Seanad debates

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

10:30 am

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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It says something that there are only two of us in Chamber. As a result, we can engage in dialogue. I welcome the Minister.

This Commencement matter concerns the Government's and the Minister's intentions to set up an independent office of national planning regulator, which is timely. The Government is committed to doing so, but I do not know what the timeframe or timeline is. The raising of the matter is also appropriate because I note that a major story carried in this morning's edition of The Irish Timesrelates to new rules aimed at curbing challenges in proceeding with key building projects, on which I want to pass one comment. Senators, Deputies, Ministers and councillors are all conscious of this issue.

I took time today to check An Bord Pleanála's website and those of the respective planning authorities and note that a substantial number of senior Ministers have lodged legitimate objections for their constituents. That is an important point to make. Because of all the clamour and controversy about bad planning, we must not batten down the hatches and curtail, in any way, public engagement and consultation. It is an open and transparent planning process. It is important that we do not try to close it down for people with legitimate objections or concerns. I am conscious that we have to roll out critical infrastructure, which issue has presented a problem. In that regard, I am mindful of the North-South interconnector which is a concern for Deputies and Ministers in the Meath constituencies and others. I am also mindful of the controversies in Dublin Port and Dún Laghaoire Port which are before the board. There are a number of ongoing battles. However, in a democracy it is important that we respect and allow people with legitimate concerns to express them, although, admittedly, we need to tighten all of the timeframes. However, I do not want to deviate from the principle of what I want to speak about, namely, the setting up of an independent office of planning regulator. The strong recommendations made by the Mahon tribunal include that we establish such a regulator. It is important that the regulator be wholly independent and not subordinate to the State or arms of it. It is also important that it be fully resourced.

I welcome the Minister and thank him for coming to the House to take this matter. It is important that we have a timeframe for the roll-out of the independent office of planning regulator and the provision of the necessary resources for it.

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue. A properly functioning planning system is of critical importance in ensuring development across the country takes place in accordance with the principles of proper planning and sustainable development. As in everything, balance is key in who gets to make representations and the kind of representations they get to make. In that respect, transparency is key. If we are to accept that people can make representations, we want to know who is making them and why. Potentially we have a great opportunity to have a lengthy debate on different planning issues as we have the Chamber to ourselves, but I will stick to the issue raised by the Senator, in the first instance, the establishment of an office of planning regulator.

As the Senator is aware, this afternoon the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, will be in the Seanad to take the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016. The Bill contains the required legislative infrastructure to allow me to establish the Office of the Planning Regulator which was, as the Senator pointed out, an important recommendation of the planning tribunal. The office will be independent of my Department and responsible for the independent assessment of all local authority and regional assembly forward planning, including the zoning decisions of local authority members in local area and development plans.

The Office of the Planning Regulator will evaluate compliance with relevant national and-or regional policy, including the forthcoming national planning framework which will also receive statutory underpinning in the amendment Bill. Among the functions set out in the Bill, the planning regulator will be empowered to review the organisation, systems and procedures used by any planning authority or An Bord Pleanála in the performance of any their planning functions under the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. It will also be enabled to consider complaints from members of the public.

The planning regulator will have the power to advise the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government whether a plan made by a local authority conflicts with national planning policy. In the interests of transparency, any such advice will be published. The Minister will then make the final decision on whether a direction should be issued under section 31 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 and he or she will be accountable to the Oireachtas for his or her decision in that regard. The planning regulator will bring an additional layer of transparency to the planning system, while maintaining democratic accountability which is essential for public trust.

My Department has been progressing administrative matters in setting up the new Office of the Planning Regulator in so far as it can without the legislation being in place. In addition, I am sure the Senator will be pleased to know that funding for the office in 2018 has been secured. In the budget for this year we secured funding to set up the office, staff it and enable it to get its work under way.Once the Bill has completed its passage through both Houses and has been signed into law, which is due to happen in the next couple of weeks following the Seanad's consideration of that Bill, my Department will then be in a position to proceed with the implementation plan to set up the new office which involves the recruitment of the new regulator through the Public Appointments Service, which, as the Senator knows, can take a couple of months, and putting in place the staff he or she will require to carry out the functions of the office appropriately. Once the appropriate administrative steps have been taken, I will be in a position to determine when to establish the office formally.

Given what we are trying to achieve in reforming our planning system, the huge ambition we have for capital investment over the coming years and the new national planning framework which is being developed, it is very important that the office is set up without delay. Funding is in place for the regulator. Once we have passed the legislation we can then move to the public appointments system to have the person appointed through that system. We can then set up the office with that person and later in the year we will formally open the office and it will begin its work. By then we hope the different regional spatial economic strategies will be well developed by the three regions concerned. The different city and county council plans will flow from that.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. This is about maintaining confidence in the planning process, which is very important. I am conscious of what has been reported in the media today. It is very important that we do not close down but rather tighten up the timeframes and timelines involved. We must encourage some consultation within the process. The sooner we have the office in place, the better, and the Minister will have my full support for the Bill. It is coming before the Seanad today and I accept its importance with particular regard to the national planning framework. It is important that we have that.

It is important that local councillors throughout the country have the necessary skill sets to interpret plans. I often receive representations from councillors who have said they feel disempowered. Only today I received an email from a Dublin local authority representative stating, in effect, that management was shutting down the consultation with planning files. The discussion of planning files with councillors was described as a sort of courtesy but one which is not provided for in legislation. Councillors are an important part of the planning process and are the guardians of their county development plans, which is a very important role. I ask the Minister to talk to the Association of Irish Local Government, AILG, about training once the provisions of the Bill are rolled out. It is important that councillors fully understand the powers and functions of the new office and are assisted in understanding the process.

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Boyhan for his reply. When it comes to the skill sets of our local authority members, he touched on a very important point. As we look to fix the housing sector in the country while also planning for future population growth, local authority members, together with Senators in this House and Members of the Dáil, will be a part of the solutions and driving those solutions.

From my experience in Dublin City Council, when it came to things like the city development plan we were given some form of training. High density ratios and the other aspects which needed to be considered when a development plan is being framed were explained to us. We were told about the importance of different types of zoning, mixed use and those types of things. I would like to think that training happens in every local authority, but if it is not, it is something I will consider.

When it comes to county and city plans, it is not an executive function and members of local authorities have an extremely important role and responsibility. I want them to be able to execute that responsibility with confidence. They do not need to work hand in hand with the planners and will never be skilled as professional planners because it is not their full-time job, but they need to be able at least to engage with them at a sufficiently high level to make sure they are working in the best interests of the county or city in terms of development and planning.

On transparency and confidence in the system, historically our planning system took a huge hit because of things which were revealed during the Mahon tribunal and other investigations. Over recent years a great amount of work has been done to restore that confidence and faith in the system. We have to maintain that, and that is why the recommendation from Mahon is so important. The legacy will involve setting up an office, something the Government and Oireachtas will achieve this year. It is a very important step change compared with how we viewed the planning process in the past.

An extra layer of oversight and transparency will be transformative in terms of what we are hoping to do. We hope to align our national plan all the way down to local area plans and have a seamless follow-through. We want to be able to have confidence that someone is looking at every step of the process, independent of Government and each part of that process. That is what the regulator will do. It will be a very important change. If we can achieve it together as soon as possible on the legislative side, I can then move quickly to appoint a regulator and get the office up and running.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.