Seanad Éireann - Volume 182 - 15 February, 2006

Planning and Related Issues: Statements (Resumed).

  An Cathaoirleach: Senator John Paul Phelan was in possession and has seven minutes remaining.

  Mr. J. Phelan: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, to the House for this debate. It is some 18 months since I last spoke on this issue. I pride myself on my good memory but I had to jog it to recall what I said on the previous occasion. I wish to reiterate a number of the points I made then.

It is time for the Government to give serious consideration to a review of the activities of An Bord Pleanála, with a particular view to securing its disbandment and the establishment of a number of regional planning boards. It is inappropriate that the same body is charged with administering planning and dealing with development issues in Dublin city centre, for example, an area with its own particular planning issues and problems, and also charged with overseeing planning in, for instance, south County Kilkenny. It would make for a much fairer and more balanced process if the Government were to enact legislation to provide for An Bord Pleanála to be broken up into sub-boards or regional boards.

From a planning perspective, what infuriates most public representatives and members of the public is the inconsistencies still evident in planning decisions from different local authorities and even within the same local authority area. Although new rural planning guidelines have been published in the last several months, there is no evidence these inconsistencies have been eliminated. If we are to establish the confidence of the public in the planning process, the current levels of consistencies must not continue.

Reference was made during the last debate on this issue that there is a strong tradition in this [1286]country of dispersed rural housing. It is the case in my own area. In the last several years, however, there seems to be growing emphasis from local authority planners and even within regional planning guidelines on a move away from that dispersed housing tradition. The reality is that the traditions of housing in Ireland are very different from those of most of our neighbours. We have the tradition of one-off rural houses scattered throughout the countryside; it is something that is embedded in our culture. One can travel to any part of the country and see any number of ruins of houses and houses in different stages of decay which show the tradition of the dispersed rural housing pattern. This is something that must be firmly reflected in whatever guidelines we establish in the future.

Another controversial subject in the area of planning and development and one about which I receive numerous representations is the area of development charges. I have spoken on this issue before in the House. For the main part, particularly in rural areas where people get virtually no service for the charges paid, they are an entirely unfair and inequitable tax on those seeking to maintain their own home. It is one matter to impose development charges on new housing schemes and developments in towns, villages and cities where much needed public facilities and amenities are being provided, such as connections to a sewerage line, public water supply, public parks and other active recreational facilities. Some people living in rural Ireland, however, cannot even get the county council to repair their road, have no access to a public water supply and do not enjoy services to maintain footpaths and lighting. In these circumstances the charges are wholly unfair.

Moreover, the charges vary wildly from one local authority area to another. In County Kilkenny, for example, they are substantially higher than those levied in County Carlow, which for electoral purposes is in the same constituency. This type of inconsistency and inequity leads to much anger among those who are trying to secure and maintain their own home. It is something that could usefully be examined by the Government in the future.

In regard to rural housing, I spoke also about the local need issue. The success of a person’s application for planning permission in a rural area is often determined on the basis of whether he or she has a connection with the area and can trace some form of family link. It is vitally important that any rural area should be able to attract new people. People from outside the area who wish to build a house in a particular parish or village should not be prohibited from so doing. In many areas, however, including in large swathes of Kilkenny, this prohibition exists. This is not appropriate.

I have always believed there is a consistent problem with regard to the interpretation that planning authorities put on development plans. I [1287]was a member of Kilkenny County Council when the latest county development plan was drawn up. I found that the interpretation put on the development plan was in marked contrast to the intentions of the councillors in drafting the plan. So many of the problems public representatives encounter in regard to planning relate to the difficulties arising from the incorrect interpretations often taken by officials of planning authorities in regard to the planning applications that come before them.

It is significant that planning and development in many parts of the country is grossly hindered by the continuing lack of the provision of adequate public sewerage facilities in smaller towns and villages. In the village of Killmacow in County Kilkenny, located not far from Waterford city, the sewerage scheme has still not been constructed. It has been a political issue for the past 30 years but has never been resolved even though this is an area under significant development pressure. Far more resources must be invested into this scheme to ensure these small rural towns and villages will have adequate sewerage facilities into the future.

We are all aware of the ongoing debate about the nitrates directive and the quality of the water supply. Some of the greatest contributors to water problems are local authorities. There are countless villages and towns in which, often untreated, sewage is still pumped into rivers. That still happens throughout the country. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has an issue with the impact of the nitrates directive on agriculture. The Department needs to seriously examine the role played by local authorities in ensuring that the position whereby untreated sewage finds it way into our rivers is not allowed to continue into the future.

There is a discrepancy in the amount of grant awarded to people throughout the country who wish to connect to established group sewerage schemes. In Kilkenny the grant is approximately €1,200 or €1,300 per house. That figure should be reviewed and significantly increased because it is not commensurate with the cost of the provision of such facilities into the future.

  Mr. Kitt: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome the opportunity to return to this debate. We had a good debate last year on the planning guidelines on rural housing. We welcomed what the Minister said at the time about promoting and supporting a vibrant rural community. The guidelines on sustainable rural housing, published in March 2004, provided an opportunity to comment initially on the guidelines and to discuss relevant matters more fully with council members and management.

I welcome the development that for the first time a Minister considered examining the question of exceptional health circumstances. Representations on this point were made by people [1288]in the disability area to the Minister, Deputy Roche. I understand that these guidelines have been adhered to by the local authorities. That issue of trying to facilitate emigrants who returned home to retire or for some other reason was also considered. Consideration of these issues was welcome.

I support a proposal put forward at that time to strengthen rural villages and small towns, but we need to strongly state the need to provide water and sewerage schemes, to which Senator John Paul Phelan referred. While I favour these guidelines applying to small towns and villages I note that work on the provision of 13 small water and sewerage schemes in the Galway County Council area which was due to commence last year has been postponed until the 2007 programme. If we continue to delay the provision of these schemes, we will have great difficulty in achieving the objective of strengthening rural villages and smaller towns.

The Minister announced prior to Christmas that any scheme costing under €5 million could proceed without reference to the Department, which was a welcome announcement. However, a difficulty with that development is that small schemes are part of a bundle of schemes the cost of which will exceed €5 million. If a small scheme is removed from a bundle of schemes, planning permission for the scheme will have to be obtained again. I would like to bring that difficulty to the attention of the Minister.

Galway County Council has been allocated €68 million this year for the provision of water and sewerage schemes. The allocation for next year will be €256 million, which will include provision for the small schemes. We need to check with the management of Galway County Council, Galway being one of our bigger counties and it having many water and sewerage schemes, whether it intends to proceed with the provision of small schemes the cost of which come under €5 million or whether they will be provided as stand-alone schemes as opposed to being part of a bundle of schemes. That is critical to the provision of houses in our small towns and villages.

Many public representatives have raised the question of the provision of septic tanks and water and sewerage treatment for houses. A test known as the SR6 was used some years ago. It was a simple and effective test carried out in regard to the building of houses, particularly one-off housing. Now an EPA test from the Environmental Protection Agency is used. In some counties a small panel of people carry out this test, the cost of which adds to the cost of building a house in terms of the provision of a septic tank and a treatment area. This point should be taken up by the Minister. Perhaps he could ensure that more people are put on this panel. Is it not anti-competitive that only a small number of people in a county can carry out this specialised test? These are practical points that should be taken up.

[1289]The Minister said he is trying to make the planning process more friendly for the applicant. He has put in place a facility for pre-planning meetings which are working out well in each local authority. A simple facility was provided by councillors in Galway, which I am sure is also provided in other county council areas, whereby a potential applicant could obtain prior notice of a proposed planning application if there were difficulties involved. That prior notice facility is no longer provided in County Galway. That decision was taken by the management and majority of the councillors in the county. I do not agree with it, however, because it is useful for a public representative to be informed of a difficulty. In that way the issues can be discussed with the agent and the applicant and can perhaps be resolved. I now note that many planning applications are withdrawn. Galway County Council is reported to have a planning permission record of 80% to 85% but that does not take into consideration the fact that many applications are withdrawn because people know they will be refused. Therefore, I do not agree with some of those figures, given that the facility to which I referred is no longer allowed.

I was pleased that the Minister produced and published the Building Control Bill. As the Minister said, it is a good day for the consumer that this Bill has been published. It will assure members of the public that architects, building surveyors and quantity surveyors are properly qualified, which is a welcome development. However, I return to the issue of people qualified to carry out work related to the building of a house, whether it is the person carrying out the EPA test or building work. We should be able to get answers to the question of making it easier for an applicant to get planning permission with the putting in place of these new controls. Under this Bill, new homes and businesses will be more energy efficient and better provision will be made for people with disabilities. However, I do not know if adequate staff are in place to implement this legislation. The Bill refers to the putting in place of stricter controls on fire protection. The question of fire protection is very much on our minds following the programmes on the Stardust tragedy of 25 years ago. There is also the question of the enforcement of building codes. The Minister of State might reply on whether sufficient staff are in place to deal with the enforcement of building codes and controls on fire protection.

I want to take up the point mentioned by Senator John Paul Phelan about An Bord Pleanála. As he said, there are inconsistencies in its decisions but there are probably inconsistencies in decisions made by local authorities. We cannot say they are all producing a definite development plan or even that their decisions are in line with development plans. I would like the Minister to focus on the question of planning for amenity areas. In some parts of Galway, and I am sure the position is the same elsewhere through[1290]out the country, some towns are suffering because of major development. There is considerable pressure involved in securing an amenity area. GAA clubs report they cannot get a second field and soccer and rugby clubs report that they cannot get an area for their members to train or play games. There is an idea that developers will be like Santa Claus or the fairy godmother and provide these facilities. That will not happen unless the county councils are pro-active and take a definite stand stating that their quite substantial development levies should go to provide sports facilities.

While there is a good system of sports grants and there are different aids from rural development groups and from local authorities, the biggest problem is in getting a sports field for a sporting body. If this position continues, with sports fields and clubs being located ever farther out of town and the people going up boithríns and bad roads to get to a field where sports can be played, it should be taken up pro-actively by the local authorities to ensure there is always enough land for sporting activities.

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House. I am sure he will address some of these points and I hope we will have more opportunities to discuss planning issues.

  Mr. O’Toole: I also welcome the Minister of State to the House and I look forward to hearing his views. The most significant problem with planning is that nobody understands it. I have been listening here for the past 19 years to people from different local authorities around the country wondering why an application was refused. As long as that remains the case there will be doubt, there will be lack of trust and confidence and it will always be a problem.

The following are simple questions: How, why and on what conditions is a place designated a special area of conservation? How does one come to that conclusion? Who decides? What are the rules? What are the conditions? Perhaps there are rules and conditions. However, I do not know what they are and I do not know anybody else who knows them. It should surely be something that could be applied to an area about which there is no further doubt.

How can An Bord Pleanála overturn a local authority planning decision if they are both working to the same national objectives? It should not happen. It turns logic on its head, unless somebody made a mistake. It reminds me of the health boards, where the Government created 11 independent republics all of which had their own rules and regulations. The Minister of State knew about that better than most. In many cases there was no uniformity of approach. It seems that county development plans should fit into a national plan of some description. In other words, there should be national guidelines which would then be implemented with plenty of local discretion as to how it would be done. At least then [1291]all concerned would see the direction in which it was going.

I speak from a disinterested point of view in that, unlike my colleagues, I do not deal with planning issues. Having driven around the country, I have asked planners why they insist on small windows in every house in rural Ireland. It is a simple question. Why is it that in many counties one cannot get planning permission for a house with large windows? One planner told me it was because of vernacular architecture. There is no vernacular architecture in this country. The only reason there are small windows in Irish houses is because there was once a tax on windows and if the house looked too attractive, the tenant was thrown out. All we are doing is continuing an age of repression.

I asked planners why they allow white houses in the middle of the countryside and they said they do so because white-washed houses are the vernacular. White-washed houses are in the Irish countryside because white wash was all we could afford at one time. It is the most incorrect colour to put in the countryside. Nothing jumps out of the countryside as much as a white house. They should not be allowed.

The problem is that nobody is asking the questions or demanding explanations because we are not allowed to do so. If one starts getting edgy about these matters one is suddenly asked if one is interfering with the planning process and trying to bring political influence to bear. It is time we did exactly that. I would like to know that there was an understandable basis to decisions by An Bord Pleanála. I would also like to know that at least the Minister of State was happy that somebody in his Department looking at these matters would state that even though perhaps the Department did not like the decision, it could understand how it occurred, it fits into the general plan and we must live with that.

A development charge must be a charge for something. I am completely in favour of the idea of such charges but I am not in favour of a rip-off. If somebody is paying a development charge we should all be fully aware of what he or she is getting in return. It should not be a case of one size fits all or of billing all those who seek planning permission. There must be something given in return. That is not much to ask and it is something we should look at.

I have previously asked a simple question, namely, why are hollow-block houses still being allowed in Dublin city? Everybody knows that this goes completely against the spirit of the recent European insulation directive. The directive does not apply in Ireland for another 18 months. I would like an explanation for that. Is it because it would create hardship for the building industry? The real impact of this delay falls on youngsters who are buying houses over the next 18 months and who will probably find themselves outside the remit of the planning regulations [1292]which will apply to everybody afterwards. When the houses in question are sold or disposed of in five, six or seven years’ time we will see the error of our ways.

Since 1998 we have been aware of what would happen in terms of insulation guidelines. Recently I raised this with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, who told me I had nothing to worry about, but that is not the case. Almost 250,000 hollow-block houses have been built speculatively in Dublin since 1998 and this should not have happened.

This does not happen outside of Dublin. People are more sensible in the country. Why is it being allowed in one place and not in the other? Is it because HomeBond is a self-regulated system, owned by the building and construction industry, which does not have the interests of the consumer or the State at heart?

The Minister at one stage told me he had information on the level of insulation and heat loss in this country, and that we compare favourably with the best in Europe. He promised the relevant data to me but I did not receive it. In fairness, it slipped his mind. He gave a commitment, maybe not in the House but afterwards. Whereas the rest of Europe has a particular method of measuring insulation standards, I want to know why have we invented a brand new Irish solution to an Irish problem by developing something which I understand is called “heat loss through the roof”, which is a different issue altogether. I seek reassurance in what we are doing in that regard.

Other areas of concern include the attitude of An Bord Pleanála to a national plan, the relationship between local authority development plans with the national plan, the way in which these matters interact and how we can gain a greater understanding of what is happening. As well as looking at insulation factors, we should also look at the question of energy, not just in terms of insulation but in the wider area to encourage people to develop new forms of energy. For example, is it acceptable to object and get rid of a proposal for a wind farm on the basis that it might upset the view of city dwellers when we go for a drive in the country? On the plus side, wind energy is silent and non-invasive but it occasionally spoils the view of the lovely landscape. Is it not worthwhile in order to achieve the gains? Is it not time we said this? Is it not time that people brought some moderation to the issue?

4 o’clock

I want there to be a debate on the issue of planning instead of listening on the one hand to zealots, who say we cannot build a house anywhere and, on the other hand, entrepreneurs, who want to build a house everywhere. The voice of ordinary people should intercede and moderate this debate, to make a decision and hold to it. Otherwise, we are on the road to nowhere.

[1293]An Bord Pleanála should take the educational aspect of development on board when making decisions. It recently objected to an eco-friendly and environmentally sympathetic proposal for a development around Lough Key. I know every yard of the shoreline around Lough Key very well and it needs some development. There have always been a few big houses there but surely it is possible to develop it further.

Only when large developments are put in place can people be educated about what to look for and protect in an area. That was one reason why I supported the Burren interpretative centre which unfortunately was ruled out. I love the Burren and have walked its hills regularly but do not know enough about it. Every time I go there, however, I see well-meaning people damaging the area because they know no better. There is nobody to tell them about it.

I do not play golf but I cannot see how the development of a golf course poses a significant environmental threat unless it impacts on something fragile in the environment or an archaeological site which can be dealt with. I do not understand how there can ever be an objection to a marina which must be the most environmentally sympathetic type of development imaginable because it encourages people to love the environment.

We do not need an empty west of Ireland, or to hear people say we must not develop rural Ireland thereby depriving people in rural areas of realising their potential, so that those of us who live on the east coast can go back down and enjoy it all the better because there is nothing there. That is the way we are going. We need balance and moderation in planning. This discussion is worthwhile. I could speak for another hour on this topic and not say all I want to say.

We have argued here about An Taisce. Much of what An Taisce has done in recent years has irritated me. While it should exist as an important part of a democracy it fails to win the trust and confidence of ordinary people as do the planning authorities, An Bord Pleanála and development proposals. We have much work to educate ourselves and other people as to what we are trying to do in the planning area.

  Mr. Brennan: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. In April 2005 we welcomed the Government’s policy on rural housing and the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government outlined the draft proposals on rural housing development.

Are the Minister and the Members of the Oireachtas satisfied that planning authorities are implementing these regulations consistently around the country? Are the planning authorities playing their crucial role in strengthening rural areas, towns and villages? Many counties have a surplus of up to €9 million in planning contributions after the first year of operating the regulations, which raises the question are planning [1294]authorities developing their areas to their best advantage?

The national Water Services Investment Programme 2000-2007 is at its mid-point and the Minister has sanctioned many sewerage and water schemes throughout the country but implementation of many of those schemes at local level has fallen behind. If that was brought on stream and those problems addressed, the small towns and villages would have an opportunity for the development they need. If the funding available nationally was used for the major schemes small towns could use the local planning contributions wisely. The Minister should study how those funds can be used, even with matching funds because if they accumulate but are not used for the purpose for which they were collected it would leave much to be desired.

Are planning authorities playing their role in respect of water services? Treatment plants are being used under the planning regulations at a cost of €12,000 to €15,000 a year. Is the body charged with certifying waste water treatment systems a statutory body under the aegis of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? Is the Minister of State happy that the certification and testing of the apparatus is consistent with the planning regulations? Many questions are being asked nationally about this problem.

I watch with interest and welcome some of An Bord Pleanála’s recent decisions in regard to rural housing. It has the flexibility of considering applications made in the first instance to the local authorities. Some of its decisions have been more favourable to people in rural Ireland than those of the local planning authorities.

Local authority members should realise their own power as planning authorities to make those regulations law. All county development plans were to be reviewed within a 12-month period but the councillors have the power to make it easier for people to apply in rural Ireland. It is hard to expect the Minister to legislate for all but he has given local authorities the power to take into consideration housing needs in their areas.

Housing need is one of the most controversial items in the draft guidelines. It refers to a person’s first house in an area to which he or she has returned. One’s housing needs change over the course of a lifetime. A person born in a rural area who worked for 20 or 30 years outside the area will find it almost impossible to get planning permission for a house in that area given the way these regulations are being implemented in some areas. The Minister has given the local authorities some flexibility but the implementation of the regulations nationally should be considered soon.

I urge the Minister of State to see whether the programme for development of the sewerage schemes and the infrastructure in the counties is on stream and how they might be helped in that regard.

[1295]  Mr. Bannon: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. While I welcome the opportunity to speak on planning issues, I regret that this is the only business of the House today. This House should be legislating on important issues, including planning and not simply making statements that have no binding influence.

That said, there is much to be discussed on planning, an issue with which the Government has failed to get to grips in recent years. Its new mantra might be “thou shalt not build”, given the shambles in the planning process. We want and expect to see from the Government a proposal to change the system and make a difference. Fine Gael wants to see a different planning system and an end to the back door, unofficial nod and wink planning that has been exposed through many tribunals. We want realistic sustainable development plans.

The rural housing planning guidelines published by the Minister some time ago are welcome in that they provide for people to live in their own communities. They are, however, blinkered and fail to allow for the sustainable development that will enable those communities to thrive. It is heartening to see that after so many years, the Government has come around to the Fine Gael way of thinking and recognises that people should have the right to live in the areas where they were born and raised. Building a house on a family site is often the only way a young person or returning emigrant can put a roof over his or her head. Fine Gael, however, is disappointed that the guidelines do not provide the necessary environmental protection our countryside needs. Special areas of conservation should remain but an exception should be made for family members who reside in the area and provided there are no local objections.

Ribbon development is simply unsustainable and the guidelines are far from unambiguous in their opposition to it. Yet again it seems the Minister has concentrated solely on the volume rather than the design of rural housing. If one-off housing is properly designed it can complement the landscape and revitalise depopulated areas of the countryside. This has happened in some, but not all, counties. I have seen houses built in townlands where there were no houses ten years ago while 100 years ago such a townland had 15 or 16 houses.

In a reply to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Olivia Mitchell, the Minister stated he would introduce changes to the planning and development regulations 2005. One of the commitments he made in the reply was that he would address the need for a uniform planning application form throughout the country. I have called for such a measure on a number of occasions, including when this matter was debated in the House, but the Minister has done nothing in this regard to date. In the reply to Deputy Olivia Mitchell’s question he stated he would also address the fact that a very significant number of [1296]applications are turned down by local authorities, as brought to his attention by Deputy Olivia Mitchell, by Members of this House and by councillors.

A large percentage of applications are turned down by county councils because of errors made in filling out application forms. Has the Minister honoured his word regarding these issues? There should not be a delay in bringing about this change. It seems the Minister has not made the necessary changes to the regulations and this House has not been offered any clarification of the situation. There is neither clarity of thought nor intent, which the Government ought to demonstrate in dealing with these issues. There is a lack of clarity in the planning departments of some local authorities.

In 2005, more planning permissions were overturned in Dublin than in any other county, with 14 developments, comprising 2,081 apartments or houses turned down by An Bord Pleanála. This was followed by my own county of Longford with five developments, representing a total of 333 units rejected by the board. County Cork was third when 239 units in four developments were refused.

According to an analysis of the decisions of An Bord Pleanála, appeals against planning permission are more likely to be successful than appeals against refusals. Over the past two years, the board has upheld one third of all appeals against grants of planning permission. An Bord Pleanála needs to be totally overhauled, with regional structures put in place. I called for such measures the last time this matter was discussed in the House and on many other occasions since I came into this House. When I was secretary of the Local Authority Members Association, this subject was raised at regular intervals at our conferences. There is unified opinion among public representatives on this issue.

The current policy is that what suits Dublin suits the rest of the country. This is not the case. The situation in each rural area is unique and should be addressed accordingly by those who live and work in that particular region and are aware of its requirements. What suits a capital city will not suit a rural environment.

A situation has arisen in the midlands — I assume the situation is the same throughout the country — whereby farmers who are trying to comply with the nitrates directive need to provide additional slurry storage facilities, but are being refused the necessary planning permission for such facilities. On top of the Minister’s disastrous action in signing the directive into law, does he now intend to drive the final nail into the coffin in his efforts to destroy Irish farming? This is a very serious situation not just in my county but in all counties. Two people came to my office last Saturday who are very annoyed because their planning permission to accommodate the nitrates directive was refused.

[1297]Another crucial planning issue is the scourge of unfinished housing estates throughout the country. This vital issue must be dealt with and it is high time the minority of developers who engage in this disgraceful behaviour were called to account for their misdeeds. Local authority members up and down the country are crying out for change and legislation in this area.

Fine Gael has brought forward Private Members’ legislation to prevent builders who do not finish housing estates from getting permission to build another. This is a common-sense proposal. The Government’s lack of action on this matter is a sign of just how beholden it is to vested interests. The lack of co-operation and co-ordination in Government is reflected in the lack of cross-departmental co-operation on the national spatial strategy; a national integrated poverty strategy or an integrated transport policy. It is a tale of two worlds: one world where the Government has so much money from an economic boom and no accountability worries and the second world where there is stability in the economy with the Government aware of what resources it will get to a greater degree. In the second scenario, any money expended must show a value greater than the alternative uses for that money.

It is clear this Government is not choosing wisely. There is no coherent approach to the major challenges facing Ireland today and there has been almost total failure on the part of this Government to implement any coherent approach to the national spatial strategy. There are no initiatives to ease congestion in Dublin and to rejuvenate depopulated regional towns and other areas. The promise to decentralise 10,000 civil servants has been a distraction to keep desperate communities from demanding a response from Government.

There has been a distinct lack of cohesion in targeting transportation congestion, particularly in Dublin. We all witness this congestion as we come into Dublin each morning. One can spend up to three hours in a traffic jam from Lucan to Leinster House. Each side of the argument, from car to train to truck and bus, has been given little of what it wants but there is no overall vision to reduce the wastage of traffic jams.

Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, development levies were designed to allow for flexibility in the type of infrastructure that can be funded under the development contribution scheme. My party did not oppose this proposal when the Act was passing through the Oireachtas. Fine Gael took responsibility because we saw that Ireland had a First World economy with a Third World infrastructure and something needed to be done. What we did not know was that these levies would not be used to fund infrastructural development but rather to make up for the shortfall in Government funding for infrastructure.


  Mr. Bannon: The Government, in all its mealy-mouthed arrogance, has hijacked this scheme to cover up the complete and utter mess it has made of the public finances and this House must make its revulsion of that arrogance clear.

  Mr. Dardis: The Senator is in danger of getting stuck in a verbal traffic jam and he should conclude.

  Mr. Bannon: The Government has stripped back funding for vital infrastructure and is forcing councils to do its dirty work. The national development plan is €9 billion over budget and seven years late. The Government has failed to give the cash originally allocated to the national development plan when it was published. The incredibly high level of development levies that will be forced on home buyers and businesses were never envisaged when the Planning and Development Act passed into law. Not once did any Minister stand up and say that a 2,000 sq. m. house may have a development levy of €28,000 slapped onto it.

  Acting Chairman: The Senator is considerably over time.

  Mr. Bannon: This Government stands accused on the issue of planning. Its unfair approach, attitude and inability to manage land has led to frustration and anger. I have no doubt this anger and frustration will be expressed when the next general election is called in the not too distant future. The public and young people are waiting in the long grass to give the Government its answer and I have no doubt they will do so.

  Acting Chairman: We have heard this before. The public, including young people, are waiting in the long grass to give the Government its answer. I have no doubt they will do so.

  Mr. Brady: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am delighted to see that the Fine Gael press office is being kept busy but I would also like to outline a few facts, if I may.

  Mr. Bannon: We are hearing them from Bertie’s lick.

  Mr. Brady: Over 81,000 new housing units were built in this country last year and it is projected that there will be another 80,000 this year. Some 280,000 people are employed in the construction industry but if Fine Gael had its way those people would be out of a job.

We are here to discuss planning, however, and with such unprecedented growth nobody is denying that such issues will arise. The planning process plays a big role in managing such unprecedented growth. Changes have been made in this regard, including the guidelines issued by the [1299]Minister. Some Senators have referred to rural planning guidelines but we also require urban ones. For example, in a small pocket of my own area, in the North Wall, some 4,500 units will be built over the next two years, which will have a major impact locally. Planning will play a big part in that process, whether through infrastructure, schools or other facilities.

Sustainability is a major issue also, particularly concerning apartment dwellings. Issues have arisen concerning how property management companies and the maintenance of apartment blocks can be dealt with. That is all part of the planning process and given the phenomenal growth we are experiencing, these issues must be taken into consideration and tackled at an early stage.

We have all had experience of trying to arrange meetings with planners where staffing and technology must be examined. While there are problem areas in the current planning system, the fact that such matters are being tackled is to be welcomed. This is particularly so when it comes to discussing infrastructure. In the north inner city, thousands of apartments have been constructed in recent times, placing major pressures on infrastructure. The problem is not limited to the inner city, however, because it also affects the suburbs.

One-off housing is not solely a rural issue either since it is now occurring in front, rear and side gardens in the city. This is putting pressure on infrastructure, including roads which are carrying an increasing volume of traffic both to and from Dublin. Proper strategic planning should form a strong part of any new developments.

The sustainability of some apartment blocks in Dublin must be questioned. Neighbours may not see each other from one end of the year to the other because they are coming and going day and night. They may never meet each other.

Traffic is a major issue in areas just outside the city centre, such as the East Wall and Cabra where there has been a big increase in volumes. There are plans for major developments, including apartments and housing, in these areas. Around the Phoenix Park and out to west Dublin, there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of housing units. Such development brings its own problems so the more strategically we plan for the future, the better.

Dublin City Council has been discussing housing density and there have always been flat complexes around the city centre, which have produced social problems over the years. The general consensus is that with proper urban planning, the development of duplex housing and own-door housing in the inner city, whereby everybody has their own entrance, we can still facilitate the required densities. The issue is currently under discussion as part of the planning process, including decisions that are made in the early stages of that process.

[1300]It is particularly difficult to meet with planners because their offices are understaffed and they have a problem obtaining properly qualified staff. A number of people are coming from other countries to work in the planning sector here. Unfortunately, however, if a planner does not know the area and is unaware of the wider context, some decisions may go astray. When that happens it can have catastrophic consequences not only for immediate neighbours but also for entire housing estates. Therefore, the more technological resources that are put into the planning process the better. A wide variety of technology is available in the planning sector, so we should be examining it with a view to investment.

Issues have also arisen over the enforcement of planning laws and regulations. A bad decision at an early point of the planning process, whether it concerns a small house extension or the development of a housing estate, can have major consequences later on. Enforcement is a big issue for local authorities whose responsibility it is. However, such authorities must be properly resourced and trained in this regard. They must also have access to proper legal advice. In my experience, when some cases reach court, local authorities are not in a position to enforce the existing laws and by-laws. Local authorities require more support in this regard. In some cases, the original problems that arose during the planning process may tend to disappear because the appeal process can take so long. The more resources we put into these areas, therefore, the better.

As regards the management of apartment complexes and estates, up until recent times local authorities automatically took charge of roads and other services relatively shortly after the completion of a housing estate. That was the case up until ten or 15 years ago but they now have an opt-out. The Minister has made it clear to local authorities around the country that he will insist on them fulfilling their obligations in taking charge of estates and services. The procurement of management services through management companies now forms part of the planning application process for apartment complexes. That system must be re-examined, however, because in some cases it is not working. There may be a different management company from one year to the next in some complexes, while others have no management company so residents take it upon themselves to establish one. That is the case in a number of apartment complexes around Dublin city. If that sector needs to be changed either by regulation or legislation, it should be done. It is only right to examine the matter now, given the amount of urban and rural development occurring. We must plan strategically for such development in future.

Recent changes introduced by the Department will help to bolster the existing planning process but certain areas need to examined. If the current volume of growth continues we must be prepared [1301]to invest in people and technological resources to sustain such growth. In that way, we can look forward to many more years of growth.

  Ms O’Meara: I wish to share my time with Senator Feighan.

  An Cathaoirleach: Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Mr. Roche: Something marvellous must have happened on St. Valentine’s Day.

  Mr. Feighan: It is a rainbow coalition.

  Ms O’Meara: It is great to see the Minister present for this important debate on a matter of concern to all Members. Dealing with planning has become very complex for the ordinary man or woman on the street. We are living in a time of unprecedented growth and development, which is no bad thing. However, when a person living on a road or estate suddenly notices in a newspaper a planning application for the field behind, or across the road, interfacing with the planning process becomes very complex. It is no longer a case of simply making an objection and proceeding.

I will give an example of a situation in which I am involved because it is near where I live. An initial application was made by developers. I queried it with the developers and discovered they had been alerted early on by the authorities that they would be asked for further information. However, the further information they are being asked for is in effect an entirely different application. That is fine for me to manage, given my knowledge of the process and my experience, but for the average person, trying to cope with the different levels of a major planning application is very difficult and quite intimidating. We need to find better ways to guide people through the process.

I understand that a local authority needs to communicate a decision in a particular way. It must be legally framed and is a particular kind of document, but many people who read it do not understand it, or elements of it. We need to work harder to ensure that the average person on the street who has any interface with the planning process understands everything that goes on, and that his or her concerns are heard.

The process has become much more complex. There is also too much going on between the planner and developer which the public will never know about. Pre-planning meetings, discussions and so on should be recorded and transparent. There is no reason that should not happen, nor should developers be concerned about it happening.

With regard to implementation and follow-up, when conditions are attached to a planning decision it is important that the resources are made available to local authorities — current [1302]resources are not sufficient — to ensure those conditions are upheld. From the public’s point of view, it is critical that conditions are attached to planning decisions. It often happens that a year or a year and a half later, a public representative gets a complaint from someone that something which was supposed to happen is not happening. It is important that the local authority has the resources to implement decisions. One is usually talking of the average citizen who does not have access to major resources or professional advice, but who knows what the decision was and does not know how to ensure it is implemented. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that local authorities have sufficient resources to see that planning conditions are adhered to.

Linked to that are resources with regard to taking in charge, to which Senator Brady referred. Taking an estate in charge is a major issue for communities. We are talking of quality of life, of communities in which people live. Such issues concern people daily, and cause people most anxiety and aggravation. We have a duty to support them as much as possible.

Rural planning is not urban planning. I am concerned that many of our planners are trained in urban planning but are not familiar with issues of rural Ireland such as the expansion of villages. Some current village developments are simply not appropriate. We have also had a great deal of discussion on one-off rural housing. I ask the Minister to consider that those who take up jobs in planning offices around the country do not necessarily have training in, consideration for, or sympathy with issues pertaining to rural planning — with agriculture, families, the structure of communities or how our communities manifest themselves. It is one of the biggest concerns of public representatives from rural areas that there is no sympathy in planning offices for issues relevant and specific to rural Ireland.

  Mr. Feighan: I thank Senator O’Meara for sharing time and I welcome the Minister to the House. I am concerned with the decision by An Bord Pleanála regarding the development adjacent to Lough Key forest park. As well as being a Senator from the area I am chairperson of the Lough Key forest park action group, and have been for seven years. We have seen the park decline. We have worked closely with Roscommon County Council and Coillte and now have an €8 million development on which the first sod will be turned next week by the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue. That is very welcome.

The Newfound Consortium approached the council with a good, eco-friendly development which would involve €150 million being poured into an area which needs tourism. The consortium has already proved itself in the Humber Valley in Newfoundland, in Canada. The Minister knows of this consortium. Its members met the Taoiseach, and possibly the Minister and his [1303]officials. The consortium had the backing of the vast, cross-party majority of people in County Roscommon. It went about its business in a professional, enthusiastic manner and consulted closely with local people. However, the consortium’s plan for a 100-bedroom hotel and 98 golf chalets was turned down by An Bord Pleanála. An observation or objection was made on behalf of the scientific section of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The nature of this objection was flawed. Everyone deserves due process and I ask the Minister to meet the consortium, listen to its fears and look at the nature of the objection made.

We will try to get the second planning permission on stream. Other issues have been alluded to by An Bord Pleanála, including concerns for the lesser horseshoe bat, and the Lough Key development plan. The crucial issue was the objection or observation made by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which scuppered the project.

  Ms Ormonde: This is an Adjournment matter.

  Mr. Feighan: I ask the Minister to meet the members of the consortium in the interests of fairness and ensuring a much needed development in north Roscommon. The Council of the West today expressed support for this development, which is needed in the area. This is a serious issue involving tourist infrastructure and we cannot turn our backs on these bona fide people.

  Ms Ormonde: I welcome the Minister to the House and will take this opportunity to speak rather than raise a matter on the Adjournment to air one’s problems.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Senator should speak to the motion.

  Ms Ormonde: I will.

  Mr. Feighan: It is a national issue.

  An Cathaoirleach: Senator Ormonde without interruption.

  Mr. Feighan: I am responding to criticism.

  Ms Ormonde: I am glad to have the opportunity to say my few words on this issue. I do not want to be interrupted. I did not interrupt the Senator.

  Mr. Feighan: The Senator interrupted me.

  Ms Ormonde: I allowed the Senator to speak.

  An Cathaoirleach: Senator Ormonde without interruption and I ask her to speak to the motion.

[1304]  Ms Ormonde: I welcome that the Minister is here to listen to what I will say. The area of planning is a very complex issue. As many other Senators have said, there is urban planning, rural planning, a national spatial strategy and the Building Control Bill 2005. It begs the question as to whether we can divide the issue into sections. One cannot talk about planning in a broad sense, which I am trying to do today.

We have experienced an economic boom over the past ten years and a significant escalation in planning applications. A statistic from last year indicated that over 86,000 planning applications were made. God knows what it will be in 2006 if it continues to increase. We also have a better-educated population and a better environment. I welcome the current draft guidelines for consultation, a part of which is the attempt to upgrade a quality service in terms of a better interaction between the applicant and the planning authority in the context of processing the application, consultation, filling out forms and talking generally about the impact of the intended house or larger project on an area.

In his regulations and planning guidelines, the Minister indicated that we must streamline the process and have staff to facilitate it. They must be courteous, open and transparent in their interaction with applicants. Other Senators stated that many members of the public do not understand what the development plan means. The Minister spoke about providing it on-line and making applications via electronic means. Having said this, we must get the message out about the development plan and how it works so people will have an interest in it if their own areas are affected.

Development charges were referred to. There seems to be some inconsistency among local authorities concerning development charges on applications, whether they are for one-off houses or a development of 300 houses. I do not understand how the system works and the applicants do not understand how these charges are arrived at. I would welcome further discussion on this matter.

The Minister referred to performance indicators but I find it hard to understand what this means regarding facilitating and processing difficulties in the context of better interaction with officials behind counters. I am concerned that with all of the applications being received, we have the number of staff to deal with them. That is the problem. I have experience in this area in that well-qualified planners come here from other countries but cannot get onto planning courses for whatever reason. They are postgraduate students and qualified in their primary degrees with a subject matter related to planning but when they apply for postgraduate courses, they are turned down. I do not understand why. The Minister has heard me say this previously. It would be no harm were he to have a discussion with the powers that be in universities running these courses to produce a greater number of [1305]qualified people to deal with the backlog of applications.

I welcome the streamlining in the area of An Bord Pleanála but there is still some inconsistency in how it arrives at its decisions. I have raised this matter time and again in that I question the composition of An Bord Pleanála. If a member of its staff has the duty of visiting a site and returns with a positive presentation to proceed with the application, I cannot understand why the board would overrule him or her. Why would one send the official out if one is not prepared to abide by his or her opinion? What is his or her role? The reverse can happen, in that planning permission could be granted by a local authority, an official from An Bord Pleanála would gainsay the permission but the board would go with the local authority’s opinion.

I do not know how the system works. There is no transparency in how the board arrives at its decisions. The area is complex and there is a feeling among the public that we are not getting value for money. People must pay a lot of money when they appeal to An Bord Pleanála. This issue must be discussed.

I welcome the decision on one-off housing. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s one was faced with blanket darkness when one moved out of Dublin or any of the major cities. One would arrive into a town at 7 p.m. on a winter evening but would not see a light. Over the past ten years, we have suddenly seen the blossoming of sparkling lights in small towns and villages. This is welcome as communities have come alive. There are people there. People are going back to their roots and why not? I am not asking for Southfork-style housing designs. I am asking for local authorities to grant——

  Mr. Norris: The Senator will get them anyway.

  Ms Ormonde: I will not.

  Mr. Norris: They are all over the country.

  An Cathaoirleach: Senators should speak through the Chair. Senator Ormonde without interruption. Senator Norris will have an opportunity to speak later.

  Ms Ormonde: I would like local authorities to grant permission for designs that accommodate and complement an area, not dominate it. We are not into the latter, as the Senator knows better than I. Having said that, it is a golden opportunity to allow the countryside to develop and have vibrant communities up and running again. I welcome that the Minister has taken this view on board.

The Minister must tidy up the area of charges but I do not know how he will get that right. He is trying to do so and is entering into discussions. The Minister should say that for any large application for 300 or 400 houses in an area, if the [1306]snag list is not addressed within six months of the estate’s completion, the financial charge on the developer should be increased. If the developer does not address the situation, the Minister has enough resources and personnel for the estate to be finished by the local authority. We are well aware that this issue has not been tidied up.

I also wish to refer to stakeholders in the national spatial strategy and how they work. I am referring to, for example, sections within local authorities such as those dealing with roads and planning. It is often the case that the planning section is in favour of the granting of permission but the roads section is against, as the building in question might be too near a corner. We have not got this matter right either. We have come a long way but there should be more transparency and openness. Planning applications should be streamlined so that people feel comfortable presenting at the planning office and interacting with the staff, who should understand and empathise with the applicant, particularly in the case of one-off housing. People are often apprehensive and they approach their local representative to assist them in filling out the application form and to support them through the process. People are concerned they will be associated with the bad press that exists in regard to this matter if they submit an application for one-off housing or 300 houses. We must build goodwill between planners, the public and the applicant.

Much good work has been done. The draft guidelines have been published and the Minister has undertaken the consultation process. Perhaps he will take on board the points made today.

I never know the difference between the guidelines and the regulations. I thought these were all the same but they are not. There is too much confusion between planning laws, regulations, guidelines and by-laws and these should be tidied up.

  Mr. Norris: I welcome the Minister to the House and will make some statements with which he will not agree, but he is a lively debater.

  Mr. Roche: I would be disappointed if it were otherwise.

  Mr. Norris: Perhaps we can reach some accommodation. I agreed with much of what Senator Ormonde said about the lack of accountability, openness and transparency in planning. I do not need to rub people’s faces in it but Members of both Houses are under a serious cloud because of the appalling corruption prevalent throughout local authorities in this land. That is an outrageous situation and one which abides. Planning is a very murky area, with nasty little things in the undergrowth. Sometimes there is a lack of transparency and accountability, at times it is more sinister and on other occasions it is just folly.

[1307]This Minister has been critical, sometimes in a disingenuous way, of An Taisce, a statutory body with particular functions. For political reasons there is an attempt to erode this body, which has operated responsibly, particularly with regard to the principles enunciated in the national spatial strategy. Politicians are great at enunciating great principles but the proof of the pudding is if they live up to them.

In some areas the national spatial strategy seems to have been almost entirely abandoned. One instance is a case raised by Senator Ormonde concerning one-off housing in the countryside. Senior planning authorities have warned that housing development is spreading throughout the greater Dublin area to an extent not envisaged by the spatial planning guidelines, accompanied by an increase in long distance commuting. The spread of housing development has made the provision of attractive public transport difficult. The consequent travel mode decisions lead to a car-based commuting pattern and increasing congestion.

By the very measure Senator Ormonde is praising we are defeating the main elements of the national spatial strategy. In this situation it is very difficult to plan for a coherent transport system. The overriding provision for sustainable land and transport planning in section 1.5 of the national spatial strategy states that “Ireland needs to renew, consolidate and develop its existing cities, towns and villages i.e. keeping them as physically compact and public transport friendly as possible and minimising urban sprawl”. This will not happen because of the relaxation of these guidelines.

Section 6.1.2 of the National Spatial Strategy 2002 states that objectives for:

...integrated spatial planning frameworks, including land-use and transportation elements, will be prepared and adopted by the local authorities or combinations of authorities responsible for the development of new gateways and hubs. Integrated spatial planning frameworks for existing gateways that are in the course of preparation will be completed and adopted.

Concerning transport, section 3.7.1 states “Ireland’s transport networks must ... ensure through building up the capacity and effectiveness of Ireland’s public transport networks, that increases in energy demand and emissions of CO 2 arising from the demand for movement are minimised”. These objectives have not been met because of the issues Senator Ormonde helpfully raised.

People with a house outside a village seek traffic lights for one house. They are at risk but why did they build there? Half the time the lights, about which Senator Ormonde was so lyrical, are turned off because many of these houses are holiday homes that blister the west coast of Ireland, making it much less attractive from the [1308]point of view of tourism. People squawk when they are expected to pay for services where they are two miles from a settlement. They expect the taxpayer to pay for electricity and sewerage. I understand there is local pressure but let us be realistic. People who are effectively elected by county councillors form a strong lobby so let us be honest and declare our interest in these matters.

I have a series of concerns and I wish to illustrate two more, towards which the Minister will be sympathetic on one count. I hope to persuade him to be open-minded on the second. The first is the notorious failure of planning in Dublin but my second example relates to rural Ireland, to demonstrate that I am not too Dublin-centred. The Minister is aware of a dangerous situation in Gardiner Street, where a man posing as an architect designed a remodelling of two or three listed 18th century buildings. He built dormitory style accommodation for immigrants, which was absolutely illegal. He applied for retention and was being prosecuted by the local authority on the same day as it granted him planning permission to build an extension of this noxious development in the back yard. How coherent, transparent or accountable was that decision?

  Mr. Roche: I have good news for Senator Norris on both counts.

  Mr. Norris: Goodness, Minister, I always knew you were a man of extraordinary intelligence but I did not realise this extended to extrasensory perception.

  An Cathaoirleach: Senator Norris should address the Minister through the Chair.

  Mr. Norris: The Cathaoirleach will be as delighted as I am to realise the Minister has the gift of prophesy because I had not mentioned the second case. If the Minister thinks it is the Standish Sawmills case, I will be very pleased if he provides good news on this. He and the Government have prevaricated on this matter on the numerous occasions I attempted to raise it in this House. I was told there was no ministerial responsibility and when I demonstrated that there was, the matter had become sub judice. The court lacks the capacity to enforce injunctions in this situation.

How can anyone respect the planning process when the ridiculous case of the Gardiner Street development exists, and is multiplied by ten in the case of Standish Sawmills? An excerpt from an article in The Irish Times of 26 May 2005 reads:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has decided to grant a new pollution control licence to T&J Standish Sawmills in Co. Offaly. The EPA said, however, that it would go ahead with a prosecution against the sawmills in Roscrea District Court this morning for [1309]breaches of the company’s current integrated pollution control licence.

5 o’clock

These are continuing polluters, cocking a snook at the Minister and the planning authorities. This development was established without planning permission, farm animals have died, the water table has been affected, wells have been polluted and it is a gross visual intrusion on the outskirts of a national monument, Leap Castle.

Among the chemicals leached from this plant are varieties of chromium, the very thing featured in the Hollywood film——

  An Cathaoirleach: I must interrupt the Senator. It is now 5 p.m. and in accordance with the Order of Business I ask the Senator to report progress.

  Mr. Norris: That is an extremely traumatic interruption.

  An Cathaoirleach: Senator Norris will have two minutes when this matter is resumed.

  Mr. Roche: We will reflect in the meantime.

  Mr. Norris: I thank the Cathaoirleach. May I state to the Minister in departing that it lies within his power to appoint an independent commissioner. He replied that it would require extraordinary circumstances. The circumstances in Standish Sawmills could not possible be more extraordinary.

  An Cathaoirleach: I ask the Senator to report progress.

  Mr. Norris: I apologise. I was enjoying the Cathaoirleach’s concert on the cow bell.