Dáil Éireann - Volume 401 - 05 July, 1990

Adjournment Debate. - Dublin Corporation Staff Industrial Action.

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Quinn gave me notice of his intention to raise on the Adjournment the damage to employment prospects in the building industry as a result of a work-to-rule in the planning department of Dublin Corporation due to the failure of the Minister for the Environment to provide adequate staff.

Mr. Quinn: Thank you for allowing me to raise this important matter. Since Monday of this week officials in the planning department of Dublin Corporation have commenced a work-to-rule which has resulted in their refusal to work on any environmental assessment study that comes into the planning department, nor will they work on files which were previously dealt with by colleagues who are now on holidays. Indeed, other flexible measures have been terminated as they revert to a strict work-to-rule.

A meeting tomorrow will consider the response from management and, if it is [612] not sympathetic, it is likely that the work-to-rule will be escalated. The reason for this untypical action by planning officials is the deterioration in working conditions and the morale of personnel in the planning department. There has been a return to the level of planning applications which pertained three or five years ago, but now the back-up staff available to deal with those applications are far fewer in number than they should be. There have also been changes in the way in which planners have to carry out their work. With the introduction of planning fees in the early eighties, for which I was partly responsible, many prospective developers require their architectural consultants to enter into pre-planning discussions with planning officers prior to the submission of an application. This, in effect, intensifies the workload of planners prior to the evaluation of an application.

New legislation has increased the workload in a number of areas. There should be 40 professional planners in the planning department of Dublin Corporation but at present there are only 31 permanent persons employed, according to the information I received from Dublin Corporation. Many senior personnel opted for the voluntary redundancy scheme introduced by the previous minority Fianna Fáil Government and their positions within the ranks of the professional planners have not been filled. A number of temporary junior planning staff have been taken on recently, but the level of their experience and responsibility does not fill the needs of the planning department.

Until recently there had been a major shortage of staff on the administrative side of the planning department resulting, for example, in the fact that it takes six to six and a half weeks for a planning application file to effectively land on the desk of the planning officer who would make the evaluation. The real time, out of the eight weeks required within which, normally speaking, the planning department must make a decision, has shrunk to less than ten days in some cases. I know from my direct experience that the [613] tensions and pressures on the staff have been intense in recent times. There have been delays and, as the records will show, there have been frequent requests for an extension of time. I could elaborate on the nature of the problem involved but I want to confine my remarks to what I am asking the Minister for the Environment to do.

I want the Minister to recognise that, particularly in the planning department of Dublin Corporation, there has been a massive collapse of morale, occasioned in part by pressures of work and unsatisfactory working conditions and because of poor promotional prospects in relation to some posts which have remained unfilled because of the rigidity occasioned by the interpretation of the embargo by the Department of the Environment and, more particularly, by the Department of Finance.

The most important reason for the collapse of morale is because of the cloud of suspicion which still hangs over the planning department and which has not been removed by the Garda inquiry which seems to be in limbo. As you know, Sir, I have attempted to raise that matter in an orderly manner in this House but I have been frustrated on numerous occasions, not by any malevolence on your part, but simply by the law of the land. It is the responsibility of either the Minister for Justice or the Minister for the Environment to bring the situation to finality. The Minister for the Environment may shake his head, but he invited the Garda in and I now suggest that he terminates their inquiry as quickly as possible because their continued presence and the continuation of that inquiry is in part — I do not want to over-emphasise the point — contributing to a deterioration in morale.

What is the impact of the work-to-rule on the rest of Dublin city? There has been a very welcome upturn in construction activity in Dublin city. Everybody in the industry welcomed it and it would be churlish not to. However, the delays caused within the industry are not selfimposed; they have been caused by the Government by virtue of their failure to recognise that if you improve the general economic condition you must keep pace [614] with it. Of course, the increase in interest rates has caused problems; but there has been an extension of the designated urban areas and the reintroduction of what is commonly known as the section 23 provision. This has increased the volume of activity in terms of applications to the planning department at precisely the time when the resources of that department were not up to the task involved. It has resulted in a logjam which is causing a crisis in the planning department in Dublin Corporation, where planners have taken this unprecedented action.

I will not advert to the problems that have been compounded by the chaos in relation to building by-laws and the complete failure of the Minister for the Environment to implement the Building Control Act. That is a matter for another occasion. I suggest to the Minister that he request the city manager, the relevant officials in his Department and in the Department of Finance — in so far as they have a role — to have a meeting as a matter of urgency with representatives of the staff involved and their union, the Local Government Public Services Union. If the Minister for the Environment wants to give effect to some of the other measures he has taken for stimulating the building industry, he must ensure that extra staff are made available for the planning department. In that regard, I should like to point out to him that the substantial planning fees which the industry now have to pay in many cases were designed in part to ensure that the cost of processing planning applications would have been met by the industry, but now the industry feel that they are partly subsidising certain aspects of central taxation which it was never designed to do in the first instance.

The Minister for the Environment should, as a matter of considerable urgency, open up direct lines of communication with the city manager and the assistant city manager who are responsible for administering the planning department and to remove other bottlenecks which, if taken together, slow down the process of planning evaluation and decision making and which, consequently, frustrate the measures the [615] Government have taken. The work-to-rule will imperil prospects in the building industry at present in Dublin city.

Minister for the Environment (Mr. Flynn): I thank Deputy Quinn for his generous remarks in relation to the upsurge in building activity and in the construction industry generally. It is good of him to recognise that, we are all pleased to see it and it is our intention to make sure that nothing impedes the progress for which we have been waiting so long and which is now coming to fruition.

It is not my function to provide staff for the corporation and Deputy Quinn knows that. The provision of staff is entirely a matter for the local authority themselves in the first instance and there are no proposals before my Department seeking sanction for the creation of additional planning posts. The manager also has complete discretion in relation to the allocation of staffing to the various programme areas of the corporation. It is entirely a matter for the manager to decide on the most effective manner to deploy staff, bearing in mind the needs and requirements of the various work programmes. The resolution of any difficulties which have arisen in any area is a matter between the corporation and the union representing the staff involved. The corporation now have discretion to fill posts within their overall staffing levels at 31 December 1989 and the designating of such posts is entirely a matter for the manager.

I fail to see that this work to rule will unduly damage the employment prospects in the building industry. It seems this motion is extreme in that it relates the difficulties in the planning department of Dublin Corporation to damaging employment prospects in the building industry, because this is not so.

I am glad the Deputy mentioned the building industry because it gives me the opportunity to tell the House of progress made in the industry in the past few years. Employment in the building industry is estimated to have increased from 70,000 in April 1989 to 74,000 in April this year. A further increase of 4,000 is forecast for [616] the 12-month period up to April of next year. Output in the industry is booming. We had an increase of about 8 per cent last year and we are forecasting a further increase of about 10 per cent this year. Of course this did not happen in a vacuum. It happened because the Government took specific action in 1987 to turn around the industry. Between 1981 and 1988 output volume had fallen by nearly 40 per cent. We have now reversed the situation. Output will increase by almost 20 per cent in the two-year period 1989 and 1990. In two years we will have recovered a large part of the losses incurred in the previous seven-year period. This is no mean achievement. It is one I am glad to put on the record of the House. For the Deputy's information, I understand there are 62 professional posts in the planning department.

The matter concerning morale which the Deputy mentioned is something he knows I cannot comment on at this time for the obvious reason that it is sub judice, but in accordance with his desires I would like the matter to be disposed of as quickly as possible. I am satisfied that work is carrying on in a normal and satisfactory way. Should there be any difficulties in the matter in the first instance — and in the last instance — it is for the corporation to deal with them. I believe it is not interfering with the level of activity in the industry at this time and it is hoped the union will be able to withdraw their work to rule letter which they issued in the recent past.