road, Dublin, is a serial objector and a NIMBY. He has objected to flood defences in Clonlara, County Clare.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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Deputy, you cannot name people outside of the House.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I apologise for naming the person I just named, but I will continue.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I agree with the Deputy.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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The objector to whom I referred is based 190 km from Clonlara, County Clare, where crucial flood defences are needed. He is 170 km from the Killaloe Bridge crossing and 280 km from Doonbeg coastal defences, which are key, important, crucial and essential public infrastructure projects. That an objector on the opposite side of Ireland can take these projects through the ringer and hold them up for years is wrong. It is fundamentally wrong and it needs to be urgently examined. There need to be some qualifying rules on who can object to projects. In the first instance, objectors should be local and based in the immediate vicinity of the project site. It should impact on their lives.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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Something that happens in Dublin has no relevance to my life. I would not dream in a month of Sundays of objecting to anything in Dublin. I cannot fathom why someone in Dublin would object to a key project in County Clare.

The wind energy guidelines have been with the Department for a long time, since December 2019. I believe they are going to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. I ask that the Government gets the guidelines out, published and operational.

The European Court of Justice made a very important ruling on the Flemish Decree of 2009 in respect of the right of the European citizen to freedom of movement. That freedom of movement spirit, enshrined in the European Court decision, has not always trickled down in respect of county development plans and how the local rural person is categorised. Pre-planning meetings are supposed to be part of the planning system. They rarely happen these days because of staff shortages in local authorities. Pre-planning meetings are one of the best ways for applicants to negotiate all of the messy stuff that invariably happens in the planning process.

The issues with An Bord Pleanála could be dealt with at a more localised level.

It is a centralised office. One of the ways of doing this could be that planning file appeals from County Clare could be sent to another county for adjudication. The Government could outsource and devolve some of An Bord Pleanála's functions to other counties. A file from County Wexford could be adjudicated on by a planning official in County Mayo and so forth. It would help us to some degree to get through the backlog of 30,000 or so homes that are currently within the system. That €20 objection fee has to go up. I know people will defend it and say it should not be costly and that people have a right to object. Absolutely, they have a right to object but in my book, they have no right to object to a project on the other side of Ireland that has no relevance whatsoever to their lives. I hope the individual I named, for which I apologised, is listening and gets to hear a little bit of this debate.

2:40 pm

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Deputy. I remind all Members that they should not name any individual outside of the House. We will move on to the Sinn Féin slot. I call Deputy Ó Snodaigh.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I will try to be good and not name anybody. There is a need for good planning, however.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Deputy can name Santa Claus.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I will not even name Santa Claus in this debate because there are no presents being given out in this legislation.

We know Dublin has suffered the consequences of bad planning. Even though we are in a housing crisis, we need to get it right for the next generation. Much land is zoned already that needs to be built on. I have never had a problem with high-rise or high-density buildings in certain areas. For instance, the area I represent has been zoned for high-rise construction by the city council for more than 15 years yet no high-rise buildings have been built. The only ones suggested so far would tower over the very few houses that existed rather than down the road. There is a need, therefore, but there is a need for that to be accelerated.

The problem we have seen with An Bord Pleanála in the last year has shown the need for it to have proper independence but, obviously, oversight to ensure any of the controversies do not come back to haunt us in the future. We need to properly resource An Bord Pleanála. We need to ensure our legislation and laws are such that they do not invite people to end up in judicial reviews. That is what the strategic housing developments did. I accept and agree with the Minister that the Government got rid of it but that is where An Bord Pleanála got caught and stuck in the courts. That is at an end but it will take a number of years to overcome that stupid mistake by the previous Government which, in fact, was supported by Fianna Fáil at that stage.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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We will move on to the Independent Group. Deputy Connolly has seven minutes and Deputy Pringle has three minutes.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Once again, we are rushing through important legislation in a busy week during Christmas. We did this two years ago. We have done it many times but one stands out, which is the ratification of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, and we saw where that ended up. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan already referred to the change in the quorum, which was rushed through and of course, to the strategic housing developments. Yet here we are again doing the exact same thing.

I have in front of me the digest from the Oireachtas Library, which tells us that given the time between the publication of the Bill and Second Stage, it provides a brief overview and nothing more. The service is not in a position to give us a complete and exhaustive consideration. I am here as a legislator and parliamentarian and, I have tried my best as usual, like my colleagues, to get a handle on what is going on here. I have no idea why the Minister is doing this. I could have put on my conspiratorial hat or paranoid hat but I would prefer to stick to facts. As the Minister knows, we have regular statements on science every year about the importance of facts and evidence. There is no evidence before us at all as to why this is necessary in this manner, other than the appointment of the chair.

We are talking in a vacuum because we do not have the report from the Office of the Planning Regulator. Does the Minister have that report with him today? Is he going to publish it today? Why are we talking in a vacuum without the second report from the planning regulator? I understand that he has complied with his legal obligation on his terms of reference. I do not know why we are shaking heads because this should be here before us. The planning regulator had terms of reference with which he complied. He gave the Minister his second report but there is no sign of it.

The regulator made 11 recommendations in his first report. Recommendation No. 1 was that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage would initiate a process in relation to the powers available under the existing sections in the existing legislation to appoint a number of ordinary members to the board. Why did the Minister not comply with that? Why has he let a situation arise where we have only four members operating An Bord Pleanála? How come that has happened?

With regard to the narrative and spin that is going out, I am horrified by the comments from the Fianna Fáil Deputy and the Rural Independents, who state on the record that the problem with planning is objectors. I do not know any objectors. I know concerned citizens and residents who make detailed submissions at great cost to themselves. Successive Governments have reduced the process and charge for somebody making a submission and if he or she does not make it at local authority level, he or she is excluded from An Bord Pleanála.

We here today because the vice chair of An Bord Pleanála is the subject of a referral from the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, with regard to a charge and the hugely significant - I will put it as mildly as that - problems that have arisen. We are here today because of that, and the Minister's answer is to allow a narrative to develop both in press releases and debates that the real problem is people on the ground objecting. I am glad the Minister is shaking his head. I will take it back if that is not his message. It is certainly the message emanating from the establishment.

We are being asked to rush this through by tonight to allow the Minister to appoint a chair and increase the number of board members, which I have no problem with him doing, and to give legislative grounding to the idea that a quorum must be higher than two, although that has already been done by resolution by the board. Therefore, there is no need for a rush on that either. To allow for a complaints procedure; that is more of a directive and I have no difficulty with that. However, I have a huge difficulty with the manner in which the three things are put that give the Minister absolute discretion in his power regarding the appointments. The Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage made a comment with regard to the pre-legislative scrutiny being carried out very quickly. Its report states "The Committee is of the opinion that the Minister is afforded undue power over the size and operations of the Board without the appropriate oversight, which may conflict with An Bord Pleanála’s independence." This raises serious questions. The Minister's own colleagues on the cross-party committee said he is getting undue power with regard to the discretion that is being left to him. He has not dealt with that at all.

The Minister gave a speech in which time constraints allowed him to only go through three out of nine pages. While I normally welcome brevity, his speech was reduced because the time for this entire debate was reduced. Our time has been reduced to a ten-minute slot. The Minister went through that and talked about the independence of An Bord Pleanála from 1977. That is not correct. While it was progress to set up An Bord Pleanála, it was later on that the independence was copper-fastened, as already has been noted, by a Minister in the Labour Party. Now, we are going back. As Mr. Mick Clifford said in the Irish Examiner, we are going "back to the future." We are going back because of the failure of An Bord Pleanála and certain individuals in it, and the failure of the processes and procedures and of the Government to act. We have not analysed the problem in the way we should have to get proper solutions. We are going forward with other solutions that are absolutely detrimental. Can the Minister tell me why we are taking out section 104(3)(c) with regard to Dáil oversight? Why is there a necessity? Could I have the Minister's attention about that? Draft orders have to be put before the Dáil. Why has that been taken out? This is in the interest of trying to work with the Minister on bona fides.

The Office of the Planning Regulator has repeatedly pointed out that judicial reviews are not the problem. The regulator said they are small and that they are absolutely related to the strategic housing developments that the previous Government insisted go through An Bord Pleanála. Why is this narrative coming out that the problem is judicial reviews or objectors, as opposed to having a planning system that is robust and fit for purpose with adequate staff? Why has that not happened? I have watched for 17 years at local authority level. Now, in my sixth year as a Deputy, I am seeing the undermining of and removal of powers from local authorities, the absolute absence of resources and the burdening of them with an extra role regarding the strategic housing developments without any recognition of the burdensome role that was. Why are we here today rushing through this legislation? Could the Minister in his last ten minutes tell me why he has not used his existing power to compliment the numbers that are necessary?

Why has that not happened?

2:50 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I echo the point made by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties that it is staggering that 13 items of legislation are being rushed through the Houses before Christmas, six of which will have normal parliamentary processes truncated through merging of Stages. There is no regard for proper parliamentary process and it is extremely disrespectful to the democracy we supposedly live in. Planning legislation is complex and we must be allowed sufficient time to scrutinise such legislation thoroughly.

There is a significant lack of public trust in An Bord Pleanála stemming from the conduct of members of the board, bad management and the fact the courts have, time and time again, found the board has not applied the law correctly. That is why there are judicial reviews. A judicial review is on a point of law and if the law is not being enacted or followed properly by that body, that is why a review takes place. It is obvious the board is not complying with the law. That is why the reviews happen.

The rushing through of legislation in this way serves to further destroy public trust in An Bord Pleanála. Of all the legislation pushed through this week, the Planning and Development and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill would have particularly benefited from more thorough scrutiny but it is clear that public interest is at the heart neither of the Bill nor of the Government. It is important that the public has confidence and trust in our planning system and the fact the Minister does not recognise that is incredibly concerning. An independent planning system is an important part of a functioning democracy. This is threatened by the Bill, which proposes to provide the Minister with unchecked powers over changes to the size of the board and its appointment of ordinary members. Section 3 allows the Minister to appoint additional ordinary members without placing a limitation on how many, which removes the existing limits on the proportion of the board that can be appointed by the Minister. While I understand the need to increase the number of board members, it would be a step backwards to remove those limits on the Minister, who could potentially abuse this power. Why have board members not been appointed in recent years? If they had been, we would not have ended up in this situation. I do not say the current Minister may do this but we cannot be sure what future Ministers will do. That is the problem. The legislation needs to be future-proofed and should protect against any possible misuse of power.

It is also a backward step that section 6 does not include a guarantee of a board member with environmental expertise, which was guaranteed in the previous legislation. We are seeing a massive shift away from independent structures and directly towards the Minister. This is deeply concerning. It seems this Bill is being rushed through to provide a short-term quick fix to address the current backlog. It does not even bother to include important limitations and guarantees set by the previous legislation. It is far removed from the robust planning legislation we desperately need. I urge the Government that if such important legislation is to be treated as emergency legislation, it is imperative it at least include a sunset clause.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all Deputies and appreciate the, for the most part, considered responses they have given. In response to Deputy Verona Murphy, who is not here, I live in a terraced duplex house. I like it, as do many people. It might not suit her in Wexford. That is fine, I take the point.

There are urgent matters in the Bill. I welcome the support of the main Opposition party for the legislation and have taken on board some of the comments made by Deputy Ó Broin, as well as the areas of concern.

Everyone knows An Bord Pleanála has gone through an incredibly difficult year. We now have five board members and a temporary deputy chairperson who cannot operate as chairperson or interim chair until this legislation passes. Looking at the backlogs and issues raised across the House from different standpoints, I do not think anyone would maintain that the current position of the board and its staffing at board level is sufficient to deal with the work it has. It is not. Therefore, on a temporary 12-month basis, I will be able to appoint serving or retired civil or public servants. They will apply to these posts and I will be able to appoint them for a 12-month period. We need to increase the number of board members to allow them to do that, above what is provided for under the existing Act.

That is one of the reasons this Bill is here. A second reason is so that the interim chairperson – a role that does not exist in legal terms right now – can carry out the function of chairperson of An Bord Pleanála to manage the caseload and work that is there and get the projects Deputy O’Donoghue and others referred to through the system. This is an interim step, rather than a rushed step.

I was trying to be helpful to Deputy Mattie McGrath earlier. The two elements he raised related to the consolidated planning Bill that will come to the House and go to the Oireachtas joint committee. I got approval from Cabinet.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am always ahead of myself.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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It is important legislation because it updates planning law going back not just 23 years but to the 1950s. We need a modern, fit-for-purpose planning system that serves the people and country to deliver the homes and strategic infrastructure we need. Central to that will be and has to be public participation. We have to look at how that is. Some comments have been made that I will not respond to but central to that is that people need to have their say. We need a plan-led approach also. There should be no surprises. We need clearer definitions in development plans as to what will happen on specific sites.

Deputy Ó Broin asked about being able to exempt certain developments from Part 8. I am very much focusing there on the encumbered land, that is, the land local authorities have which has carried legacy debt for a long time and cannot be developed because it is not financially viable. Through approval I got from Cabinet, I will write down and pay that debt on the basis that those local authorities develop those pieces of lands, which are additional to and not included in the housing delivery plans, for the most part, and which are already zoned and owned by local authorities or State agencies. Many of them have been designed out. I want to give them an opportunity to move them forward more quickly, using modern methods of construction in the main. Strict criteria are set down there. Some of these sites must commence in 2023 and I imagine they will but we set the criteria such that they will not be able to use these provisions unless commencement is by, at the latest, 31 December 2024. It is about getting that additionality.

Deputy Ó Broin has made a reasonable request. We are working through that list and have identified the sites. There is approximately €300 million in debt that local authorities have; about €100 million or one third of that land debt relates to land which can be developed and that we and the local authorities have already assessed. It would be a good exercise to, at the appropriate time, make sure the Oireachtas joint committee, on which Deputy O’Donoghue also sits, can be provided with an update. We will give a starting point when we have concluded that work. I do not say the work will be concluded before Christmas about the specific sites but we can share them. That may have to be done. We will work out how it is done. I have no difficulty with that.

That is where I see the expedited planning powers being used. Many chief executives and housing officers will have already started Part 8 processes on other lands they have identified and can continue with them. This is about additionality. We have an idea but have not fully surveyed it out so I will not give a figure to the House of how many additional homes we will deliver through this, but it is my earnest hope that we will do that.

I ceased the two-person quorum. I instructed the board to stop that. It then suspended it. I told it to cease it and am now underpinning it with belts and braces with this legislation. It is about increasing the capacity of the board and providing for an interim chairperson who can effectively take over the role of deputy chairperson. We will bring forward an open, public and transparent process where anyone can apply for roles within the board. We will go through that in more detail later on when we have more time. I again thank Deputies for their contributions.

Question put and declared carried.