Thursday, 25 May 2006
Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).
John McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
Thereafter one follows the Whip, which the Deputy also does. He will do so when his party decides whether it will go into government following the next election. The Deputy is hedging his bets and other members of his party have differing opinions about coalition.
This is not the first time I have followed Deputy Finian McGrath in a debate during which he has focused on corruption and social housing. Fianna Fáil Governments have built a significant number of social housing schemes since the late 1940s. The previous Government introduced many Bills that have made politicians so transparent that we rightly stand out from everybody else. However, not every public representative should be painted with the corruption brush. The vast majority of Members and councillors are decent and honourable men and women who have not encountered corruption or a brown envelope and they should be spoken of highly because they make a positive and significant contribution to public life.
We have experienced significant economic growth and prosperity over the past ten years. I come from a business background and I never believed growth would accelerate at the pace it has, given that in the 1980s I was paying interest at 22%. However, we are now at full employment. The delivery of infrastructure is being challenged by new dynamics within the economy. Greater demands than ever are being made to provide for the increasing number of people in the State who are developing businesses and getting on with their lives. That presents new challenges and this legislation provides for a proper planning and development system on which we can rely. While I have confidence in the current planning system, it is archaic and is creaking under the pressure of development and developers. Sometimes it delivers decisions and, no matter what, they are referred to An Bord Pleanála. As a result, much needed projects are delayed by between six and nine months. That is a significant issue when trying to deliver infrastructure on time. We must keep up to speed in delivering what is necessary for the citizens we represent.
The national spatial strategy is often criticised, but I support it. It makes sense, but we need to see some tangible benefits. The delivery of infrastructure in the regions would be an example of such benefits. Communities are under pressure as people must combine work with a quality of life. They suffer the stresses and strains of trying to pay mortgages, child minders, going to work and making time for their families. The infrastructural projects that are needed but are being held up are those that will be dealt with by this Bill.
However, there are currently issues with the planning process for large projects. We can learn from what happened in previous projects, which sometimes caused cynicism among the public due to poor delivery or no delivery at all. For 30 years, we debated the provision of an inner relief road in my constituency. There was much opposition from local communities because the plans were developed in a poor fashion by the local authorities concerned. There was very poor consultation and the local authority pretty much acknowledged that it was the only stakeholder and that communities should be pleased it was being delivered rather than having access to the process itself. Rather than continuing with the existing planning process and honouring a commitment given to local borough council members that it would be discussed and voted on, the executive decided to opt for an environmental impact study. That is a method of bypassing the process of debate with local public representatives. That decision has left communities frustrated with the current system. That particular project should be examined and lessons should be learned from it. I agree with business leaders and the local communities in Kilkenny that the project is much needed. It should be planned with all of the stakeholders involved, especially the public representatives.
We could also learn from the project to construct the Piltown-Fiddown bypass, a 9.3 km stretch of road in County Kilkenny and an essential piece of infrastructure. When it was delivered, it caused friction within the local community, which felt it was excluded from the process. It resulted in further funding being delivered to the county last year for a two-plus-one road system to deal with the problems arising from the original project. The original contract cost around €13.5 million, yet it doubled in cost before it was completed. When I raised the issue on behalf of the communities, legal action was threatened in 2001. I presume this is the method of muzzling public representatives and this gives us an idea of how local authorities defend themselves. I was right in the end as it was a poor design and it cost millions of euro extra. It resulted in the deaths of seven people. During that process, a public official acknowledged that people would die on the road. While this was acknowledged in correspondence, no action was taken. That is a deplorable process in our local authorities. The residents in Rathmore Road and Tower Road in Piltown complain about being excluded from the current process and not having their common-sense suggestions taken on board to protect their quality of life, while acknowledging that the decisions taken are normally based on the idea of the lesser evil for the greater good. They are willing to participate, yet they are excluded. The local authority is firmly to blame for this because the process is in its hands. The authority should allow the other stakeholders to participate, such as the NRA and the local community.
It is time for an independent investigation into what happened in the delivery of that project and what is happening to the project that is currently being funded for that road. An intervention by the Minister would represent good practice and would restore public confidence in the planning system in Kilkenny. Too many accidents and fatalities have occurred on that road, yet public representatives are asked to stand aside. I attempted to raise such an issue in this House in the past two weeks, but I was not allowed to do so. Such a decision is indicative of the distance that is being put between public representatives in this Parliament and the citizens we represent. It is not good enough for any Government to stand over that type of record. The Minister should intervene to find out what will happen to this project, because I have no doubt it will arise in the Committee of Public Accounts.
I welcome the Minister's statement on the inclusion of public representatives and their views in the group to examine projects under this Bill. For far too long, councillors have been left outside the loop. In some cases, they have been asked to pay for the reports that have been made available to local public representatives. That shows why the decision to end the dual mandate was nonsense. There are times when we get it wrong in this House and in that legislation, we created a disconnection between central government, local government and the people we represent. There is a unique contact between Members of this Parliament and citizens that has been maintained since the foundation of the State. The decision to end the dual mandate ended that unique approach. It cut off a knowledge base that was available to Members heretofore and that worked. If it worked, we should not have intervened. We will continue to pay for that deficit of knowledge in the future.
In cases like this, legislation should be reviewed and public representatives from this House should be included in the planning process. While I welcome the opening of that door to local public representatives, an amendment should be tabled to the Bill to allow Members of this House to put their views on large-scale projects before county managers for inclusion in any report. That would be of benefit to the system and to this Bill. Communities have gained from the integrated area plans currently coming to fruition, such as the railway station site in Kilkenny. Community gain is often paid lip-service but that scheme has to be signed off in the context of tax exemptions. We need to protect community gains through legislation so there will be tangible results for the communities affected by projects. The local authority waste management schemes, in which funds created from dumped waste go to various local projects, are effective in that respect. We should support the notion of community gain.
A pre-planning consultation process is essential. During the course of the current planning process, clients are offered opportunities to discuss pre-planning issues arising from their applications. Pre-planning consultations will streamline the system, ensure projects qualify and address issues which subsequently arise.
I am glad the Bill deals with rogue developers but it is a pity we cannot address this issue through the normal planning process. It has been suggested that planning permission could be withheld from rogue developers who have a history of non-compliance. That should be the case with regard to unfinished housing estates, which the Minister referred to in his introduction to the Bill, because too many developers have obtained planning permission despite previously leaving local communities to deal with unfinished estates. Although the enforcement sections of local authorities are now being given more resources, it remains difficult for them to track rogue developers through the legal system. Developers who take advantage of legal loopholes and delays do nothing but add to the frustration and anger of the citizens who must live in these estates. It would be a good idea to refuse planning permission to rogue developers until their other developments are completed but if this measure is to be provided for in the Bill, I would like the resources made available to enforce it. It is essential that adequate resources and personnel are part and parcel of any legislation passing through this House so proper enforcement can be ensured. An imbalance has existed for many years whereby local authorities, and now the new planning board, do not have the resources to deal with rogue developers.
The demands put on An Bord Pleanála by large numbers of planning applications suggest the need to re-examine its functions. Too often, field officers make a recommendation only to be overturned by board members, a situation which has been criticised by the general public and elected representatives. The board will need an extra degree of independence in order that its decisions are transparent and stand up to scrutiny. It is not acceptable that applicants have to wait six months or longer for a decision, particularly where the delay arises from difficulties in finding personnel who are capable of dealing with projects coming before the board. We have to ensure that any new special section is adequately resourced and contains the range of skills necessary to address these important issues.
I conclude by again calling for an independent inquiry into the issues arising from the Piltown-Fiddown bypass.