Thursday, 25 May 2006
Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which has been a long time in gestation. The speed of our economic progress over the past 20 years has been such that infrastructural development has not kept pace and we therefore have teething problems throughout the country that need to be addressed. Given that the Bill's objective is to deliver major infrastructural developments quickly, it is important that we enact it sooner rather than later.
Deputy Quinn alluded to the fact that the various difficulties are an unforeseen consequence of economic growth. It is not only the planning system that is to blame. Politicians must accept a certain amount of blame on foot of the length of time it takes to address needs after they are identified. I refer in particular to how we were told many years ago we would have a metro service to Dublin Airport. I am sure those in the Visitors Gallery can testify to the need for a rail link to the airport. We must ensure that we achieve this sooner rather than later.
I welcome the fact the Bill will go some way towards speeding up the planning process. The Bill has been criticised on the grounds that it may result in planning decisions being made above and beyond the local authority, thereby weakening local democracy. However, the Bill strengthens local democracy because a key change it proposes is the transfer of the authority to decide on planning applications for strategic infrastructural development from local authorities to the board. However, the board must take account of many locally determined criteria, including local planning guidelines. This process has not necessarily been in operation to date and therefore the support and contribution of local representatives will be strengthened.
Local authority members will have a function they do not have at present. It is one of the greatest myths that local authority members have the ability to determine decisions in planning applications. Members of this House who are former members of local authorities know they have no such authority. The only rights one had as a local authority member to determine anything in planning was as regards the zoning issue. The new Bill gives local authority members a specific function in determining the decisions being made and this is to be welcomed.
I listened to some of the previous speakers who expressed concern about the authority to be vested in a few people when the Bill is passed. We need to have the confidence and courage to vest authority in people. When we look back on a whole variety of major infrastructural planning issues, we can only see the difficulties. Those are the matters we recall most of all. I am thinking in particular of the completion of the M50 motorway in my constituency and the delays that were caused there. Members pointed out that the planning process is not reflective of people's opinions. However, if we decide that a major infrastructural project will be in the national interest, we need to have the courage to grant people who will make these decisions the authority to do so.
It is a fair assumption that a project of strategic importance will always be in the national interest. That is why it is particularly appropriate that section 37 of the Act provides in great detail how a project of national strategic importance will be defined. This is an important feature. A difficulty in our planning programme at the moment, which has been alluded to, is confidence as regards matters being fair, and that they are being dealt with in an independent and transparent manner. Again, I see the relevant provision is included in the notes to pre-planning discussions. Like others who spoke, I believe these are beneficial aspects. It is good to write in the notes and the status of the notes into the legislation, with the discussions that may have taken place so that this material is available for public consultation.
Reservations people might have had with the Bill and the establishment of a new Department to deal with major infrastructural concerns are being and will be met. I echo Deputy Olivia Mitchell's comments that we should try, where possible, because of the major infrastructural nature of the planning to take place, to alert residents to what is intended. In London, for instance, where I lived, the local authority would give notice of a major infrastructural development that was taking place. This is wise because while I accept local authorities often take out advertisements in newspapers, not everyone necessarily reads them nowadays. Increasingly, people are reading newspapers on the Internet and do not have access to the advertisements in local newspapers. This needs to be addressed. As we embrace newer technologies it must be borne in mind that newspapers are not as widely read as in the past. The requirement now to insert planning notices in newspapers is somewhat outdated. Notices should be sent out to local residents, given the important nature of the strategic development to take place. Presumably it will be a major national investment, in any event.
One issue appears to have been omitted from the Schedule 7 of the Bill, which the Minister might like to consider. I am concerned that in my interpretation of that Schedule, I did not notice the inclusion of offshore wind turbines. That is something we need to consider. It may be that they can be interpreted under one of the other items listed, but I did not get the impression that they were included. We need to include them as I believe in the long-term future of offshore deep sea wind turbine generation capacity of this country. We need to address all these matters and have the capacity to anticipate the future needs of the country in the current legislation being drawn up. I request that this be put in and facilitated on Committee Stage. It may well be interpreted differently, but I am conscious of the need to develop and build interconnectors, not just with the UK, but with continental Europe too in the long term. If there is scope within the Schedule, the interconnector question should be accommodated.
I welcome sections 10 and 11 which deal with the streamlining of the judicial review process. We need to have a fairly rapid end to the planning process. One criticism made is that the Bill alters the nature of An Bord Pleanála, from being an independent appellant authority to a development control body, but I do not believe it does. The development of the new permanent strategic infrastructure division, as provided for in section 18, will have changed that element of it. However, I do not believe people need to be concerned that An Bord Pleanála has changed. I welcome the Bill and look forward to its swift passage though the Dáil.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. The Minister, when speaking in the House yesterday, was correct in saying the economy had developed much since the 1980s, with enormous increases in population and employment. There is a serious need for the country's infrastructure to catch up with this massive development.
Coming from the west, I believe that infrastructure is the future to everything. Without the proper infrastructure the necessary jobs will not be attracted to one's locality. It is critically important therefore that these essential infrastructural projects go through planning and take place on time and within budget. I am extremely conscious of that in the west. I welcome the comments of Deputy Quinn on the infrastructure and the road network throughout the west and how that might link into the rest of the country. I was disappointed in the past when the Labour Party did not support the two-regional approach for Objective One status, when that campaign was going on over five years ago. Having said that, I welcome its approach now. It seems to be an interesting standpoint at this juncture, shortly before a general election, but obviously it is something that is very welcome.
The Minister referred to the enormous difference that the national development plan has made in terms of major infrastructural projects. I agree that this is the case. Everybody acknowledges that the country has improved greatly in recent years. However, as I have said many times, I am disappointed with aspects of non-delivery of the national development plan in the BMW region, particularly today when there is a €3.65 billion underspend in the region. Some €500 million of that alone relates to national primary roads. The Minister will be very conscious of that. Throughout the west many representations have been made to the National Roads Authority to try to get major infrastructural road projects funded. Unfortunately, people are being sent away, cap in hand, and told to be happy with the projects they have at the moment since the funding is not there for additional projects. That simply is not the case.
Approximately three weeks ago, the National Roads Authority produced a report at the back of which there were two maps, one for 2005 and one for 2006. The maps showed in colour the projects that started and concluded in those years. What was common between the two maps was that one could almost believe the west was not part of the country. On the 2006 map there is a tiny red line, about 2 mm in length, and this is the only line in Connacht included in the plans. That line represents the Charlestown bypass which is being funded this year. If we are serious about balanced regional development and about developing the whole country in our massive growth surge, we cannot sit back and ignore what is before us in these maps. The situation was never so obvious as it is in this report.
I have mentioned this matter in the House time and again through parliamentary questions to the Minister for Transport and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and I have been told that it is not a matter for the Minister but for the NRA, but I disagree. It is not a matter for the NRA. It is Government policy and part of the national development plan. The national development plan determines how money is spent and these decisions are made by Government. This means they come through the Minister and his colleagues in the Cabinet. I ask for this to be examined in the short remaining period of the current national development plan.
We are all conscious that from 2007 on, the new plan will no longer focus on the regions. We have already moved from the two-region approach to the national spatial strategy. I do not care what strategy is used because whatever the strategy, it does not have an impact on the west. This situation must be addressed.
I welcome this Bill because it is important to streamline the planning process for strategic projects. People in the west know about strategic projects and I will mention a few. The Minister referred to Transport 21 and the western rail corridor, which is certainly a strategic project for the people in the west. It makes no difference how quickly the planning process is with regard to this project. The Minister set a deadline for the completion of phase 1 for 2014, and there was certainly no need to bring in a new Bill to streamline the process if this was the timescale. This project does not even need to go through much of the planning process because it is ready to roll. It could be fast-tracked under the existing Transport 21 plan. I know the timescales in the plan are indicative, but I urge the Minister to fast-track the western rail corridor. That would be appreciated.
When talking about infrastructure we include roads, rail and air. One of the most strategic infrastructure developments for people in the west is Knock airport, and they are concerned about its future development and the impact it could have on the region. The airport requires a major investment of approximately €40 million. It has come on in leaps and bounds under current management over the past five years. They should be commended, but they also need the support of Government to continue the work they have been doing so well.
I must also mention another strategic project for the area and for the country, the Corrib gas project. This must have an impact on the thinking that goes into this Bill. It is important to consider this project because it is important to look at the mistakes that have been made in a project of this size, especially the delay in progressing the project. The interests of local people and the democratic process are also important. We must consider whether people had a fair say and whether they were listened to. The role of the Department must also be considered. There must be some criticism of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources with regard to the issues highlighted throughout the consent process.
Deputy Ryan will have the opportunity to make his contribution shortly. The point I am trying to make relates to operations under the Department at that early stage when the Shell company was allowed engage in a self-monitoring process. I mention this because I welcome the decision in the Bill to move that type of consent project that operated under the Department. It is important to have the one-stop shop to deal with projects of this nature to ensure this situation is not repeated. For the process to work, people must have confidence in it. If a report issues from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, one must have some confidence in the process that generates the particular approach. I was disappointed at the time that self-monitoring was allowed in such a large strategic project. I hope that the type of mistakes made on this project will be sorted out under this Bill.
I note that three categories of infrastructure projects will be covered in the Bill. I welcome the consultation process provided for in section 37(b). The dual approach where one had to go through the local authority and then to An Bord Pleanála involved duplication and prolonged the planning process. Everybody knew an application would end up with An Bord Pleanála so it might as well have gone straight to it. There is no point in an application going on for a number of years and then falling at the last hurdle while nobody knows what is happening up to then. Many of the problems of the various stakeholders in local communities could be ironed out at the early stages by the consultation process and I welcome its inclusion.
I do not worry about the independence of An Bord Pleanála. If anything, I have been annoyed in the past by how almost untouchable the board is. Nobody understands how it operates with regard to making decisions.
I want to mention the role of councillors. I compliment the Minister and, having been a councillor for seven years, welcome the fact that the opinions of councillors will be taken into consideration. In the past officials listened to councillors with one ear without taking any heed of their input, despite the fact they are the democratically elected representatives of the local people.
There are other matters I would like to mention but my time has concluded. I hope the Bill has a speedy passage through the House. I am happy to support it.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I believe in integrated planning, including the timely delivery of critical infrastructure.
In his opening remarks the Minister placed the need for this Bill in the context of the national spatial strategy, regional guidelines and county development plans. Section 27 of the Planning and Development Act requires local authorities to have regard to regional planning guidelines in force for their areas when making and adopting a development plan. Unless this occurs, it is impossible to plan strategically.
I draw attention to two issues in this regard and refer to a court case relating to one of these. In the case of McEvoy & Smith v. Meath County Council a judgment was handed down on 5 November 2002 by Mr. Justice Quirke. I will quote two sections of the judgment.
The evidence adduced at the hearing of these proceedings strongly suggests that in a number of respects the Meath plan does not comply with the guidelines and indeed in some of its provisions it has substantially departed from the guidelines policy and objectives. Navan is the only "development centre" identified in the guidelines for which any growth other than for local needs is recommended. Nonetheless elected members at electoral area meetings have decided to zone large amounts of land for residential purposes in dozens of small towns in a manner which appears to be quite inconsistent with the recommendations of the guidelines. As I have already indicated none of these decisions appear to have been made in the context or against the background of any consideration of the guidelines. In many instances "local interests" appear to have overcome the concepts "local needs".
The judgment continues:
Whilst I am conscious of the fact that to a material extent, the guidelines were intended to be implemented by such zoning decisions, I take the view that the guidelines are themselves flawed to an extent in that they are and remain incomplete in failing to identify and define the type of consideration which they expect planning authorities to give them. Accordingly, although the nature and extent of the consideration given by the elected members of the Respondents to the Guidelines in the zoning of land for residential purposes gives rise to concern (and indeed unease), I am not satisfied that the evidence adduced on behalf of the applicants has established that, when making and adopting the Meath plan, the respondent failed to (have regard to) the Guidelines within the meaning of section 27 of the Act of 2000.
The second case to which I want to draw attention relates to strategic planning for County Kildare. The regional plan aims to allow Leixlip, Celbridge and Maynooth to grow to have populations of 15,000 each. The 2002 census showed that Leixlip had a population of more than 15,000 even before the regional plan was adopted. Land had been zoned at that time to provide for yet more development in the town. The population of Celbridge was approximately 200 short of 15,000 at that time and is likely to have exceeded 20,000 by the time the next census is undertaken. Balanced regional development will not and cannot occur unless the strategic plans are credible and adhered to. It will be impossible to plan and fund strategic infrastructure projects if that does not happen. Section 27 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, which was identified by Mr. Justice Quirke in his judgment, needs to be amended because it is at the core of strategic planning.
Delays in delivering infrastructure often relate to delays in approving projects. Approval was not given to proposals which had been supplied to the Department almost four years earlier until water from the regional waste water treatment plant at Sallins started spilling into the River Liffey upstream of Fingal's water treatment plant, which provides water to north and west Dublin, north Kildare and parts of Meath. The approval in question was only given on an incremental basis. Such delays are not caused by problems in the planning system.
Deputies referred earlier in this debate to the Transport 21 proposals such as the interconnector project, which will facilitate an additional 75 million passengers when it is finished in ten years' time. I hope it is finished on time. The proposed electrification of key railway lines is another example of a project that will not be pursued for many more years. We will not need to fast-track the planning system in such instances, because it will be possible to pursue them in parallel with other projects which are required.
I realise my time is limited so I want to highlight some other issues briefly before I conclude. I warmly welcome the changes in section 9 which will give extra powers to local authorities to weed out rogue developers. It is a very positive initiative. There is a provision there already, but this will reverse the responsibility, obviously, which is important.
We are aware of the consequences of project-splitting in the Rossport case. The community there was unable to make an adequate input into the proposal to develop a pipeline. Project-splitting did not lead to fast-tracking in that instance — if anything, it slowed the process. If we give the public time to interact with the planning process, we will make an investment in good decision making.
I do not agree that the planning appeals board should be turned into a planning authority. I agree with the EU's reasoned judgment that the fees charged at local authority level are wrong. The fees are substantially less than the fees which are charged by the planning appeals board. I would like the Minister, when he responds at the end of this debate, to clarify how this Bill will impact financially on people who make submissions, contributions or objections.
I note the Minister's coalition partners used their Private Members' time in the Seanad this week to debate the issue of management companies. We know about the problems which exist in that regard. I hoped, nine months after I identified the issue in the Dáil, that we would be starting to see some resolutions in this respect. I am unhappy that some measures in this area have not been included in the Bill. There are serious problems with green spaces in older housing estates. When developers left the estates decades ago, local authorities took roads and utilities in charge but not green spaces. The name of the original developer is still on the title for many green spaces. Some greedy developers have re-emerged to seek to build on green spaces on foot of the Government's introduction of increased densities. This Bill represents an opportunity to add suitable protections, for example by means of amendment. I intend to present some amendments to that end.
I will speak briefly about the issue of community gain, which has been used in County Kildare to get amenity land for sporting use and for school sites. People who own land are concerned about what they call its "hope value". It is often impossible to deliver amenity land for sporting facilities. This is the only way in which it can be delivered. I cannot say I am enthusiastic about this approach, but it is often the case that it has to be done in this way. This approach has delivered some valuable facilities in north Kildare.
The Minister's comment yesterday that "the Government is investing 5% of our gross national product in public infrastructure" highlights the extent to which we need to catch up. This Bill used to be called the critical infrastructure Bill. It is critically important that we match infrastructure to population. We will not have balanced regional development if we do not have some control in this regard. Section 27 of the 2000 Act is of absolute importance to that end. I hope the Minister will consider some amendments in this respect because the section in question is open to being disregarded by local authorities as it stands. It is impossible to plan the funding of critical infrastructure if we do not have a baseline on which that can be done.
I will speak in general terms about some of the issues raised by this legislation. As my contribution will be split, I will consider the Bill in detail when the debate resumes.
We need to move beyond the message that is often emphasised in the media and in political circles during debates on infrastructural development. I refer to the suggestion that we are incompetent, that we are unable to build things without going over budget and encountering delays and that things always go wrong for us. I do not think such an approach will help us to ensure this country makes progress. Having spent approximately 15 years campaigning in the area of infrastructural development, particularly transport projects, I have confidence in the people who are involved in this sector. I refer to people like Mr. Fred Barry, chief executive officer of the National Roads Authority. Now that the NRA has been given sufficient resources and is able to operate on a grand scale, we are starting to see that it is able to deliver roads which stand up to international comparison and to avail of the best international expertise. Mr. Frank Allen, chief executive officer of the Railway Procurement Agency, is a top-class financier who has worked with the World Bank and other institutions which deliver projects. I am proud that an Irish person like Mr. Allen can deliver internationally. I do not think there is any reason he and his team will not deliver here if we give them the proper resources and structures. I am happy to listen to and value the judgment of someone like Mr. John Henry, director of the Dublin Transportation Office, because his views, analysis, experience and expertise as an engineer and a planner are the best one could get anywhere in the world.
When I consider the ability of officials like those I have mentioned, I am convinced that the ability and talent we need is available to us. Therefore, what is the problem? I have to state clearly and in a neutral and objective manner that, from my experience, the problem is purely political. The Ministers who have been in office for the past ten years have been incompetent and short-sighted in their approach. They have been compromised. They are secretive and insensitive. When one examines the decisions they have made over the past ten years it is clear they have always been political, rather than strategic, in their thinking. This country has suffered as a result of the form of thinking that has been a feature of those at the highest level. Regardless of how good one's officials, planners and engineers are, one has a problem if thinking at the most senior political level is so short-sighted and narrow and is so informed by vested interests. I am confident this State's officials can deliver, but I have no confidence in the ability of the office of the Minister opposite to deliver the right transport, waste and other infrastructure.
The Minister may laugh, but I could give details of the incompetent handling of many projects over the past ten years that has cost the people dearly. The legislation that is enacted by the Minister, Deputy Roche, is not the most important factor in determining whether we succeed — the most important factor is whether we can get the likes of the Minister and his colleague, Deputy Cullen, out of office. That is necessary if we are to have some proper planning and thinking at the very highest level. I will make more detailed comments on this legislation during the latter part of my speech.