Tuesday, 15 November 2016
I have a serious problem with serial objectors to the granting of planning permission, particularly for one-off houses. People who apply to build one-off houses have to go to great lengths to prove they have intrinsic links to the area. They are hoping to build in rural areas and in some towns but objectors can come from any corner of Ireland or even outside the State. There are no hard and fast criteria for them to make an objection or to be required to put a statement on the file. Why should someone with no links to an area have the right to object to young people starting out in their lives who are hoping to build a family home and have security for the future? A suitable amendment could be made to some of the incoming Bills from the Minister of State's Department, of which quite a number are going through the Houses. That would reintroduce some balance in the planning process. It is very unevenly keeled towards people with no direct involvement or link to an area. It is crazy what some people can get away with and how we protect them under legislation.
I thank Senator Davitt for raising this issue. As a Deputy who represents rural areas and who shares some common ground with the Senator, I understand the logic and motive behind this and I also understand the frustration that is often experienced with the planning system. I accept the Senator's point and know he has asked for this proposal to be made in good faith.As Minister, my role in the planning system is primarily to provide the policy and legislative framework that comprises the Planning and Development Act, the planning and development regulations and the planning guidelines, to which planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála are obliged to have regard in the exercise of their statutory planning functions. The Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, sets the overarching legislative framework for the planning system, including the procedures for preparing and reviewing regional planning guidelines, development plans and local area plans, in addition to the basic framework for the development of the management consent system or, as it is more commonly known, the planning permission system.
Public participation is an important and integral part of an open and transparent planning system in Ireland and will remain so. In this regard, the planning system is in full compliance with the requirements of the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, commonly referred to as the Aarhus Convention, with EU Directive 2003/35/EEC on public participation in environmental decision-making and EU Directive 2011/92/EU on the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment, normally known as the environmental impact assessment, EIA, directive. All of these international requirements lay down basic rules to promote citizens' involvement in environmental decision-making with a view to enhancing the accountability and transparency of the planning decision-making process.
In the light of these international requirements, the Planning and Development Act specifically provides for public involvement and the opportunity to make submissions and observations on individual planning applications. It further provides that, in making decisions on planning applications, planning authorities, including An Bord Pleanála, as appropriate, must consider the proper planning and sustainable development of the area, having regard to the provisions of the local development plan, submissions or observations received from the public, relevant ministerial or Government policies or objectives and relevant planning guidelines issued by my Department. Planning authorities must then make their own decision based on the specific merits or otherwise of individual planning applications.
The Act also provides that an applicant for permission and any person who made submissions or observations in writing on the planning application to the planning authority may, within four weeks of the date of the decision of the planning authority, appeal to An Bord Pleanála against a decision of the planning authority. In addition, a decision made by a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála may be subject to judicial review, with any such judicial review applications having to be submitted within an eight-week period from the date of the planning decision, or the doing of an act by a planning authority or the board. These judicial review provisions which are aimed at enhancing transparency and accountability in the planning decision-making process are in accordance with relevant UN and EU requirements, in addition to relevant European Court of Justice judgments.
I am satisfied that the comprehensive arrangements I have outlined for public participation in the planning system are appropriate, balanced, reasonable and in line with our international obligations. We have as of yet no proposals to change the legislation in this regard.
The Minister of State has said there are several iterations regarding public participation. I have no problem with this, but we should introduce some criteria for public participation. There are strict criteria in every other part of the planning process, as the Minister of State knows only too well as he has been a champion in this regard in respect of one-off planning. People have to jump through hoops to meet the strict criteria applied if they seek planning permission for a one-off development. All stakeholders should have some ties, involvement or expertise, if nothing else. Anybody who wants to do so can lodge an objection or make a statement on a file. He or she could be from the other side of the world and have no ties to the area in question. There should be some criteria attached.
I understand the sentiments expressed. I will compare our position with that in other countries to determine whether we could address the issue without infringing the criteria for public participation. Legally, we cannot infringe on them and do not want to do so, but I know exactly what the Senator is trying to say. I will discuss the issue with our experts on planning to determine whether there are criteria on which we could work in this regard. I am not saying there are, but I will look at the issue and know what the Senator is trying to achieve. The difficulty lies in ensuring genuine public involvement. If there are certain criteria that could be applied, the question of how they would be fixed and judged is very complicated. We are constantly examining the planning system to see whether we need to adapt or change it. On the criteria applied, I will determine whether there is any gap I might be able to address.
I suggest to the Senator that if an appropriate Bill were to be brought before the House, he could table an amendment to it. Alternatively, if he feels passionately about the issue, he could introduce a Private Members' Bill to deal with it. He can reflect on this suggestion.