Seanad debates

Thursday, 1 April 2010

1:00 am

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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This important issue relates to the ongoing difficulties created by head shops. There are a number of such shops in operation in the constituency in which I live. Two of these establishments, which are a cause of major concern to parents and the authorities at various schools, are located in Donegal town and there is another in Ballybofey. It is completely unacceptable that head shops are able to dispense drug-type products to individuals who, in many cases, are led to believe they have a beneficial effect. That is not the case.

I welcome the fact that the Government has taken the initiative and intends to ban certain of the products sold in so-called head shops from June. While some may argue that the ban should have been imposed forthwith, I appreciate it was necessary to obtain clearance from the European Commission. Under one of the Commission's directives, it is necessary for a three-month period to be observed before a ban can be imposed. It will be June before the comments of the Commission and other member states in respect of this matter will be received.

We are taking a step in the right direction by banning certain of the products promoted and sold by head shops. However, there is other action the Government could take to try to deal with the scourge these shops are visiting upon young people, in particular, who might be more vulnerable to the effects of the products to which I refer. The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, which is currently before the Dáil, should be amended in order that individuals who are either seeking to establish a head shop or to regularise the position with regard to an existing shop should be obliged to apply to their local authorities for planning permission. Such a move would be welcome because it would provide communities with the opportunity to object publicly to these shops through the planning process. I will be taking part in a march on Saturday next in the constituency in which I live. Many hundreds of people will join that march to protest at the two head shops that are in operation in Donegal town. The majority of communities completely object to head shops and that for which they stand.

There has been some anti-social behaviour in the context of certain of these establishments being the subject of bomb scares. I do not subscribe to such behaviour which is wrong. The Government should take the lead in respect of this matter and should change the planning laws in order that those who run head shops should be obliged to regularise their operations. It should also provide local authorities with an opportunity to nip the development of these shops in the bud. Existing head shops should be obliged to seek retrospective planning permission or for permission to remain in existence. This would allow members of the public to object to their activities.

Existing planning legislation is not sufficiently specific in the context of how it deals with this matter. Those who currently apply to local authorities for permission to establish retail outlets are not obliged to specify what will be sold at those outlets. As a result, members of the public or planning staff would not necessarily know that it might be planned to open a head shop at a particular location. Everyone is aware of cases where commercial planning permission was given in respect of certain retail outlets and where so-called entrepreneurs - if one could call them that - suddenly opened head shops at the relevant premises. We need to nip this type of activity in the bud by changing the planning laws and by ensuring specific planning should be required by those seeking to establish head shops. Those who wish to open such shops should be obliged to disclose the purpose for which a premises is going to be used. I understand that to facilitate this, an amendment to the Planning and Development Acts will be required. The Minister of State may not be in a position to provide a direct response today to my request in this regard. I propose, however, that the matter be considered as soon as possible, especially in view of the fact that the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 is before the Dáil and can be amended.

We will be doing young people a great service if we can ban head shops. Members will be aware that young people, who may be under the influence of alcohol, leaving night-clubs in Dublin in the early hours of the morning often frequent head shops. These establishments remain open until 2 a.m., 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. Some form of regulation is required in respect of this scourge on society, in general, and young people and the vulnerable, in particular. We must regularise the position by amending the planning laws. If we do so, it will be one further means by which we might force head shops out of business.

I request that the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Health and Children consider other ways in which we might regulate in respect of head shops. It is obvious that these enterprises are financially lucrative and that is why those who run them are involved. I request that my suggestion and the others that have been put forward be examined and that prompt action be taken. It would be great if the relevant regulations could be introduced by 1 June when the ban is due to come into force. Planning officers and councillors in my county would welcome the introduction of an amendment to the Planning and Development Acts and have indicated that they would be glad to facilitate its implementation.

Photo of John MoloneyJohn Moloney (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Ó Domhnaill for raising this matter. The issue of so-called head shops is one the Government is addressing in a co-ordinated and multifaceted manner. I welcome the opportunity to outline the actions that are being taken. I accept the points made by the Senator and wish to indicate that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, and his officials are already involved in consultations with the planning authorities in respect of this matter.

At the request of the Minister of State with responsibility for drugs, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has been working with the Departments of Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Enterprise, Trade and Employment to develop recommendations for Government on the best way forward in devising an overall response to the issue of head shops. From a health perspective, the Minister for Health and Children has begun the process of prohibiting, under the Misuse of Drugs Acts, the sale of certain substances commonly sold in these shops. This control on the sale of such products is similar to the approach followed in a number of other European countries. This is particularly appropriate because these products are also sold via the Internet.

In so far as the planning system is concerned, planning permission is generally required for any new development or for the change of use of any existing development. The planning regulations provide, however, that changes of use within certain classes of use are exempted development and do not, therefore, require planning permission. One of these classes is "use as a shop". The planning code does not differentiate between head shops and any other kind of shop. The definition of "shop" contained in the planning legislation refers to a structure for the retail sale of goods. The nature of such goods is not defined.

While the planning system cannot be relied upon as a vehicle for regulating moral matters, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is considering, in consultation with planning authorities, whether the planning system could make a sufficiently effective contribution to resolving the issue of head shops through, for example, the introduction of a more restrictive approach to the change of use provisions under planning legislation. Specifically, where a control system is in place under the Misuse of Drugs Acts on products sold on these premises, there may be scope in assessing the merit in amending the planning regulations to require planning permission to be sought for a change of use to sell such controlled products. In this context, it should be borne in mind that, even if the exempted development regulations were amended to address this issue, a planning authority would only be able to consider the land use and planning issues arising from the application for a change of use such as the extent and physical appearance of the building, traffic implications, opening hours and other related planning matters. An application for permission could only be refused where there were good planning grounds for refusing them. Furthermore, any change in the exempted development provisions would not be retrospective and would have no effect on any existing head shop in operation.

Nonetheless, it should also be noted that a planning authority has power under section 84 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 to prepare a scheme for an area of special planning control within a designated architectural conservation area and such a scheme may contain provisions regarding the control of any new or existing uses of buildings within the area. However, if the planning authority serves a notice on the owner or occupier of a building, requiring the existing use to be discontinued or made subject to conditions, it may be liable to pay compensation for any reduction in the value of the owner's or occupier's interest in the property concerned.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response which I very much welcome. It is clear that the Department is considering the matter very seriously. Will the Minister of State convey the urgency of dealing with it to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? I appreciate the response and the action being taken. However, it is incumbent on all of us, as public representatives, to deal with the issue in a fast, effective and professional manner. This is being done but this planning matter could be expedited and incorporated in an amendment to the legislation which is before the Dáil.

The Seanad adjourned at 2.35 p.m sine die.