Wednesday, 1 November 2006
Housing Policy: Motion
"That Seanad Éireann:
recognises that Ireland's record levels of economic and population growth creates the challenge of meeting record housing accommodation demand across the country;
notes the Government's ongoing commitment to a modern planning system, which is strategic in approach and reflects the requirement for sustainable development and which delivers a performance of the highest quality;
supports the measures taken to date by Government to ensure such a system is in place;
commends the Government on the publication of finalised sustainable rural housing guidelines for planning authorities in April 2005;
notes the Government's recognition of the strong and continuing tradition of Irish people living in rural areas;
asks the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government to:
consider establishing an independent national planning monitoring committee on a statutory basis to, inter alia, advise the Minister on matters relating to planning policy, advise and assist local public representatives in the preparation of local planning policy and development plans, and regulate the implementation of Government policy and guidelines in relation to rural housing;
look at the need for a national water and sewerage services authority, similar to that which exists for national roads and group water schemes, to ensure the provision of an adequate and efficient network of water and sewerage infrastructure, with regional offices responsible for the planning, delivery and maintenance of water and sewerage infrastructure, and to implement water services investment programmes;
examine the appropriateness of the present definition of the word "local" in the rural housing guidelines for planning authorities, to end any inconsistency surrounding its use;
consider widening the interpretation of "housing need" in planning guidelines, to ensure equity and consistency;
address the situation where farming is seen as the only profession that qualifies a person for planning permission in rural areas;
investigate the desirability of an independent appeal boards within An Bord Pleanála to cover the three EU constituencies outside Dublin;
consider publication on the internet of information about the success rate of planning applications submitted by engineers and architects; and
contemplate how planning restrictions which may hinder a person seeking planning permission for a house specially designed to accommodate a person with a disability, might be removed."
I am pleased to move this Progressive Democrats motion and I welcome the Minister to the House. The motion proposed by my party reflects our contention that planning and development are key issues for communities across this country. Ireland's people want and deserve a planning system that meets their needs for local economic development, for a good supply of affordable housing and for enhanced quality of life. The correct planning law and the enforcement of subsequent decisions is critical to public confidence in local government. This starts with political direction and political will and the Progressive Democrats is dedicated to providing this leadership.
The Progressive Democrats is not in favour of unrestricted housing development and does not believe that people have the right to build wherever and in whatever style they like. We do not underestimate the important steps taken by the Government in the past ten years. We support fairness, choice and sustainability. We have worked with our partners in the Government to ensure Irish people have access to a planning system with these qualities, to a modern planning system that is strategic in approach, which reflects the requirements for sustainable development and which delivers a performance of the highest quality. I commend this Government and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the measures taken to date to ensure such a system is in place.
The House should congratulate the Government for its ongoing recognition of the strong and continuing tradition of Irish people living in rural areas. We do so in the full knowledge of increased challenges. Ireland's record levels of economic and population growth create great challenges, such as meeting record housing accommodation demand across the country. Challenges of balanced and sustainable development must continue to be met head on and this underpins my party's approach and the policy of the Government.
Planning for a Rural Future is the title of the Progressive Democrats' policy document on rural housing, which was launched by the Tánaiste and by our policy group on rural planning at the ploughing championships in Tullow in late September. I congratulate our policy team for its diligent work on this topic, which consisted of the chairman, Deputy Grealish, Councillor Ciaran Cannon, Mr. Jim Cuddy and Councillor Thomas Welby. Our policy is based on the fundamental principle that local people who live and work in an area, or have strong family ties with an area, are entitled to build homes in that area unless there are compelling safety or environmental reasons they should not do so. In our document, we acknowledge the congruence of our objective with that of successive Governments and which is also at the core of the Minister's guidelines for rural housing. However, my party believes that the guidelines, while well intentioned, are too vague and open to different interpretations by planners. They are lacking in the necessary detail to cement the rights of rural people to remain living within their own communities.
The motion asks the House to call on the Minister to examine some key issues, namely, consideration of an independent national planning monitoring committee; the idea of a national water and sewerage services authority; the appropriateness of the present definition of the word "local" in the rural housing guidelines; the interpretation of the term "housing need" and why farming is seen as the only profession that allows a person to qualify for planning permission; the desirability of an independent appeal boards within An Bord Pleanála; publication of information about the success rate of planning applications, and details of pre-planning meetings to be included in planning files; and simplifying the planning permission process for a house specially designed to accommodate a person with a disability. My party colleague, Senator Minihan, will expand on the third and subsequent points, while I will deal with the first two substantive issues.
We ask the Minister to consider establishing an independent national planning monitoring committee on a statutory basis. It is hoped that this committee could advise the Minister on matters relating to planning policy, and advise and assist local public representatives in the preparation of local planning policy and development plans. It would have an overall regulatory role in the implementation of Government policy and guidelines on rural housing. While the Department already plays a monitoring role regarding local authorities, this new body could act as a liaison between the Department and the elected representatives on councils. The committee could help elected members implement directives from the Department, as well as identify and resolve local obstacles in the way of implementation. The Minister and Members of the House will be aware that when it comes to the drafting of local development plans, councillors are entitled to consult and seek advice from local private planning experts, separate from local authority planners. However, councillors must pay for this service. The establishment of this new committee would meet that requirement. The Progressive Democrats Party is of the view that if the Minister establishes this body on a statutory basis, local authorities will enthusiastically engage with it in the implementation of Government policy and guidelines on rural housing. This must be facilitated, encouraged and welcomed.
In the second substantive point in our motion, the Progressive Democrats Party asks the Minister to examine the need for a national water and sewerage services authority. We envisage something akin to that which exists for national roads, the National Roads Authority, and for group water schemes. This authority would ensure the provision of an adequate and efficient network of water and sewerage infrastructure. We propose that this body would have regional offices and would be responsible for the planning, delivery and maintenance of water and sewerage infrastructure in its region.
It is important that this national water and sewerage services authority would be responsible for the implementation of water services investment programmes. Every Member of this House will be aware of the problems that exist with implementing these investment programmes. Last December, the water services investment programme 2005-2007 set out a comprehensive schedule of new schemes to start over the next two years. The programme is made up of 899 projects with an overall capital value of €5.1 billion. Why is it that local authorities are no nearer to putting many of those schemes out to tender? The latest programme for 2005-2007 contains many of the same projects as the 2004-2006 programme. This is not satisfactory.
The Progressive Democrats Party has three primary concerns. First, rural Ireland may be left behind in the delivery of small schemes in towns and villages. Councils have been told to group schemes but there is still toing and froing between the local authority and the Department. Where rural areas come under the catchment of larger urban centres, they may get left behind. The large population centres get their projects under way while the water and sewerage schemes in the hinterland are stalled or delayed. This certainly has been the case in County Limerick, in Mungret, Patrickswell and Adare, where schemes are delayed.
Second, we are concerned that much needed new developments are being held up because the necessary water and sewerage services are not in place. Local development plans and water services plans do not complement each other at present. Where possible, the plan for water services should be agreed and in place before development is planned.
Our third concern is that where services are absent and yet are included in the water services investment programme, developers install temporary systems and then pass the cost of this onto already hard-pressed home buyers and taxpayers. It is clear to us that this is unsatisfactory. We await the Minister's view on the matter.
My party's motion calls for further reform of the planning process, not for its own sake, but to enhance our planning system further. I suspect that this goal is broadly supported across this House and by the Minister. This is not just a rural issue. As Senator Minihan will make clear in his contribution, the process in place for rural development has real and serious implications for the way our commuter towns, will develop. An optimal rural planning system is necessary to complement proper urban development because they go hand in hand.
The Progressive Democrats Party has examined how the system works and at how it can work better. I move this motion in the confident hope that the Minister will consider it carefully and continue to work with us to improve the planning regime.
I move amendment No 1:
To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
mindful of the neglect of rural Ireland that has taken place under the current Administration and noting;
that the Government has presided over a huge fall in the level of farm incomes — the average farm income has declined dramatically over the last ten years;
that the IFA claimed in 2005 that there are more than 15,000 farm families with incomes of less than €200 per week and that last year, the average farm income was €15,000, while the average industrial wage stood at €30,000;
concerned at the flight from the land, illustrated by the fact that since 1997 the number of young farmers claiming installation aid has fallen by around two thirds, while it is estimated that seven farmers leave the business each day;
noting the Western Development Commission report published in May 2006, which highlighted a 30% underspend in the Border, midlands and west region under the national development plan, while the wealth gap between east and west has also grown since 2002;
Calls on the Government to reverse its laissez-faire approach to rural development and take concerted action to address the planning chaos and severe infrastructure deficit by:
reforming our planning laws to ensure that those who wish to live in rural areas are empowered to do so;
ensuring that planning permissions, when decided upon, take account of the need to attract returned emigrants and encourage people working in a locality to live there;
recognising the urgent need to promote stable and sustainable development patterns; and
at a time of great plenty, targeting investment in rural areas to ensure proper infrastructure exists to attract investment, create jobs and allow rural Ireland to thrive.
I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss this important and topical motion. Listening to Senator Brennan, one would not think the Progressive Democrats Party has been part of the Government for the past ten years. He appeals to and begs the Minister to do this, that and the other. He is probably not aware that his party is part of this Government.
The American broadcaster, John Madden, famously said, "Self praise is for losers. Be a winner. Stand for something." While he could not have known about the weakness of the current Government, he was certainly on the right track. This motion is the desperate death rattle of a dying Government, substituting self-congratulation for lack of positive action over the past nine and a half years. Empty words and empty promises and complete lack of follow-through are the hallmarks of a Government which certainly cannot stand over its record on planning or very little else either.
The basis for this motion is the Progressive Democrats policy document on rural housing, Planning for a Rural Future, which was launched last September. This document follows each point of the motion, word for word. It is therefore difficult to know whether this motion is an attempt at highlighting the contents of a document which is just another verbal whitewash in an ever increasing paper mountain or an attempt to give it credibility. The Progressive Democrats Party has views on planning but its views have never been implemented by Government.
This is the latest promise feast from the junior partner in a Government that has driven farmers off the land and presided over a huge fall in the level of farm incomes. The average farm income has declined dramatically in the past ten years, with the IFA claiming in 2005 that more than 15,000 farm families had incomes of less than €200 per week and that last year, the average farm income was €15,000, while the average industrial wage stood at €30,000.
As we all know, this has led to a flight from the land, illustrated by the fact that since 1997, the number of young farmers claiming installation aid has fallen by around two thirds, while it is estimated that seven farmers leave the business each day. Farmers have been caught in a trap of compulsory building necessitated by the nitrates directive. They have been forced into expensive building projects at unrealistic prices caused by a 30% increase in the price of steel in the past two years. The disastrous handling of the nitrates directive by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was a final nail in the coffin for many farmers. I acknowledge he backtracked somewhat on what he said in this House last November. He made a few U-turns on the nitrates directive and we all recognise that.
Hard-pressed farmers are once again under threat of being driven out of business by this Government by excessive demands on their resources. Not only has the price of steel risen at an alarming rate in the past two years, since the beginning of this year, the price of concrete has also increased dramatically under the Minister's regime.
According to the Teagasc-NUI report, Rural Ireland 2025, Foresight Perspectives, if the current trends continue, they will result in serious failures to achieve declared policy goals for rural Ireland. On current trends, the following outcomes are likely by 2025 according to the report. There will not be an acceptable regional balance in Ireland's economy, population, commercial agriculture and modern enterprises which will be even more concentrated in the east and south than at present. Rural areas, especially in the north west and north midlands will lag behind in respect of communications and other infrastructure, especially as EU funds will not be available for future development. There will be a dramatic reduction in farmer numbers, lower agricultural prices and widespread decline in commercial farming. Lower volumes of farm output will threaten the viability of agrifood processing enterprises. Forested land area will almost double, however the value of forestry and wood output will not increase to the same extent. The rural landscape with Ireland's rich natural cultural environment will be under continued threat.
New types of employment will not benefit the many rural communities outside of the commuting catchment zones but what could be achieved under a strong effective Government is a completely different picture. If the national spatial strategy was implemented in conjunction with successive regionally focused national plans, the result would be a more balanced distribution of population and economic activity throughout the country. Rapid communications and supporting infrastructure would provide greater accessibility throughout all parts of the country. The rural economy could sustain more competitive enterprises through the development of additional entrepreneurial and management skills as well as further innovation in products, business organisation and marketing.
There is a need for greater commitment to rural and regional development throughout government and a constructive and effective institutional framework to ensure policies respond to the defined needs of the rural economy and rural communities. A change is needed in the prevailing mode of policy making, public administration and policy delivery. Tourism could be a vibrant sector of the rural economy, providing knowledge-based environmental goods and services, focused on Ireland's unique landscape and culture. Forestry and the ocean economy could be sizeable suppliers to the energy sector and provide valued public goods. During the debate on energy last week we said we should look at wave energy, an area on which the Government has done no research whatsoever.
The bottom line for all of this is that these are aspirational concepts that could be realised through the actions of strong Government action. The rhetoric of stated policy needs to be followed through with clear operational programmes, especially in relation to the White Paper on rural Development and the national spatial strategy.
I support the motion's call for the establishment of a national planning monitoring committee, to act as an appeals mechanism to give people who have fallen victim to the Government's mismanagement of the planning process a voice to air their concerns and a structure that will iron out planning inequities once and for all.
In all planning areas, who exactly have been the winners under the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government? Certainly the developers and the concrete industry have been winners, as was highlighted in last week's motion on energy but not first-time buyers, those who wish to live and work in the rural areas associated with their families for generations or returning emigrants desperate to put down roots in their native areas. Government inaction is destroying family life in rural Ireland. Parents are being forced to see their adult children and grandchildren driven into over-priced housing in towns while being denied permission to build on available farmland in their native areas, which would benefit the community by the establishment of a network of extended families. This issue has arisen time and time again but the Government has refused to deal with it.
The Taoiseach promised radical changes to the planning process but nothing has happened. He has lost credibility in this as well as in every other area of trust, which the people have placed in him. The promises he made in Sligo three years ago have not resulted in action. As the election approaches, the Government is chasing its tail and trying to make something out of issues with which it did not deal during the past nine-and-a-half years. The bottom line, however, is that no matter what the spin, the Government has neglected the people of rural Ireland.
It has been left to the county development plans of local authorities to address the issue of rural settlement. Their aim is to strengthen the fabric of existing settlements and development clusters in the country, creating and maintaining vibrant and thriving urban and rural communities. Let us take, for example, County Longford which is a highly rural area, with agriculture having been the primary land use and industry which has sustained its people for generations. However, new economic and social forces have begun to change people's relationship with the land. Agriculture has gone into decline and there is pressure for land in rural areas to be used for non-agricultural purposes. Accordingly, the council has developed objectives with a view to reversing rural decline. Central to that reversal is the need to have firmly in place a planning process that supports the right of those who wish to live in rural areas and empowers them to do so. This has not been the reality under the current Government. One would think the Government was in opposition, given the behaviour of the Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil on this issue.
If Senator Minihan knew anything about rural Ireland he would know that agriculture and rural planning are very much interconnected. Clearly he does not.
I second the amendment in the name of my colleague, Senator Bannon and all the Fine Gael Senators. Senator Bannon is correct. It is ironic that we are discussing housing. We have had a number of debates on housing in recent months. Given the Progressive Democrats motion, one would not think that party had been in Government for nine-and-a-half years with its Fianna Fáil partners. It has singularly failed in all the objectives Senator Brennan outlined in his opening remarks. He spoke of the need for a good supply of affordable housing.
Last week we had a debate on housing. It is clear that houses are still being constructed with hollow blocks in this city and there is certainly not a good supply of housing. We all know about the problems of affordability, as outlined by Senator Bannon. Senator Brennan mentioned the quality of life issues. The Government has condemned people to living miles from their places of work and to commuting morning and evening. If they have children they see them only for a couple of hours per day. I would like those people to hear the Progressive Democrats' motion and Senator Brennan refer to quality of life issues.
If one has to work in Dublin and every day drive from the furthest point of the Minister's constituency in, say, Rathvilly, County Carlow, one has little by way of quality of life. Some people spend two or three hours in a car every morning and evening getting to and from work. The Government's motion proposes little to help those who find themselves in that position.
I agree with Senator Brennan who said there is a need to put the contents of pre-planning meetings on the planning file. That is the correct approach. The standard of engagement that takes place with planners and those who make applications at pre-planning meetings varies widely across the country. Something needs to be done in this area. Often people get no indication one way or another from pre-planning meetings and, as Senator Brennan pointed out, these are not taken into account when the planning file is judged at a later date.
One particular bugbear I have is the issue of vernacular planning in rural areas. We have a particular problem in my neck of the woods in Carlow and Kilkenny where planners say they want small windows in houses. The small windows in rural houses came from the time when the British authorities were in control and there was a tax on windows. It is not acceptable in this day and age to implement the social policy of the British authorities as implemented here a couple of hundred years ago merely because it is covered by the term "vernacular planning". That is unsustainable into the future particularly in the case of a house facing south where a greater use of glass at the front would attract and maintain heat, given the problems of energy costs and sources. There is a need for a commonsense approach to planning in local authorities areas.
I have eight planning files of people in Carlow and Kilkenny who have been refused planning permissions on their own lands. In some cases, this was done for quite good planning reasons but in many others the reasons were flimsy and a lack of commonsense was applied by planners. When files were refused, people had to make a couple of minor adjustments before reapplying because the further information option was not used in the planning system.
We must ensure a continuous flow of people into rural areas. In the past couple of years, it has been said that if one is from a rural area one should be able to build in it. I believe in that concept but we should not erect a cast-iron barrier against people moving into rural communities from outside because such people will be essential to the future development of such areas.
I share with Senator Brennan and others their sense of frustration with the operation of An Bord Pleanála. I urge the Minister to ensure that there will be a shake-up in that organisation's operations. In my short time in politics, I have seen many contradictory decisions emanating from An Bord Pleanála, so there needs to be more consistency in that regard.
I agree with Senator Bannon that the rural housing guidelines and the Taoiseach's pronouncements in Sligo three years ago have not been implemented in full in rural areas. I urge the Government to ensure that those guidelines are acted upon by local authorities and are included in local authority development plans.
Renewable energy is another area of interest to me. In recent years in County Kilkenny, a number of planning applications have been granted for wind turbines but they are not permitted by the Electricity Supply Board to connect to the national grid. I readily accept that there are areas of the country which are suitable for wind energy, while others are not. Where permission has been granted and where no local objections are raised, however, it is unacceptable for the ESB to continue to bar such turbines from connecting to the national grid. The Minister and his Cabinet colleagues should do something to prevent that blockage from occurring in future.
The Progressive Democrats' motion refers to establishing a national water and sewerage services authority but I never realised that it was part of the Progressive Democrats' political ethos to support the development of another quango. Senator Brennan referred to the role of the National Roads Authority. If the proposed new authority is envisaged as something along the lines of the NRA, I would oppose it tooth and nail. Earlier on I spoke about An Bord Pleanála but the National Roads Authority is very much a law unto itself. I would not like to see a similar authority being given powers over future water and sewerage developments. That function belongs directly to local authorities.
The Minister and the Government should ensure that adequate funding is provided for the upgrading, maintenance and installation of new sewerage schemes. There are three or four such schemes in Kilkenny. One scheme has been on the cards for 30 years in Kilmacow. It is progressing a little at the moment but it has been progressing for the past ten years and there is still no sign of any building blocks being laid. I could name umpteen other villages in Carlow and Kilkenny that suffer from similar problems. Rather than setting up another quango, therefore, we should invest in local authorities so that they can provide the necessary services.
I welcome the Minister to the House for this interesting debate. I take Senator John Paul Phelan's point that there is a connection between agriculture and housing matters. Like Senator Bannon and other colleagues, I recently met with the Irish Farmers' Association. I found it interesting that the IFA's representatives did not have the doom and gloom approach to which Senator Bannon referred. They raised three issues with me, namely, capital gains tax, land leasing and compensation for road development. Those are interesting matters, given our pre-budget discussions. This debate is relevant, particularly as we are always talking about having discussions on planning matters. The proposals made by Senators Brennan and Bannon are well worth examining.
I am interested in the definition of the word "local", which is something that exercised our minds on Galway County Council for many years. Many councillors think we should not use the word local at all because one can argue the case along other lines. One may talk about someone being local to an area but many of my colleagues on the county council have argued about people being in a particular parish or school catchment area. It is disappointing that the rainbow of councillors on Galway County Council, of which Senator Bannon's party is the largest component, has now decided that "local" will mean eight kilometres or five miles from one's home, which is very restrictive. It was much more flexible before the last review of the Galway county development plan. The Minister, Deputy Roche, and his predecessors have been trying to give people an opportunity to live in their native areas, an idea which the Fine Gael amendment supports.
Senator John Paul Phelan referred to pre-planning meetings. Some councils use the excuse that they cannot talk to an applicant because an application is before the planners. While this does not seem to be the case in many counties, it is unfortunately so in Galway where no discussions can take place while a valid application is before the county council. That rule is wrong and should be changed. We are all in favour of having more planners. In addition, I hope the Minister will address the question of An Bord Pleanála in his reply to the debate. It does not matter to me whether we have one board or two but we need an explanation as to what exactly is going on. It is difficult to comprehend some decisions that are being made and this inconsistency is causing great frustration for many people.
I note that the costings for the 2005-07 County Galway water and sewerage investment programme add up to almost €500 million or half a billion euro. It is a huge programme and I compliment the Minister on his achievements since taking over his current portfolio. There is a huge volume of work to do next year.
I wish to ask the Minister about the issue of bundling applications. I was in favour of the design-build-operate model with one contractor being responsible for a number of schemes but I am beginning to have second thoughts about it. I have seen some very large schemes being bundled with small ones, which means that the latter schemes are held up. In County Clare, colleagues of mine have said that their town was bundled with two towns that needed a foreshore licence. I realise that this matter is not the Minister's responsibility but that of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. I believe that the application process for foreshore licences can take up to two or three years and, if that is so, I hope we can unbundle such applications. We should examine the possibility of having separate applications for foreshore licences to avoid such problems arising in future.
I welcome this debate which has given us an opportunity to discuss planning matters. We could go into many other issues concerning rural housing but I hope this water and sewerage programme will be implemented. It is important for the development of towns and villages where people wish to live but have not been able to do so due to a lack of investment. We now have such an investment programme. If the Minister achieves the co-operation of the local authorities, we will also have sustainable rural housing development.
It is welcome that we are debating this important issue. Whoever comes up with the optimum planning system will probably win the Nobel prizes for literature and peace. Notwithstanding that, we need to monitor the issues continually and remain open to improvements. Most of the Opposition's amendment to the motion warrants no comment other than to remind the House that nobody has done more for rural Ireland than this Government. As somebody who comes from rural Ireland, I think it a case of a lot done, more to do. I might wish a lot more had been done but——
I note that the Western Development Commission's report revealed an underspend of 30%. However, that money has not been spent anywhere else and we have until the end of 2009 to spend it. I am confident the Government will meet its target in that regard. The number of houses being built today is double the figure when this Government entered office in 1997. With regard to planning issues in general, I support the broad thrust of the motion and urge the Minister to consider its contents with an open mind. I have long had concerns about the right to object because I have a fundamental problem with the fact that somebody living in California can object to a planning application brought by a person who wishes to build a house in County Sligo. That provision is simply wrong and needs to be changed.
Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to welcome the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006. That Bill will be of great benefit in terms of avoiding emotive scenarios such as the Sligo inner relief road, which took 22 years to complete largely because of local indifference. However, we ought to revisit the issue of how a project in a particular area comes to be regarded as strategic because decisions in this respect vary between regions. Lough Key Forest Park in County Roscommon, for example, brought significant local benefits in terms of employment and tourism, even if it was not strategically important to other regions. I would support the establishment of local bodies, such as local authorities or regional units of An Bord Pleanála, which would have a better understanding of the area and would be more informed about cases.
We often hear it said by planners that their job is not to design houses. However, applications have been often refused over issues which could have been resolved if the agent for the applicant had been advised in advance. In that regard, a more proactive approach would be useful.
This motion is disingenuous, in so far as it attempts to focus attention on the specific issue of rural housing while ignoring the much more important and urgent problem of housing on a national basis. It is an act of political opportunism on behalf of Government Members to cherry-pick the parts of an issue which suit them while closing their eyes to the areas where the record of this Government is anything but good.
During the past decade, we have achieved a great deal in this country. I am often asked, when abroad, to explain why Ireland has become so successful. We can be proud of many of our achievements. We have consistently achieved growth rates well ahead of our partners in the European Union. Unemployment has been reduced from crisis levels to the point at which everyone is prepared to forget about the problems which remain in that regard. Young people in this country do not remember the high unemployment levels of the past and are in danger of becoming overconfident. We have continued to attract foreign direct investment, which has been the real lifeblood of our boom.
However, we have failed in a number of ways over the past decade. We have not only failed to keep a grip on inflation but have even tended to encourage it recklessly. We have also failed to provide an adequate infrastructure for the knowledge society we claim to be interested in developing, most notably through our abysmal failure to make broadband available to everyone in the country at a reasonable cost.
One failure, housing, stands above all others. We have failed to provide houses where they are needed and have instead created a nightmare of urban sprawl which has spawned a raft of problems, to say nothing of causing us to be held up to the world as a classic example of how not to plan cities. Several weeks ago, I raised this matter on the Order of Business after realising we were second from the bottom of a list of countries which were criticised for urban sprawl.
We have failed to balance supply and demand to bring about an orderly property market. For the past decade and more, we just let prices rip. This has greatly benefited builders, developers and property investors but has created nothing but misery for the hundreds of thousands of young people who have been forced to pay outlandish prices for houses in places where they do not want to live. They have been forced into a life of long-distance commuting on overcrowded roads and left with little time for their children. I cannot believe that people are forced to make daily commutes to Dublin over distances of 150 km and more simply because we did not plan properly. This situation was not inevitable but was allowed to arise by a Government which shut its eyes to the consequences of short-sighted planning and land use policies. The people will pay for the consequences of those policies for many years to come. With interest rates continuing to rise, we can safely predict that the worst of the pain is still to come.
Our failure in housing is a major blot on the Celtic tiger and it is the height of foolishness to try to divert our attention by focusing on the less consequential issue of rural housing. I do, however, concur with Senator MacSharry in his criticism of the right of somebody living in San Francisco to object to a development in rural Ireland.
We should focus our efforts on undoing, to the extent that it may still be possible, the grave damage inflicted in the past decade to housing in this country. It is not yet too late to take the opportunity to make amends.
I am grateful to my colleague, Senator Quinn, for sharing his time with me. The motion is a very long and self-praising piece of work. I am reminded of the old cliché, self-praise is no praise. That is advice which the Government should take on board. I have a record of supporting the Government when I think it is right and criticising it when I think it is wrong. I agree with Senator Quinn that much of this motion is disingenuous and I am glad that an amendment has been proposed.
In that case, I am put in a quandary. Once gain the Government is trying to pick a popular issue — rural housing. Allowing one-off housing is seen to be supporting the farmers. The Government is doing what it has a tendency to do in this area, which is curry favour with a specific element. As we are discussing housing, the Minister might remember a debate we had in this House last week in which Senator O'Toole and I managed to unearth a memorandum that showed the Government had stood over the construction of 250,000 hollow-brick houses which were defective in terms of heat conservation. They were an environmental threat. The Government did so to satisfy the demands of a certain section of the cement lobby.
I object to the Government always going for the easy vote. It curries favour with, for example, farmers and people in rural areas who want naturally — it is a very human wish — to be allowed to build wherever they like and to be able, in circumstances where farming is not as economically viable as it used to be, to make a living by selling off plots. They often doctor it up as if it were for a son or daughter and once they get permission, it is flogged off, as the Minister knows perfectly well.
There are votes in this kind of thing, just as there are votes in trashing groups such as An Taisce. I am glad the Minister is present because I want to say this directly to him. He has played a personal role in the trashing of An Taisce and undermining it. The Government set out to do this with a chorus of approval from people with strong local authority links by undermining its statutory status, removing its grants, and turning it from a very useful organisation into one that is plagued by difficulties because of the way it has been undermined. We now have a virtually amateur organisation and eventually the Government will remove its status. This is damaging.
We all know the impact of one-off housing on the tourist business. People from throughout the world continually ask me how we can destroy our own country and kill the goose that lays the golden egg in this atrocious and unsophisticated way. This is always met by the accusations of so-called Dublin 4 voices. It is not just Dublin 4 voices. I hear it now from people who have lived in the countryside all their lives. They are just as appalled as I am at what is happening in rural Ireland. There is a significant problem. How are we allowing houses with no sewerage, no effective planning and no services? Do people have the right to put a house wherever they like and then expect the taxpayer to supply all these services? If the Government is only looking for their vote, it will promise them anything. I would like to think that a responsible Government would take into account the national interest.
The same applies to affordable housing. A great noise was made about affordable housing and how we would look after people. We have not done it. Once again we have given in to a group that is too close to Fianna Fáil, the major party in Government — the building industry. Those in that industry are allowed to weasel out of putting affordable housing in their nice expensive developments. They buy it off. The Minister is an artist in this regard. I heard him this morning talking about how, despite us being bottom of the class in terms of Kyoto, we will buy our way out with carbon credits. It is a disaster. We should not be doing this. We should not allow the builders to weasel out in this way and trade off useless bits of land so that people will be deprived of housing.
The Minister's party was once the party of the plain people of Ireland. The Government is not doing any favours to the plain people of Ireland in its housing policy.
I am so grateful to Senator Quinn for sharing time with Senator Norris. It is always very worthwhile. Apropos of the plain people of Ireland, those who have their dinner in the middle of the day and tend to vote for Fianna Fáil because they are plain, simple and wise people, we housed 90,000 of them last year. Whatever other failures we may have, while we might quibble about where they have gone, we have built five times more houses than other nations in Europe. Our rate is four times greater per capita than the United Kingdom, a country that is undergoing what is called an emergency housing programme. Whatever else we have failed to do, we have not failed in the housing area.
Senators may make the fair point that we have issues with urban sprawl. It is a pity that Senators were not cognisant of what I did last week when I used powers never previously used by a Minister in the history of the State, precisely to prevent this type of profiteering and this outrageous scandalous and entirely counterproductive planning. To suggest that Fianna Fáil is somehow beholden is somewhat disingenuous and, in the circumstances of last week, is very difficult for me.
However, I thank the Members for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. In particular, I thank the Progressive Democrats. It is important to propose ideas that we can debate. My friends in the Progressive Democrats are almost being provocative in the sense that they know that more than any other Minister, I have a particular personal aversion to quangos.
The Government recognises the strong tradition of Irish people living in rural areas. Even if Senator Norris does not recognise it, in reality 40% of the people live in rural areas. We should not force those people into what I call the European Environment Agency's short-sighted, blinkered and imperfect view of planning. I remember walking across a hillside in County Wicklow with Jacques Delors a number of years ago. He commented on how wonderful and idyllic it was that children could grow up in a rural background with a father who could make part of his living from farming and could also, as he did, commute to the city to work. He said that as far as he could see, that was as close as it was possible to be to an idyll.
We need to learn one thing, which is that we do not always get it wrong. Senator Quinn was correct and generous in saying that when travelling abroad, people ask how this small country in 20 years could move from the position that existed in 1987, when Senator Bannon's party last relinquished power after a full term in office and when we were the basket case of Europe. We had 71,000 people working in the building and construction industry. Today, because of the Government's policies, we have 250,000. We had people fleeing the country and now we have people coming here, which is wonderful. They enrich us. They are part of us and are making the country a better place. How could anybody suggest that this country is in some sense a failure when the reality is otherwise?
We must realise that there is no prescriptive, one-form-fits-all approach to planning. We have a different system of settlement which must be recognised in any planning debate. I congratulate the Progressive Democrats Members, who are trying to get to the essence of the debate on what we are trying to and need to create. I read the EEA report and have had heated conversations with Professor McGlade. I do not agree that the EEA has it right and argue that it has it wrong. To suggest that we should shove everybody into towns would be a disservice. It would be desperately damaging to the fabric of Irish life. I do not agree that we get it wrong. We do not always get it right. A little humility in Irish politics goes a long way. We certainly make many mistakes. In the planning area, I challenge anybody to say we always get it wrong.
There is a strong tradition of living in rural Ireland, which I celebrate. I come from a town and am quintessentially an urban person. However, having a countryside populated with people is incredibly enriching. Otherwise we would have something approaching a desert. I do not agree that the kinds of settlement patterns in this country are in some way inimical to planning. I will certainly not take a lecture on planning and housing from people who come from countries that have created urban disasters. I believe there is a fundamental problem in planning. Far too much of our thinking about planning is informed by some sort of urban idyll, when I believe an alternative exists. I support a strong progressive local government system that has at its core the right to plan and develop. I support well-managed local decisions taken within a policy framework as set by local authorities. I take issue with Senator Bannon in that regard. The Senator was correct when he said planning must be informed by the national spatial strategy. He said also the strategy must be informed at local level by the regional planning guidelines and incorporated into local planning. I do not want to be particularly partisan but the Senator's colleagues in Laois took disgraceful action in the past six months when they attempted to overturn the national spatial strategy and the regional planning guidelines. They forced me, as a strong defender of local government, into the invidious position where, for the first time ever, I had to issue an order overturning a planning decision by local councils. I was more than surprised when the Senator's party put Charlie Flanagan out to defend that on the national airways because it was an indefensible decision. I ask the Senator's party to review that position. I was pleased to hear Senator Bannon say he sees the logic of the national spatial strategy and the regional planning guidelines.
I say to Senators who took the view taken by Senator Norris, in his own inimitable and charming way, on rural planning guidelines that the sustainable rural planning guidelines were put in place to ensure we have sustainable development in rural areas. A total of 40% of our people live in rural Ireland and we should not force them to live in urban areas. We should try to encourage them to live in their own areas but in a way which is sustainable. That is the essence of the rural planning guidelines.
The guidelines include a presumption in favour of quality one-off housing in rural communities provided proposals meet normal standards. The guidelines require the overall presumption to be applied to the actual local needs of a community. The guidelines are very subtle in that they recognise there is a variety of rural areas that requires a difference in the approach. The planning authorities are required to review and vary their development plans, where necessary, to ensure their policies on rural settlement are consistent with the policies set out in the guidelines. The guidelines are not a desiderata, and I accept Senator Brennan's point that some local authority planners have not copped that. The guidelines are law, not something they can apply if they wish.
I appreciate that many Senators have genuine concerns about the inconsistencies in the manner in which planning has sometimes manifested itself. I agree with Senator Brennan that we need consistent implementation of the guidelines. That is my wish too and we have been addressing that issue. I emphasise that my Department is very conscious of that and I have made that point forcefully in private meetings I have had with county managers. I have made it clear to county managers that I expect them to apply the letter but, more importantly, the spirit of the guidelines. The spirit is not, as Senator Norris suggested, a charter for people to sell off sites. The opposite is the case.
We have tried to bring coherence to the issue of rural planning in the guidelines. We have held seminars to ensure local authority planning staff are aware of the guidelines. In particular the seminars dealt with the preparation of the planning policies, providing better supports and advice, and giving an efficient, comprehensive and good mannered response. I emphasised all of that in my contacts with county managers.
The guidelines set a strong framework but they are not intended to straightjacket planning authorities, for example, by limiting their room to manoeuvre on who can and cannot be regarded as local. I fully appreciate the point Senator Brennan and the Progressive Democrats made that "local" should not simply mean farming or farming stock. I agree with them on that but the guidelines do not do that. The guidelines provide that reasonable proposals on suitable sites for persons who are part of and contribute to the local community should be accommodated. I cannot understand how any Senator could take exception to that. In particular, I cannot understand how a gifted and talented man like Senator Norris could take exception to it. What I said was that suitable sites for persons who make a contribution to the rural community should be accommodated. The guidelines state that examples of such persons would include farmers, their sons and daughters but they do not state that it must be exclusively those categories. They provide for planning authorities to grant permission in cases where exceptional health circumstances arise. I make no apology for doing that and I explained to this House the reason I made these specific arrangements for one-off housing where, for example, there is a handicap in a family.
I was walking through a small village in Meath with a council colleague, Nick Kilroy, and had one of those experiences that one has only because one is a politician on the ground. A young woman approached us and spoke about a planning problem she was experiencing. She was not from the country. She had two children with a very severe condition. They could not live in a housing estate. Mr. Kilroy told me that was a failure of the planning system because that woman could not be accommodated for a one-off house in a rural area. That is why I changed the law. I changed the law because I believe the law should have some humanity infused into it. I made a special arrangement for families facing a special challenge to be given consideration and get planning permission. I put into the law also a requirement that emigrants who return to this country should be given consideration. Generations of people had to leave this country because of poverty. It was their emigrants' remittances that allowed us to build the Celtic tiger. If they want to come back in their failing years and build houses in the countryside where they were reared, we would be a lesser nation if we did not accommodate them. I make no apologies for those comments and make them simply by way of explaining the guidelines. The guidelines are intended, on the one hand, to create a rationality but, on the other hand, to infuse a degree of humanity into the planning system.
Promoting sustainable rural housing in a way that works for communities should be at the core of planning, particularly in non-urban areas. In the guidelines we have tried to create a new template against which planning can and will be facilitated. The key objective is to maintain a vibrant rural population while respecting and consolidating the traditional forms and the patterns of housing development in areas, for instance, where there are clusters of housing. In the stronger rural areas the guidelines corporate development policies build on the strengths of those areas by striking a balance. That is why I struck down the planning abnormalities in Laois last week.
With regard to the proposals in the motion, it was courageous, rather than opportunistic, of my Progressive Democrats colleagues to bring those forward. I do not accept they were opportunistic. We should debate issues in the open in a more mature way.
On getting local authorities to do the job correctly and applying the rules consistently, it is proposed that we should have a national monitoring committee. As everybody knows, I have an aversion to quangos but there are practical reasons this approach might not be the correct one. The central thesis is that a central advisory committee would be best placed to deliver better decisions. It would be difficult for a national body to be able to intervene in the more than 33,000 planning applications for one-off houses. That is the level of one-off housing applications. Senator Norris was wrong when he suggested this was a minority problem. A total of 33,000 applications were made for one-off houses in the past year. I understand what the Senators are suggesting and I respect their views but it would be difficult to effectively replicate the planning process by having a committee that would oversee all of that, and it would be difficult to get the focus right.
I would be concerned also that a body like the one proposed would merely replicate the functions already performed by the Minister of the day. I may be faulty as Minister of the day but I am not unconscious of the concerns about rural housing. There is a danger that functions which properly should be under the charge of the politician who is answerable democratically would be replicated. That is my personal objection to and difficulty with quangos, as they are commonly referred to. We must be careful before going that route. The creation of new bodies is often put forward as a proposition in this and the other House but any such proposition requires a good deal of assessment.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his latitude. I strongly feel we should have a long debate on this matter and this is why I am so grateful to the Progressive Democrats for tabling the motion.
I have some concerns over independent appeals concerning sub-boards of An Bord Pleanála. I will explain why and my reason is not indicative of a knee-jerk reaction. Great coherence is afforded through having a single national body such as An Bord Pleanála. Under the strategic infrastructure legislation, I effectively created a second board within the board, namely, the strategic infrastructure board, but problems with staffing and resources will arise if we keep dividing the board. One of the great planning challenges we now face is the shortage of well-qualified planners. It will surprise the House to learn that, in the past few months, I have been talking about making further appointments to An Bord Pleanála. However, some of the largest bodies with a role in submitting names in this regard have not done so. We need to be careful in this area.
When the motion was tabled, I took a lot of time to do some analysis. I noted there were 5,500 appeals to the board last year but that only 551 related to one-off rural houses. To establish a series of sub-boards to deal specifically with this issue would not necessarily represent the best use of resources. However, I compliment the Progressive Democrats on allowing for debate on the issue. As usual, I will send a copy of the debate to the chairman of An Bord Pleanála so he will be conscious of the concerns that exist.
On the creation of a national authority for water and sewerage services, we are making incredible progress in this area. I do not say this in any vainglorious way because I happen to be in a very lucky position in which other Ministers responsible for the environment were not. I have resources beyond those available to the others. We have made great strides, particularly in respect of rural water, and this has been recognised by the chairman of the National Federation of Group Water Schemes. Structural issues arise in the water and sewerage programme and bureaucracy and red tape have caused frustration.
The Members who proposed this motion should note I am not convinced that establishing a national water and sewerage authority along the lines of the NRA is the way forward. I have taken steps to de-bureaucratise the whole programme. One will notice that, in the past year, I have adopted a much more liberal approach to sanctioning the smaller schemes, particularly those under the €5 million threshold. I mentioned the streamlined measures previously. The major focus will be on giving the local authorities greater responsibility in terms of procurement and more capacity to move forward, and on providing for a reduction in the number of stage approvals. This will solve the problem.
Our planning system is working well given the strains thereon. It was designed when there were very few development cases but recently there has been great pressure on every planning authority in the country. While I am sometimes critical of these authorities, I believe they have done well in general.
The sustainable rural housing guidelines are a central plank in my personal approach to the planning system. Members of the House will be aware that I have issued a series of guidelines to try to change the planning system. There have been changes in the guidelines, including the retail guidelines, and in a variety of other areas. The way forward is to ensure the guidelines are applied. Intellectually and temperamentally, I am against the creation of additional quangos. I am very conscious of the need to have balanced, fair and more appropriate planning in rural Ireland.
I thank the Senators for their contributions. I apologise if I went a little off script because I believe one should do so from time to time. I will make a copy of this debate available to the chairman of An Bord Pleanála because it is very important. It gives the Senators, who are very closely wed to the councillors throughout the country, an opportunity to outline their views on how the planning system is working. There is nothing wrong with their being closely wed to the councillors. If we all listen to each other rather than preach at each other, we will have a better planning system.
It is nice to be in agreement with the Minister in respect of several parts of the Progressive Democrats' motion, which parts I have also rejected. I was particularly interested in his comments on the national authority for water and sewerage services. When I became a Member of this House almost 14 years ago, the number of private water schemes polluted by e.coli amounted to 25%. I believe this has decreased to 22% after staggering sums of money were spent on the problem.
Nobody seems to take responsibility for any of these issues. A very large proportion of the pollution in some private water schemes is due to septic tanks. Between these and the pollution arising from the spreading of animal faeces all over the country, it is a miracle we do not have the most extraordinary outbreaks of infection. It was brought to my attention today that there is a notice in an area in the west stating there has been no water for a number of months and that it is being delivered by tanker. This is ridiculous in this day and age. Not only has there been a problem with e.coli in private water supplies but there has also been cryptosporidium, a very serious parasite. No attention seems to be paid to how it affects public health.
I will not outline the position on private wells because there seems to be no attempt to determine the quality of the water therein or its effect on public health. During my professional life, particularly when I was training, I was always taught about problems with water supplies. One of the most important points we had to take on board was that there was a need to have proper water supplies, particularly in rural areas. I remember endemic typhoid in parts of this country. It is dreadful to think, so many years later, that so many private water supplies are still polluted.
Given that we are referring to one-off rural housing, the most important matter I would like to address concerns septic tanks. The regulations in this regard seem to be totally out of date. While there seem to be regulations for the construction industry concerning virtually every material it uses, be it associated with fire safety, electricity or gas, there is a very weak code of practice concerning the materials used for septic tanks. At present, they fall under the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act or consumer laws dating from 1991. Much legislation has been passed since then and it surely should have been applied to septic tanks, which are incredibly important parts of buildings.
There are no specifications on the required performance of septic tanks, including in respect of discharge therefrom, on the required quality of the soil after the effluent has passed through it, on the durability of the tanks, on the filter period, or on essential maintenance, including the frequency of desludging. I believed we had introduced a measure some years ago that septic tanks had to be desludged every two years. I gather this has fallen into abeyance. I also believe those who desludged tanks had to have expertise but I have been told this is no longer the case. These are two very serious matters because the ponding of sewage effluent and pollution of the ground infects surface water and drinking water. It has been put to me that this is happening because the pump-outs are too costly. What could be more costly than allowing people's health to be affected? We cannot continue to proceed in such a ridiculous manner. We have to make a huge effort to change the situation. We need proper certification of the products which are used in the building of septic tanks. We should also provide for proper certification of those who do the desludging. They should have to have licences or something like that so that people cannot decide to do something about the place every few years. We need to put in place such safety features because it is ridiculous that we are facing circumstances of this nature, having invested significant structural funds in these areas.
I gather that the only way to check how effectively a septic tank is working is to examine the flow in and out of the tank. I am not aware of anyone in the country who does that, but perhaps the Minister has better information than me. I do not think it is right that the health of consumers who have paid for the installation of septic tanks should be endangered as a result of our failure to ensure those tanks are adequate. Many people have paid for tanks which are far too small for the amount of waste that can be expected to go through them. The Minister is aware that we have a much broader idea of what passes through municipal sewerage schemes than we have of what passes through tanks which serve single houses. We do not know how many people live in each house, what their cooking methods are, whether they use jacuzzis, how much detergent they use and what they are doing about the waste water arrangements in the house. We should take more responsibility for such matters. I am sorry to appear so cross about this matter but I thought we had solved many of these problems years ago. When I think about the amount of money that has been spent, I feel a significant proportion of it must have been wasted.
I do not think the health implications of private wells have been addressed anywhere. We are aware of the various issues pertaining to private water schemes. I do not think enough interest has been taken in the human effects of the nitrates directive. We know that high nitrate levels in waters are important for pregnant women, babies, children and the adult population. We are not in a position to say that changes in nitrate levels do not have serious consequences for public health. It is all very well to talk about building houses in nice rural settings — such houses can be very charming — but we have to consider the public health implications of what we are doing. I do not think they have been addressed sufficiently.
I join previous speakers in welcoming the Minister, Deputy Roche, to the House. I thank him for his contribution to this debate. I echo the words of my colleague, Senator Brennan, in support of the Government's recent action on rural planning. I remind some of the previous speakers that the Progressive Democrats Party is not in favour of unrestricted housing development. It does not believe people have the right to build wherever and in whatever style they like. Senator Brennan dealt in detail with the first two calls for action in the motion proposed by my party this evening. I am delighted, notwithstanding the Minister's response to the motion, to expand on the other points and calls for action referred to in the motion. The suggestions we have made are intended to improve planning and to provide for a rural future. The Progressive Democrats Party proposes that the definition of the word "local" in the rural planning guidelines should be amended.
We believe people born and reared in a rural area, including those with no access to family lands, people who have lived in a rural area for seven years or more and have forged strong links with the local community in that time, and emigrants who return to the rural area in which they grew up, as the Minister referred to, should be seen as "local" people. A rural dweller who has no family land on which to build should be allowed to build on any site within 8 km of his or her family home, subject to the usual environmental and traffic safety provisions. Nobody other than local people, as defined in the manner we have suggested, should be allowed to build in areas of the country which are under development pressure, subject to compliance with the various environmental and safety regulations. Housing need in such areas that is generated by nearby urban areas should be met in designated settlement centres. All people should be free to build in rural areas which are not under development pressure and are facing population stagnation, as long as they comply with the usual environmental and road safety standards. People should be encouraged to move to areas experiencing population decline. The planning system should not pose any impediment to them doing so.
The Progressive Democrats Party is in favour of an appropriate broadening of the interpretation of "housing need". A family that seeks to move ten or 15 miles, perhaps because of a new job, should not be disqualified from developing a new rural home because they have an existing house. At present, such a family could fail the housing need test. We do not believe farming should be seen as the only profession that qualifies a person for planning permission in rural areas. Approximately 14% of the workforce was engaged in agriculture in 1991, but that figure now stands at 5%. If farming is seen as the only profession that enables one to get planning permission, we may well be providing for a slow death sentence for rural Ireland. People of other professions and none should be made equally welcome.
My party also proposes the establishment of a new appeals process in respect of all applications for rural housing. Responsibility for hearing appeals on rural housing should be taken from An Bord Pleanála and given to regional boards of appeal based in the constituencies used for election to the European Parliament which are outside Dublin. The new appeals boards should include representatives of the planning and architecture industries, people with environmental or scientific backgrounds, representatives of rural organisations and development groups and people from the legal profession. Rural organisations and development groups include the Leader programme, Macra na Feirme, the Western Development Commission, the county community forums and the IFA, for example.
If we are to provide for openness and transparency in the planning process, details of all planning decisions should be posted on the Internet, along with the reason for those decisions. The names and contact details of the engineers and architects who submitted the original proposals should be published on-line. League tables of successful and unsuccessful planning applications by architectural and engineering firms should be posted on the website of every county council to ensure people have appropriate information at their disposal to make informed choices when selecting the firms with which they wish to work. The Progressive Democrats believe such a system is necessary.
I echo the Minister's comments about applications for permission to build houses to accommodate the special needs of people with disabilities. Other than the necessary environmental and road safety regulations, no impediments should be put in the way of the sanctioning of planning permission to such people. Planning policy must take account of the needs of the disabled in a sensitive and caring fashion.
Senator Brennan outlined the evidence and logic that underpins the Progressive Democrats' call for the establishment of an independent national planning monitoring committee on a statutory basis, as well as the establishment of a national water and sewerage services authority. I look forward to hearing the views of other Senators on these two proposals. The points I have made reflect the opinion of the Progressive Democrats that rural dwellers should have the same rights as urban dwellers when deciding where to live. That view is articulated in the party's rural planning policy, which was launched last month. The policy is based on the fundamental principle that local people who live and work in an area, or have strong family ties with an area, are entitled to build homes in that area unless there are compelling safety or environmental reasons they should not. The adversarial planning permission culture that has been adopted by some county councils must be changed. Incentives should be put in place to attract families into areas of declining population. Farming should not be the only profession that qualifies people for planning permission in rural areas. We must intervene to halt the death sentence that has been given to rural Ireland. That fate has not been prevented by current planning regulations. There has been a great deal of discussion on the unsustainable nature of one-off rural housing, yet the huge growth in the commuter belt around Dublin is truly unsustainable. Here massive estates are built without the physical and social infrastructure needed to support new communities. These areas, as they balloon, will lead to problems for future generations.
The Government has done more than any previous Administration to meet the rocketing housing demand faced by Ireland. The opening line of the motion is an acknowledgement that Ireland's record levels of economic and population growth are creating the challenge of meeting record housing accommodation demand throughout the country. I ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, to look favourably on our suggestions and proposals to see how they can enhance our efforts to meet this challenge.
I wish to share my time with Senator Ormonde. I welcome the Minister to the House and I very much welcome the Progressive Democrats motion on rural planning. My experience of this issue is not great due to my background in Dublin city. However, this is an issue that has exercised the Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government for some time and I have discussed it with colleagues from both Houses. During the summer the committee contacted every county and city manager in the country regarding the implementation of the guidelines and the majority replied in a positive manner. Some questions remain as to whether the spirit of the guidelines is being upheld in some counties, but the majority of local authorities are doing their utmost to implement the guidelines in the spirit they are intended and to the letter of the law.
There are outstanding issues in both rural and urban contexts. In Dublin there are pre-planning meetings and discussions with planners on suggested developments. These are issues that affect every part of the country. There has been a huge explosion in the building industry and, as the Minister pointed out, we have progressed from employing between 30,000 and 40,000 people to employing 250,000. Record numbers of houses have been built each year in recent years and we have maintained a quality of environment that other countries throughout the world observe with envy. This has been achieved through the prudent implementation of existing laws and the introduction of other elements, including the guidelines.
The debate seemed to be leaning towards agricultural issues earlier and we should return to the motion and the planning issue. One of the first words in the Minister's speech was tradition. He referred to the tradition of Irish people living in rural areas. This may be even relevant in an urban context because, in Dublin, there are what are considered to be urban villages. Issues such as the design, size and height of properties apply there as does density of population. Tradition plays an important part in rural areas. When one hears the Minister address this issue, one understands that any guidelines introduced are in the best interests of local communities.
Getting information on how, why and when planning decisions are made is a major issue in Dublin. Pre-planning meetings with planners save everyone involved trouble, not only those applying for planning permission, but also those with objections.
I have listened to Senator Henry on the issue of water treatment and in the past ten years, we have progressed from 20% to 90% water quality. This has been achieved through prudent investment, and many towns and cities, including Dublin, Galway and Cork, have first-class water treatment services.
The guidelines are not perfect as regards effects on rural areas and there always will be individual issues. However, they are effective and once implemented in the right spirit, as the Minister said, they will enhance the countryside.
I thank Senator Brady for sharing time with me and I thank the Progressive Democrats for tabling this motion. I welcome the Minister and look forward to re-reading his script as I agree with many of the points he raised.
There is not a family in the country that does not know about this subject. I think every family in Ireland has, at some stage, submitted a planning application.
I seek only to represent the plain people of Ireland to best improve the quality of life for all.
I represent an area that has experienced urban sprawl with between 300 and 400 housing schemes, no community life, few residents' associations and no soul. I welcome the Minister's rural guidelines because I want to see a movement away from large urban areas. I seek a village concept that will engender quality of life and community spirit, where residents discuss issues and look after one another. I am not referring to Southfork style developments; I am referring to simple sites with nice houses that fit into the environment and that allow people to return to live in the place they were raised.
On one of my first campaigns for election to the Seanad I travelled to various parts of Ireland and never saw anything like the dereliction. There was no soul and no life. As I travel now I can see the development of a new type of life and I welcome the Minister's approach to it. People are of greater significance than beautiful schemes. A lovely environment is important, but not without people. I do not wish to look out on a soulless place on a dark winter night. I want life around me.
Why is An Bord Pleanála getting such bad press? A unified system is being sought rather than one based on regionalisation, but I think regionalisation is a good idea. It could lead to a streamlined system and help deal with the existing backlog. There are inconsistencies evident in the decisions of An Bord Pleanála which sometimes make sense and on other occasions are bewildering. I am not confident in dealing with An Bord Pleanála and there is a perception that all is not right.
Regarding consistency in local authorities, planners have their own agenda that can be difficult to break down. Very often the director of planning cannot tell his planners that the policy is to be implemented in a certain way. They can get away with doing what they want because that is what they learned when they were studying. I have experienced that and it is worrying.
Senator Henry spoke about her worries about septic tanks. I installed a septic tank in a house a year ago and I was put through the ringer by the local authority in terms of adhering to the specifications and post-installation monitoring. I welcomed that and I can reassure the Senator that local authorities are equipped to deal with one-off housing. We might lack services under the rural guidelines but once they are in place we will have a good concept of rural planning, with people living in the country away from urban sprawl.
I welcome the Minister to the House. His willingness to come to this Chamber is remarkable and we appreciate it. I also thank the Progressive Democrats for this motion which gives us a chance to look at the whole planning issue.
County Westmeath has the dubious honour of having the highest refusal rate for planning applications in the past year. That fact was paraded as if it is wonderful. Imagine being delighted to refuse so many people. It did not happen under the current manager but I thought it made Westmeath an awful county in which to live.
Whatever the county managers tell the Minister when they meet him, planning applications are still being refused. Those refusals are based on the sustainable rural housing guidelines as laid down by the Minister. Everyone who is refused is told that. Planners sometimes do not even see any point in holding a pre-planning meeting, although that is part of their work, as they are under-resourced because the Minister does not supply the necessary funds. These are the stories trotted out to us to embarrass us and ensure we will not take on people's cases.
The sustainable rural housing guidelines should be a framework but it appears that is not the case. Every sentence has been parsed and every refusal is couched in the awareness that the Minister who is refusing the planning application is in the background. The Minister might not believe that but it is the truth.
The Minister stated that the guidelines provide for those persons whose work is intrinsically linked to rural areas, such as teachers in rural schools. I had a teacher refused a planning application yesterday because she was not linked to farming.
She does not want to hear from Senator Bannon, she knows enough about him. She was told that she does not fit the Minister's guidelines but the Minister states that she does. I will go back to the planner tomorrow with the Minister's speech. She teaches in three schools within the community where she wishes to build her house. Teaching should be a strong point in the sustainable rural housing guidelines.
I wish these guidelines had never been published because they are being used as a stick to beat those to whom they do not wish to give planning permission.
Our county manager sent a letter to the committee saying that everything in County Westmeath as regards planning is fine but the opposite is the case. I do not want to see rampant development, awful looking houses with verandahs everywhere, but people submit a minimal plan and the planner says it is too large and bedrooms and bathrooms must be removed. The planner would not take a bathroom from his own house.
I notice now that the guidelines state that circumstances could also encompass persons whose work is intrinsically linked to rural areas, such as teachers in rural schools. Is that not amazing?
The definition of the word "local" is also strange. There is an Army barracks in Athlone; a barracks cannot be five miles outside the town in a rural area. An applicant whom I know is serving his country in the Defence Forces, with his father and mother living in rural Westmeath. He wishes to build on a site his father gave him but he has been told he is not involved in farming. He cannot be involved in farming, he is in the Army and the barracks is in Athlone, where we are all going tomorrow to wave goodbye to our fine forces going to the Lebanon. The Minister's name is being taken in vain when people talk about the sustainable rural guidelines.
I do not like the idea that we are all herded into settlements. We had that with the Danes and the Vikings and I am not keen on what they left behind. Also, there are no sites. Those who live in a settlement and have a site increase the price and no one can buy it.
There is much work to be done but I do not know how to go about it. We had great hopes that our new manager would change things. He has shown a more open attitude to planning but he is the manager and the planners are the planners. I have a vision of planners getting up in the morning, asking how many times they would say "No" that day. Some are better at it than others.
Mr. P. Burke:
I welcome the Minister to the House. Some of the companies using treatment systems for houses tell us that they are fully operational and can treat effluent to the same level as community treatment units. Some local authorities, however, will not grant planning permission for a house with a treatment unit. That is unfair. Will the Minister elaborate on what treatment units can be used? Do departmental guidelines require that treatment units have a certain output?
Mr. P. Burke:
The cases highlighted by Senator O'Rourke are common throughout the country and planners implement the guidelines in the manner she described.
Mr. P. Burke:
That is correct. What is meant by the phrase "attachment to a rural area"? Does it mean attachment to a parish, village or county? May a person apply for planning permission in any part of his or her county or must he or she be from the village or parish in question? Some parishes have half parishes which cover large geographical areas. Can a person from a half parish apply for planning permission anywhere in the parish? Clarification is required on these matters.
Mr. P. Burke:
As Senator O'Rourke noted, planning officials have refused planning permission because the applicant's attachment to the area is not deemed sufficiently strong. The Minister referred to those who farm or teach in a rural area but did not specify whether such a person may apply for planning permission only within his or her parish, village, local authority area or county. He must be specific.
Mr. P. Burke:
The local contributions required towards small sewerage schemes are excessive. Some areas, for example Achill Island, have few industries, shops, pubs or other commercial premises. This means the commercial rate base is not sufficient to enable a county manager to raise the local contribution required for a small sewerage scheme. The Department must reconsider its insistence that local communities must raise 40% of the costs of a sewerage scheme.
I welcome the Minister and compliment him on grasping his portfolio by the scruff of the neck, as it were. He is determined to have in place a more transparent and accountable planning system by the time he leaves office. I encourage him to continue on the path he has chosen.
As a member of the Irish Rural Dwellers Association, I intend to highlight a number of specific issues. The motion calls on the Minister to consider establishing a national planning monitoring committee. When such a body was proposed by the Irish Rural Dwellers Association and the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland in December 2004, the Minister rejected the idea. Will he reconsider his decision?
The motion refers to the need for a national water and sewerage services authority. The recent Progressive Democrats policy document, Planning for a Rural Future, makes no mention of this proposal. The idea merits further discussion as issues pertaining to the provision of clean water remain to be resolved. As the Irish Rural Dwellers Association has noted, €7 billion of taxpayers' money is being spent upgrading urban water systems, while rural dwellers, who make up one third of the population, are left to meet the full cost of the installation and upkeep of single house treatment systems. Surely one third of taxpayers deserve one third of funding for this type of essential works.
I support the call for an examination of the use of the word "local" in rural planning guidelines. We must carefully consider what we are saying when we try to restrict the sale of property to people native to an area because any such restrictions could be considered to be in breach of human rights legislation on the basis that they discriminate against minority groups.
The motion raises the issue of housing need and how it is interpreted in housing guidelines. Individual planners should not have the right to determine housing need. This is a specific and complex issue and equity, transparency and consistency are required in interpreting it. While I sympathise with individuals who are unable to secure planning permission in rural areas because they are not considered to be farmers, this approach reflects the position of An Taisce and has never been Government policy.
An Bord Pleanála's appeals system needs to be reformed. I welcome the concept of an independent appeals board within the organisation to cover the three European Union constituencies outside Dublin as potentially the first step towards a fair and open appeals process.
The Minister is sincere in his efforts and has demonstrated energy, drive and determination. He is aware of the position on the ground from his experience as an elected representative and I wish him continued success.
I thank all those Senators who contributed to the debate and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, for his address. It was, as always, detailed.
The core challenge facing the Government parties is to ensure local policies are delivered well and consistently. I am pleased to note the Minister's commitment to do all in his power to deliver the water services programme on time and within budget. As with planning issues, this will require the support of members of local authorities. Senator Bannon should note that his party controls half the local councils. I hope the Progressive Democrats policy document, as summarised in the motion, is in tune with the views of some of the Senator's party colleagues who have in recent months raised the issues alluded to in the motion at local council meetings. I ask Senators to support the motion.