Thursday, 25 May 2006
Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).
Olivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. The Fine Gael Party supports the Bill in principle, although we intend to table a number of amendments. A number of Deputies described the Bill as a means of fast-tracking or rushing the planning process. I hope that will not be the case because planning should not be rushed but should be measured, considered and subjected to as much public scrutiny and participation as possible. This Bill should try to bring clarity and certainty to the planning process and allow promoters, developers and investors, whether public or private, to estimate how long it will take to bring a project from conception to construction. That is a reasonable expectation for anybody who invests a lot of money in a project.
Some sort of closure is needed in the planning process because, in the past, the timescales for many projects have been open-ended. For that reason, I support the Bill. Past projects have gone through endless appeals processes, only to end up in long-running court cases and, often, in Europe. Political failures are largely to blame for this problem, in that processes are not pushed to their limits for political reasons or because politicians hope objections will die away if they ignore an issue. However, trust in the system is further eroded when issues are ignored. Deputy McGrath remarked on the need to restore confidence and trust in the planning process and, while I do not often agree with the Deputy, I do in this instance. Trust will only be restored by bringing transparency to the process.
The Bill's provision for a planning consent procedure represents a reasonable approach to the matter. However, as my colleague, Deputy O'Dowd, has mentioned, safeguards are essential. By trying to create an absolute timeframe, the Bill could be accused of riding roughshod over the legitimate interests of local objectors, be they residents or businesses. The board must have regard for the national interest when it considers planning applications. A proper balance must be found because the danger might otherwise arise that the board will unreasonably override local interests.
Nevertheless, once a project is accepted into this special process, which by definition classifies it as an important piece of strategic infrastructure, it automatically increases its odds of getting planning permission. It will almost inevitably succeed. The key is who makes the decision to designate a project as strategic. The Bill provides that An Bord Pleanála makes that decision. It is fine to decide that a project is strategic. However, a strategic project is not necessarily good, worthwhile or in the national interest. That is where we may encounter difficulties. There have been energy projects that were seen as national strategic infrastructure and would have been wonderful projects if they worked, but they had little chance of working. The danger is that by lifting them into a higher area of planning they may slip through the vetting process.
A pre-planning vetting process is needed to ensure projects are subject to a cost-benefit analysis to see if they are in the national interest. Big State projects such as the metro and the interconnector, which could go through this process, would be subject to a cost-benefit analysis and alternatives would hopefully be examined before one is selected. I do not know if the Minister can clarify this. Suppose a private developer wants to build a second or third airport in Dublin. Although that would be strategic infrastructure, would it be in the national interest? Who would decide? These are the pitfalls.
In shortening the process to one step there is a greater need for transparency and the dissemination of information to people who will be affected by the project. Under the current planning system, despite little notices being put up at sites, people too often miss the planning process. When there has been much discussion and media coverage of a project it seems impossible to miss, yet somehow the people most affected by it never hear about it. Putting notices on the site and in the paper is not enough for an extension to a semi-detached house or for major projects. I am thinking of a major project in my constituency, the extension of the Luas. Although the public inquiry has taken place and the inspector has made his report to the Minister, I still receive letters from people asking if they can change the route. They have missed that this important process has taken place and they have not been party to it. There is a serious need to get information to the public. People think this has been rushed through and they were not told, and they are right to a certain extent. There must be a new way to inform the people directly affected about what is planned for their area so they can have their say. Before public hearings are planned, local individuals should be notified of the process, whether by advertising or leaflet drops.
While I welcome the notion of pre-planning discussion, transparency is needed in another area. Pre-planning discussions are already taking place at local authority level. Once pre-planning begins and people begin measuring sites with theodolites and tape measures, local rumours immediately begin. People know something is afoot but cannot find out what. Immediately the distrust and lack of confidence surfaces and this brings the planning process into disrepute. While I understand the need for commercial confidentiality, local authorities treat pre-planning like the three secrets of Fatima. The public is entitled to know, in broad terms, that there is something coming down the track because the opportunities for the public to make their representations are tight. Under this new planning consent process the public has six weeks whether it is a house extension or a major project. To object to a technically complex project such as an incinerator or a baling station, people are entitled to more time. It would not dramatically change the overall timescale of a project. Under the legislation councillors are given ten weeks to examine such projects and members of the public, who are probably more significantly affected, should have at least the same amount of time.
I welcome the fact that for the first time the local authority members will have a statutory role in the planning process. I am not sure if the councillors will think so because it will be onerous for them. These will be major projects of strategic importance which will often have a deleterious impact on local residents. Councillors will have to make an objective decision having due regard to the local and national interest. All councillors and public representatives should welcome this.
I note that there is an opportunity for local authorities to recover the costs associated with major planning applications such as this. Given that the application is dealt with by An Bord Pleanála, I wonder what costs it would have. I assume, and perhaps the Minister can clarify this, it is to pay for the great need for independent, objective, expert and out-of-house advice to adjudicate on what will be complex and technical projects. If that is the purpose of allowing local authorities to recover their costs, it is a good measure and will be welcomed.
While I welcome the principle of community gain, I want to issue a caution. It is already used by the private sector in planning applications. Sometimes a real community gain is provided and it works. Sometimes it works in favour of a portion of the community and is divisive because half the community sees the other half as being bought off by developers. We need to clarify in the legislation what we mean by community gain and guarantee it is a genuine, overall gain that benefits the entire area and not just a handful of objectors.
It would be difficult for a public representative not to be interested in this Bill. One of my main interests is its impact on public transport, which is essential. Ireland has been described as a First World economy with a Third World infrastructure. The growing economy is creaking from the lack of infrastructure necessary to keep pace with its demands and the deficit to facilitate future growth. Every year the demand for transport of goods and people grows faster than the ability to meet that demand, resulting in a large and growing deficit. The Exchequer figures for the last four years highlight the fact the Government has failed to meet the modest target of 5% of GDP to be spent on infrastructure projects.
Many commentators have highlighted the inadequacy of this objective. It is not enough to ensure the economy can continue to grow and make up for the failures of the past. We must find ways to ensure that what we plan can be done within a reasonable time. Citizens of Dublin are fed up with hearing promises of projects while sitting in endless traffic jams, watching full buses go past them and travelling in trains in conditions in which one would not transport animals. Despite the money spent, facilities for commuters have changed very little. We have not spent enough despite spending much money, and what has been spent has not given us value.
The reason for this is the massive cost overruns on major infrastructure projects such as the Luas lines. The delays and overruns in this project were caused by indecision at the planning stage. Another example is the port tunnel, which is two years overdue while the cost has doubled. If projects are not started within a reasonable timeframe, they are underdesigned by the time they commence. After the contract has been awarded and a price agreed, the project must be redesigned. The developer or builder has the client over a barrel in respect of the extra amount that will be charged. I suspect this is what happened with the port tunnel. When developers and builders see so many projects delayed, they factor in these delays in the initial tender price. This is a guarantee of inflation and cost overruns. The planning process is a major factor in cost overruns and time delays. If this Bill brings some certainty to the planning process and ensures faster delivery of strategic infrastructure, it is a positive measure.
Every public representative seeks a more streamlined planning system. I hope the new system in An Bord Pleanála will distinguish between promoters in a hurry to receive planning permission and the higher remit of projects in the national interest. As we embark on a major investment in rail and metro I hope this Bill will allow planning to proceed and ensure the projects are delivered on time and within budget.
Post-permission changes are very costly and are not addressed in this Bill. After planning permission has been granted, it sometimes becomes clear that changes must be made due to site conditions or a design problem. Sometimes this is a minor change and, when a project has planning permission in principle, there should be a short circuit method of making minor changes to planning permission. One example is a building in my constituency that has not been completed. The developer wished to change a portion of the building because the client wanted to change the use of the building. The building has remained half-built for the past two years and this is in nobody's interest because it looks terrible and the builders must work elsewhere.
Public information and communication is crucial. Small planning site notices are hopelessly inadequate as a method of informing the public. There is an increasing tendency for post-permission agreements between councils and developers. Sometimes these are signalled in the planning application and concluded afterwards but sometimes they are used to bypass the planning system. In two cases in my constituency, side deals were done between developers and the council.
Councils can now take the building history of a developer, and whether they have failed to complete sites, into account. This should have been brought into law far sooner but it is apposite now because of the number of apartment blocks being built. In the past, councils could urge builders to complete development but now there is no protection for apartment block owners whose sites will never be taken in charge. In many cases they must pay for completion of the complex through management charges even though it was a condition of the planning permission that the developer undertake this.
I welcome the Bill and hope it achieves its aims. If not, we can revert to it.