Friday, 19 February 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
An Bord Pleanála
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to the House. He will not be a stranger to this topic. I am endeavouring to again raise the issue of two e-planning or online planning systems. One of those systems, entitled Plean-IT, is being championed and is supposed to be promoted by An Bord Pleanála. Let us deal with a few facts with regard to the 2016 programme for Government and the current programme for Government. All present are aware that, in spite of a few sceptics, Rebuilding Ireland remains Government policy. When it was published in 2016, it contained an absolute commitment that the Plean-IT project would be rolled out.I had a look at the subsequent Estimates in Dáil Éireann relating to successive budgets, and I see that substantial moneys have been given to An Bord Pleanála. I also saw that money was invested in capital projects, almost €1 million in the past two years. However, the slow progress on the part of An Bord Pleanála in the context of information technology is exceptionally disappointing.
I also wish to raise the issue of e-planning across the 31 local authorities. I believe in checking out these systems myself, so I rang An Bord Pleanála yesterday. I asked whether if I wanted to inspect the report of a chief executive of a planning authority online, I could do so. I was not referring to a current report, but one in respect of which a decision had been determined. I made that inquiry because, as the Minister of State knows, transparency is very important in the planning process. I was informed, quite frankly, that the information is not available online because An Bord Pleanála does not have the capacity to do that yet. I then posed a question as to how a person in Claremorris, County Clare, with an issue in respect of a strategic housing development would be able to see the relevant information. I was told that the person would first have to make an appointment with An Bord Pleanála. Given the situation with Covid-19, and I fully appreciate all the restrictions in place because of concern for public health, I was told that it would be necessary to make an appointment, come up on a bus and then look at a hard copy of the information. The information required is available, so it is not an issue of retaining or shutting down the documentation.
Those of us in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann who represent rural constituencies and areas should really be starting to wake up. We have a legislative duty. A programme for Government was drawn up some time ago, and the Rebuilding Ireland policy refers to an absolute commitment regarding the rolling out of the Plean-IT system. The system as it stands is lacking. The impact of Covid-19 is a restriction and the difficulty in this regard. I rang several planning authorities and I was told that they are shut but that, in limited circumstances, they could arrange for people to come in by appointment. Those planning authorities are open but are operating under very tight restrictions.
The nature of our planning process means that it is vital that people should be able to see draft county development plans, new plans and local area plans. All such plans should be available and this is an important point. I want to inject a new impetus into getting An Bord Pleanála fully online. If the onset of Covid-19 has taught us one thing, it is that when we are put under pressure and are forced to engage with technology, then we embrace it. I have travelled a long way in IT in the past six months as a result of Covid-19. I resisted all sorts of measures and initiatives previously, but I am now doing Zoom calls and all of the other online bits and pieces. When the pressure is on and when we have the hunger and desire to get information, we go after it and we use whatever means and mediums are open to us.
For the Minister of State's benefit, I have sent him some of the details I have not been able to cover here. There is a commitment in Rebuilding Ireland to roll out An Bord Pleanála's Plean-IT system. We should have a compatible e-planning system around the country, because we want to engage and encourage rather than frustrate people involved in this process. There have been particular concerns regarding the strategic housing development scheme, but hopefully that is going to end soon anyway. We must open up the planning process, however, and allow people to engage with technology.
I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this important issue, which is also close to my heart, and for giving me the opportunity to update the Seanad on progress in the roll-out of the Plean-IT project upgrading the IT system operated by An Bord Pleanála and the Local Government Management Agency's e-planning project.
The operation of an efficient, up-to-date and fit-for-purpose planning system which facilitates easier public engagement and participation in the planning process is a key priority for my Department. The development and roll-out of An Bord Pleanála's major IT transformation project, Plean-IT, is a significant initiative aimed at facilitating applications, appeals and submissions to be made on-line and it is moving into its next phase of development, linking in with the separate e-planning initiative to be operated by the local planning authorities.
In this regard, the An Bord Pleanála introduced an on-line facility to accept public observations relating to strategic housing development applications, together with the required fee, in November. The online facility is currently in operation, but for those cases only. An Bord Pleanála intends to use its experience with this initial pilot project to inform its development of similar facilities and arrangements for other case types, including other strategic infrastructure development cases and planning appeals and it is intended to advance these in 2021. Details of the pilot project arrangements are available on An Bord Pleanála's website, .
An Bord Pleanála is also in the process of finalising the development of a new, upgraded website which will be more user-friendly and informative than the current one.The new website will make it easier for members of the public to view and monitor the progress of files and is scheduled to go live before the end of the first quarter of 2021. This will further help to improve communications and interaction between An Bord Pleanála and the public.
The Local Government Management Agency is managing and co-ordinating the development of the e-planning project, on behalf of my Department, to which the Department is providing significant funding towards the start-up costs. The e-planning project, which is currently being developed, seeks to integrate the information technology, IT, systems of the 31 planning authorities using a single online portal that allows for the online submission of planning applications, appeals, submissions and associated fees. Once it has been fully rolled out, e-planning will provide an online option for the public to engage with the planning system, in addition to the paper-based system.
The experience of operating the planning system during the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of having the most up-to-date and modern technology in place. It has also highlighted the role that online technology will make to the more effective and efficient operation of the planning system in the future, as has been alluded to by Senator Boyhan.
Arising from the experience over the last 11 months, the e-planning project board has been requested by my Department to accelerate the development and roll-out of the new e-planning system nationwide with a view to bringing the system on stream as speedily as possible. The proposed system is now in its final stages of development and testing, further to which it is envisaged that e-planning will be launched in a number of planning authorities during the next quarter and, subsequently, rolled out to all other local authorities on a phased basis by the end of the second quarter of 2022.
It is important that this issue has been raised by Senator Boyhan. Both of us have spoken at length about public engagement in the planning system. In the spirit of the Aarhus Convention, the public participation directive, we have a great opportunity now to give those who probably would not ordinarily have a voice, or an input, into the planning system the option to do so by facilitating increased and enhanced access to online portals. I welcome this Commencement matter being brought forward.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. On 29 October 2020, the policy document entitled the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future was published. It talked about planning reform, supporting the planning regulator and IT technologies, which is important. We need to push it on and Covid has brought technology more to the fore.
Last week, I made a trip to the office of An Bord Pleanála to deliver two objections for two people because I could not do them online. I went to the post office on Merrion Row and with my own money took out two €50 postal orders for observations. Then I walked to Marlborough Street where I pressed a doorbell of an office and was told to stick them in the cardboard box as they could not validate them. I said that it was a shame that the people for whom I delivered the objections could not do this online. We do not have the facility, which is a poor show in 2021.
Before I came in here, I conducted a word search on the national planning framework and discovered that neither the term "Plean-IT", which is the big An Bord Pleanála portal that the Minister of State talked about, or the term "e-planning" was mentioned once. Perhaps when we are talking about that document we could incorporate those two objectives and ambitions in the document.
The Senator has made useful suggestions. I will take on board the useful note that he provided to me. We know our city and county development plans are now aligned and moving in the same trajectory. I attended an open session on Kilkenny County Council's heritage plan, which was really fantastic. Members of the public have been drawn into an online portal, consult.kilkenny.ie, which is well worth a look. It is a good exemplar of what can be done in these times, particularly with regard to the level of engagement. Previously, we would have had public meetings that might have had a trickle of people into them but at that particular event there were over 70 participants. The initiative is a fantastic opportunity. It is an opportunity that we need to take out of Covid and bring to us. We need to keep using it as a default way to enhance transparency, accessibility and participation in the planning system.