Wednesday, 19 December 2018
An Bord Pleanála Applications
I would like to lay bare before the House the frustration, incredulity and anger of people in north and east Mayo regarding An Bord Pleanála's delay in making a planning decision for the N26 and a new bridge at Cloongullane, Swinford. It will be two years in March since an oral hearing on the building of a new bridge was held. The current bridge is on the national primary network, and is not fit even for the 20th century; it was built in the 19th century. It is a hazard and a danger, and is not in keeping with the objectives for national primary routes. Two years have almost past. An Bord Pleanála had been issuing queries on account of environmental concerns until last July due to the presence of freshwater pearl mussels and alluvial woodland. All of those queries were answered at the end of July and a decision was expected on 30 November, which was an indicative date provided by An Bord Pleanála. Since then, the date has been pushed back. The lands are located in a special area of conservation, SAC, and there are populations living there, including those in Swinford, Foxford and Ballina. There is a road in the area; it is not a wilderness. It is a place where human beings have legitimate objectives. The Mayo industries group and the chamber of commerce recognise that this is long overdue. This delay comes after the refusal by An Bord Pleanála of a new scheme for the N26, which would have provided for transport between Ballina and Bohola, in 2010 on environmental grounds because of overdesign of a road in a SAC and because of the presence of whooper swans.
Fisheries have no objection to this, and neither does the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, yet we still do not have a decision. This also applies to a new bridge at Glenisland on the R312, which has been delayed, even though there is funding in place for it, because of the presence of freshwater pearl mussels. In Galway, the road project on the N59 between Oughterard and Maam Cross has, after many years, received permission, with many conditions, including that there must be a negotiation with the NPWS at every stage. This is unprecedented, and it is unclear how it will proceed. Permission has been refused for the N59 road project between Maam Cross and Clifden. The ring road around Galway has been refused because it falls within an SAC; the new proposition involves tunnelling around Menlo underneath an SAC. The frustration stems from the fact that everybody is passing us out. Money cannot be spent because planning permission cannot be secured. Does the Minister of State believe this is acceptable? How will we achieve our objective, under Project Ireland 2040, of building up rural areas when planning permission cannot be secured to develop basic strategic infrastructure? What is being done to address this?
Is this a resources issue within An Bord Pleanála? Is it a reflection of the quality of the planning applications coming before it or is it, as I would contend, that we have failed to get a handle on developing areas that are designated as SACs? What is happening in respect of streamlined procedures under strategic infrastructure development legislation? A few years ago a review of the operation of An Bord Pleanála was ordered and recommendations were made to improve it. What is the status of that, particularly in light of the delays in the Apple decision? Is our planning system fit for purpose? Is An Bord Pleanála properly resourced? People in north Mayo are ready to march because of this bridge. What is the Government going to do to respond to these reasonable people who are asking reasonable questions but who are angry?
I thank the Mulherin for raising this important matter and for making clear the anger and frustration locally with various planning decisions. I get the sense of how important it is both to her, as a Senator and a local representative, but also to the people in the area.
With regard to the operation of An Bord Pleanála, under section 30 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, I am precluded from discussing any individual planning cases, which as the Senator will be aware, are matters for the appropriate planning authority or, in this case, An Bord Pleanála. My comments will be general and will discuss what we are doing to ensure-----
-----that An Bord Pleanála can make quicker decision and better quality planning decisions, which is most important. Under section 126 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, the board has a statutory objective to determine planning appeals and other relevant cases within 18 weeks. Where the board does not consider it possible or appropriate to reach a decision within 18 weeks, for example because of the particular complexities of a case, such as environmental or habitat related complexities, the impacts of a proposed development on environmentally designated lands requiring careful consideration, or the requirement to hold an oral hearing, it will inform the parties of the reasons for this, and will indicate when it intends to make its decision. It is acknowledged that there has been a reduction generally in the board’s compliance rate in determining cases within the statutory objective period over the past year which can be attributed to a number of factors, including a general increase in cases received by the board. For example, there was an increase of almost 12% in the number of normal planning appeals received in 2017 compared to 2016. This caseload intake has continued to further increase in 2018.
On large housing developments, it is important to note that new streamlined arrangements have been introduced to enable planning applications for strategic housing developments, SHDs, to be made directly to the board. People often ask us if this is the reason other applications take longer.It is not the case because additional staff have been employed for that. At the end of November 2018, 47 strategic housing development planning applications had been made with the board issuing decisions in 36 cases, all of which were made within the prescribed 16 week timeframe, delivering a 100% compliance rate in these cases and giving permission for a total of 6,761 houses and apartments and 4,479 student accommodation bed spaces. It is important to mention the students because we have many future third-level college students here in the Gallery. It is important that they know there will be student bed spaces in the years to come and that is why it is important that we put that planning in place today.
In addition, planning appeals in respect of housing developments of 30 units or more are prioritised, reflecting the priority attached to housing developments by the board. With regard to resourcing, the board currently has a complement of 11 members, including an extra board member engaged in June 2018 and a new chairperson who took up duty on 30 October 2018, and employs over 150 staff members. Taking this and the increased Exchequer grant of €18.5 million for the board in 2019, a 7% increase on the 2018 budget, into account, I am satisfied that the board has sufficient and necessary resources to perform its statutory functions. My Department will continue to monitor and liaise closely with the board to ensure that it has the appropriate resources to support it in the performance of its functions and so that decisions are made in an efficient and timely manner. I cannot comment specifically on the Senator's case in Mayo but the Minister, Deputy Murphy, and I believe that the resources are now in place for the board to be able to improve the timeline. Hopefully that will lead to a decision very soon on that very worthy project that the Senator has highlighted.
We are finishing up before Christmas and I want to ask the Minister of State for an update, though he does not have to give it here, on critical information about the pyrite remediation scheme for Mayo which we understood was to be in place before the end of December.
With regard to the main matter raised, I cannot deal with one specific case, but the resources are there and some planning applications are very detailed and complicated with regard to environmental legislation. The board has access to the resources it needs to bring in the required personnel to make those decisions and advise it. In our view, the board is now in a position to make a judgment soon on that case and others.
With regard to the mica and pyrite schemes for Mayo and Donegal, in the budget in October, the Government committed to having a scheme and in the past couple of months, our Department has been working on schemes that we think would suit. That has to happen both in Mayo and Donegal. Those schemes will go to Cabinet soon, hopefully in January. That is the next phase of this. The Government has committed to putting a scheme in place and bringing it through. We are committed to helping people who are in a very difficult situation with regard to houses and homes in Mayo and Donegal.