16 March 2000 Edition
Flawed planning laws will shape future
Bill cannot solve housing crisis
The Planning and Development Bill is currently going through Leinster House. In this article based on his Dáil speech on 7 March, Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin argues that the Bill is flawed and cannot solve the housing crisis.
The Planning and Development Bill 1999 will be seen in time to come as one of the most important pieces of legislation dealt with by the current Dáil. It has major long-term implications for the future of the country and it will have a direct impact on the shape of the society, the environment and the economy in which we live for decades ahead.
The avowed purpose of the Bill is to revise, extend and consolidate existing planning legislation and to provide for proper planning and sustainable development of all areas. Reform of existing legislation is very necessary. Even more necessary is a progressive vision for the planned development of our country and the translation of that vision into sound policies and effective and enforceable legislation.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the built fabric of our cities and some of our towns was torn asunder, removing forever not only irreplaceable aspects of our heritage but also the potential to develop in a more harmonious and sustainable way. At the same time, unbridled urban sprawl ate up the rural hinterlands of the large towns and cities.
Damaging development has been facilitated by the always cosy and often corrupt relationship between developers and the dominant political parties in this State, to whom they have been such generous contributors. North County Dublin is only the most notorious example of how this relationship has worked.
Anyone who has had a close-up view of local government, as I have for the past 15 years, can testify to the persistence of the nod-and-wink backstairs culture which allows favoured friends of some of those in high office and some of those with elected power in local authorities to undermine, evade and sometimes even openly flout the planning laws. The hidden hand of patronage has worked behind the scenes. This is still going on and it will require not only vigorous enforcement of this Bill when enacted but a change in the dominant party political culture in this State for it to be eliminated.
The Bill maintains the current concept of planning as a means whereby the State and local authorities act principally to curb the excesses of market-driven development, instead of being pro-active planners. Such a pro-active approach would entail integrated planning, which takes into account where people live and work, where they are educated, how they travel to and from work and school, their need for recreational outlets and the freedom to enjoy both our urban and rural environment.
The kind of thinking that sees objectors to planning permissions as nuisances and causes of delay has crept into this Bill. But democratic participation should be encouraged. A development, once approved and constructed, can last a lifetime or several lifetimes with irreversible consequences; compared to that the time taken to process the current planning procedures is relatively brief.
As a result of flawed thinking, the Bill contains three measures which will restrict democratic participation in the planning process, rather than enhance it. These measures are the imposition of a fee to make a submission on a planning application; the requirement to have made a submission at the initial planning stage in order to appeal to An Bord Pleanála; and the further new condition whereby a person will have to prove what is termed a ``substantial interest'' in the matter in order to seek judicial review of a planning decision.
These measures should be strongly opposed. The fee will achieve nothing except to act as a deterrent to people participating in the planning process. We have no guarantee that it will remain at the level of around £20 which the Minister suggests. I have spoken to people involved in the planning area in local authorities and they believe this fee will actually slow up the planning process as it will add further administrative costs and further bureaucracy to an already overburdened system. The same planners have told me that submissions from local people on planning applications highlight issues of which the planning authority may not be aware and that the task of dealing with objections or submissions is not considered onerous.
The requirement on people to have made a previous submission in order to appeal to An Bord Pleanála is a very bad provision in this Bill. It is very often the case that concerned individuals or groups do not become aware of proposed developments until after permission has been granted.These are now to be excluded from the process and denied their rights by this provision.
The third impediment to public participation in the planning process is the restriction of the right to seek judicial review to those with a ``substantial interest''. This has the potential to bar access to the courts.
The courts may well interpret ``substantial interest'' as property and/or commercial interest and thus penalise those who take a case on purely environmental grounds.
Such measures are supposedly included to streamline the planning process. But restricting public access to the planning process is not the way to make the planning system more efficient and less subject to unnecessary delays. What is needed is increased resourcing of local authorities with the employment of more expert and qualified staff. This Bill when enacted will make that need more acute. Local authorities will be required to be more vigilant and pro-active in enforcing planning regulations and ensuring that breaches of them are punished. The reality is that at present local authorities do not have the resources to provide efficient and effective enforcement. Unless they are provided with those resources, the enforcement provisions in the Bill will remain a dead letter.
Nowhere is this government's flawed approach to social and economic planning seen better than in the Housing section of the Bill. This is by far the most loudly trumpetted and best known section of the Bill. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Noel Dempsey, asks us to place great faith in the capacity of these measures to solve the housing crisis. In the absence of a comprehensive strategy and radical action to address the housing crisis, the government has advanced Part V of the Bill as the great panacea.It is included in the Bill as a belated response to the biggest social problem facing tens of thousands of people in the 26 Counties.
Part V of the Bill includes detailed and complex measures supposedly designed to make land available for what is called social and affordable housing. In fact, the Bill represents a move away from the idea of social housing in its broadest sense. This is a definite shift from the direct provision of housing by the State and local authorities. Local authorities under this Bill are required to draft housing strategies for their areas; but the government itself lacks any clear or coherent housing strategy.