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Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016: From the Seanad (Continued)

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 971 No. 3

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  10 o’clock

Deputy Pat Casey: Information on Pat Casey Zoom on Pat Casey I agree with some of the other speakers that the number of amendments tabled in the Seanad is disappointing. The amendments have nothing to do with the office of the planning regulator. We seem to be using this Bill to sort out many other planning issues.

Regarding the amendments we are speaking to, I too have been through several county development plans and have been at the butt end of ministerial direction, whether in respect of policy or the zoning of land. Will the Minister of State clarify for Members the additional powers these amendments, if accepted, will give the Minister?

Deputy Damien English: Information on Damien English Zoom on Damien English I think the answer to Deputy Casey's question might solve all the questions. The Minister is getting fewer powers because the Bill is giving the power to the regulator, who is independent of Government, politics or a crazy Minister who may be in this position in the future. The regulator will make suggestions to the Minister. The Minister will have the final say but that will be on foot of the work of the office of the regulator.

In terms of what they may be asked to intervene in regarding this situation, it may be on the national policy planning guidelines that we implement, one of which is on wind energy. We are always asked for guidelines on solar farms. There are none because we do not believe they are needed. If they are needed to make applications, we can do that. Planning authorities today recommend or refuse applications for solar farms through the planning system. If guidelines are required in the future and we implement national guidelines-----

(Interruptions).

Deputy Damien English: Information on Damien English Zoom on Damien English I am sorry. The Deputy asked for an example. If, in the future, we set national guidelines on solar farms and a local development plan does not respect the national guidelines, the regulator will step in and suggest they should be respected, that the local development plan should be changed and recommend a direction by the Minister. Today, that direction is carried out by the Minister and very often our Department. On a weekly basis we analyse local area plans and any changes made and sometimes we have to point out that they do not follow national planning guidelines and may have to intervene with a direction. That is decided by our Department and formally sent by me as a Minister of State. Under the changes proposed in this Bill, the regulator will do that work. The final sign-off with a direction is done by the Minister but the process would be started by the office of the regulator, which is independent of politics.

Some Deputies do not want the Minister to have that final say while others on this side of the House want him or her to have the final say. I believe we are getting the best of both worlds in that we will have an independent regulator who will make a recommendation. The Minister has to follow that. If the Minister of the day does not follow that, he or she has to come into this House and explain the reason he or she is not following that direction. It is a very transparent policy. The spirit of the Mahon tribunal is for transparency in planning laws. That is what this Bill is about and what we are trying to achieve. It is not to give a future Minister excessive or mad powers. It recognises that sometimes the regulator might suggest a change that the Minister does not like, so we are achieving a balance in that the final say will be democratic because it is done through this House but the regulator will be doing all the work and making all the recommendations. The wording used in the past was to take sufficient account of a national planning guideline, not implement it. That is a grey area. We are saying that national planning guidelines are there to be implemented and not just noted, which is not often satisfactory.

Deputy Eoin Ó Broin: Information on Eoin Ó Broin Zoom on Eoin Ó Broin The Minister of State says this Bill is removing power from the Minister. There is not a single power removed from the Minister in the Bill or in any of the amendments. In fact, both the Bill, as we have discussed at length on Committee and Report Stages, and these amendments give additional powers to the Minister.

It is not that it is our view as Opposition Deputies that we do not want the Minister to take the decision. The Mahon tribunal recommendation explicitly stated it was concerned about an overconcentration of planning powers in the hands of the Minister and strongly recommended transferring a range of those powers to an independent regulator. It is Mahon that wanted that. There is nothing close to the spirit of Mahon in this Bill. We do not get the best of both worlds. We either leave the power with the Minister or increase the power of the Minister or give it to the independent regulator. It is not accurate to say that either powers are being taken away from the Minister and we get the best of both worlds. It is a betrayal of Mahon.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath In terms of what the Minister of State is saying, I alluded earlier to the different powers of Ministers and regulators. We have so many regulators for everything now, we can hardly count them and their staff or civil servants, as the Minister of State said. Most of them are not doing their job. If we take the regulator, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and the whole lot of them, they are not doing their job. They either do not have the proper legislation, are unwilling or whatever.

The Minister of State said the Minister is not taking any more powers and that it will be given to the regulator. I get a whiff of the HSE from that in that we are all so anxious to disband bodies that we cannot control, and now the Minister is giving the powers to this officeholder. I have nothing against a particular officeholder but if we table a parliamentary question on an issue to the Minister, will we be told it is a matter for the regulator?

Deputy Damien English: Information on Damien English Zoom on Damien English I will answer that.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath Let me finish. That is a serious issue. We have too many of these intermediary officers and yet nobody is accountable. When the councillors made the plan, it was one of the only functions they had. They made the plan eventually and often got stick over it. Some may have lost their seats over it but they made it in good faith. It was the accepted plan. When people come to see me in my clinic about a planning matter, I ask them where they live and always try to send them a copy of the guidelines in that area. That was the plan. It will be a case now of shifting sands. The plan will be able to be overridden by the regulator and the Minister of State seems to be suggesting that the Minister will have some engagement as well. We are making the process too cumbersome and are interfering with a sacrosanct document, which is the county development plan approved by the members after lengthy discussion and input from them. I am not happy with this.

Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy One would expect the word "independent" to mean totally independent but who is the decision-maker here? The way this is structured, the decision-maker is the Minister. We cannot say it is independent in the way it was intended. That is a serious problem.

Amendment No. 40 states that local area plans should be "consistent with". That is the correct terminology. The terminology used previously was "having regard to" but that was successfully challenged in the courts. "Consistent with" is the correct approach. It deals with the objectives of the development plan and the national regional planning objectives.

We then have other legislation to the effect that if a development is more than 100 houses, it bypasses the council and goes straight to An Bord Pleanála, and An Bord Pleanála can ignore the local area plan provided the land is zoned for residential development. That is the critical issue. Everything set down in the plan relating to consistency, linkages with services, schools and all sorts of issues that are tested in a local area plan go out the window because An Bord Pleanála does not have to take the local area plan on board. That is a glaring gap in terms of what we are attempting to achieve by making a range of different issues such as national and regional planning objectives "consistent with" as stated in the amendment. It does not matter when it comes to large-scale developments.

Deputy Danny Healy-Rae: Information on Danny Healy-Rae Zoom on Danny Healy-Rae I am becoming more concerned as the debate goes on. As Deputy Mattie McGrath said, we will be fobbed off when it comes to the Minister and the regulator. The Minister must ask the regulator and the regulator must ask the Minister. I am very concerned about that.

Regarding An Bord Pleanála dealing with developments of more than 100 houses, I am open to correction on this but my understanding is that the land does not have to be zoned. We will have to call a vote on this because it is too serious an issue and I can see what will happen down the line.


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