Seanad debates

Monday, 8 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Planning Issues

10:30 am

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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A chara, ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur romhat go dtí an Teach seo ar maidin. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to make it here.

The Covid-19 pandemic is changing the way we look at how we live and how we work. Remote working has become commonplace out of necessity. The future of working is now seen in a different context with regard to location. Rural Ireland is seeing the arrival of new families, which is great to see, who are seeking a better quality of life while working for major, global companies. I am reminded of the advertisement on television with a guy sitting in a house on Arranmore Island while conducting business all over the world. This is great to see.

This can be a win-win for rural Ireland - for our services, schools, sports clubs, whether GAA or soccer clubs, and local shops. Rural Ireland has the potential to be rejuvenated with new people arriving because it is the people who are the heartbeat of any community.

Where are these people going to find a home to live in or a site to build their house on? The current position seems to be that the funding required for necessary infrastructural development to allow building to take place, whether sewerage, water or roads, is directed, understandably so in one context, to large cities and towns. Throughout the country, it seems to be targeted in one or two major towns within a county at the expense of smaller towns and villages. It is stymieing development and the choices people have about where to live.

Trying to obtain planning permission to live in rural Ireland, even for those families born and bred there, is becoming increasingly difficult. I am sure the Minister will be aware of that as he comes from a rural county himself. This issue is being debated throughout the length and breadth of local authorities through their development plans. The concept of local needs only planning continues to be problematic for rural Ireland.

This brings me the Flemish decree, which dates back to 2009 in Belgium. It then made its way to the European Court of Justice in 2013 where the court made its deliberation and stated that the local needs rule with regard to planning was neither fair nor just in the eyes of the EU. The Department has been sitting on that judgment since 2013, which was almost eight years ago. It is past time that guidance was given to local authorities on this issue so they can adopt their development plans to take into consideration this new world based on that European Court of Justice judgment.

Rural Ireland, as I said, needs people if it is going to have a future. Incentives, not barriers, are needed for those who wish to live in rural Ireland.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this important issue. The national planning framework, NPF, published in 2018, sets out the Government's overarching strategic planning approach underpinning the sustainable development of urban and rural areas in Ireland to the period 2040. To articulate the broad context of the NPF in clear and understandable terms, the framework contains the national planning objectives, NPO, to guide and inform the planning process.

National planning objective 15 of the NPF fully commits to the concept of sustainable development in rural areas. It seeks to encourage growth, arrest decline in areas that have experienced low population growth or decline in recent decades, while also highlighting the need to manage certain areas around cities and towns that are under strong urban influence and under pressure from unco-ordinated and ribbon-type development in order to avoid over-development in those areas.

This is supplemented by national policy objective 19 which points to the need to ensure that providing rural communities meet housing requirements, a policy distinction should be made between areas experiencing significant over-spill development pressures from urban areas, particularly within the commuter catchment of cities, towns and centres of employment, and other remoter and weaker rural areas where population levels may be low or declining. Regarding weaker rural areas, objective 19 provides that determination of planning applications for single houses in the countryside should be based on general siting and design-based criteria for rural housing in statutory guidelines and plans, having regard to the viability of smaller towns and rural settlements. These criteria include matters such as landscape, vehicular access and wastewater disposal.

On the other hand, where development pressures and the risk of haphazard development in the vicinity of cities, towns and centres of employment as designated in the local authority development plans are evident, objective 19 advises that it is reasonable that the determination of applications for housing in such rural areas should be informed by considerations beyond the siting and design criteria for rural housing contained in statutory guidelines and plans which I just referred to. In particular, account should be taken of whether or not there is demonstrable functional requirement for such housing in social, economic or occupational terms and whether or not such development, of itself or in combination with existing permitted development, would lead to detrimental, haphazard and unco-ordinated development.

I consider that these objectives represent a balanced approach, consistent with long-standing Government policies on sustainable development and previous planning guidelines issued in 2005 under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act. Planning authorities are required to have regard to these guidelines on sustainable rural housing in framing of the planning policies in their development plans and in the assessment of individual planning applications for rural housing. Under the 2005 guidelines, planning authorities are required to adopt a balanced approach that ensures the housing needs of rural communities are met, while avoiding excessive urban-generated housing and haphazard development particularly in those areas near cities and towns that are under pressure from urban-generated development. Accordingly, the NPF provides an important strategic basis for interpreting the 2005 guidelines as its objectives are aligned with the approach already expected of planning authorities under the current guidelines.

It is important to clarify that the Flemish decree was a March 2009 decree of the Flemish region, a federal region within Belgium, on land and real estate policy that made the purchase of long-term lease of all immovable property, for example, all land and buildings, in certain Flemish communes, which are local authority areas, conditional upon there being a sufficient connection between the prospective buyer or tenant and the relevant purchaser. The Flemish decree case refers to the successful challenge against the Flemish decree in the European Court of Justice which ruled that it was disproportionate and also deemed by the ECJ to be in breach of Article 43 of the EU treaty on the freedom of movement of citizens.

The principles of the judgment are being considered in the context of the review of the 2005 guidelines and given the superseding of the NSS by the NPF in 2018, together with the need to address any relevant aspects of the 2013 European Court of Justice ruling, a review is ongoing within my Department.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am somewhat disappointed to learn that the review is still ongoing, almost eight years since the European Court of Justice made its judgment.I am disappointed to learn that the review is still ongoing almost eight years since the European Court of Justice gave its judgment. I plead with the Minister of State to expedite this matter. The world as we know it has changed since the Covid-19 pandemic started. People are looking at living in rural Ireland as an option. It is important that we have the necessary infrastructure in place and that we remove any barriers currently preventing those who wish to live in a rural area in a sustainable manner from doing so. I would welcome a commitment from the Minister of State, insofar as he can give one, to the effect that the Flemish decree judgment will be implemented in Irish planning law as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this Commencement matter. The review has commenced. Coming from a rural constituency, I am very keen to protect the integrity of rural planning and to ensure that it is sustainable. That is key. We must think about the response to the judgment and what it will mean. The national planning framework provides great scope for rural communities, with plans for 50% of growth to take place outside the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly, EMRA, region and for regional areas to grow twice as fast as Dublin. There is significant potential within the plan, and we must consider how we manage that. We need to grow and regenerate towns and villages and ensure we have policies that do not compromise them. We must also ensure that those who need to live in more rural areas can be facilitated to do that. What is key is that this must be done in a sustainable way. I am from a rural constituency and I understand the pressures relating to once-off rural planning and the need for it, but it must be done in a sustainable way.