Seanad debates

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines

10:30 am

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Doyle.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I, too, welcome the Minister of State. I am particularly pleased that he is here because he has a great understanding of the issue of rural and one-off housing. I asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to come to the House to report on the outcome of the work of the working group established by his Department in reviewing the sustainable rural housing guidelines following the Flemish Decree. The Minister of State does not need a lecture on the Flemish Decree and I do not intend to give him one. However, I have been extremely active in dealing with this matter for a number of years since I came into the House.

I have a letter dated 9 May 2017. In summary, it outlined that the Minister of the day would set up a committee. I have a funny feeling that it might have been Deputy Coveney who was in office at the time. However, it was indicated that the Minister would set up a review group. Clearly, there is an issue with one-off housing. The Flemish Decree raises a number of concerns across the European Union about one-off housing but, more importantly, about who can live in such housing or seek to develop properties. The Law Society of Ireland did some work on the issue. It identified:

A number of Irish planning authorities restrict the granting of planning permission for housing based on personal characteristics of the applicant such as their connection to a particular locale as a ‘permanent native resident’ who has lived in the area for a number of years, having employment locally, or – in Gaeltacht areas – proficiency in the Irish language. These restrictions are by their nature discriminatory but are generally justified as a means of preserving the culture or rural character of the area.

The restrictions are also related to employment prospects. We know, for instance, that in County Wicklow and the Dublin mountains there are people involved in forestry, horticulture, agriculture, stone masonry and so on. The people who have engaged with me on the issue include Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, Councillor Maura Healy-Rae and, of course, Independent Councillor Donal Grady in Killarney. They have raised the matter consistently with me, as have other councillors across the country.

There seems to be a misunderstanding about what is and is not permissible. I was sufficiently concerned to raise the issue with the Oireachtas Library and Research Service which I asked to compile a paper on it. It is dated 12 May 2017. For the information of the Department, the inquiry reference number is 2017/600. I pay tribute to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service which is an amazing resource within this organisation. I draw the attention of the Minister of State to the paper it presented, the findings of which raise concerns. How is the review group established in May 2017 progressing? What conclusions has it reached? Where are its reports? There are concerns in counties Galway, Kerry, Clare and Wicklow. I do not want to predict the outcome, but we need greater clarification on the Flemish Decree and the response of the Government to same.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. Our respective local authorities were always high on the agenda when it came to development plans. It is an important issue for many in rural Ireland. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to provide an update on the review of the 2005 planning guidelines on sustainable rural housing issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended.

Like all statutory planning guidelines issued under section 28, the rural housing guidelines are intended to be applied on a consistent and uniform basis by all planning authorities. Under the guidelines, planning authorities are required to frame the rural housing planning policies in their development plans in a balanced and measured way. The aim is to ensure the housing needs of rural communities can be met, while simultaneously taking into account the principles of sustainable development and avoiding excessive urban generated development. The guidelines further aim to ensure sites being developed for housing in all rural areas are suitable with reference to vehicular access and wastewater disposal and also from landscape and design perspectives. In addition, they outline a number of criteria to be taken into account in local authority development plans for the purpose of assessing whether planning applications for rural housing are intended to meet a rural generated housing need. These "local needs" criteria relate primarily to planning applicants having familial or occupational ties to the rural area in question.

In 2007 the European Commission issued an infringement notice against Ireland on the 2005 guidelines which was specifically related to the “local needs” criteria having regard to a potential conflict with the freedom of movement principle in the EU treaty. The infringement case was subsequently deferred, pending the outcome of a related European Court of Justice case against Belgium, generally known as the Flemish decree case. The Flemish decree linked the sale or transfer of property in certain Flemish communes to the condition that there should exist a sufficient connection between the prospective property buyer and the relevant community. This had the practical effect of precluding non-locals from purchasing property in the Flemish communes in question. In 2013, the ECJ ruled that the Flemish decree constituted an unjustified restriction on freedom of movement under the EU treaty. Following the ruling the European Commission re-opened the infringement case against Ireland on rural housing guidelines.

On foot of the ruling and subsequent engagement between the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the European Commission, a working group was established in May 2017 to review and recommend changes to the 2005 guidelines. The working group comprises senior officials from the planning division of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and senior officials from the planning divisions of local authorities nominated by the local government sector. In making recommendations, the objective of the group will be to ensure that rural housing policies and objectives in county development plans comply with the relevant provisions of the EU treaty. The working group must take account of the rural housing policy related objectives contained in the national planning framework, NPF, in its deliberations on the review of the 2005 guidelines. As a general guiding principle, the NPF fully supports the sustainable development of rural areas by seeking to encourage growth and arrest decline in areas that have experienced low population growth or population decline in recent decades. These are considered to be weaker rural areas, as such. At the same time, the NPF also highlights the need to manage certain stronger rural areas around cities and towns that are under pressure from urban-generated development to avoid overdevelopment of those areas. It also requires planning authorities to carry out a housing need demand assessment to correlate and accurately align overall future housing requirements across all types and tenures in rural and urban areas as an evolution of existing housing strategy requirements under Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000. Accordingly, the NPF objectives are aligned with the approach already expected of planning authorities under the current 2005 guidelines.

The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government intends to provide further guidance to local authorities later this year to support their housing need demand assessment work as part of the review of their development plans. The working group has met on five occasions. Subject to the completion of its ongoing deliberations, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will be in a position to finalise and issue to planning authorities revisions to the 2005 rural housing guidelines. The aim is to ensure that these revisions strike a balanced and reasonable approach to rural housing in line with the objectives in the national planning framework while also taking account of the ruling in the Flemish decree case. The revisions to the guidelines will be issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act. This means planning authorities and, where appropriate, An Bord Pleanála will be required to apply the revised guidelines in the performance of their statutory planning functions specifically in respect of the assessment and determination of planning applications and appeals for rural housing proposals.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State. The reply is helpful and there is a great deal of information in it. I am pleased because at least we now know that after two years the working group has met on five occasions. I do not have the dates but that will be my follow-on question at a later date.

Clearly, the problem goes on. We still have councils telling their elected members that they cannot make certain planning decisions because the question of the Flemish decree has not been officially completed or dealt with and remains an outstanding case in respect to Ireland. That has to be of concern.

I wish to reiterate that I believe in and support the vibrancy and idea of revitalising some of our rural communities for people who wish to remain in rural communities and live outside cities. Certainly, we have to do this in a responsible and environmentally friendly way. I know the Minister of State appreciates where I am coming from in that regard.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. There is ongoing work and it may be helpful to collaborate. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. There is sufficient meat on all of this for me to take the matter there, but I thank the Minister of State for coming in and going through this issue with me today.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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We need to develop consistency. There can be consistent application of the rules but different circumstances arise. As I said in my opening address, we have places that are weaker rural areas where the population is stagnant or in decline and needs propping up. In contrast, those who live where I live may be subject to the risk of urban-generated pressure and that can be overwhelming at times. The county development plan and local area plans in Wicklow have always been seen to be restrictive, but that is because of the general pressure. Still, genuine local need is being met.

Ironically, many years ago when we provided rural clusters as a tier in the settlement strategy, the arrangement was deliberately restrictive so that it would be affordable for locals. The risk was that if we opened it up too much, then no local would be able to afford it. The rationale was that capital could be generated from other people who might have sold properties in other areas. This basically is the challenge ahead.