Seanad debates

Thursday, 16 June 2022

Planning and Development (Built Heritage Protection) Bill 2022: Second Stage


9:30 am

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party) | Oireachtas source

I join Members in paying tribute to Senator Norris. It is a great privilege to be here to take this Bill this afternoon and to be present for the unveiling of the beautiful portrait of the Senator. He is an absolute hero of mine, for many reasons, heritage being one of them.

I will give a response to the contributions and then the departmental spiel on it in a moment. I found an article entitled "David Norris on 40 years of saving North Great George’s Street". It is reflected in the points made about Mountjoy Square. Sometimes it takes positive contagion and for one premises owner to be a champion. It then spreads out across a street. Senator Norris said:

In the mid-1970s I was running a gay disco on Parnell Square. Numbers began to fall dramatically and it turned out that two enterprising capitalists had opened a commercial disco just around the corner. I had never heard of North Great George’s Street but I went round to case the joint. Once in the street I fell in love with it and decided to purchase a house, which I did in the autumn of 1978.

That began his love affair with Georgian Dublin. I am sure it was a love affair he had for many years. He met with other residents, Brendan and Josephine O’Connell, who were repairing a house. Residents received a small grant from the Heritage Council which they wanted to put it into individual grants. Senator Norris said, "No", and that they should blow it all on an exhibition, which they did.That really highlighted the chronic crisis that had taken place around the decay. It was so forward-thinking for that time, and so visionary from Senator David Norris to bring us from that time in 1978 to today, in 2022, when he has brought forward this really fantastic legislation.

Senators will also have received correspondence from Geraldine Walsh and Graham Hickey of the Dublin Civic Trust, and from Ian Lumley of An Taisce. This correspondence says:

Over the past decade we have witnessed increasing numbers of protected structures and properties within architectural conservation areas being damaged through unauthorised development, including the removal of original fixtures and fittings and inappropriate replacement of historic features, and occasionally wholesale demolition without any recourse to the existing provisions of Part 4 of the Act. Some cases involve speculators acquiring properties from vulture funds or distressed loan sales, while others consist of old fashioned gutting for substandard residential sub-division.

The letter goes on to outline why the Dublin Civic Trust feels it is hugely important that this Bill is supported. Before I respond to the Bill formally, I give the commitment that we will be taking the Bill and this correspondence from the Dublin Civic Trust to inform the planning review.

In their contributions a number of Members mentioned Mountjoy Square. I was fortunate to meet with Mountjoy Square residents last year. We had a fantastic day there with the Dublin Civic Trust. There is a Kilkenny connection. The railings that were conserved around the square and two of the glass-blown lanterns around it - I believe there were 26 originally - have been reinstated. Both of these projects were carried out by Kilkenny companies: the ironmonger in Castlecomer, and Jerpoint Glass which carried out the glass blowing. There is a great connection there with the point raised by Senator Higgins on traditional skills. This is not just a twee side event: built heritage should become central to what we do with our housing policy, housing solutions, climate solutions and social cohesion solutions. This is why the Bill is hugely important. Senator Fitzpatrick also mentioned Mountjoy Square. I would love to be able to get up to that event on Sunday but unfortunately I will not be able to do so.

I will also outline a number of initiatives that have taken place in the context of the enabling. We are looking at the carrot and stick. Over the past months we have launched Places for People - The National Policy on Architecture. This is a vernacular strategy to conserve our traditional buildings and, in particular, thatched buildings. We have set up a working group to look at the issues around thatched buildings. The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage is still informing the record of protected structures for local authorities. I believe that more than 1,400 such structures were submitted to Dublin City Council in the last tranche.

I pay tribute to our built heritage section in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and our local authorities' conservation officers. We also run a number of really good grant schemes including the built heritage investment scheme; the historic structures fund; and the historic towns initiative, which is run by the Heritage Council. We also support the Irish Georgian Society, the Follies Trust, the Heritage Council and the Irish Landmark Trust. There is a broad range of actors in this space that are working collectively to really bring about cohesion. We do need to look at the grant schemes in particular to see where they could be more effective. We need to ramp up significantly the support for the owners of heritage properties to enable them to put them back into productive use. We are also participating in the New European Bauhaus around European architecture. There are a lot of really positive elements happening.

I support the points raised by Senators Moynihan and Higgins against demolition, and particularly of our industrial heritage. We are losing some really fantastic 20th century buildings. I do not know the reason for this. They could all be repurposed. I thank Members for their contributions.

It is a great privilege to be here on behalf of the Government to speak to the Bill brought forward by Senator Norris and co-sponsors. I will take this opportunity to commend Senator Norris on his long-standing commitment to built heritage. I share the Senator's commitment to the conservation and protection of Ireland's built heritage, and as such I am always open to proposals that further this shared cause.

The purpose of this Bill is to amend the Planning and Development Acts to improve the level of protection afforded to Ireland's built heritage. This is an aim which is aligned with the commitments of the Government. For this reason, the Government has agreed not to oppose this Bill. The Bill seeks to ensure that the protection afforded to Ireland's built heritage and the expertise available to support that protection are based on the existence of effective expertise within planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála.

The Bill also aims to strengthen the protection afforded by architectural conservation area designation and to increase the enforcement mechanisms and penalties for breaches of planning legislation leading to damage to built heritage. While agreeing broadly with the intentions behind the Bill, I would like to note to the Seanad that these areas are currently under examination through the comprehensive review and consolidation of planning legislation that is under way. The review is being led by the Attorney General and it is intended to be completed by September to allow the revised legislation to be enacted by the end of the year. This review is the most comprehensive review of planning since the Act was first drafted. Its key aim is to ensure that the provisions align with policy and are more accessible and streamlined from a legal perspective.

The Planning and Development Act passed in 2000 has been amended many times, and as a result, can be somewhat impenetrable for the public and practitioners alike. The review will therefore bring: increased clarity and streamlining of the legislation; a chronological format for processes with clear signposts to other sections or legislation; improved coherence and usability of procedures; completeness of transposition of EU directives; and adherence to constitutional requirements. These aims will be achieved while also respecting the key role of public participation in the planning system. I am aware Senator Boyhan shares my very strong desire to see this happen.

Ireland is fortunate to have a planning system that enables considerable public participation, but we need to build on that to ensure our planning legislation is fit for the modern era. Through this review we want to ensure that the major debate is focused on the plan-making rather than the planning application stage, to facilitate greater clarity and long-term visibility in planning outcomes. Adequate account must also be taken of the needs of the future population of new and expanded communities, as well as the needs of existing communities. We must also take account of the nature of planning decisions, which require careful balancing of public policy, public participation and environmental issues. To this end, the working group appointed by the Attorney General is currently examining all the provisions in the Planning and Development Act, including those relating to architectural heritage, in consultation with the Department, and will then draft revised and updated provisions.

In this context, colleagues in the Seanad should be aware that the issues addressed in Parts 3, 4 and 5 of Senator Norris's Bill are also being examined under the review. For example, as part of this work, the Attorney General's working group is considering the recommendations of a review of Part IV of the 2000 Act, which was undertaken in 2016 by the then Department of Arts, Heritage, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Included in the recommendations are provisions relating to architectural conservation areas and the register of protected structures. The working group will, where appropriate, incorporate them into any revised text.

The planning review is also examining the legislative provisions in relation to An Bord Pleanála, enforcement and development plans. As part of the review, my Department is engaging with stakeholders on the review and in this regard has established a planning advisory forum consisting of representatives from a broad range of sectors, including the public sector and the business, environmental, social and knowledge-based sectors. The forum members have the opportunity to discuss issues arising from the review. With regard to architectural heritage, the Heritage Council is represented on the forum and officials from my Department have also consulted the council directly on emerging issues.

Part 2 of the Bill contains provisions relating to the role and function of architectural conservation officers in planning authorities, including minimum qualification requirements for the post. It provides that planning authorities must have regard for the observations of architectural conservation officers in relation to their planning activities and permits them to raise specific concerns about specific structures with the chief executive of the planning authority. It requires the chief executive of a planning authority to publish an annual report dealing with conservation and management of the built heritage within its functional area. It also provides for the appointment of a national built heritage conservation officer to advise the Government and the Minister on architectural conservation issues.

I would like to take this opportunity to note that further consideration should be given to these particular proposals. It should be noted in relation to local authority staffing matters that there are already provisions in the Local Government Act 2001 for the setting of qualifications for the local government sector, and the power to set such qualifications is assigned to the appropriate Minister. It would not be appropriate to create a separate process to set qualifications for architectural conservation officers, to set educational requirements for specified directors of services, to take that power from the appropriate Minister, or to enshrine specific qualifications in primary legislation. The 2001 Act also provides that the chief executive is responsible for staffing matters. The provisions proposed in the Bill would seek to take that role as it relates to architectural conservation officers and the envisaged new role of buildings-at-risk officer. I have met with the Association of Architectural Conservation Officers.I am of the view that the association must be given recognition. It is not formally recognised by the CCMA and I want that addressed. We also have different grades of architectural conservation officer in local authorities, some at senior executive grade and some at executive grade. We need to have them at senior executive grade. We need architectural conservation officers in every local authority, not just the handful we have. That must be addressed. There is a suite of policies that complement their work, such as town centres first, Housing for All, places for people, Croí Cónaithe and Heritage Ireland 2030. It is critically important that these officers are front and centre of the decision-making process.

I again thank Senator Norris for proposing this Private Members' Bill and reiterate that the Government does not oppose the Bill or its intentions. I reassure Senators that we will be taking the provisions set out in this Bill under consideration as part of this planning review, as well as the correspondence from Dublin Civic Trust and An Taisce. We want to ensure we take informed views on the review to make it fit for purpose. We need strong and rigorous enforcement but also an enabling capacity to support premises owners and to support and enable our built heritage and conservation to be brought up to a high standard. We should see them as productive buildings, rather than heritage for heritage's sake. They should be a central component of our housing policy and addressing issues around housing, as well as central component of our cultural well-being and sense of place. That is critically important, not just in Dublin but right around the country. Our Irish towns are also hugely important. I recall Paddy Shaffrey's 1975 book, The Irish Town: An Approach to Survival, in which he spoke about the heritage-led regeneration of our towns.

The timing of this Bill, in tandem with the review that is taking place, could not be more appropriate. It is also appropriate that it is Senator Norris who brought the Bill to the House. I thank all the Members for their work on it and all the conservation organisations that have inputted into this important Bill.

Before I sit down, I welcome the pupils in the Gallery. I am not sure what school they are from but-----


Katie McNelis
Posted on 18 Jun 2022 12:56 pm (This comment has been reported to moderators)

Could we get the contact details of the thatch steering group please? There are a number of issues that we'd like for them to be made aware of.

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