The Minister for the Environment has made much of his reforming measures of Planning Legislation. I believe he is taking the wrong route with his 2009 Act.
It is often said that if the Dutch lived in Ireland they would feed the world, while if the Irish lived in the Netherlands they would drown. Anybody who visits the Netherlands cannot but be impressed by the manner in which the country is planned and developed. There is a strong sense of the common good in the way resources are dealt with and the country is developed. Here in Ireland we have made many mistakes, largely because of the historical abundance of our natural resources but, more importantly, because of an inability to say no. We have an inability to say something is inappropriate from a development point of view. The core principle in this legislation, as presented by the Minister, Deputy John Gormley, is one of centralisation of powers; in essence the transfer of power in determining appropriate planning to his office, the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
The cornerstone of how this legislation is to be used in future, as outlined when the Minister presented the Bill early last December, would seem to be that of the national spatial strategy along with regional planning guidelines. It is the Minister’s wish that local area plans, along with county development plans, should feed into those plans and strategies determined at a higher level. In section 5 of this Bill there is mention of evidence-based core strategies. Last December, the Minister stated: “A key element of the zoning reform is the introduction in section 5 of a requirement for an evidence-based core strategy in development plans, which will provide relevant information as to how the plan and the housing strategy are consistent with regional planning guidelines and the national spatial strategy.” These are worthy sentiments and in fairness to the Minister, Deputy Gormley, and the Green Party, they have been consistent on this issue over the years.
The Minister acknowledged the work done by local councillors on planning heretofore but one gets the sense with this legislation that the Minister’s true feelings for the county councillor are more along the lines of the “damning indictment” he spoke of. Having been a member of Clare County Council for eight years, this is of interest to me. It is quite easy to create the caricature of the buffoon councillor rezoning all before him or her. The reality of how our local public representatives carry out their duties in planning is often different.
One of the last projects relating to planning which I worked upon as a councillor in Clare was the Clarecastle rejuvenation plan. I take this opportunity to raise this very important matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Alexandra White, and the Minister, Deputy Gormley. Prior to the opening of the Ennis bypass, 25,000 vehicles a day passed through the village of Clarecastle. The decades of heavy traffic have taken its toll on the streetscape of my native village but the re-routing of traffic presents the village of Clarecastle with an opportunity to be rejuvenated. The Ennis bypass presents Clarecastle with an opportunity to finally take in a breath of fresh air after decades of being under attack from car, truck and bus.
As a councillor representing the Clarecastle area, I requested by means of a notice of motion that such a plan be drawn up. My request was granted and the county architect, Ms Ruth Hurley, together with the planning and road design teams of Clare County Council, produced the Clarecastle rejuvenation plan. This action plan for the village of Clarecastle provides a comprehensive assessment of the areas that need attention. Features include a redevelopment of the main street to include a new streetscape incorporating new lighting and paving, an upgrading of the various approach roads to the village, major improvement of the roads and footpaths and better use of public open space.
I have had meetings and various communications with different officials in Clare County Council relating to this vital plan. I have put down parliamentary questions to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, and the former Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív. I should mention Councillor Paul Murphy, who was co-opted to my seat on Clare County Council when I was elected to this Chamber and who was re-elected last June, as he is also pursuing this issue.
The Clarecastle rejuvenation plan has been incorporated within the Ennis and environs development plan. The community needs and demands implementation of the plan’s recommendations. On behalf of the people of Clarecastle, I ask that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government engage with Clare County Council to make this plan a reality as a matter of urgency. The Minister of State might relay this issue to the Minister and ask him to provide an update on the support he will give to the plan.
The Clarecastle rejuvenation plan is a good example of proper planning and how an area should be developed. However, there have been many cases of inappropriate zoning throughout the country over the past number of years. The chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Seán Fleming, might have got to the nub of this in his contribution when he spoke of “whose land this is” rather than “is the land suitable?”. He hit the nail on the head as the first question considered should be whether the zoning is appropriate.
The recent severe flooding that took place in my constituency of Clare and in particular the unprecedented flooding that was witnessed in Ennis should serve as a major wake-up call to the Government. Flood waters caused extensive damage to homes and businesses and some flood victims still have to move back into their homes. The risk of severe flooding recurring in Ennis must be addressed. We need a radical approach to flood relief and a flood prevention officer should be appointed in every county and given responsibility for a current and capital budget. That flood prevention officer should oversee a maintenance programme for rivers, drains and watercourses. The officer should report directly to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who must be identified as having ultimate responsibility for flood prevention.
All the indications are that the issue of flooding is only going to increase in importance in the decades ahead and we now have the problem of poor planning decisions over the past decade adding to the problem. It seems obvious that flood risk areas have not been protected. Natural flood plains throughout Ennis have been destroyed. For example, there is an area just outside Ennis in Skehanagh where land was zoned within the remit of the Ennis and environs development plan. It was deemed suitable for industrial and commercial development and land was sold there for €18 million. During the flooding the land was under six feet of water, meaning it was completely inappropriate for the land to be identified and zoned as such.
The backbone of the Ennis and environs development plan was put together by Colin Buchanan and Partners consultants on behalf of Clare County Council. It was outrageous for such consultants to identify those lands, which are liable to flooding and which were under six feet of water during the recent flooding.
It was 2003. What went on in that instance was outrageous. Such land should never be built on and there should be protection to ensure this is so. It is obvious that flood-risk areas have not been protected and it is critical that the Ennis flood relief scheme be amended in order to address the major flooding problems which surfaced in areas of Ennis that had never flooded before.
The River Fergus drains half of County Clare. The sheer volume of water which travels through Ennis town cannot be contained in the narrow river channel. Consideration must, therefore, be given to the development of major attenuation ponds outside the town. Such man-made ponds would help control the flow of water through Ennis and prevent flooding. They could be used for aqua sports during the summer months or as reservoirs when water supplies are low.
I thank the Oireachtas Library & Research Service for providing the excellent debate pack relating to the Bill. However, there is one glaring omission from the Bill, namely, one further level from where much inappropriate planning emanates and one institution that, from time to time, does a great deal of damage to proper planning. I cannot find any references in the legislation to the actions of the Cabinet in respect of good, appropriate and sustainable development.
I refer to the Cabinet for a number of reasons. The national spatial strategy, which the Minister appears to regard as fundamentally important to his principles of good and sustainable planning, represents a missed opportunity. It is a document that is hopelessly diluted. In addition, it failed miserably in the context of the first test with which it was presented. The decentralisation plan, as presented by the Government, through the Minister for Finance in one of his budgets, took absolutely no account of the national spatial strategy which emerged just before it.
Another example of Government or Cabinet interference in the planning process relates to tax incentive-based development in respect of housing associated with tourism. For example, many houses were built in areas along the River Shannon, Ireland’s largest waterway, at a time when there was little expressed need for this type of development. Many of these houses are rarely occupied and their construction has effectively prevented the construction of more sustainable homes because the capacity for services such as sewerage and water has been reached. Those who live in Killaloe, County Clare, cannot obtain planning permission or tap into the existing sewerage system because there is no further capacity to be had. Many towns and villages along the Shannon have effectively been sterilised as a result of the actions of the Cabinet or the Government in general.
It will be interesting to discover whether the Minister will be able to deal with the problem of Cabinet interference for reasons of political expediency. He previously asserted that planning decisions at local level cannot fly in the face of wider regional and national interests, particularly those agreed and endorsed by the Government. What happens in that regard should be carefully monitored in the run-up to the next general election.
The thrust of the legislation, and its preoccupation with centralisation, is worrying. The centralised model of government it puts forward does not work. Our most recent administrative experiment with the transfer of responsibilities from the old regional health boards to the centralised HSE has not worked. Most of the remainder of the world abandoned politburo-style centralisation with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. However, we in Ireland tend to positively embrace the concept and occasionally polish it up – with a bit of PR spin – for reuse.
If the Minister really wants proper planning and development, then local people and those in leadership positions in their own communities – I do not necessarily refer to elected representatives in this regard – must be given a meaningful role. These people have a better knowledge than anyone else with regard to how their areas might be developed in the future. However, the Minister and the Government seem to have an absolute fear of allowing something of this nature to happen.
The legislation is seriously misguided in its obsession with centralisation and the vesting of powers in the individual. The fact that the Minister described these guidelines as a combination of both a top-down and a bottom-up approach shows just how ill-conceived and contradictory the legislation actually is.