Wednesday, 31 May 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Cregan: I am glad to have the opportunity to make a brief contribution on this critical legislation. I warmly welcome that the Planning and Development Act is being amended to provide for the following. There is the introduction of a strategic consent process for strategic infrastructure of national importance provided by other statutory bodies and private promoters. There is also the restructuring of An Bord Pleanála to allow for the establishment of a strategic infrastructure division to handle all major infrastructure projects.
The types of infrastructure which can be processed include major environmental transport and energy-related projects. The decision as to whether a particular project is to be taken under a strategic consent process is a matter entirely, in each case, for An Bord Pleanála. Each application will be looked at individually.
I welcome the introduction of a one-step strategic consent procedure for certain types of major infrastructure. Responsibility for deciding on approvals of railway orders, including light rail and metros, will now be transferred from the Minister for Transport to An Bord Pleanála. A new division will be established within An Bord Pleanála to handle decisions on all major infrastructure projects. It will include major local authority projects and motorways, which are already the responsibility of An Bord Pleanála. Included in this also are strategic gas infrastructure consents, major electricity transmission lines and railway orders.
The types of infrastructure to be covered by the strategic consent process include environmental, energy and transport infrastructure. Persons or bodies, including State and semi-State organisations, seeking permission for those types of strategic infrastructure will apply first to An Bord Pleanála for a decision on whether the particular project is of strategic importance.
Where An Bord Pleanála decides the project is of strategic importance, an application with an environmental impact statement can be made directly to the board. The public, the local authority — including elected members — and interested stakeholders will be consulted and their views taken into account. Major changes to the way in which the board handles infrastructure consents include the possibility of pre-application discussions with the applicant and more flexibility in the decision which the board can make on the application. I particularly welcome this increased flexibility. The Bill gives power to the board to amend decisions on major infrastructure projects, subject to an assessment of major environmental impacts, and to require infrastructure providers to provide direct benefits to communities affected by major infrastructure projects. It also requires the board to have regard to the national interest and to the effect a decision may have on issues of strategic or economic importance to the State, as well as the national spatial strategy and any regional planning guidelines in force in an area.
It is important to acknowledge a number of the measures in the Bill to strengthen local democracy. It proposes expanding the existing role of An Bord Pleanála, which is already responsible for deciding on roads, motorways, water and local authority waste water proposals, on all of which it consults widely. It proposes extending the opportunities of local communities, residence groups, environmental groups and ordinary citizens to comment on applications, which is very welcome. I particularly welcome the facility for elected members to express their views to the board on applications made under the proposed strategic consent process. Currently none of the public representatives present has the opportunity to make known to An Bord Pleanála his or her views or those of the people he or she represents. We are not recognised and have no official part to play in the process so I welcome the additional role public representatives, at local and national level, will have. While we are involved in the planning process via our engagement with the local authorities that does not continue when An Bord Pleanála assumes responsibility for a project.
In our modern economy many new infrastructural requirements have a national dimension. To build on ongoing development the country must have an infrastructure consent procedure which recognises the national dimension but also takes into account local concerns. The Bill promotes an acceleration of the planning process for critical infrastructure but democracy should be respected and local concerns taken into account in pursuit of a balanced solution, which did not exist in the past.
Section 35 of the Planning Act is to be amended to make it easier for authorities to refuse consent without recourse to the High Court. Instead it will be for the applicant who has been refused permission to seek an order from the High Court that the local authority reconsider its initial decision. This has the effect of reversing the burden of proof. The developer will instead have to show that his or her past performance does not warrant the refusal of permission. It should make it easier for local authorities to tackle poor performance by rogue developers.
The Government has been concerned by delays caused by lengthy challenges to major projects. The President of the High Court will introduce new arrangements to improve procedures for such cases, including the designation of specific judges to manage the process. This will build on the precedent of the commercial court and should have a similar impact on improving case management. There have been many examples of inexplicable delays in critical pieces of infrastructure, in some cases for very trivial reasons.
I am a man of nature and we all recall the snail on the Kildare bypass. A constituent of mine was considering moving a roadside hedgerow to make a substandard road safer. A local authority planner — I meet many on a daily basis — told him he was to leave the hedgerow in place. I dispute that policy because people must come first and wildlife second. I hold that opinion very strongly and believe we should accommodate people. I am deviating from the subject but sometimes we show too much concern for wildlife at the expense of people, such as applicants for once-off housing.
The Bill will provide for a better service for all stakeholders, namely infrastructure providers, State bodies, and the general public. Public representatives are, for the first time, to be allowed to deal with the board in an official capacity. The board will, in some cases, be obliged to enter into consultation with public representatives.
It also proposes a single stage process for the approval of projects, a rigorous assessment of all projects, including environmental impacts, full public consultation and certainty of timeframes. All Members will have experience in their own constituencies of mobile telephone companies siting or proposing to site telecommunications masts in built-up residential areas, near schools, hospitals or houses. They are critical pieces of infrastructure and we all want a mobile telephone service in this age of technology but it is difficult to know why applicants do not enter into more consultation or exercise more care as to where they site their masts. They seem to just pick a spot, often belonging to vulnerable landowners. Before the owners know what has happened they are tied into a contract and all hell breaks loose in a parish. I have seen parishes divided on the issue. I compliment the efforts and the responsible manner in which my local authority, Limerick County Council, and the director of services and planning and his officials, have dealt with such applications in the past. On the one hand they have acknowledged the need for such critical infrastructure but on the other have heeded the concerns of people on the ground.
While I have no more evidence than anybody else that a mobile telephone mast can damage health, the jury is out. While the jury is out we must err on the side of caution. If we realise in ten or 15 years’ time that they can damage health it will be too late. I do not know if mobile telephone masts will be included as critical infrastructure but my preference is for them to be treated as they currently are, proceeding through local democratic channels and the local planning process, in which I have the utmost faith.
Mr. Carty: This Bill is long overdue and l welcome its introduction in the House. The Government has embarked on delivering a long list of infrastructural projects throughout the country and new legislation is needed to ensure that those projects are delivered as quickly and as efficiently as possible in order to continue with the economic development of our country in a sustainable manner.
Gaps in our critical infrastructure pose a real threat to Ireland’s growth in the future. The decentralisation programme currently being implemented by the Government is dependent on adequate infrastructure and services being made available. The House will be delighted to know that decentralisation to Knock airport in Mayo is going ahead and accommodation is currently provided in Claremorris.
It is important that foreign companies willing to invest especially in more rural areas have access to proper roads, railways, water and sewerage and electricity. Bottlenecks in the planning process have for too long delayed projects and, in the final analysis, contributed to the escalating cost of implementation.
l welcome the provision in the Bill for a single approval for electricity transmission lines. The lack of sufficient electricity supply has always been a problem in rural Ireland and without the availability of a three phase supply smaller industries suitable for towns and villages in counties Iike Mayo find it difficult to get off the ground. The development of other necessary infrastructural facilities such as water and sewerage, roads, railways and airports should not be delayed by poor planning procedure and this Bill provides the framework whereby all such projects will proceed through planning in an expeditious and transparent manner.
When delivering strategic infrastructure it is very important local people have the right to express their views and to have their grievances taken on board. I am pleased the Bill allows a role for local authority councillors to express their views on applications made under the proposed strategic consent process. This is a positive development for local democracy as it establishes for the first time a specific right and responsibility in law to allow the views of local authority members to be made known, recorded and sent to the strategic infrastructure division of An Bord Pleanála.
For far too long objectors to projects have appeared from nowhere at the last minute to file vexatious objections to planning permission for major projects. In some instances these objections are for no apparent reason other than to cause massive disruption and impose excessive costs on the promoters and, ultimately, the taxpayer. I welcome the fact that the Bill seeks to deal with the problem of people who have sought to subvert the planning process in pursuit of their own agendas. While no one should be denied the right to object or protest about such matters, the system must be balanced. Due regard should be given to these rights, but objections should be adjudicated upon speedily in order that the future of projects can be decided as quickly as possible.
The Bill will allow for a more focused approach to planning issues in respect of strategic infrastructure and provide a better service for all involved in the promotion of such projects. This will take place through a single stage process of approval for projects, a rigorous assessment of all projects against sustainability and environmental criteria, full public consultation, including a statutory right for councillors to be heard, as well as certainty in regard to timeframes and costs. The Bill strikes the correct balance between the individual’s rights and the broader public and national interest. I congratulate the Minister on bringing the legislation before the House.
Yesterday evening, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the opening of Knock Airport which has an annual passenger throughput of 650,000. As the Acting Chairman, Deputy Cowley, is well aware, if planning permission were sought for a new airport, the number of objections to ensue would be such as to prevent any such project from proceeding. Common sense must prevail with regard to the development of rural areas.
Mr. Timmins: I am pleased to speak on the Bill. I recall that during a previous contribution on Second Stage of an environmental Bill, I made repeated reference to my home county of Wicklow and Deputy Glennon later berated me for doing so. I make no apology for representing the views of the people of County Wicklow and part of County Carlow who elected me, and I will not hesitate to continue to fulfil that important role.
County Wicklow has had several high profile cases in which difficulties arose in progressing infrastructure projects. They include a delay of 12 or 13 years in constructing a sewerage plant in Arklow due to objections made by a small number of people. The result has been that raw sewage continues to be deposited in the sea. I do not propose to list the litany of procedures which have already been exhausted as they are too complicated for a mere mortal such as me to follow. I do not know the current position of the proposed plant because I and residents of the area have grown weary of tabling parliamentary questions on the issue, but raw sewerage continues to flow into the Irish Sea off the Arklow bank.
Deputies will also recall the furore associated with a road building project in the Glen of the Downs when a group of eco-warriors camped out and caused more damage to the area than the subsequent construction works, which included a tree planting programme. The new road is now used by many people, including eco-warriors, and has made life easier for commuters. I have not noticed any negative impact on the environment and, in fact, the road will enhance the area in the long-term because many more trees were planted than were removed during the works.
The lack of infrastructure has been a prominent feature of public debate in recent years. Ireland has experienced rapid growth in the number of people in employment and the number of cars on the roads. While we must all share the blame for the pressure these developments have placed on infrastructure, the Government must shoulder the main burden of blame because it has been in the driving seat throughout most of the relevant period. Departmental officials and those involved in political life are too involved in the day-to-day running of projects and carrying out fire brigade actions. As a result, they do not plan strategically and the country has paid the cost of this failure. I hope we will learn a valuable lesson.
In light of the recent problems to emerge in the area of criminal law, it could be argued that if the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform were to employ a futurologist to examine issues and forecast potential problems, as many private companies do, many of the problems we experience would not arise. It would not take much to pay a few people to think rather than act.
We will all be aware of several small projects in our own areas which we would have liked completed in recent years but which did not proceed owing to a lack of money, vision or will. I ask the Minister of State to relay to his senior Minister my proposal that county managers and directors of services visit urban areas and rural villages to examine local problems and take on board the views of local representatives who have the general well-being of their area at heart and see things officials do not see. They could point out the problems to try to have them addressed.
The absence of accountability among local authorities causes frustration and few members of local communities have time for their local authority because they do not see its presence locally or what good it does. Many simple problems are not addressed, even though they could easily be rectified if local communities were given €10,000 or €20,000 to do so. Politicians waste a great deal of time relaying requests from local communities to local authorities to have basic housekeeping measures carried out. They may involve clearing out a ditch, washing a sign or removing a corner. For this reason, some form of inspection process is required whereby administrators go into local communities to look at the deficits and difficulties experienced in specific areas.
This Bill has been a number of years in the making. As previous speakers stated, its purpose is to strike a balance between the common good and individual rights. While this may appear an easy task from an objective point of view, it may prove a little more difficult at a subjective level. A failing common to us all is that infrastructure projects are fine when they are in someone else’s back yard but are not so pleasant when they are in ours.
It is important that the House sends out a message that the purpose of the Bill is not to override environmental concerns or bulldoze projects through. Environmental considerations must remain paramount and, in this connection, I note the requirement to include an environmental impact statement with an application for planning permission. I hope, however, that the legislation will streamline the planning process.
The Bill includes a list of the type of projects which may be considered under the strategic consent process. The Minister noted that many issues will go before the board for adjudication. I wonder whether it would be preferable to remove the planning section in local authorities given that virtually every planning application goes before An Bord Pleanála in any event. Rather than submitting applications to local authorities, it would be preferable to pool resources in one body of final arbitration. I often come across applications which do not receive the attention they deserve from the relevant local authority because officials take the view that any decision will be appealed to An Bord Pleanála and it is preferable, therefore, having held up the application for several months, to pass the problem on to the higher authority. If this body works successfully, I would like to see its role expanded rather than maintaining a narrow focus. Nowadays, any proposed development of five to ten houses is appealed to An Bord Pleanála. We are aware of the long delays that can occur when the board deals with appeals to it.
The Bill refers to elected representatives having an input in the new process, which is welcome. It will be interesting to see how elected representatives vote. One of the things we decry in local government is the fact that local representatives have no power, yet when they have power, they fail to exercise it. If we are asked to site a landfill or adjudicate on a Traveller halting site, we run a mile, yet these issues must be faced up to. That can only be done if everybody takes responsibility for addressing problems in their own areas and an onus is placed on them to do so. Kicking the ball from Billy to Jack is not satisfactory. Unfortunately, politicians get away with it because the public is not conversant with the system in play. The public is not aware of people who consistently oppose matters.
People will always lobby against controversial projects. It is a pity we do not have a plaque on each project, however, to state who supported or opposed it. Once a project is running successfully, it is difficult to find those who were initially opposed to it. The Minister, Deputy Roche, will be familiar with a shopping centre in Greystones, County Wicklow, which was opposed by a number of people. The project went to An Bord Pleanála but it would be difficult to find people nowadays who do not support the centre. The same could be said for road and housing projects.
Councillors must have responsibility and a little more power than they enjoy. They will have an input as a result of this legislation. The Minister was a councillor for a long period so he will know that councillors become weary of going cap in hand or on their knees, so to speak, to various directors humbly seeking a small favour. They need to have more power than that. I hope that in the short time the Minister has left in that job, he might be able to——
Mr. Timmins: The Minister will have to cross over here for that. Something could be done to give more power and accountability to councillors. I previously raised the concept of getting county managers and directors out into the community to see problems at first hand. In my Army days, we would come back six months or a year later to see if the money had been well spent to resolve an issue and if it had worked successfully. We are all aware of small projects we could seek for five, six or seven years, yet if we put the same energy into doing the work ourselves with a pick and shovel, we could solve the problem much sooner.
The Minister referred to a grant for local community gain. Where there is a downside project, such as a landfill or incinerator, there must be a gain for the community. Allied to that gain the message must go out that if one community takes a downside project, when it is terminated, the next such project should be sited in another community. We must all take our share.
Mr. Timmins: The Minister should examine the administration of the environmental fund that is drawn up for communities from landfills. People who are in the immediate proximity to landfill sites should get some funding. One may not be able to give money to the residents, but those closest to such sites are suffering. It is difficult to identify a project for them but perhaps there could be a mechanism whereby a grant could be given to them for environmental works in the vicinity of their residences. For example, they may need to install windows, hedging or fencing because they suffer more than the community at large. Some communities have benefited greatly from the environmental fund but those in the immediate vicinity of downside projects and upon whom they have greatest impact may not be included. I would appreciate it if the Minister could examine that matter. Perhaps I should not be giving him too many ideas at this late stage but I am sure he will use them in a responsible manner.
The Bill states that the board will meet both the developer and the objector, which is important. Currently, the pre-planning concept is not working well. As our pre-planning situation has evolved, it now takes longer than the planning process itself and one can receive bland answers. I have advised people who have come to me recently not to bother with the pre-planning process because it is a waste of time and one gets an inconclusive result. It is important for the board to meet the developer and the objector, however. There is nothing wrong with an authority meeting a developer. Owing to difficulties in recent times, a mystique has developed and people say something must be wrong if officials meet developers. When people try to get a project up and running, however, they must know the parameters within which they can work. Equally, those opposed to a project should have an opportunity to voice their concerns. I respect the right of every citizen to have his or her say in objecting to something.
Things could impact upon someone that I might feel would not necessarily impact upon me, or vice versa. It may be no harm for objectors to state whether they have a vested interest or various prejudices. I realise that no one likes to disclose their personal dealings or status. It might be no harm to do so, however, because we often encounter a strong pressure group that may be orchestrated by a few people with a strong vested interest. Their interest may not be in the common good, although they are perfectly entitled to defend it. If politicians and developers are upfront, the people who will take a court process or meet the authority should have to outline any conflict of interest — that may be a strong term to use — or vested interest. I am not trying to nail them to the wall. It is just that everybody needs to be on an equal footing.
The Bill refers to a court seeking an undertaking for damages. My colleague, Deputy O’Dowd, expressed some reservations about this but I think there is some merit in this proposal. I would like to see balance but I do not like the concept of people going to court at every hand’s turn on the basis that they will get away with it because it is for the common good. They may gain some notoriety but, ultimately, the public will have to pick up the bill. The proposal is not a bad idea, but we do not want to make it prohibitive for someone to take court action if he or she needs to do so.
Mr. Timmins: In recent years, much money has been wasted on public projects. We are all familiar with the Cavan joke: “€3,000 for me, €3,000 for you and €3,000 for the project.” Whether they are large or small, projects always seem to cost the State a lot more money to carry out than the private sector. We must ensure that value for money is achieved by setting targets and penalty clauses.
The Minister referred to the spatial strategy and getting our road network right. While I do not wish to score political points, the spatial strategy has been somewhat like the decentralisation programme — a little bit for everybody in the audience. The only way the spatial strategy will work is if we develop and build up a few areas, such as Galway being the western hub and Cork the southern hub. The country is too small to have 20 or 30 areas identified as centres in the spatial strategy. Decentralisation will work if a critical mass is achieved. In that way, there will be no difficulty with promotion or people changing jobs. One can see it working in private industry where it is difficult to get a company to locate in peripheral areas, irrespective of what grants are in place. Such companies do not have access to the human resources they require more than anything else. We need to go back to the drawing board in this regard.
The Minister referred in his speech to bad planning applications, which are a hobby-horse of mine. Perhaps we should set up a website called ratemyagent.ie. When the Minister sits down at home at the weekend and is thinking of things to do, he might consider drawing up a guide for local authorities to hold a day-long seminar for agents and show them how to go through the process. We all know that if we see the name of a certain agent on a file, that file will cause trouble for the planner, the agent, the applicant and us, the public representatives. We should streamline the work of agents and let them know what is required with regard to basic practice, because this is a problem we encounter every day.
The Minister spoke about restructuring An Bord Pleanála. I presume this section will deal exclusively with the major infrastructure projects. The Minister should not be afraid to be flexible if the restructuring is not working. When the Eastern Regional Health Authority was broken up into three areas, speakers in the House agreed this would be great for delivering services to the people, but it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. If the Minister finds the new structure of the board is not working, he should not be afraid to change it. He could perhaps include in the Bill a process of re-evaluation after 12 or 24 months to ascertain how the new structure is working and, if necessary, make changes.
The issue of electrical transmission lines has caused much difficulty for landowners, particularly in recent times, given current concerns and guidelines not to site residents within a certain distance of transformers. I know individuals who have suffered on their home land. There should be greater communication between the ESB and residents. In a recent example, foreign workers for the ESB who spoke no English arrived to carry out work at a site. When a local resident who knew nothing of what was happening went to ask them what they were doing in his field, he could not communicate with them.
The Minister referred to gas pipelines. Chemical or pharmaceutical plants have a water outlet through which they dispose of water into the normal watercourse. In other countries, a system operates whereby the water outlet is upstream of the inlet. We should consider including this measure in our planning law because it would put an onus on the operators of factories to ensure that the water going through the outlet is clean because they would later reuse the water.
I agree with the concept of including the private and public sectors, although the spokesperson for my party had reservations in this regard. The private sector should have access to this process as well as the public sector.
The Minister referred to the implementation of Transport 21. I hope he will use his influence so the upgrade of the N81, as outlined in Transport 21, is carried out. It does not have to be complete before May 2007 but it should be carried out as soon as possible. Perhaps the project should be extended a little southwards.
Mr. Timmins: With regard to general planning issues, Deputy O’Dowd referred to the removal of the grammar school in Drogheda. When the Minister is drawing up the guidelines, he should consider introducing a regulation whereby if something is removed illegally, it will hinder a planning application for a number of years afterwards. People remove trees which they should not remove simply to facilitate planning applications. Perhaps a measure could be introduced in this regard.
The Minister will be familiar with my final point. In the past few days I have come across three objections to planning applications. The NRA objected to one because the application is on a national road. In the second case, the local council objected because it claims the application is on a regional road. The third case involves An Bord Pleanála which knocked a planning application because it is on a country road which is too narrow. This drives the Minister, the public and me mad.
Mr. Kelleher: This is a timely discussion which provides an opportunity to speak not just about critical infrastructure and the deficits therein but also about the issue of planning in general. In recent times we have gone through a Celtic tiger boom and significant resources are available to address our critical infrastructural deficit. However, there is no doubt deficits exist in transport, including public transport, roads, water, sewerage, ports, airports and so on. It is timely that the Bill is brought forward and, although it should have been brought forward some time ago, I accept the Minister has brought it forward as quickly as possible. Despite several years of boom, roads, sewerage, incineration and landfill projects have been delayed because of the inadequate planning process available to local authorities and the State to address the current deficit.
Compared to other countries, it is only in recent years that we have had the wherewithal to address the infrastructure deficit. Even so, we are incapable of bringing forward projects as is done in other countries. I am at a loss as to why we must consult to such an extent local authorities, An Bord Pleanála and the courts with regard to major projects. I hope the Bill will address this issue.
Incineration is an emotive issue. Politicians of all persuasions have a responsibility to address the problems of waste and waste management. While we may differ on how we approach it, whether through the use of landfill, reuse and recycle, which we all support, incineration or other forms of waste management, one thing we cannot continue to do is export our waste to other countries. We must be serious in ensuring that we are competitive in the world market and that we bring forward a proper waste management strategy. The Minister has explained this issue in detail but members of other parties and local authorities are still not supportive and do not buy into the idea of having to address the problems of the State.
Everywhere one goes, if a landfill is proposed by a local authority, objections can be guaranteed, and rightly so. However, there must be an end-point to the objections process so the project can go ahead. In recent times, due to the ability of contractors and developers to move ahead expeditiously with construction, the slowest part of a project often has not been the construction but the process to approve the construction. In the case of a road project, a local authority working as an agent for the NRA will come forward with proposals. This will be followed by public consultation, appeals to An Bord Pleanála and environment impact statements before the process heads for the courts. There is a continual series of hurdles for any agent intending to progress a critical infrastructural development. Therefore, the Bill is welcome and timely.
I welcome the provisions with regard to wind and wave energy. We must bring forward guidelines on wind energy. We have “The wind that shakes the barley” but we do not have the ability to erect turbines to harness the wind energy that passes over our country. At the same time, we are heavily dependent on fossil fuels — this issue was raised recently in the House — and import up to 90% of our energy needs. This will not be sustainable in the future as fossil fuels are not finite and their supply is dependent on political concerns, regional conflicts and imports.
In the context of addressing our obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, we are obliged to reduce greenhouse emissions. We will be obliged to get serious about wind and wave energy. We speak about biofuels and ethanol production from crops, oilseed rape, beet and wheat, and we must be progressive and should pioneer the development of wind and wave energy. However, we have been lax and have reneged on our responsibilities to the current generation, which should be given a head start in the context of addressing the problems of fossil fuel shortages and the increasing costs of energy.
We are still building housing stock and while it meets requirements relating to insulation and building materials, it does not address the issue of inclusion of solar power and other forms of energy that can be harnessed. We will be obliged to take action in respect of that issue as a matter of urgency. We are building 70,000 to 80,000 units per year but solar panels are not in place on the vast majority of roofs. That is a dereliction of duty on the part of local authorities and the Oireachtas in not ensuring that these issues are to the fore.
Reference was made to the cost of projects. Recent history indicates that the cost of projects relating to the construction of major roads has not been low. Objections were raised in respect of road projects relating to the Glen of the Downs, the M50 at Carrickmines and, on foot of the existence of a rare snail, the Kildare bypass. One must inquire about the motivation behind those objections. Was it love of the environment or rare snails or was it some form of ad hoc political movement trying to slow down the process by making objections for the sake of doing so? I hope the Bill can address that issue and give people who have bona fide concerns about developments in their areas, public representatives and local authorities the opportunity to meet representatives of the strategic planning section of An Bord Pleanála. Not everybody who has a concern can be tarnished as a crank objector. There are many genuine cases but at the end of the day a decision must be made so that the process can move forward.
If we can reduce the number of crank objectors and commercial objections, that should be done. Deputy Timmins referred to people who have an interest. It is almost a criminal offence for people to use community associations or individuals to object to particular developments, strategic or otherwise, on purely commercial grounds. That is an issue that will have to be examined. It is difficult to prove whether a person is a bona fide objector or is objecting primarily for commercial reasons. Those who object for purely commercial reasons must be weeded out.
There is no doubt that projects have been delayed as a result of objections. That someone can delay a project for six months or a year by objecting to the local authority or An Bord Pleanála for purely commercial reasons is an affront to the basic principles of planning law.
We must adopt a serious approach in respect of communications masts. Every so often difficulties arise in local authority areas or in the constituencies of Oireachtas Members on foot of the erection of communications masts and the concern among members of the public that emissions from such structures can cause cancer or other illnesses. We must be responsible and accept the advice of world authorities on these issues and use that advice, as opposed to people’s fears, as the benchmark for adjudicating on issues. The guideline that masts should not be erected near centres of population, schools, hospitals and so on is positive. As technology improves, I have no doubt that such masts could be situated even further away from areas of population and, in particular, from schools, hospitals and areas in which there are large concentrations of younger people. That is an issue about which many people in the Minister’s constituency and every other constituency are concerned. People’s fears are often fuelled, motions are tabled and rational thinking goes out the window. The reason there is much irrational thinking on this matter is that people have fundamental concerns about it. We should have proper guidelines and use the findings of the World Health Organisation and any other reputable bodies as the benchmark for health and safety issues.
In regard to the fixed price contract, there are two problems. We have all heard of the waste of public funds on certain projects. Often that is not correct. A project may be initiated and a cost projection made in respect of it. By the time it goes through the local authority, an environmental impact assessment, An Bord Pleanála, the courts and further environmental impact studies, the inflationary costs of construction have increased. Additions are frequently made to projects. If a project comes in on time, those involved should be applauded. Not everybody in the House will applaud a project that comes in on time but if there is a perceived overrun, people will use it as an excuse to refer to the waste of public money. The cost of a project is often based on figures drawn up previously.
I wish to refer to Cork City Council’s development of a new waste water treatment system, which has transformed the quality of life. When initiated, it was costed at £80 million. It went over budget on a number of fronts, however, primarily because by the time it reached the construction stage, prices had increased. There were also other reasons that it went over budget. In genera,l there is a recognition that fixed-price contracts must be introduced in respect of large infrastructural developments because the incidental and extra costs that developers and contractors can impose on the State are unacceptable. I am glad they have come into being.
Reference was made to Transport 21 and the national spatial strategy. Decentralisation is a positive development and should be encouraged. In the main, those who have been decentralised and who have moved voluntarily have found it a positive experience. The decentralisation programme should be encouraged and those who have volunteered should be moved as quickly as possible. If people have a positive experience, I genuinely believe that others will sign up. There is a life for people outside Dublin. There are positives in the context of rearing families, people’s quality of life, the availability of open spaces and less traffic. Decentralisation is, therefore, a positive development and should be encouraged.
A major problem exists at local authority level. Every few years, the planners and those in management get together to formulate county development plans. In my opinion, the elected members of local authorities are, in many cases, merely there to rubber-stamp measures. The reason for this is that they do not have access to expertise in their own right. Those proposing the plan, namely, the planners and the manager, present it to the councillors who, in the main, are not experienced in the field of planning, adjudicating on zoning and the further development of an area. A fund should be put in place from which the various party groupings can access money to bring in outside consultants to provide professional opinions rather than their being obliged to accept the opinions of planners and managers. If the planners are those proposing the plan, it is farcical that the councillors are obliged to take the advice of the proposers in any development plan. If we are serious about developing our towns and cities in a cohesive and planned manner, local authority members must be given access to resources to adjudicate on the decisions and recommendations made by planners. This is a serious issue. I sat on a local authority and at the end of the day one was told the planners and the management recommend it, and the threat always was that there would be legal implications. That puts the fear of God in local authority members.
I propose that at a certain point, when a development plan is being formulated, a certain compulsory provision of funding be made available by the local authority to parties of various groupings and sizes so they can bring in an eminent outside body with expertise in the area to give them a flavour what the planners and management are proposing and decipher the jargon often put before them. I hope the Minister will look at that favourably.
I am not denigrating planners. They are all honest people of high integrity, and they work judiciously. However, if they are planners, how did they never foresee this increase in our population? How is it they never zoned enough land to address the shortage? As sure as night follows day, and a county development plan is approved, planners immediately return with variations because of the shortage of land. Surely planners should be planning well in advance. By the time many local authorities have passed their county development plans, the plans are out of date and they have not got sufficient access to development land to alleviate the burden on young people trying to purchase houses.
We can talk on an on about housing but one of the major cost components in a house is the price of land. There are labour and material costs, but to build a house is a very expensive undertaking. It is causing great hardship for many young people. In some areas of Cork, one can purchase a site for one house for up to €300,000, before one puts a block on it. That is entirely unacceptable. Even in large-scale developments, the “stand” to build a house can sometimes be up to €60,000 or €70,000 per unit, in high density areas. That is not acceptable. There is talk of developers hoarding land banks and having racked up large areas of land. Even if they have done so, the planners should be in a position to figure out in the future what will happen down the tracks with regard to demographics, population changes, the dynamics of work, and where people travel to and from. Planners have not been to the fore in addressing land shortage problems.
I know the Minister will have some sympathy for my proposal that local authorities would have access to outside professional assistance when drawing up county development plans. It is not in the context of this Bill, but we are still talking of infrastructure and housing developments, and they are inter-related.
I welcome the announcements on rural planning guidelines. While we have many quangos and other bodies adjudicating, it might at times be no harm to have an independent body which could check if local authorities are implementing Government policies as outlined in this House. This body would not check cost over-runs, as the Comptroller and Auditor General does, but would see if policy was being implemented in the manner we propose, just as the Bill before us, the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill, will put in place a section of An Bord Pleanála.
However, who will ensure those board members are doing their job properly, that they are meeting the guidelines? For years, An Bord Pleanála has told us it was inundated with planning applications and said it was not able to meet the guidelines. In the end it would send out for additional information and perhaps delay matters for another two months. We then return to this House and give the board more resources, and the same racket starts again. I am not saying the board is not snowed under with work, but there should be some way of ensuring its work is monitored and that its members are doing their work as they were encouraged to do by the Houses of the Oireachtas.
With regard to pre-planning and consultation, communities certainly have some difficulties and concerns with some infrastructural developments, including landfills, incinerators, gas stations and a myriad of other projects. A community gain should be involved in such projects. I was once involved in a situation where a particular infrastructural development was going on in my constituency. Though it was unpopular, I supported it because it was in the interests of the common good. This was the sewage treatment plant in Little Island. I supported that development while most others objected to it. It was the right thing to do, and it would now be difficult to find anyone in Cork city to say otherwise. However, some local residents, neighbours and friends were objecting to the scheme.
I try to encourage local authorities to ensure some community gain will ensue. There has been a little gain, but I fear that once a development goes ahead, the commitment to the community gain weakens dramatically. I was seeking community playing pitches and a walkway, and while some provision has been made, there should be proper monitoring to ensure this part of the deal is also honoured and the commitments adhered to. That is an issue on which I feel strongly. Some politicians support an issue which is unpopular, and all of a sudden the local authority promises various things. The development then goes ahead, but the community gain goes out the window. There must be a follow-up to ensure there are conditions so that when planning is granted and progresses the conditions regarding community gain are adhered to in tandem, or as quickly as possible thereafter. The Minister will have noted such promises of landscaping, pitch developments and walkways, which have never been fulfilled.
I commend the Minister and I know he understands the difficulties. With the resources available to the State, we must use this opportunity to ensure we have a proper infrastructural development in the future which can serve the needs of the economy now and the generations ahead.
Mr. Hayes: I am pleased to have the opportunity to say a few words on this important Bill. I welcome it and its primary purpose, the introduction of a streamlined planning consent procedure for strategic infrastructural developments. The commitment to streamline the consent procedure for vital infrastructural development has not come before time. While acknowledging the rapid pace of economic development and expansion that has taken place in Ireland in the past 15 years, there is no escaping the fact that our infrastructures have sadly lacked behind and has not kept pace with development as the country progressed. Citizens are still expected to travel on trains which would not be out of place in some of our museums. Some of the trains travelling on our tracks across the country are in very poor condition. Trains are so antiquated that to exit them, one must open the windows and attempt to open the door from the outside, no doubt like our forefathers in past centuries.
Our railway infrastructure is also failing in terms of meeting people’s travel needs. Nobody can dispute that rail travel in this country is very expensive in European terms. People pay up to €30, €40 and €50 for a ticket and stand all the way to Dublin. As well as being uncomfortable, this is very unsafe. I have heard of this happening routinely, particularly on Sunday evenings, when those who board trains at stations from Portlaoise onwards are often left standing between carriages as far as Dublin. This is disgraceful and shameful, particularly when people are paying such money. On parts of the Continent, in France in particular, passengers are assigned seats when they buy their train tickets, a simple, straightforward and fair process. Why can this not be implemented here? Is it because we are happy to let people pay the full price for a ticket but be denied a seat on the train? Attempts to introduce new trains recently met with strike action. This has not inspired people as to the future or reliability of rail travel. Embarrassing infrastructure deficits such as the lack of rail links to the main airports must be urgently addressed. Those forced to travel by road to Dublin Airport must face the traffic chaos caused by the Dublin Port tunnel works which frequently reduce traffic flow to a snail’s pace. When one eventually reaches the airport, it is difficult to find car parking. These infrastructure deficits have created a farcical situation. Visitors arriving in the State are amazed at the traffic jams they meet once they leave Dublin Airport. A poor infrastructure compounds the problems associated with overcrowded buses. Rush hour in Dublin is a nightmare for bus passengers with buses crawling along stuffed to capacity with weary commuters. These people pay their taxes and deserve a better service.
Outside Dublin we often see the traffic consequences of unsafe roads when accidents occur. The Government belatedly recognised the importance of seat belts on school buses in saving lives. It is time to prioritise the health and safety of our citizens. The Government holds the taxpayers pennies in some areas while throwing away good money after bad on vanity projects and poorly planned fiascoes like electronic voting. The school bus fleet is in a poor state. I recently tabled a parliamentary question on the school transport fleet. The response from the Department was that it did not know what the school transport situation was in south Tipperary. This is appalling when one considers the horrific crashes in other areas.
The necessity for this legislation is evidenced by the fact that our road network remains light years behind that of Germany and other European countries. The Cork-Dublin road, for example, is a joke. Vital bypasses at Cashel and Kildare have shifted the traffic chaos to other towns such as Abbeyleix and Mitchelstown, creating bottlenecks there. The slow pace of roadworks is making life difficult for drivers on this road. In parts of counties Kildare and Dublin, roadworks slow traffic to 60 km/h for several miles, frustrating and beleaguering drivers.
As a public representative pressing for more enterprises to locate to south Tipperary, I find the poor infrastructure there often undermines attempts to make a positive case for the region. While highlighting the presence of a talented and willing workforce, I cannot argue that the area has a good road and rail network or universal availability of broadband. Failure to address these issues is disadvantaging many rural areas. This is a critical time — while the economy is booming — to provide this infrastructure. Investors still consider Ireland a sound economic base. Failure to implement vital infrastructure developments urgently will create an impediment that rural Ireland will find hard to overcome. I hope the Bill will go a long way to address the lack of infrastructural developments hampering the economic potential of the regions.
The Bill has not come before the House too soon. The potential to fast-track vital infrastructure projects is an important provision, particularly for road and rail projects. I welcome the provision which allows for an environmental assessment. Sensitivity must always be shown to the environment. We do not want a repeat of the disastrous destruction of much of Georgian Dublin which happened during another progressive era. The health and safety of the citizens must be of paramount importance when considering new projects, particularly with incinerators, which are provided for in the Bill. People are extremely fearful of the health risks associated with incineration. Their concerns cannot be brushed aside. It was proposed to locate an incinerator in the Tipperary South constituency. People did not know if an incinerator could damage their health. There were large public meetings in the county on the matter. The health issue surrounding incinerators must be addressed. The same is true with mobile telephone masts. As one of the most controversial issues hitting every Member’s desk, it too needs to be addressed.
I welcome the provision to fast-track wind farm development. A key cornerstone of the Fine Gael Party’s environmental policy is the commitment to ensuring one third of the State’s electricity will be generated from renewable energy sources in 20 years. It is vital we reduce our dependency on oil in this area. Wind farms are one mechanism to allow us achieve this.
The Bill alone will not eradicate delays in vital infrastructure projects. The long delays precipitated by the courts which can add a further two year delay to a project must be addressed. Two individuals involved in the planning process with whom I spoke regarding the Bill claimed it allowed for acres of work for lawyers. This could lead to a desperate situation. It is vital the Bill is not stuck in the High Court.
I note the allocation of €251,000 to An Bord Pleanála for it to develop a new strategic infrastructural division with ten staff. Will this small amount of money and low staff allocation be sufficient? The example of the Private Residential Tenancies Board does not inspire confidence. While a board arbitrator must deliver his or her judgment in a fortnight, there is a backlog of at least two months in sending out results. If that is the case, it is ridiculous and the matter needs to be addressed.
There will be an ever increasing number of planning cases sent to An Bord Pleanála. Due to the guidelines, particularly those for one-off houses, people who are unhappy will appeal to An Bord Pleanála and the board will be increasingly busy as a result. It is important the board be given proper resources.
On another issue relating to An Bord Pleanála and its members, it is vital that local authority representatives, whether councillors or persons with a good knowledge of the running and workings of local authorities, be made members of the board of An Bord Pleanála. That is a proposal the Minister, Deputy Roche, should consider seriously. Such persons have vast experience and have spent years dealing with planning issues. They have dealt with such matters from the start and have considerable experience, and there is a sound case to be made for their inclusion on the board. I ask the Minister to examine that important matter.
The Bill will rightly not cover shopping centres or office block developments. The main idea behind the provision is that it is seen to be fair, open and transparent. This is vitally important. My party supports this completely because too much to do with planning has been hidden in the past. Any of us who were members of local authorities will recall that one recurring difficulty in planning was what was said and what was seen to be done. There is a need to be open and transparent about every aspect of planning because it involves considerable sums of money, land changing hands and developers. It is vital that everything is transparent and open.
The need to deal with rogue developers is another issue every Member hears raised. Every Member of this House and every local authority member is concerned that there are still cases of unfinished housing estates. I recently saw two developers working side by side in a town. One of them opted for phased development of housing in his large estate of almost 100 houses. It was well planned. The first ten were built, gardens were laid out and roadways were put down, and then they moved along to the next phase. The other developer built all his houses, sold them all and left the roads potholed. It is deplorable that anybody should be allowed do that. The Minister must control such rogue developers. They are making significant profits. They have benefitted considerably over the years. They have buckets of money. They charge exorbitant prices for houses. That is another area at which the Minister needs to look.
Planning presents challenges at local level. All rural based Deputies will be aware of the need to simplify the planning process in rural areas. Most people feel totally lost when it comes to the planning application process and are heavily reliant on public representatives to help them negotiate the complex procedures. Anyone looking at any of the local authority websites will see the amount of planning applications which are being made without public representatives, and sometimes these people go to two, three or four public representatives. The waste of time involved for local authority officials alone must be considered. Most of the planning applications that these people so badly need in rural areas would not be approved only for the guidance of local public representatives.
It is important that all this is taken into account. There is still frustration with the rural housing guidelines among many people looking to build houses. When all these new highways, such as those from Dublin to Cork and Galway to Waterford, are built to take the extra traffic, there should be some leniency in allowing people access onto some of the roads which link towns and which then may not be as busy. The NRA is the party objecting to such people building houses onto those roads. The Minister should re-examine the matter. The quality of life in rural Ireland is second to none and we should allow our people to live there. Such objections are grossly unfair. I acknowledge that the Minister has been pro-active on this issue but problems still remain. There are people still being refused planning permission day in, day out.
On a point Deputy Kelleher mentioned earlier, there is a considerable discrepancy in the advice of planners and architects employed by planning applicants. Their advice is not good and the Minister should insist that these fellows be made undertake an examination on the county development plans because there are a considerable number of them charging thousands of euro and they are not even familiar with the county development plans.
I am delighted to get the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I have only one reservation and the Minister knows what it is because I spoke to him about it, that is, that unfortunately he cannot include the M3 in this legislation. Anyone who travels through County Meath, and on into counties Cavan, Leitrim, Donegal, Fermanagh and parts of counties Tyrone or Armagh, who must travel through towns such as Dunshaughlin, Navan and Kells, will be aware of the amount of time spent sitting in the car in queues of three and four miles. One could encounter a queue of three miles at Dunshaughlin, a queue of two miles at Navan and a queue of two to three miles, and sometimes four miles, approaching Kells. That is not fair, either on business people or commuters. It is not warranted and it is not acceptable.
Last week the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, visited my town of Kells. I travelled with him and we could not go through either of the towns on the way. We had to take the county roads to get to Kells on time, which is what people are doing day in, day out. Unfortunately, all of the county roads on both sides of the M3 are in a deplorable state but this is not due to a lack of funding because I am aware the former Ministers, Deputy Noel Dempsey and Deputy Cullen, and the current Minister, Deputy Roche, have given Meath County Council significant funding. When large articulated trucks and an enormous amount of cars use all of these roads which were never build for such traffic, naturally they will deteriorate.
Last week the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, visited the enterprise board and the business park in Kells and was most impressed by what he saw. However, in his speech to the enterprise board he spoke of the importance of good infrastructure into any county or town, and that when industrialists come to locate in any town they look at the infrastructure and if it is good, naturally they will decide to locate there. That is why it is so important that roads such as the M3 are built.
Even at this late juncture, I appeal to those people, most of whom are not from the locality or even from this country, who are delaying these projects by appealing them from one stage to the next. As it went through the planning process, the hearings on the M3 were the longest in the history of the State. Following this, the case went to the High Court and is now being appealed to the Supreme Court. When it is lost there, those to whom I refer have bragged that they will take it to the European Court of Justice. At the same time, the town of Kells, where my office is located and where I can be found every day of the week that I am not present in the Oireachtas, is being choked with traffic.
As the Minister is aware, the situation in the area is unique in that the N3 and the very busy N52 pass through the town. Much of the traffic that comes from the north, south and west across Kells is comprised of heavy articulated trucks. We have received the go-ahead for the M3 and the bypassing of Kells, which will take traffic from the N52 away from the town.
The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, is present. He recently visited Kells with me and saw how bad the situation has become. We met a few groups in Kilskyre where I grew up. Deputy Penrose would know the area well.
Mr. J. Brady: The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, saw the traffic problems at first hand because we were under pressure to return to attend another function in Kells. The traffic jams were enormous.
Mr. J. Brady: Yes, at one time. That will indicate how important the M3 is to us. Some people are not concerned about the industrial development of County Meath. Neither are they concerned about the commuters who travel through the area every day. All they want is to take care of the frogs, the snails and whatever else.
We do not want to see our heritage destroyed. The Government — I am sure any Administration would do likewise — has invested enormous sums to ensure that archaeological digs take place. A significant number of archaeologists were employed to examine the area from the start of the M3 in Clonee to the far side of Carnaross on the Cavan border. Nothing will be destroyed. I cannot understand why these individuals are trying to stop progress and deprive the people of counties Meath and Cavan and parts of Deputy Penrose’s county, which I also represent, who will avail of the M3 near Clonmellon and Fore, of a proper road network. Those to whom I refer should cop on and allow progress so that the people of County Meath and the adjoining counties can travel without encountering the blockages that currently exist.
Mr. J. Brady: ——but it is an issue that is dear to my heart. He referred to four or five politicians being lobbied with regard to the building of one-off houses. It is sad when this happens. I am not afraid to say that I support the right of people who were born and bred in rural areas to be allowed to live there. I am sure every other rural Deputy who wants to see rural areas kept alive feels the same.
I do not apologise to anyone for fighting the case of young couples that find themselves in this situation. I am proud to be able to say that only for me, or some other politician — sometimes three or four can be involved — such young couples would not be living where they do, they would be obliged to live in towns. It is sad that when young couples obtain sites from relatives at no cost or at reduced rates, the planners place them in situations where they are obliged to pay €100,000 or €150,000 for such sites. That is most unfair. We should do everything possible for these people.
Mr. Blaney: I thank Deputy Brady for sharing time. I sympathise with him in respect of the difficulties he faces with the M3 because we face similar difficulties with the N2 and the N2-A5. One way in which the process could be fast-tracked is that when the Bill is enacted, we could collectively promote the development of a motorway somewhere in between both roads that would take the traffic from the N2 and N3. That could represent the way forward. It may be an issue for another day but it is worth considering.
I welcome the Bill. All associated with it are to be praised for bringing it into being. I do not think that any Member is unaware of the difficulties experienced in the past with infrastructural projects. We all experience them in our constituencies. Problems have occurred with electricity supplies in parts of County Donegal.
Some of my comments may be considered over the top. I have difficulties with the powers allocated to the board of An Taisce, some of which relate to local planning issues but which should be tackled in the context of the Bill. Some members of An Taisce are in a position to abuse their authority in regard not only to infrastructural projects but also to local planning issues. Somebody will have to take the bull by the horns in regard to An Taisce. I will return to this matter in due course.
I welcome the inclusion of the views of county councillors. We have heard a great deal about the removal of powers from county councillors. It is only right that the views of county councillors are recognised and that they are allowed to make recommendations to An Bord Pleanála because nobody knows more about views on the ground than they do. We do not make sufficient use of local authority members. I am glad the Minister has taken this step.
I am also pleased with section 9, which deals with rogue developers. Everyone here recognises the importance of developers in our current economic boom. Unfortunately, we must also deal with rogue developers who were, possibly, not dealt with in the past. I can point to developments in my county of Donegal where non-compliance is evident. This involves matters such as linking lighting in housing estates to houses rather than linking it up properly. It is only right that where developments are not put in place in accordance with planning permission, other planning permissions sought by that developer should be withheld until the planning permission and conditions relating to other estates on which they are working are complied with.
I also favour the section on community gain. It is only right that where a community could, or will, be put out by a development, An Bord Pleanála can make recommendations whereby a community gain can be obtained. Various Deputies have referred to rail and motorway projects. I look forward to the day we can discuss rail services and a motorway in Donegal. I hope these provisions will be included in the new national development plan, which is just around the corner. The Bill will be very helpful in respect of this.
The Minister has done a good job on this Bill. However, I would like to see him take the next step and introduce a Bill which would deal with local planning issues. I spoke earlier about the undemocratic voice of An Taisce, which has too much influence on An Bord Pleanála. I am aware that An Bord Pleanála will always refer to their statistics and that it heeds so many of An Taisce’s objections but we can never obtain any figures relating to these objections. All or most of the cases in Donegal are being overruled. We must bring forward a Bill which will not allow An Taisce to appeal decisions to An Bord Pleanála. An Taisce is abusing its powers at the moment and should only be allowed to make recommendations to the board. I look forward to the day when An Taisce is stripped of its right to make objections to An Bord Pleanála and may raise the issue in this House as often as necessary. I welcome the Bill and look forward to its passing.
Mr. Penrose: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important Bill. My colleague, Deputy Gilmore, set out the Labour Party’s broad views on the matter. My views may not be shared by everyone. This Bill will fundamentally change our country’s planning laws and some people argue this change is not for the better. Section 3 effectively provides that major construction projects, including private projects, can be built without going through the normal planning process. These projects include waste incinerators, chemical treatment plants, major landfills, oil refineries, large oil and gas storage tanks, oil and gas pipelines, wind farms, electricity pylons, airports, seaports, railway stations and many other similar projects, which are all contained in the Seventh Schedule to the Planning Act. Under the Bill, there will be no right of appeal for these projects because they will be heard by An Bord Pleanála in the first instance.
The Minister is correct in ensuring that certain projects, such as railways and certain roads, are fast tracked. However, I have deep reservations about letting proposals for waste incinerators go through to An Bord Pleanála without anyone having first call. Where concerns about health and safety in respect of certain projects exist, they must be recognised. In areas where the jury is out in respect of safety, we should ensure people’s fears and concerns are assuaged by proper argument and by giving them the chance to participate.
The Planning and Development Acts 1963, 1976, 1992, 1997 and 2000 have served us well. Deputy Blaney referred to the fact that in respect of prescribed bodies under Article 36 of the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Dempsey, set out a considerable number of prescribed bodies, including An Taisce, and gave them locus standi. In respect of rural housing, An Taisce has intervened and made its stance known. These cases have sometimes involved people who have secured sites from their families.
The basis of rural Ireland is the building up of communities. It is not right that An Taisce and similar bodies can impose their views on local people who are central to the building of communities and who may seek to build houses beside or close to the homes of their parents. The parents of some of these people may be living in rural areas with no public transport and may depend on their children or other relatives to transport them to major towns for medical and other important appointments yet objections to their children’s proposed developments are still made.
We have widened the idea of participatory democracy, a concept I favour. One of my reservations about this Bill concerns its restrictions on participatory democracy. The Bill is good in part but contains areas about which I have deep concerns. The Bill diminishes participatory democracy and the right of the public to object and effectively cuts local authorities out of the process. I note county councillors will be allowed to make submissions to An Bord Pleanála, which is useful because they have widespread experience of what is happening on the ground and reflect community concerns in a comprehensive way. Very often, members of local authorities have been written out of the script but it is important to recognise that they play a fundamental role in relaying the very real concerns of people.
Participatory democracy is needed to allow people to have their say. This generally takes place through local authority members but individuals can also make their views known. Participatory democracy should be widened rather than restricted but it needs to be widened in a way that contains very detailed and prescriptive rules. A person must need substantive reasons and a substantive interest in order to make an objection. It is pushing things when someone from Donegal and Cork is allowed to intervene in a proposed development in Westmeath. With all due respect to the Minister of State, I would not like to object to a development in Cork. I have heard of people coming to Westmeath from as far away as Cork or Donegal to object to something which might be an essential part of the county’s infrastructure. Such people decide it is their right to object to such developments and are given this right.
The right to object should be reserved for people with substantial and material interests and who are in a position to make objections of a substantive, rather than a frivolous, nature. Other speakers have claimed certain individuals use others to make objections and that other individuals have a commercial interest in objections. Such activity should not be allowed. We should ensure such people are not granted locus standi to participate in the process. If the activity to which I referred is revealed at any time, it is a serious matter. Only people within a county who can prove they have substantive reasons and a substantial interest should be allowed to make objections.
My concern with the Bill is that it diminishes people’s rights to go to court. That right is limited in terms of judicial review, but I welcome that the Minister of State is taking on board some of the Labour Party’s suggestions in the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2005 to set up a designated court to deal with appeals from An Bord Pleanála on various projects. If there are appeals, it is important to examine them quickly in a court structure. It is also important that people’s right to go to court is protected. Regarding the judicial review, the substantive interest has been set out. It is important to obtain finality on these matters because yo-yoing often occurs. These measures could ensure and preserve the right to object in planning processes.
I am concerned by major landfills, chemical treatment plants, waste incinerators and developments of that nature, which are a bridge too far. I know why they are built and I understand why the Minister of State may say that local democracy is not working because people seem to be too nervous to take decisions. Nevertheless, this issue is being circumscribed. The health and safety of our citizens should be conserved in planning legislation.
While many projects are required for the common good, a lot are developer-driven. I know of developers who do excellent work, employ people at the top rates, participate in Construction Industry Federation pension schemes and so on. While no one is entitled to tar people with the same brush, there are developers in every county who have let down their good colleagues. It was for this reason that we introduced the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2005. In that Bill, we indicated that the local authorities should have a legal right to refuse planning permission to developers that apply, under whatever guise — perhaps in the form of companies that have reformed — but that already hold planning permissions in adjacent areas or within the jurisdictions of those local authorities and have failed to complete housing estates or the other developments they may have undertaken and have not adhered to the specific terms of said planning permissions.
It is amazing that one often sees local authorities taking action against persons who have built single houses in the countryside because their walls were not built the requisite three feet from the road, because they failed to remove trees and so on. However, there has been a certain tardiness in pursuing bad developers that have charged top dollar. The former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, informed the House about the rationale for reducing the capital gains tax rate from 40% to 20%, and stated that it would increase the supply of land and the number of houses and lead to a decrease in house prices. Instead, the bad developers grabbed everything, including the 20% in capital gains tax, which they put in their pockets. Some of them did not complete footpaths, roads, lighting or green areas. One could write a book about it.
It is time to stop this conduct and, like every Member, I welcome the relevant measures in the Bill that will do so. We all have tales to tell in this respect. It is time to tell bad developers that they are besmirching everyone’s name. There are many good developers who build the finest of houses. For example, one would be proud of certain areas in my county. However, there are areas where people have no lighting or roads, where sewerage systems have not been completed, where manhole covers are left open and so on. The developers in question get their money, only complete 80% or 85% of the projects and move on in the hope of grabbing the next shilling. They charge those young people who can put roofs over their heads €200,000, €250,000 or more for their houses.
The Government must be criticised for its failure to implement the recommendations of the Kenny report, which has been lying around since the 1970s but about which action should now be taken. It is a scandal and a shame that young people who may have easily been able to put roofs over their heads at one time are no longer in a position to do so. As they are now our top candidates for social and affordable housing, we are increasing the pool of people who cannot provide for themselves. This is a failure of the Government.
We should consider a windfall tax on developers who gain from zoning decisions. The price of €10,000 or €15,000 for agricultural land can be transformed into €200,000 or €250,000 at the stroke of a pen. High-density building takes place, but not a penny beyond the development charges levied by local authorities is returned to local people. The windfalls should be taxed because they are gained by virtue of the location of developments and the fact that local authorities deem the rezoning necessary. The location of the projects gives developers added advantages that are unavailable to ordinary working class people who do not possess property of any kind. There should be a windfall tax to ensure that money is ploughed into those communities adjacent to which new houses are built.
Local authorities are notoriously remiss in that they allow haphazard developments to take place without providing the necessary infrastructure to accommodate traffic, public transport and schools or ensuring that the relevant Departments do so. Schools are particularly necessary if we are to ensure that young people do not need to wait in queues to obtain places when they reach four years of age.
We are discussing infrastructure. The Government blames objectors for its ills, but it is often the Government’s tardiness that is at fault. The Department of Education and Science is an example. In 2001, I was told at a famous meeting in Coralstown, which lies between Mullingar and Kinnegad, that its school would be built. Before the 2002 general election, a candidate who has since returned to the Dáil assured everyone that a school would be delivered. Like others, I lost many votes by telling the truth because I stated that the school would be delivered in 2007 or 2008. We are approaching June 2006 and a scraw has still not been turned. I suffered because I told the truth, but I believe in being up front with people rather than deceiving or misleading them.
Some of the blame must be laid at the Department’s door because projects go up and down through stages like a jigsaw. This nonsense should be stopped and the matter should be given to local management, which should be told that its job is to use the €500,000 or €600,000 provided. Designs for four-room schools, for example, should be standardised and adequate space should be provided. Even if there is a requirement to provide a certain number of square feet per pupil, the amount of square footage required in Louth cannot be different from that needed in Mullingar.
The blame for delays can often be laid at the doors of Departments, which can slow down or accelerate projects for electoral advantage. A good example would be phase 2B of the hospital in Mullingar. Since 1997 there has been foot dragging over this very important infrastructural project. Lo and behold, with an election 12 months away, it is like watching hot air balloons, everything is rising. That breeds cynicism in the electoral process. Projects should be allowed as they are developed within Departments, with no foot dragging or questions being answered from the sides of mouths. I ask question after question in here and receive all sorts of pedantic answers when I know the truth.
Often Departments must send everything out to contract. The Minister or the Minister of State will come down to open the link road to Mullingar with the chairman of the county council. The local authority employees did that job quicker and better than any of the contractors. It is about time we lifted the embargo on local authorities employing workers to undertake some of these projects. When local authorities take on projects, there are engineers overseeing every step of the way. There are very few extras or things done wrong. It is rare they would come looking for additional money during the variable contract stage.
I am proud of the work by Westmeath County Council workers. The Department of Finance, however, had the audacity to tell local authorities not to take on such people. It would prefer contracts to go to the flash Harry who comes along and does the work without employing local labour. This was an excellent example, supervised by engineers for Westmeath County Council under the director of services Mr. George Lambden, of what can be done by local authority employees.
We must examine this and ensure there is respect for a diversity of views. We cannot have a one size fits all solution in the planning process because it has caused problems in the past. I support rural people living in their own environment. Those who object have never had the opportunity to live in those areas. Rural people must be given a chance because they are the backbone of the local community, contributing to football and hurling teams, the church, schools, the post office and the Garda station. If An Taisce had its way, rural areas would have nothing but trees and bushes left, there would be no people and everyone would be concentrated in urban areas. Some young planners also have this view and are trying to adopt a European model that prevails in France and impose it on rural Ireland. They will not get away with it because we stand for rural Ireland.
Cecilia Keaveney: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill. Access from Donegal to the rest of the country is critical infrastructure, via road, rail and air. To a certain extent our hospital network is also critical infrastructure. I was very disappointed to hear that from tomorrow the breast care team in Letterkenny is not taking on any new cases. In terms of planning and development, and making everything accessible to those in the regions, it is disappointing that patients from the area who might discover a problem tomorrow will now be in a situation——
Cecilia Keaveney: I want to talk about the Bill and I will make my point if it takes me 20 minutes to do it or even longer. We are trying to resolve this and to get the best service in the locality for the patients who deserve it.
The decision was to be made by the end of the month and insurance has already been dealt with. I am, therefore, disappointed that people will have to reach beyond the service currently in place. I disagree with Deputy Cowley’s statement it is a Mickey Mouse service, it needs to be bolstered and supported. It does not deal with more than 100 cases a year so it must link with another multidisciplinary service. When it does that it will be a good service.
Cecilia Keaveney: When we talk about critical infrastructure it is important that we recognise the €15 million investment made by this Government and the government that has responsibility for Derry City Airport. This will improve our area and access to it. There were difficulties with the residents but they have now been resolved, an example of the significant benefits of cross-Border co-operation.
During this debate, many Members will refer to critical infrastructure in terms of the railway service. Unfortunately, Donegal does not have a railway system but should we be in a position to be able to link the Derry service with that in Sligo — the campaign for the western corridor had been strong but did not appear to include Donegal — this legislation would ensure that issues can be expedited to either put tracks in place or reinstate existing tracks. I take this opportunity to ask the Minister for Transport to work with his counterpart in Northern Ireland to ensure that there will be a direct service from Derry to Dublin. There is no reason that this should not be the case because the track is available. It is not a matter of anybody needing to object; it is rather a matter of putting in place better quality track and running a train on it from start to finish.
I acknowledge also that to leave Donegal to come to Dublin one must use either the M1 or the M2. I recognise the major improvements on the M1 and the significant improvements in respect of the M2. The opening of the bypass at Ashbourne has significantly helped areas such as Donegal but we deserve a motorway into the north west similar to those to Galway, Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Belfast. I hope that will be put in place in the near future but I accept that the major investment that has taken place has had a positive impact.
I want to raise the issue of the local road infrastructure because, with the exception of a six-mile stretch, there is no primary or secondary road on the Inishowen Peninsula where I live. We are dealing, therefore, with county roads. When the former Deputy, Bobby Molloy, was Minister of State, he took away our local improvement scheme money because he said Donegal County Council, like some other councils, was spending it in a piecemeal fashion. We were then obliged to start spending it in a more coherent way.
When it comes to investment in our major county roads network which comprises the Buncrana to Bridgend, Moville to Derry, Quigley’s Point through Glentogher into Carndonagh routes and the Buncrana inner relief road — thankfully, the Carndonagh inner relief is well progressed — the Minister has visited Donegal and seen the situation at close hand. The LISs now get significant money but progress is unnecessarily slow and there should be a bigger injection of funds into the areas to which I refer, particularly those where there is no national primary or secondary road. The infrastructural investments should be skewed in favour of those areas in each council region to ensure the developments can progress faster than is currently the case.
There are issues also regarding land acquisition. The process takes far too long. If we need the land, the process must be expedited, which is part of the purpose of this Bill. This legislation will have a positive impact in areas such as that which I represent.
The same situation applies in respect of water and sewerage systems. We have difficulties in locating sites because, even though there is significant investment and the technology has moved on, people are objecting. I accept that in many cases there are genuine concerns. I accept also Deputy Penrose’s point that we do not want people from outside coming into a local area and deciding policy and the way projects should progress. Local people should have an input in terms of what happens in their areas. By the same token, however, the bigger picture must be addressed.
An issue that is very pertinent in my county is that of power and communications networks. We had many talks from the ESB warning us that if we were living in west Donegal, we could wake up some day and discover the we had no power and that we would need the extra support of another line. A balance must be struck between the right to express one’s concerns and the right of people to have the basic infrastructure they require. There is a debate about mobile phone masts and inadequate coverage for mobile phones throughout the country. However, when we examine ways to improve those, there are more objections than there are people who support particular locations. We must find some mechanism to develop best practice and clear guidelines on what is acceptable and ensure that, in the initial phase, the applications being received are not off the wall, for want of a better phrase, but are in compliance with basic standards. This will ensure that, at the very least, people in a locality will be protected by appropriate guidelines and national and international best practice.
Deputy Penrose referred to school infrastructure. A secondary school was recently built on the peninsula on which I live. The board of management involved and the parents’ association challenged the Department of Education and Science to give them the money to build the school. They rose to that challenge and we now have a fine school. If people are prepared to meet the challenge, it is only right that they should be allowed to do so.
I agree that the position in respect of education is changing. In terms of water and sewerage systems, however, the process within the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has been slow. People are obliged to submit applications to their local councils and these are then vetted and passed back and forth. My most recent experience of that concerned the fire service but, thankfully, we have reached the stage where tenders have been accepted and a fire station to matched the excellent ones in Carndonagh and Buncrana will be built in Moville.
On wind farms, I am in favour of renewable energy and I have no difficulty with land-based wind farms. In terms of wind energy potential, County Donegal probably represents one of the biggest possibilities in respect of the development of wind farms. I will sound like someone adopting a NIMBY attitude in putting this point — that is not my intention — but there was an option of putting a 30 turbine, 80 storey wind farm on the Foyle. I referred to examining guidelines and best practice but this is one of the last national fisheries in the country and possibly in Europe. One wonders about putting 30 wind turbines in a scenic area that has a wonderful natural fishery, when the best advice one can obtain from the company promoting it is that the smolts can swim around at the bottom of the river and it will be an attraction for anybody wanting to operate glass bottom boats. I know a great deal about fishing but I assume that if the smolts swim around a particular location, the bigger fish will soon catch on to what is happening and we might not have a natural fishery in the future.
There is potential for hydroelectricity and tidal energy. There are projects that are less intrusive in certain locations and the type of project brought to a particular location should be in keeping with what that location can embrace. I speak as somebody who lives in a house overlooking wind farms situated on land. When we bring forward projects and before people object or otherwise, we should ensure the projects are in keeping with the location.
An Bord Pleanála has made many important decisions. Most people will either strongly agree or disagree with those, but it does an important job. One of the difficulties is that it can take a long time for those decisions to be delivered and the speeding up of the process is important. It is vital that people have the ability to put their case but we must be able to proceed with considered haste rather than avoid reaching conclusions. It is possible to do both. We can speed up the process and ensure that decisions are taken and that cases do not drag on for years.
It is much better to cut to the chase. Deputy Penrose spoke of telling people the truth, regardless of whether they liked it or whether votes were lost. People appreciate it if others are straight with them. In the same spirit, the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill must deliver a scenario in which people will have the right to air their views, positively or negatively, and which will bring about a resolution within a reasonable timeframe. Everyone will then know where they stand.
Donegal is a county that is particularly in need of infrastructure. It relies heavily on the remainder of the country for its access, be it through rail, air or road infrastructure. It also relies heavily on Northern Ireland as its geographical hinterland to help it with access. I would like to think that the issue of the natural gas pipeline, which had been supported and developed from Belfast to Letterkenny — but which has stopped in Derry — will be reconsidered so that the critical pieces of infrastructure can be delivered.
In our case, it will be delivered in the context of cross-Border co-operation. Similar to the ESB’s involvement in the power station at Coolkeeragh in County Derry, these issues are out of the immediate and sole control of this particular jurisdiction. They rely on co-operation. I look forward to the time when the Northern Executive is up and running again. Our items of critical infrastructure can be planned and developed in a coherent fashion. Unfortunately, in County Donegal, in many instances we require the co-operation of the other jurisdiction. The most profitable development of such infrastructure can only be done with Northern politicians taking on the mantle of being the decision-makers and decision-takers, rather than abdicating the responsibility to people in Westminster or those in Scotland or Wales.
It is time Donegal had the ability to develop in the same way as other places. This item of infrastructure legislation will help all parts of the country to develop their infrastructure. However, in some key areas we are reliant on matters outside our control. I hope, in that context, that the process currently under way and deemed to conclude by 24 November will be of assistance.
I will return to a minor point of which I have been reminded, namely, the issue of trying to ensure that local people can have their families accommodated. With council development plans, we must be cognisant of the idea of the local. I am sure Members will be familiar with cases where somebody, perhaps a person from abroad who has a holiday home in which they reside for two weeks per year, will make an objection to An Bord Pleanála with regard to an individual who has already gone through the system and been deemed able to build on family land. An Bord Pleanála may have ruled against the person building their own home on their own land.
It is a difficult balance between the right to object and the right for people to have their own family home. This also applies to people’s right to object to critical items of infrastructure. Delays in respect of the latter can hold back towns, counties or, ultimately, the country from maximising their potential. There are probably positives and negatives for everybody in respect of the Bill and I am glad I had the opportunity to comment on it.
Dr. Cowley: I heard Deputy Keaveney speaking on the case of the north west. The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, knows the issue well because I spoke on it when he was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health and Children. It is a disgraceful case. I raised the matter, even though it does not relate to my area. Those surgeons, nurses, etc., doing very valuable work, would not stop their work unless they were desperate.
Dr. Cowley: They are desperate because they might see a person having a radical mastectomy because of the difficulties in obtaining an essential part of a treatment such as, for example, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery. It is critical that patients receive the three modalities of treatment. As a result of the difficulty in sourcing one part of the treatment, namely, the radiotherapy, people’s lives are being put in jeopardy. As a result, surgeons have no choice but to carry out radical mastectomies.
Dr. Cowley: I have raised this issue at the Joint Committee on Health and Children, as the Minister of State knows, for many years. It disappoints me greatly that no progress has been made. The case for the north west having its own radiotherapy unit is much stronger than the case for the south east having such a unit, although the latter also has a strong case. That is the reality.
There are major problems with the Bill. An entire tier of democracy is being removed from the system. There are large projects that are supposed to be for the common good. Even something of great social significance, namely, social housing, is omitted from the Bill.
Another problem is that the Minister is seeding responsibility to An Bord Pleanála in respect of issues such as the compulsory acquisition of land for pipelines, etc. I wonder why that is the case. I am greatly concerned that democracy is being utterly eroded.
In the Bill, one cannot identify what will profit enterprise and that which will lead to social development and benefit the common good. They are not the same thing. My worry is that the Bill is not what it claims to be. I am particularly concerned that the Minister is washing his hands of any future controversies relating to compulsory acquisition for pipelines, refineries etc.
Dr. Cowley: I will do so but I am very disappointed with what is happening in Donegal. I hope the Government will take action to ensure that those people are given access to a service that will provide them with a proper chance at life. Under the Constitution, we are all supposed to be equal.
Dr. Cowley: This Bill is more of the same. The entire planning process is rotten to the core. Where is the community representation with regard to An Bord Pleanála? It is not there. People do not matter any more because this is a country of big business. That is the current situation.
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