Seanad Éireann - Volume 155 - 08 April, 1998

Local Government (Planning and Development) Bill, 1997: Committee and Remaining Stages.

SECTION 1.

Mr. Gallagher: I move amendment No. 1:

In page 4, paragraph (a), lines 1 to 5, to delete all words from and including “the” in line 1, down to and including “Board in line 5 and substitute the following:

“persons who were selected on a previous occasion by the organisations which for the time being stand prescribed for the purposes of paragraphs (a), (b), (c) and (d) of subsection (2) of section 7 of this Act”.

This relates to the temporary appointments to be made under the Bill while the procedures for appointing extra members are being undertaken. As stated on Second Stage, I agree with the principle at issue here but I have a number of questions to put to the Minister regarding the best way to proceed with temporary appointments.

The provisions in section 1 state that, while additional members are awaiting appointment, members of the staff of the Department of the Environment and Local Government or An Bord Pleanála can be appointed to membership of the board on a temporary basis. As the Minister of State indicated on Second Stage, the duration of temporary appointments will be limited to a maximum of nine months but it is envisaged that the actual term served will be much shorter.

I am concerned because part of the success of An Bord Pleanála is that it is recognised to comprise [84] a balance of the various interests involved in the area of planning. On Second Stage the Minister pointed out that members of the board are chosen from candidates nominated by panels composed of planning and professional organisations, such as the Planning Institute, environmental organisations, such as An Taisce, construction and business organisations, such as IBEC, and social and economic bodies. One board member is appointed from the staff of the Department. As already stated, the fact that no individual interest has been seen to predominate has been part of the board's success. I am concerned, not about integrity of those who might serve under the temporary provisions but in terms of the public perception of the Bill, that the balance to which I referred will be disturbed because temporary members will be appointed from the staff of the Department or the board.

In appointing temporary members, it would be more advisable to consider nominations made by the nominating bodies in respect of previous appointments which were not accepted. We would then be able to stand over our assertion that the various interests are represented in a balanced fashion on An Bord Pleanála. The amendment proposes that temporary members should be appointed from the ranks of persons who were selected on a previous occasion by the nominating organisations rather than staff from the Department or the board.

I am also concerned about the possibility of nominations from among the staff of the board. Would that mean that a member of staff so appointed would not be in a position to deal with the ordinary work of the board? It is a matter of principle in any organisation that a person involved in making a presentation pro or contra a particular case cannot be involved in the final adjudication on that case. If a member of the staff of the board is appointed temporarily as a member of the board, it will mean that there will be one fewer member of staff dealing with its daily work. That would not help us achieve what we have set out to do in the Bill, namely, reduce current delays in planning appeals.

Mr. J. Doyle: I support the amendment. The argument used by the Minister of State is that it will take at least two months for the four specialist panels to nominate people for membership of An Bord Pleanála. However, the Bill was published over two months ago and it was delayed for a long period in the Lower House. Surely the nominating bodies could have put in place a priority list of prospective members so that, when the Bill is enacted, those people could be nominated. I cannot understand the delay on the part of these bodies and it strikes me as strange that they were not directed to have a list of nominees in place before the Bill is enacted.

Mr. Burke: I support the amendment. As stated on Second Stage, the panels from which nominees will be drawn are made up of construction [85] and business organisations, planning and professional organisations, environmental bodies and general interest groups. These groups have vested interests in this area and I ask the Minister of State to consider appointing a member of the County and City Managers' Association, a former county manager or a former member of a planning authority to the board. Such people have great experience of the planning process and they would be able to put forward the views of local authorities. I am not making a political point but a person from one of those organisations or from a local authority should be appointed to the board, even if that means extending the number of panels to five.

Mr. D. Kiely: I have no difficulty with someone from the County and City Managers' Association being appointed to the board by the Minister. Opposition Members inquired why people already nominated by the panels could not be considered. They must accept that the legislation is only now going through the Houses and it is probable that the panels have not nominated people for membership of the board. We must wait until the legislation has been enacted so that the Minister will be in a position to choose those properly qualified for membership of the board. I would not like people to be appointed on short notice. The Minister is correct to appoint a member of staff from the Department or An Bord Pleanála because we want to improve the situation in the short term.

Mr. J. Doyle: Did Senator Kiely state that the Minister should appoint a member of his party?

Mr. Walsh: We must be practical. The point made by Senator Gallagher is covered in the Bill because, when he is appointing people to temporary positions, the Minister must have regard for and take account of the nominees from the qualifying organisations. However, we are discussing short-term appointments in emergencies. It seems eminently sensible to appoint staff with the relevant expertise to temporary positions. I ask Opposition Members to accept that point.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government (Mr. Molloy): It must be borne in mind that we are passing legislation and we are dealing with the procedures which will be put in place when that legislation is enacted. The fact that it has taken both Houses a lengthy period to pass the Bill is irrelevant. We are trying to establish the legislation as statutory law in respect of what we can or cannot do with regard to An Bord Pleanála when crises arise from time to time. A crisis has arisen because of the huge boom in the construction industry, the major increase in the volume of planning applications and appeals and the costs incurred by developers and the economy when developments are delayed. Everyone agrees that we should take the necessary steps to put [86] measures in place to deal with such crises in the future.

The amendment suggests that we should choose the additional members from the panels. The Bill provides the Minister with the power to increase the membership of An Bord Pleanála by instituting temporary, whole-time appointments for the duration of a crisis. Those appointed cannot remain in office for more than five years and the situation will be reviewed at the end of their tenure. A new order will be made if it is considered necessary to maintain membership of the board at a level higher than six.

The procedures to be used in appointing additional members to the board include a statutory requirement that it will take two months for the panels to put forward nominees. We want to put in place another procedure where the Minister can make a number of interim appointments — the duration of which will be three to four months. It would be impractical to use the method suggested in the amendment to make such appointments because the panels must be given two months in which to put forward names. For a variety of reasons which I have outlined, it would not be sensible to proceed in that way. It would not achieve the objective. The Minister would not be free to appoint somebody immediately to work on clearing the backlog. These provisions relate to the appointment of interim members of the board. It is only a temporary measure to assist the board for a few months while additional members are recruited.

The amendment would require interim appointments to be made from among those persons previously selected for nomination by the specialised panels for appointment to the board. However, the idea behind these temporary appointments is that they can be made quickly to provide immediate assistance to the board while the permanent additional members are recruited. This purpose would be defeated by the amendment.

Members were last nominated for appointment to the board in 1996. In the event that they were even willing to accept a short-term appointment, it would take time to allow them to be released from their employment. A month's notice at least would be required. In view of this it would be impracticable to pick names from a panel and expect them to take up work immediately. The interim proposal seeks to address that kind of situation.

These appointments are expressly on a temporary basis, probably only for three or four months. Those persons previously nominated may not be interested in taking up this employment for a short period because they allowed their names to go on the panel on the understanding that they would be employed full-time for a period of five years. If they took up an interim appointment they would have no guarantee that they would be given a permanent appointment. It would be a highly impracticable way to appoint the interim [87] members. The procedures in the Bill are more flexible and more feasible to implement.

When the permanent additional appointments are made I assure Senators that the procedure set out in the Bill, which is necessary to ensure the professionalism and impartiality of the board, will be followed at all times. However, to help the board immediately these temporary appointments must be made. I am satisfied that the method we propose is the most appropriate. In view of this, I ask the Senator to withdraw the amendment. I know he has moved it in good faith. We discussed the matter on Committee Stage in the Dáil. While we did not discuss it properly on Report Stage for reasons beyond my control, I hope I have explained matters more fully.

Mr. Gallagher: I do not propose that we should commence a new nominating process for temporary members of An Bord Pleanála. However, the amendment is concerned with persons who were selected on a previous occasion; it is not limited to the 1996 nominees. I am concerned about the perception of balance on the board. Many things have been done on a temporary basis which landed somebody in trouble.

I have a fear with regard to an over-representation of officials on the board. It should be possible to get suitable nominees for the temporary appointments from among the wide range of people nominated for consideration in the past by nominating bodies. I am anxious to avoid any prospect of challenge or question by people dealing with the board, even for the temporary period.

I understand that the temporary appointment to the board of staff members takes them away from their regular work and risks increasing the backlog rather than helping to clear it. In view of this, selecting persons from the pool of persons nominated on a previous occasions is, in principle, a better way to proceed.

Mr. Molloy: Where a member of the staff of the board or of the Department is appointed it is the intention to fill the ensuing vacancy. It would not be the intention to create another bottleneck by moving a valuable member of staff to another position. It is practical to want to make this interim short-term appointment from the staff because the Minister will have the right to move staff from one position to another. If recruitment was to be from another Department all kinds of procedures would have to be complied with and there would not be the ease of movement or assurance of recruiting somebody quickly. In addition, the expertise lies in the Department and in the board where there are qualified and experienced personnel dealing with planning matters on a continuous basis.

It was suggested earlier that county managers could be appointed. The environment and amenities panel consists of a range of bodies all of [88] whom can make a nomination from which the selection is made. Among the bodies that can make a nomination under that panel is the County and City Managers' Association. However, I could not see a city manager taking up such an appointment for a month — there would be no city managers in such circumstances and it would cause a chain reaction at the point of recruitment. The only practical way to proceed is to recruit from among the staff of the board or the Department where the Minister is able to make an administrative decision.

I regret that I am unable to accept the amendment. I ask the Senator to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Section 1 agreed to.

SECTION 2.

Question proposed: “That section 2 stand part of the Bill.”

Mr. Burke: I welcome the Minister's comment that county mangers may be appointed to the board. Presumably this would be extended to former city and county mangers. The staff needs to be expanded in addition to the board. While the board seeks to deal with matters within four months it now more usually takes closer to nine months. For example, a number of my applications, together with a number from my county, have been with the board for a period approaching nine months. In view of this, will the Minister also consider increasing the staff numbers?

Given the workload placed on local authorities arising from the increased number of planning applications, there must be a proportional increase in the number of appeals to the board. Every day an application is delayed it increases costs on developers, local authorities or others, whether it be in respect of labour, materials or the spiralling property prices.

Mr. Molloy: Section 2 deals with indemnification. In reply to the point raised by the Senator, I indicated on Second Stage that additional staff had already been appointed to An Bord Pleanála to deal with the increase in planning appeals. The board now has an approved complement of 85 staff, an increase of 14 since January 1997.

Question put and agreed to.

Sections 3 and 4 agreed to.

Title agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.

An Cathaoirleach: When is it proposed to sit again?

Mr. Walsh: The House will adjourn sine die.