Wednesday, 14 June 2006
Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).
In yesterday's debate, I went through some of the key features of the Bill. There will be major changes to the way in which the board handles infrastructural consents, including the possibility of pre-application discussions with the applicant and more flexibility in the decisions the board can make on these applications. This provision is inappropriate to the board as it gives an inside track to developers and creates a serious disadvantage for individuals and communities concerned about such major infrastructural developments.
The Bill also gives power to the board to amend decisions on major infrastructural projects, subject to requiring any major additional environmental impacts to be assessed. It also empowers the board to require infrastructure providers to provide direct benefits to local communities affected by major infrastructural projects. I will come back to that point later. It also requires the board to have regard to the national interest and any effect a decision may have on issues of strategic economic or social importance to the State as well as to the national spatial strategy, and any regional planing guidelines in force for the area.
Section 35 of the Planning Act is to be amended to make it easier for authorities to reach a decision to refuse a consent without recourse to the High Court. Instead, it will be a matter for the applicant who is refused permission, to seek confirmation of the High Court that the planning authority must reconsider its initial decision. I welcome that provision. While local authorities are allowed to take into account the history of developers concerning previous contacts, dealings and planning applications, they were required to go to the High Court to refuse a consent. This is a good provision in so far as it puts the onus on the applicant to go to the High Court to seek a ruling that the planning authority must reconsider its initial decision.
The Bill is flawed overall, however, and I have serious concerns and reservations about it. Far from expediting the planning process, the Bill is an attack on democracy and will undermine local authorities, while sidelining small people who need to have their planning concerns addressed. The Bill looks after big developers but sidelines individuals and communities who require the support of the planning process. The thrust of the Bill reduces the involvement of local authorities and members of the public who are concerned with planning matters. Effectively, the Bill gives big wheels access to power and privilege, while undermining community and individual rights in this respect. It is difficult for an individual or a small community to take on big private developers, local authorities or State agencies.
The Bill should be dealing with a series of areas in the planning process but fails to do so. They include the implementation of the Kenny report which was published in the early 1970s. I was a young clerical officer in South Tipperary County Council at the time and I know there was a big welcome for that report by local authorities, public representatives and the general public. The report recommended methods for dealing with rezoning and developers' windfall profits. Had it been implemented, the report would have avoided the debacle of the various tribunals that have arisen as a result of rezoning controversies, particularly in the Dublin area, thus rendering them unnecessary. At no stage was it suggested that the Kenny report was unconstitutional. Indeed, it was always, and still is, believed that the report's recommendations were constitutional. Even at this late stage, the report's key elements should be included in the Bill.
The Minister and the Government should take this opportunity to deal with estate management companies, which are now being included by every local authority in planning permissions. It is a rip-off for individuals who have purchased houses in private estates. Even this morning, the Taoiseach agreed this provision was not meant to apply to private housing estates. It may have been meant for apartment complexes which needed specific management owing to the number of apartments. The opportunity provided by the Bill should be used to deal with the question of management companies. There is no doubt that significant costs are being met by individuals who buy houses in private estates but who never understood they would be lumbered with these charges which can range from €500 to €2,000 per annum. The charges are included in the initial contract of purchase of houses and young couples purchasing houses in difficult circumstances and under financial pressure are not aware, in the majority of cases if not all, that these charges arise.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should immediately instruct county managers to desist from putting this condition regarding the management of estates into planning permissions. He should then take advantage of the opportunity provided by the Bill to change the law in this regard and stop management companies effectively ripping off young house buyers.
The enforcement procedures in place in local authorities are inadequate. I am dealing with a case where a complaint made in February 2005 has not yet been finalised and has not even reached the courts. There should be a streamlining of the enforcement procedures, possibly through a separate enforcement section in local authorities.
I would like to refer to many other issues but, owing to time constraints, will not have the opportunity to do so. I will hand over to Deputy Sargent.
For many, the Bill marks a sad day. It is an admission by Government that it has not managed to bring the people with it in regard to projects and infrastructure that it believes strongly need to be developed. It is, therefore, taking away the consultation and planning element that would otherwise have ensured maximum participation. That is not just to be regretted but is also a recipe for crude decision making in the future. It will lead to decisions that will have to be revisited in time.
The issues of transport, energy, airports, harbours, landfills, incinerators, waste and water projects are all covered by the Bill. The legacy of the Government has been to favour developments which are very energy intensive and ultimately unsustainable. For example, transport spending has an unbalanced ratio of 4:1 in favour of the roads programme. We need roads but we also need a balance, in particular given the high cost of energy, so rail, which is needed, will become an energy efficient means of transport. We are not getting the rail infrastructure we need, such as the western rail corridor or the railway to Navan with links to Kingscourt, as Deputy Crawford noted. The re-opening of the railways would not cost as much as building new roads.
Much of the infrastructure that has been developed would indicate that the Bill is a recipe for driving a coach and four through the sustainability that should be at the heart of Government decision making. In my constituency, a new runway at Dublin Airport will compound the imbalance between development in the east and the west while Shannon and Cork are crying out for increased business. The runway at Dublin Airport will compound the Minister's problems, as well as problems in my constituency in terms of congestion. The Bill will not answer the needs of the country given the track record of the Government to date.
The Government favours a big is beautiful approach. It favours a large landfill instead of many smaller segregation, recycling and recovery operations. It favours a large incinerator rather than waste reduction technologies, composting and smaller-scale operations that would make better use of energy.
There is a policy issue in this regard, which is opposed by my party, but there is also a legal issue in the context of the Aarhus Convention, based on Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration of 1992, which states:
Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunities to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.
That convention was enacted in 2005 by an amendment of EU Directive 2003/35/EC, which regulates how we assess the environmental impact of proposed developments. Article 10a of that directive states that, first, "members of the public [shall] have access to a review procedure before a court" or other impartial body, second, environmental bodies shall be deemed to have an interest in this decision-making process and, third, the "procedure shall be fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive".
On the last point, a judicial review is seen as being available if one is dissatisfied with a development. However, the cost of going through a judicial review would mean it is against the Aarhus Convention. I ask that the Government would rethink the Bill and consider the position in other countries, for example, Sweden, where there was a national plan to get away from reliance on oil. The Bill is moving in the opposite direction. It suggests that we want to proceed with the motorway programme and incinerators, and it does not rule out nuclear power, although the Government has stated that is not on the agenda. However, a thermal plant as proposed in the Bill could easily fit under that description.
The "big is beautiful" approach is not the energy efficient approach. Whatever one's political viewpoint, there is a geological reality which must be dealt with, either willingly or eventually by recognising that the writing is on the wall. The big is beautiful approach includes Thornton prison, for example. A sum of €30 million of public money has been spent just to buy the agricultural land. This is not a good use of public money; it is not good for the people who are supposed to be rehabilitated and it is not good for the local community. The Bill is an attempt to drive a coach and four through the best interests of local communities, a move that must be opposed.
I welcome the Bill. It is important to bear in mind its principal objectives and the reason it was introduced. Approximately two years ago the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, which I have the privilege of chairing, published an extensive report on planning, private property, compulsory purchase and infrastructural development generally. It assessed how our current legislative and administrative arrangements ensured balance between the private and public good, as laid down in the Constitution. It made recommendations for constitutional and legislative changes where considered necessary or desirable.
The committee comprises 14 members and is the biggest committee in the House. It was enlarged following a request from the Taoiseach to incorporate representatives of the smaller groups, including the Green Party, Independent Members and Sinn Féin. We unanimously agreed to this approach. It was felt the current regime did not favour progress and development in Ireland. However, we excluded the building of nuclear plants and incinerators.
The report was the result of the gathering of a great deal of information and analysis provided by key development bodies such as the National Roads Authority, the Railway Procurement Agency, the Dublin Transportation Office and Forfás, as well as professional bodies, including the Institution of Engineers, the Irish Planning Institute, the Society of Chartered Surveyors and the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland, among others. We gathered the information and analysed it.
Deputy Healy mentioned the Kenny report and said no action had been taken on it. After approximately 16 months of deliberation, the committee came to the conclusion that the Kenny approach was not too bad.
The report recommended that land be acquired for schools, roads, water schemes and so forth at market value, that is, agricultural value plus25%. I am of the view that it should be double the market value, given that it is based on agricultural values. I am aware of several instances where major infrastructural developments were delayed.
In addition to this information and direction, the committee received the best available advice on the Constitution, as well as having the benefit of both written and oral submissions from the law reform committee of the Law Society. Naturally, I urge Deputies to read the ninth progress report of the committee. I am glad it is no longer gathering dust because some of our recommendations have been taken on board in the Bill. As I do not wish to be accused of over-burdening colleagues, I draw their attention to chapter 3 of the report, a relatively short chapter which deals with the planning system.
It was clear to the committee that the existing planning system, whether for major or rural development, was not serving the common good and the public. Recently I discovered an alarming situation. I fight hard for the electoral area I have represented for almost 20 years, Bantry and Schull. It now holds the record for the highest number of objections to one-off rural housing. The objections are made by An Taisce. In fact, somebody at managerial level in the council told me recently that it accounted for almost 50% of all the objections to rural housing which go to An Bord Pleanála. Approximately 95% of the objections made by An Taisce are upheld by An Bord Pleanála.
For many years people from the Sheep's Head Peninsula, the Mizen Peninsula and the Beara Peninsula were forced to emigrate. This continued through the years of my youth. Now, people can get jobs and want to stay. They should be allowed to build houses, play in the local football team, get involved in the community and rear their families. I was recently in a place called Ahakista where six planning permission applications were granted for local people by the county manager. These applications were from young couples, some of whom had young families and others who intended to start families. According to the last census figures, there was a 16% decrease in the population of the area. The number of pupils at the local national school in Ahakista is down to 13. On the one hand, the CLÁR programme tries to retain and maintain rural communities, while, on the other, An Bord Pleanála rejects the applications of persons who wish to live in their communities. However, there are many holiday homes in Ahakista; the ratio is 2:1 against the homes of local people. Council policy in this area must be examined and addressed.
A section of that chapter in the report deals with the provision of infrastructure and covers major infrastructural work being undertaken for the provision of roads, rail services, waste management schemes, broadband and so forth. Also covered is an analysis of current planning procedures and the need for co-ordination and consultation between Departments and agencies involved in infrastructure delivery. The vexed subject of infrastructure delays is also examined. These delays happen and I can offer an example.
In 1985 the planning process commenced for a new regional water scheme for the Bantry area, covering a population of up to 17,000, which has probably increased. There were public hearings and full inquiries. In 1989 a plan was submitted to dam Drumbrow Lake but an environmental group found a rare underwater lily which has since vanished and the project had to go back to the drawing board. In 2006, 21 years later, that regional water scheme is still delayed. That is not right.
There is an important hospital in Bantry which serves the community of west Cork. A factory owned by Rowa Pharmaceuticals Limited employs approximately 140 people. It is a huge bonus to west Cork. Due to the dangers of e.coli contamination of the water, two years ago the company was obliged to spend €150,000 to provide a purification system to ensure the water quality was right. The area has suffered. I believe 50% of people in the general area, myself included, are buying water if they do not have bored wells. It has taken 21 years to plan this project. There have been objections and various problems during the years. The current plan is funded under the 2003-06 infrastructural development measure of the national development plan. The initial stage will cost €16 million and I expect the overall project to cost double that amount when it is extended to places such as Durris, Glengariff, Kealkill, Kilcrohane and the surrounding area. It is a disgrace and an indictment of our planning system that 21 years after the process was started, we still do not have a regional water scheme. That is the reason I welcome the Bill. I am sure Bantry is not unique. There is plenty of water in the sea but it is not potable.
There is an endeavour to build a new community college in Skibberreen. Three schools are due to amalgamate and the new school will provide capacity for more than 1,100 children. For the past 15 months the Office of Public Works has tried hard to find a site in or around Skibberreen and has now looked at its 13th site. There should be a mechanism, whereby the local council or the OPW, in the case of important community facilities such as schools, hospitals, crèches and so forth, can compulsorily acquire land to provide them.
There is a similar problem for a national school in Kinsale called Summercove. It has been established for almost ten years and needs a new school building. When one mentions the price of land in Kinsale and the surrounding area, various figures come to mind. It could be millions. If we do not control the situation, ordinary people in our society will suffer because they will not be provided with facilities. If this problem is acute in west Cork, Skibbereen, Bantry, Kinsale surely it is much more acute in Kildare and areas outside Dublin which are expanding.
Members of the committee were impressed by the level of progress achieved in the provision of major infrastructural projects in the past decade and by the investment in infrastructure under the national development plan. We also recognise that in several respects we are lagging behind European norms. We identified a number of infrastructural deficits that should be addressed. I am happy to note that many of the key recommendations of the committee are effectively addressed in the Bill. My good friend, Deputy James Breen, from the Independent Group has challenged the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Taoiseach on why that report was not being implemented. I am sure he will recognise we are making progress.
A key recommendation of the committee was that major strategic infrastructural projects in transport, sewerage, or in water supply such as the project in Bantry, should be regulated by statute and there should be a one-stop shop approach to planning procedure for them. The Bill achieves that objective and for that reason I support it wholeheartedly.
In examining delays in delivery of infrastructure and in seeking to improve matters it is important to state that not all infrastructural projects have been delayed. It is a pity the acknowledged delays in some high profile projects have obscured the fact that a large number of projects have been delivered efficiently and on time. The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, will recognise that the Ballincollig bypass was delivered under the original projected cost and nine months ahead of time. Such details are sometimes missed when we hear of delays in other projects.
The committee notes in particular the urgent necessity for improved compulsory purchase procedures. It recommended that the legislation on compulsory purchase should be updated and standardised in a way that would make identifying property to be acquired much simpler and less subject to delay than in the past and would achieve better outcomes in assessing compensation. In this regard the council provided almost €1 million last year to kick start a relief road in Bantry. The need for such a relief road has been apparent for almost 20 years. There are problems with the acquisition of land for same. The Bill will go some way towards addressing such problems.
Deputies will agree it is necessary going forward with infrastructural projects to dispense with the traditional cumbersome referencing system that caused so many headaches and delays for the Railway Procurement Agency during the early purchase stages of the Luas project. For that reason the committee recommended a change in the procedure for identifying compensatable interests in lands to be acquired in order that owners rather than the acquiring authority should be obliged to identify their interest to the acquiring authority. In other words, the land owner should be obliged to identify his property rather than Luas or the local authority wasting weeks, months and sometimes years in trying to identify who owns the property. This could be achieved simply by posting a notice on the property and in the local media for a specified period stating that a project is being carried out and inviting the land owner to come forward and identify himself with a view to dealing with the compensation issue. It should be emphasised that the owner is entitled to compensation on the basis of the market value of his or her property. The owner should not be at a loss. What we are seeking is a regime that is fair to the individual and the community and which is as clear, simple and speedy as possible.
Much of the committee's findings and recommendations are reflected in the Bill. It is recognised that less than 5% of our energy needs are provided in Ireland. Nobody cuts turf anymore. We have some hydro electricity but it is frightening that more than 90% of our energy, gas, oil or coal, is imported. This cannot continue. We all agree that the price of oil is spiralling. Experts say that in 40 years' time there will be a huge problem with diminishing oil and gas reserves while the US and other superpowers such as China, which is expanding at an alarming rate and recently completed the largest hydro dam, are still dependent on huge coal excavations. However, that cannot continue into the future. If Ireland which is minuscule is to comply with the Kyoto agreement and others, the notion of burning coal in cities will be a major problem.
What concerns me is the not-in-my-backyard attitude that appears to have developed in Ireland. As a councillor in the western committee of Cork County Council I advocated, almost 15 years ago, the need for wind and wave energy in Ireland and all kinds of biofuels from whatever source. I am glad that in my area a project supported by the west Cork community partnership and backed by the Department is carrying out tests on growing elephant grass which can be used to produce alternative energy. I am concerned that everywhere there is a proposal to build a wind farm it will be proposed by public private partnerships but there must be an input into the building wind farms by the business community and so on.
The Electricity Supply Act was passed in 1927. In the pocket of the Sheep Head's peninsula where I grew up we got a telephone in 1967 because my mother had a bed and breakfast and we got electricity in 1976. This was probably one of the last regions to be connected, bar the Black Valley in Kerry. In this day and age even with a population explosion we are still objecting to wind farms. One incident in my area that caused uproar is still continuing and went to the courts and there was blame on all sides. The council and the ESB, as the developer, should have found a route through farms, across approximately 16 km of countryside, that, as far as possible, did not impact on people's farmyards, houses and so on. A route was suggested but the local authority backed off because it went through an old cillíneach, where nobody had been buried for more than 100 years, and was a special area of conservation. Yet it had no difficulty in building either pylons or planting huge poles or a 38 KV line, within 50 m of a person's house or yard. I am assured from a health perspective of the seriousness of these concerns which create much local unease. Those in the cillíneach, the little graveyard, would not create any problem while the birds and the bees in the special area of conservation should be looked on less favourably, with all due respect, than people and children. There was much local concern.
There is a need for more wind farms in Ireland. Whoever is in Government in 20 years' time will have to guarantee to the next generation that in 15 or 20 years' time at least 60% of our energy will come from our island. Given that we are surrounded by water and wind I fail to see why we do not make greater demands in this area and get a greater input from the public. There is a good deal of money around. Rather than invest in foreign shores more should be done to develop wind farms and to explore the area of wave energy. Wave energy has hardly been touched. The French have pioneered a system whereby the modus operandi for wave energy would be submerged 5 m or 6 m under the water and there would be revolving troughs where waves go in and out and keep rotating and create electricity. Ireland is an island with a huge coastline and many season harbours and we should create more energy without interfering with fishermen or their rights.
Deputy Sargent mentioned the notion of nuclear power. The people rejected that long ago, but we should note that Argentina is commissioning its sixth nuclear plant in the past decade. That is how it regards nuclear power, of which France is also in favour. Our neighbours in Great Britain will pursue a similar path.
It should be noted that, in the 25 to 30 years since the involvement of Judge Kenny, there has been a notion that such a Bill, if introduced, would be struck down as unconstitutional. We achieved at least one thing in the 15 or 16 months of deliberation of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, of which I was Chairman, namely, bringing this report to fruition. All-party agreement was involved and members of all parties were deeply involved in the process. We concluded that, weighing up the exigencies of social justice and the common good, such legislation as we have before us is likely to be upheld by the High Court and the Supreme Court. We should have had this Bill a number of years ago, but it is now coming through and I hope its principle will find all-party support. The Opposition parties may want to tease out different issues, but the principle of the Bill is good and timely and, going by our research, will stand any constitutional test in the courts. I am quietly confident of that.
I congratulate Deputy O'Donovan on his fine speech, except for where he seemed to soften on the nuclear energy issue. That could be explored another day and it would be interesting to hear what the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will say later.
I am glad to speak on this important legislation. I will quote from the Constitution two Articles which we should all remind ourselves of on a regular basis, especially Ministers, who from time to time seem to lose touch with what is going on. Article 6 of the Constitution states:
All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good.
Deputy O'Donovan mentioned the common good initially. Meanwhile, Article 16 of the Constitution states that "Dáil Éireann shall be composed of members who represent constituencies determined by law." As Members of this House, we are here to represent the people and must not forget that. We do not represent big business or anyone else other than the people. We are sent by the people to represent them in this House. If we forget that, we are on a loser.
I will note an example of planning. In 1997, when I was standing for election, a major controversy arose in Cork, of which the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, is well aware. The ESB wanted to build a series of pylons around Cork harbour to bring power from the Aghada station to the other side. The ESB obtained planning permission from the local authority and the permission was upheld by An Bord Pleanála. Council members then rejected the project and the issue went to the courts, which decided the council members acted ultra vires, outside their powers, and overturned the decision. There was a danger that the council members could have been personally liable for the costs involved. The courts granted permission and the project was set to go. However, the people in the area were not happy, and parallel to the legal application, a major campaign opposing the project was ongoing.
Initially, the ESB did not engage, but the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment at the time, the then Deputy and now Senator O'Rourke, intervened and convinced both sides to accept a mediator, which they did. To give all sides their due, they thrashed out the issues together. The pylons have not been constructed and will not be, but a compromise was reached. It took ten years for common sense to prevail.
The point is that we must not lose sight of the fact that we represent the people. I would like to see in this Bill a provision for an early attempt at mediation where there is a dispute. I know the Minister of State can imagine the agony, heartache, worry, time, energy and expense ordinary people had to go to in order to take on the ESB at that stage, a semi-State company with almost infinite resources.
This Bill is in part meant to speed up the planning process. The example I have given shows the process could have been speeded up in a sensible way if common sense had prevailed initially regarding those pylons. Speaking to some groups in my constituency recently, I noted that when a project is proposed and people find out about it, it takes time for them to inform themselves about it and its details, and to begin to learn and become educated about what is proposed. Often, the learning takes place during the campaign process. If one speeds it up too fast, that learning process can get lost.
What is crucially important regarding this issue is that public confidence must be maintained at a high level. If it is lost, we are all sunk because people will not agree to major projects being pushed through unless they have confidence in the process and in the projects being put forward.
There is another proposal close to the heart of the Minister of State, namely, the construction of two commercial incinerators in Ringaskiddy. I received a letter from the chairperson of an action group in Cork which opposes the construction of such incinerators. The letter gives an idea what the people think about planning, what they are going through and have gone through, and the fears they have regarding this legislation. With respect, it is up to us to address and allay those fears. That is our job. We are elected to this House by the people. If we do not do that, we all fail.
The chairperson of the group said:
I am writing to you as chairperson of Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment, CHASE, a community group that represents over 30,000 people in the greater harbour area of Cork, who are opposed to the construction of two commercial incinerators in Ringaskiddy.
In addressing the incinerator proposal at Ringaskiddy, CHASE feels it has followed the democratic process for the planning and environmental control of these developments to the letter. We engaged at every level, wholeheartedly participating in both a planning oral hearing and an EPA oral hearing.
The chairperson notes that among the issues of most concern to the group is what it describes as "the threat this development poses to public health". I have gone through this Bill and see no reference to health. When he makes his response, I hope the Minister of State will correct that. With regard to ESB pylons, of which Deputy O'Donovan spoke, incineration and other such projects, one of the issues people are concerned about is the threat to public health. We must recognise that people are afraid for their children and themselves.
The CHASE group chairperson noted that the other issues of most concern to the community are the threat to public safety, conflict with the development plan and the Cork area strategic plan, overturning democratically made local decisions to refuse planning permission, ignoring site selection criteria, and an unsuitable site.
The chairperson's letter continues:
In his report to An Bord Pleanála, the inspector gave 14 reasons why this facility should not get planning permission, one of them being that he could not guarantee this development did not pose a threat to public safety. This is a major worry to the community and justifies our concerns to date.
The inspector, the expert agent sent by An Bord Pleanála, conducted an oral hearing and came up with 14 reasons the project should not go ahead. Nevertheless, An Bord Pleanála approved the project because of Government policy. What was the point in having an oral hearing in the first place? How can the public have confidence in the process when this occurs?
I challenge the Minister of State, or any Minister, to answer these points, if they can.
The process does not make sense to me or to the 30,000 people in Cork represented by CHASE. People are concerned that it will become even more streamlined, meaning they will not have time to research applications and marshal their arguments. The letter continues:
At the recent EPA oral hearing we learned that no risk assessment on health or the environment has ever been done by Indaver Ireland, the company proposing the development. Despite [slick] presentations by this company for the last four years, it was only when searching questions were asked by the community and some cogent facts and figures were presented, that the truth finally emerged.
One of our worries is that neither Indaver Ireland or the EPA have taken the care and due diligence that befits an application of this magnitude. Without intervention by community groups like ours, the planning and other issues on which the State makes decisions on behalf of all of us, would in this case have been set aside in a headlong rush to facilitate this development. The protection of people's health and environment are fundamental to the principles on which our Constitution is based, and therefore we feel fully justified in our challenge to this development.
As you are probably aware, there is a Government proposal to "fast track" developments such as this via a new infrastructure board. While we do not yet know the terms of reference or structure of such a board, it will almost certainly mean that public consultation and a truly democratic decision-making process would be seriously undermined. The idea of fast tracking can only lead to corners being cut and any meaningful participation by communities who are to host such facilities will be seriously eroded.
Central to the planning system in this state is the concept that planning decisions should be based on a democratic consensus between the stakeholder groups rather than the autocratic imposition of a single point of view "in the common good". We are worried that the fast tracking of major development proposals will seriously undermine the democratic and consensual principles of our planning system. It is totally at odds with the principles of planning not to view all aspects of planning in a holistic manner.
Community groups like ours have a serious vested interest in fully evaluating applications for major facilities. It is in our interest to evaluate the safety, health and environmental implications of such developments on our lives and the quality of the lives of our children and future generations. Communities are uniquely positioned to identify problems, as they are the main stakeholders. The value of this unique perspective cannot be understated in the planning process.
It was the public consultation process that allowed the truth about our particular application to be exposed. This process must not be lost. Local planning policies such as county-city development plans and CASP in relation to Cork county, are policies that have been agreed and drafted in consultation with the people and those we elect at a local level to represent us. A national infrastructure board will simply facilitate "present Government policy" at the cost of national policy and indeed local county policy.
The pressure on our environment arising from rapid economic growth is such that we cannot afford the erosion of our democracy any further. We have seen far too often in recent times too many decisions being made in favour of the lobbyists at the expense of sound planning principles.
Hence the establishment of the tribunals. The letter continues:
While the present system has its problems in relation to objections to some proposals, we feel it would be far more helpful for the Government to look at why this is so. Further isolating communities from the decision-making process is not, in our opinion, the answer. A quote from a Government commissioned report sums up the issue well:
Public trust, whether it is placed in the regulators, in compliance with the regulations of in the information provided, will be fundamental in achieving even a modicum of consensus for any future developments in waste policy in Ireland. (Health Research Bureau summary, 2003).
This infrastructure board comes at too high a price for the development of a healthy and balanced society and is a price that many people may not be willing to pay.
These are the views and concerns of the CHASE group on the Bill's proposals, based on its past experience.
Section 3 provides for an amendment to the principal Act to provide for any relevant policies of the Government, the Minister or any other Minister of the Government to be taken into account by the board. No indication is given as to how these will be weighted. The other provisions in the amending section relate to "the provisions of a development plan or plans for an area, the provisions of any special amenity area order relating to the area, the national interest, the national spatial strategy" and so forth. No indication is given as to how the board should weigh up these factors. Does one take precedence over the other? Does the relevant Government policy take precedence over all other matters? The board must be guided in this respect.
The amending section also provides for the construction or the financing, in whole or in part, of the construction of a facility, or the provision or the financing, in whole or in part, in the area. If a facility is to be constructed in a particular area, the developer must compensate the people affected. Planning permission, however, may be required if it is a building.
The amending section states:
(8) A condition attached pursuant to subsection (7)(d) shall not require such an amount of financial resources to be committed for the purposes of the condition being complied with as would substantially deprive the person in whose favour the permission operates of the benefits likely to accrue from the grant of the permission.
It does not, however, specify how such a bond will be ascertained.
During the consideration of an application, the expenses incurred by the board must be paid by the person making the application or objection. Does that apply if the permission is refused? If the permission is refused, could difficulties arise? Can the board make a decision to help an individual or group pay costs in such a scenario? The ESB pylon and CHASE groups in Cork incurred considerable costs to their own expense. It is a David and Goliath situation — the local community versus a major developer. The State must set up a mechanism to balance this and make independent finance available to a responsible objector to enable him or her to carry out research to put his or her case. It can be an extraordinarily expensive process. Many groups have had to raise enormous sums of money to secure expert witnesses, some from overseas, for oral hearings.
The enforcement of regulations concerning planning breaches is weak, a concern held by many groups. If a planning application gets the go-ahead who will independently enforce test emissions, for example? The resources must be made available to enforce regulations. For example, if a building is put up near an individual's house and he or she objects, he or she then must give his or her name and address. This is available to the developer. If the developer is not particularly pleasant, he or she can make life difficult for the objector. This often prevents people from complaining about unauthorised developments. I accept there is the danger of frivolous objections but a balance is required. People are afraid to make complaints for fear a brick will be thrown through their windows at night.
A provision preventing the construction of nuclear power facilities must be included in the Bill. There is a chance such projects may be fast-tracked, which is not what the people want.
Delays are not always caused by objectors but are also caused by administrative, legal and judicial factors. I welcome the provisions that will prevent these delays. I also welcome the provision in section 9 by which a local authority can refuse planning permission to a developer based on past record. If a cowboy built an estate, made a mess of it and walked away, leaving a nuisance and all manner of problems, the local authority can refuse him or her if he or she seeks planning permission at a later stage. That is an important element of the Bill.
The Bill could incorporate the taking in charge of estates by local authorities as this appears to take forever. This matter should be examined. Auctioneers' signs sometimes appear to stay in place for long periods following the sale of a property and are a blight on the landscape. Will the Minister endeavour to ensure auctioneers take down signs once a property is sold?
Legislation does not appear to cover the requirement to seek permission for mobile hen houses. This is an unusual matter. If a person wishes to produce organic eggs or chickens, a hen house on wheels can be used and moved around a field. These can be reasonably large structures. Will the Minister examine the matter with a view to having it included in the legislation? A person approached me in this regard but I could not find any reference to the matter in the Bill.
Batt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context
The Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill is hardly the appropriate place to address that issue.
Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire as an mBille seo a thabhairt os ár gcomhair inniu. Tá sé an-tábhachtach, agus tá pleanáil an-tábhachtach don ghnáthdhuine, do mhuintir na tuaithe agus mhuintir na cathrach mar aon.
I congratulate the Minister for bringing forward the Bill. Since I was elected to the House, planning has probably been the third most important issue I have come across, after crime and the health service. It affects practically everyone in rural and urban areas.
The Bill amends the Act of 2002. Many years ago I studied the 1963 Act when I was a student in UCD. The Act of 2002 must be amended in order that strategic infrastructure can be put in place. The Bill provides for this by allowing for a single stage process and a rigorous assessment of all projects, including their environmental impact, public consultation and, above all, certainty of timeframes. It takes so long to get full planning permission for an infrastructural project that the proposal is often rendered uneconomic. If a private investor has to withdraw, he or she is at a significant loss because the pre-planning process costs so much before plans are even drawn up. If the State or a local authority is involved, the taxpayer picks up the bill, often unfairly.
I hope the Minister will go further and also examine smaller projects that are less important on a national scale but of great importance to an individual or a locality. The time taken to acquire planning permission for these projects must also be examined, in addition to their socio-economic and environmental impact.
An Bord Pleanála already has responsibility for roads, motorways, waterways etc. and the Bill correctly extends its remit. The most difficult aspect of planning is the delay in the timeframe. No one knows how long the process will take. One cannot operate in that way in the 21st century. Currently, planning decisions can be appealed from the county council to An Bord Pleanála and then to judicial review. It is important that everybody should have his or her say. However, I would like to see the Bill addressing what I regard as malicious objectors, those who persistently and routinely object to proposals. Such people do exist. One can have a person from County Donegal or outside the country objecting to a project in County Wexford. I accept we are all part of a big European Community but there must be a balance between economic necessity and environmental desirability. Too often projects fall down in spite of their economic necessity. In many cases, those who have been to the forefront with their objections pack their bags and leave the country once a project has been refused permission. Every delay causes significant loss, not just to private developers but also to taxpayers.
It is important that the rights of the individual are protected and the proposed public consultation process takes this into account. In getting rid of the local authority planning stage it is important to ensure the specialist division of An Bord Pleanála will be properly financed to consider projects of strategic infrastructural importance. In future An Bord Pleanála will decide on what is strategically important.
The Bill proposes to give a specific role to elected representatives. I compliment Deputy Stanton on his contribution because on at least three occasions he referred to the reason we were here. Public representatives are elected to local authorities or the Dáil to represent and give effect to the aspirations of the majority of ordinary people. In many cases in the past the aspirations of ordinary people were not part of the planning process. Too often the views of the minority take precedence over the views of the majority who elect us, irrespective of which party we come from.
A balance must be struck between economic necessity, job creation in rural Ireland and the protection of, for example, badgers and foxes. I make no apology for stating people and their needs should always take precedence over the needs of the environment. I am not someone who would like to see the environment destroyed. As a teacher, I was involved for many years in environmental preservation. However, it is important that if a project will create jobs or get us from A to B more quickly than would otherwise be the case, that these should be overriding concerns of planners.
I am delighted to refer Deputy Stanton to a provision in the Bill that gives a new specific role to county managers who will be required to obtain and forward the views of the elected members of the council to the board. That is one of the most important aspects of the Bill and reflective of a Minister who is in touch. I am sure not a day goes by when Deputies from every party, including Ministers and Opposition spokespersons, receive people who give them first-hand accounts of the frustration they experience.
I hope the Minister, Deputy Roche, who has been most proactive and the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, will look not just at major projects but also at the ones which concern the lives of ordinary people. Very often this may relate to the desire of a farmer who has worked hard all his or her life to provide a site for his or her children. Given the state of farming, very often farmers have little else to give their children. The position of such a person must be reflected in what we, as elected representatives, do. In my short experience in the House, this does not always happen.
I compliment Deputy Dempsey on his contribution. The last point he made is one that is brought home to me on a regular basis.
I have heard it discussed by many colleagues. This is the difficulty of securing planning permission for one-off houses in rural areas for people indigenous to the locality such as local farmers' children and cottagers. Such persons encounter major difficulties in securing planning permission in the areas in which they have lived all their lives. Many are treated in an appalling manner. It is sometimes the case that speculators manage to get around the planning laws, while a genuine person from the locality cannot get permission to build a house a few metres down the road. As the previous Deputy correctly said, people in rural areas are not cash-rich and many farmers cannot afford to provide their children with cash to help them purchase a house. What they have, however, is the valuable commodity of a potential site which may be crucial in helping their children to set up their own homes.
We are rapidly losing sight of what is happening. A year ago the Taoiseach indicated that he would address the issue of rural planning by issuing new guidelines to local authorities. Even taking account of the long lead-in time in terms of county development plans, I see little evidence that these guidelines have filtered through to rural localities. Throughout the 20 years I have spent in public life I have encountered many who were dissatisfied with their dealings with local authorities on planning matters. Even some of those who secure planning permission are left with a sour taste in their mouth because of their perception that they were put through the wringer and that obstacles were placed at every turn to thwart their intentions. Something must be done about this.
My party has indicated its general support for the Bill, while pointing to some difficulties arising from it. The Bill is something of a reactionary response to delays that have occurred in providing several infrastructural projects. I am not convinced it will address these issues, although the Minister may be able to reassure us on that point.
Most of the problems that have emerged in major infrastructural projects have revolved around the architectural Acts implemented over many years which deal with such matters as the protection of archaeological sites. It is the provisions of this legislation which have resulted in many of these cases going to court. It is still possible that legal challenges may be made to proposed major infrastructural projects because a person who is not satisfied with a decision of An Bord Pleanála may seek a judicial review. In addition to the challenges arising in regard to archaeological sites, there have been significant delays in project planning, overshoots, delays and so on. To what extent will the Bill address these difficulties?
We must be conscious of striking the correct balance between local democracy and the need for ongoing infrastructural developments. As we get older as a democracy, it seems we are intent on passing over more of the decision-making duties to entities over which we have no control, perhaps because we no longer want the responsibility of making decisions. When I first became a Member of this House, for example, one could have asked the Minister for Transport about the N4 or N6 and received an update report on developments, whether funding was likely to be available and so on. Now, however, the Minister can refer such questions to the National Roads Authority. Questions to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform about the Garda are now directed to the Garda Commissioner. Likewise, questions on most aspects of the health service are passed to the Health Service Executive.
We are abandoning significant decision-making powers to others who are not accountable in the same way as elected politicians. In this context, we must strike the correct balance between retaining public confidence in the system and ensuring the system is fair. When there was a crisis in regard to incinerators and waste management some years ago, the Government of the day decided county councillors could not be trusted and that responsibility in this area should be given entirely to the county manager. This is not a good way of conducting business. If we are to enhance local democracy by allowing councillors to draw up county development plans and so on, we should not reduce their powers by saying they are not competent to make decisions about waste management, the location of dumps and so on. Unfortunately, that unsatisfactory system is already in place.
Many have little faith in the planning process. It is regularly the case that apparently strange decisions are made by both An Bord Pleanála and local authorities. For many the conditions attaching to planning permission, whether imposed by An Bord Pleanála or the local authority, and the enforcement thereof are a cause of aggravation. I could give many examples. St. Mary's in Mullingar, for instance, was a beautiful traditional stone-built Famine hospital, constructed in 1841, and one of only two of its type from that period. When a monument was being built in France some years ago to commemorate the soldiers who had died in the Second World War, somebody decided the stone from this hospital would be ideal for the purpose and proceeded to knock down an unused part of the building. With others, I protested about this and eventually the matter was referred for adjudication to An Bord Pleanála, which body in its wisdom decided that the Midland Health Board was incorrect to knock down the building and instructed that it be restored to its original state, even though the stone had been transported to France and used in the construction of a commemorative round tower. Not much has happened to rectify the matter since. This leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
In the example I have given why was the building allowed to be knocked down in the first instance? Why did a State body, the health board, act without permission? Will it now set aside and disregard a decision of An Bord Pleanála? It is a question of enforcement. One can call to mind many decisions throughout the State that remain unenforced. I am sure all Members are inundated with contacts from residents' associations complaining that their housing estates have not been completed, street lights have not been installed, footpaths are not up to standard and so on. It seems to take an eternity to have something done about this. However, one will also meet the ordinary individual building a single house who feels he or she is being treated badly by the local authority in terms of its enforcement of the conditions attaching to the planning permission. If the ordinary person receives a letter from the local authority to the effect that he or she must comply with certain conditions or the authority will take action, the person panics and does something about it. What happens with a developer? He cocks up his nose, walks away and throws the letter in the bin. What happens with regard to seasoned campaigners who are used to dealing with such matters? They do likewise.
The case of a house in County Louth was brought to my attention recently and I brought it to the attention of the Minister. Planning permission was sought by a small-time developer to build a house in a rural area. Permission was granted but he proceeded to build the house at total variance to the conditions attached to the permission, in terms of elevation and position vis-a-vis the road and adjoining properties. The case went on for a considerable amount of time. The developer applied for retention but was refused, twice. He appealed to An Bord Pleanála and was refused. What happened at the end of the day? He persisted and eventually he obtained permission for the house as constructed.
In that context, one can understand why a man who wanted to build a house on the adjoining site but was refused by the local authority is angry. He is asking what the developer has that he has not got. He is wondering what the developer did to enable him to build a house that was totally at variance with what was planned. Situations like that cause people to become very disillusioned with the planning process and result in the loss of public confidence.
On foot of a freedom of information request I reviewed much of the information relating to that planning application. The Minister will be interested in the final decision, because he wrote to me regarding this matter. The final decision was not to pursue the matter because the local authority received legal advice to the effect that if it took the case to court, there was a chance it would lose and there would be a cost associated with that. The local authority acknowledged that what the developer did was totally wrong, that its job was to enforce planning guidelines and conditions, but chose to set the case aside because a lawyer suggested that it could be dodgy. That is not the way to do business and I know from my dealings with the Minister over a long period that he would not want that kind of situation pertaining either.
To restore confidence in the planning process, we must examine situations such as the one outlined and decide how we can learn from them and how can we improve matters in the future. A balance must be struck between what is good for the local community and the national community, the ordinary individual and the big multinational company, particularly as the latter may be in a better position to go into court and fight a case.
I am concerned about another issue which I hope the Minister will clarify when he gets a chance to wrap up——
I am glad the Minister is here to hear my contribution and I know he will take note of what every Member says.
Another balance needs to be struck in the context of public, private partnerships. We must be careful that the private element of those potential partnerships does not piggy-back on the public body, with the latter pushing through developments under the section 10 arrangements which will simply facilitate the private developer. This could happen in the case of decentralisation projects. We must be careful that we strike the right balance, particularly in the context of such once-off projects. If one decentralises a Department to Mullingar, Tullamore, Arklow or wherever, it is a once-off project. For that reason, we must ensure that it is done properly and that the private element is not piggy-backing on the local authority. I am not sure whether those types of arrangements could go through under this Bill and perhaps the Minister will clarify that matter in due course. I see that he is shaking his head and look forward to his clarification——
No. They are not strategic infrastructure. Nor are housing estates, which could also be built under public private partnerships.
I am glad the Minister has clarified that offices are not covered as they are not considered to be strategic infrastructure. Therefore, decentralisation projects could not be considered in that way either. That is good because decisions on such matters must be made at local level. Councillors must continue to be involved in what is happening in their areas.
Toll roads are obviously infrastructural developments that would fall under the remit of this legislation. I urge the Minister to have a study conducted on the toll road on the N4 between Kilcock and Kinnegad and the costs involved.
Let us imagine that I approach the Acting Chairman and invite him to go into business with me. He agrees and I outline the business plan. I explain that I will put up 35% of the money required for the project and he will put up the remaining 65%. He agrees, assuming that he will get a good return. I then explain that even though he invests 65% of the money initially, over the next 30 years he will also have to pay a further €600 million, at least, for the project while I keep all the profits. I will look after the project and at the end of 30 years, we will review the situation again. That is exactly what has happened with the N4 project. The State, through the taxpayer, put in €268 million. The private developer put in €40 million up front and took a loan of €150 million. The taxpayer and the users of the road will pay, at present-day usage and costs, at least €600 million over the next 30 years on that road. All of the profits that accrue from the road will go to the developer, the company who put up the money. At the end of 30 years, the developer might give the road back to the State. However, given what happened with the M50 toll bridge, it is likely that just before the 30 years are up, the developer will add another lane and renew the contract for a further 30 years.
If that project was re-examined in terms of annual returns on investment it would be clear that it should have been kept in-house. Failing that, at the very least, money from the National Treasury Management Agency, which sets aside money to invest in public private partnerships, should have been used because the return the agency would have received would have made it worthwhile.
Obviously many Members have spoken already and it is difficult to come up with something new to say. We all want to get our tuppence worth in on this Bill, me included. The Minister has been very gracious to some of my party colleagues in his remarks. As my colleague, Deputy Cuffe, said, if the Minister is praising the Green Party, he has something up his sleeve — an example of his political skill.
Democracy is being moved upwards, away from Demos, a retrograde step. There have been stories in the tribunals about corruption, bad planning and decisions made by councillors that were, at worst, spurred on by corrupt payments from developers and, at best, amounted to bad or incompetent planning. However, the Bill will not end incompetent planning but bring it to another level. It will create a situation where the public will feel less connected with the planning process and a decision will not be seen to have the imprimatur of the man or woman in the street.
People have spoken about objectors coming from all over the place, about people from County Roscommon objecting to projects in County Waterford, even about someone from outside the country objecting. Anyone should be able to object to anything; it is a democratic right. Deputies have a right to oppose anything they like. The Green Party is accused of opposing everything when it proposes solutions other parties do not agree with. Anyone who disagrees with something, even spuriously, is still entitled to make his or her point.
When I go around doors, people give their opinions. In a small minority of cases the person concerned will be most arrogant and obnoxious possible but I try not to get involved in an argument. I listen carefully, taking his or her views on board, and try to leave on friendly terms, even if he or she says he or she would not vote for the Green Party in a million years or shouts that we are all the same. That person might be cynical about the political process because of past events but he or she is entitled to be contemptuous of politicians and express his or her view. That is democracy, hearing that voice at the door and opinion expressed through the ballot box.
The planning process is another wing of true democracy, where a person can say he or she does not like a development because it will hamper his or her view and, therefore, objects to it. It could be a case of NIMBY but even such individuals are entitled to submit planning objections. If they were not allowed to do so, where would it end? There is a statutory period for applications to local authorities, appeals to An Bord Pleanála and support observations. It does not matter how many object; the statutory process will not delay anything.
The same applies to larger scale developments. We have seen arguments about Carrickmines and the Hill of Tara. I was involved in campaigns on large-scale planning issues in Adamstown, proposals by the Railway Procurement Agency and the M50 bridges and widening scheme. In all cases members of the public made their views known and the projects often went straight to An Bord Pleanála.
Rather than moving more of these large-scale projects up the scale in order that there is no local input, we must increase it. We must provide more power for the elected members of local authorities instead of handing it to unelected managers who can ignore motions tabled by councillors as they see fit. Directly elected mayors are needed, with councillors given more power to make decisions at local level, with the possibility of a regional level for the decentralisation of national decisions. True decentralisation gives power back to the people and the regions, rather than relocating a Department in Parlon country in County Laois. It is still a centralised Department, where people get frustrated trying to contact someone no matter what. A regional system gives people a real input into decision-making; they feel they are being listened to. If they do not have proper recourse, they can approach a local councillor who can then tell the directly elected mayor that a project will be opposed or should be amended.
The underlying fears in the Bill relate to councillors being swayed by the corruption of the past or by public protest. If there are plans for a incinerator in a certain area, it makes sense for the regional waste plan to be adopted or for An Bord Pleanála to call the shots instead of the local authority. In my constituency if councillors decided to build an incinerator, it would be difficult to see it ever happening. That might be because of cowardice on the part of the representatives or it might be because they acknowledge the implications for their constituents. Sometimes leadership is necessary. That is where councillors must stand up and be counted.
It is not a question of taking power from the little boys and girls because they might not use it responsibly; power is being abused at every level of the State and that will continue as long as power is absolute. It is necessary, therefore, to bring it to the lowest level to ensure everyone is accountable for the decisions he or she makes. There may be an element of moral cowardice in some cases but local input, excluding the NIMBY filter, tends to be good.
There are reasons people in Palmerstown, Lucan and Quarryvale objected to the widening of the M50. This large-scale project was originally costed at €300 million and increased to €850 million. The Taoiseach now estimates its final cost at €1 billion. While the M50 will be three lanes wide and there will be proper interchanges at the N4 and N7 junctions, there will still be congestion. It is in that context local democracy could be shown to work. Councillors could have tabled amendments to these proposals, stating they would support the project if the Government provided a cast iron commitment to provide a Luas system or 400 buses in tandem with the widening of the M50. Under the rehashed Transport 21 plan there is a promise of public transport infrastructure long after roads structure. Thanks to the National Toll Roads decision to close off the M4 link to the M50, we have congestion virtually eight hours a day coming from the west towards the M50 toll bridge. That will get worse when the M50 is widened, a decision made by the board, which could not be influenced by people's views, rather than by local elected representatives. People's views were expressed to the board directly, and it made decisions in the context of existing Government guidelines and regulations, which is why in one sense it was anti-democratic.
The board will always uphold the democratic decisions of the Government of the day, but there is no opportunity for local representatives to have those guidelines amended on the basis of local democratic input. Were that democratic input considered, people on the ground would realise that one can argue in principle that widening the M50 is necessary in the long term, but if one still has congestion thereafter, one must have something else to promise people.
The same is true of one of the largest strategic development zones in the country, which is being established in Adamstown. It went to An Bord Pleanála, which decided on the basis of community input, but there was no chance for elected members of the local authority to attach conditions requiring the Government to provide trains and buses. There were conditions that one could not have additional development until a temporary train station had been provided by the developer, or until four tracks had been installed, but it did not in put an onus on the Government to provide those services.
As a result, although Adamstown is in one sense a very ambitious project, and may work when totally full, as it is filling up it will only add to congestion. There will be great deficits in public transport infrastructure since, while the train station will be provided, there will not be enough space on the train for people to board. Not until 2015 is it planned to electrify the Kildare route past Adamstown and Lucan and on to Hazelhatch. In that context, there will not be the requisite capacity.
If local representatives had the power to make decisions and attach conditions to planning such as that for Adamstown, stating that they would not permit a single house to be built until, as a requirement of the planning permission, the Government committed itself to a certain number of carriages or buses, that would be workable local democracy in action. It could force the national Government to provide the services needed to make planning work.
The story is similar with schools. An Adamstown developer would provide school buildings, but under normal circumstances developers would provide a site and the building would appear ten years later, when the children's situation was at crisis point. If one had real local democracy regarding all planning, including issues covered under schedule 7, such as energy infrastructure, industrial installations for electricity, and wind turbines, at least one would get input that might prove valuable. If one had primary input, one would still be able to go to An Bord Pleanála and overrule decisions seen as outside the local authority's remit. However, decision-making should be at the lowest effective level upwards rather than imposed from above.
In that regard, the Irish Planning Institute submitted comments fairly late on this Bill. They were passed to my colleague, Deputy Cuffe, and some other Deputies may also have received them. It makes some relevant points on this Bill. I do not necessarily agree with its support for a one-stop shop, but it has salient points to make on the Bill and why it is flawed. It stated that, if passed, the new proposals would undermine key principles of the planning system, particularly regarding issues such as the absence of a clear link to the hierarchy of planning policy instruments such as development plans and local area plans that are normally at the core of our planning system. I would add SDZs such as Adamstown to that list. The absence of right of appeal on substantive planning issues for all parties with recourse to the courts only on points of law strikes at the principles of fairness that underpin our planning system.
From a personal perspective, I reiterate the perceived threat to the impartiality of An Bord Pleanála if the board is required to facilitate consultation with parties to a proposal. We already have situations where the inspector reports in favour of the community, only for board members to overrule him or her — the very people who were not there on the ground and did not listen to all the submissions. That will throw further cold water on the perception of impartiality that one must have. There must be faith in the planning process, which is why one must give more power to local authorities and let councillors fall on their swords or live by their bravery. That is the first level, after which a case would obviously go up to An Bord Pleanála in any case.
The Irish Planning Institute made the general comment that a plan must go through a proper public consultation process before going to An Bord Pleanála. It listed examples where the spatial planning merits of a project have been considered in principle, including regional planning guidelines, the city or county development plan, or the local area plan, for reasons of democratic participation and proper integration. I hate to use the word, since it is somewhat hippy-like and corny, but there must be a holistic approach to infrastructure projects regarding overall link to county, regional, and national spatial strategies.
Another concern that I have is with section 3, which amends section 37A of the principal Act. An example to which the IPI refers arose in my constituency, namely, the proposed national distribution park in Clondalkin. As it stands, the Bill allows for projects that are primarily profit-driven and not necessarily in the public interest. It should not be used as a back door for controversial private projects to avoid the normal planning process, for example, in subsections 37A(1) and 37A(2). There are concerns on section 3 that there could be situations such as regarding the national distribution park in Clondalkin or even private incinerator proposals, as in Kilcock.
This Bill might have been better, providing much more clout to local authorities and their elected members. Had it done so, people would have had more faith in the democratic process. They would not mind then having An Bord Pleanála make impartial decisions on major infrastructure projects. The time lag is not a major factor, since we have seen such lags in national projects that had more to do with successive Governments' incompetence than flaws in the planning process. If one wishes to make a plan that has an impact on future generations — possibly 100 years from now — as my colleague, Deputy Boyle said, one must get that plan right. That is why, at the first level, one must start as locally as possible, taking all those concerns on board, sifting out some of the nimbyism and making decisions based on proper planning. One must at least give people an input into proper planning by allowing them to express their views.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak about this Bill. The Minister criticised the fact that so many Members spoke about the Bill but I am disappointed that more Members did not speak about it. Approximately one-third of Members have spoken, which is not very much when one is talking about such an important Bill. Nearly every speaker said the same thing and much of what was said did not relate to this Bill. I hope the Minister will note everything else that was said and introduce a few more Bills to correct these problems and save 55 speakers from having to peddle the same arguments. This shows the frustration caused by the planning system.
Much of this frustration is caused by a bad system and a lack of staff. There are insufficient staff levels in the various sections. Planning itself is a grey area and will vary. Everyone's story will be different. Mr. A's planning case will differ from that of Mr. B but to the average Joe Soap, they are the same. Ordinary people do not have the time to read why a decision was made in favour of one individual but not in favour of another individual. The system is complicated and the lack of sufficient staff makes the problem twice as bad. It makes it very difficult to work with the community, council and planning department in respect of various types of infrastructural projects.
I welcome this Bill, although it requires some changes, because it might help fast-track certain developments. I do not agree with the Minister of State's assertion in his opening speech that it is the key to delivering the infrastructure we need to sustain and improve our quality of life. The Bill is not that important, although it may help. However, it is more important to put more staff into planning departments and An Bord Pleanála to ensure that we get proper and quick decisions. This Bill might advertise the importance of planning and getting things done but it is not a magic wand that will save this country.
In Meath, which I will use as an example because I know it best, planners are attempting to produce local area plans. A total of five plans are being produced in Navan, where I live, while two plans are also needed for Trim and Kells, respectively. However, only one planner is working on this process yet we expect to receive quick decisions and answers and good planning. We cannot expect our planners to do this. Planners will take cases akin to the army deafness cases against the State for driving them insane. They are being driven insane trying to carry out serious work in terrible conditions. It is not good enough. None of these Bills will make a difference if we do not give them additional resources and staff. An Bord Pleanála is to receive an additional €270,000 to cater for this Bill if it is introduced this year. This amount will not achieve much. We must be realistic. It is possible to pass some of these development charges back to the developer. The council can increase its charges. There are ways of doing this so that it is not a financial burden on the State. We must examine the matter because the lack of trained staff is affecting our quality of life.
It has led to a lack of faith in the system. The Irish people are already doubting Thomases but a system that is not working properly gives people ammunition to object to every development and bring their objections to every level of the planning process. They do not believe in our system because it is hard to figure out. This fuels ideas of conspiracies. It appears that the big players always win. One rarely encounters a case where a minor player wins even if he or she is in the right. No wonder people have no faith in our system because it does not appear to work. I have a great deal of faith in some areas of it but it does not appear to work generally, which is the key factor. Introducing a Bill which is perceived to push projects through the process without consultation adds to people's lack of confidence in the system. I am confident the Bill does not really do this but this is what people think, which allows them to scaremonger. This shows the importance of not doing things too quickly.
I agree with the Minister's assertion that people deserve a better planning system. However, it is the Government to which he belongs and which has been in power for a long period that presides over the current planning system. This Bill has been discussed for a long time but nothing has been done. Even in the absence of this Bill, much more could be done to sort out the planning system.
The Bill is supposed to help us power our homes and businesses, deliver people to their places of work and study and goods to market and provide clean water and solutions to waste problems. These are all the projects this Bill is supposed to fast-track. Taking power and waste as examples, what prevented any Government, regardless of who was in power, coming forward with a plan a few years ago that argued that this country needed between one or three incinerators or whatever was needed; that it intended to convince the Irish people that the plan was safe and could work, as has happened in other countries; and it planned to state where it planned to locate these incinerators? No Government ever took a lead on this question. Incinerators sneaked in over councillors' heads and were put to one side. Incinerators are allowed in this country but nobody takes a lead on the question. We are now faced with a raft of applications from all over the country to build eight or nine incinerators when the country does not need them, although it might need two or three of them. Proper planning is about leadership on any key infrastructural project, be it an incinerator or a more popular project. The Government has no problem announcing popular projects, such as the national spatial strategy or decentralisation plans which might bring jobs in their wake, but when it comes to bad news, it is very slow to take the lead and engage in proper planning.
If people stood up and stated that Ireland needs power and waste management facilities and other necessary projects, such as two or three incinerators, they could be developed. The Government could then decide that there needs to be one in each region or county, whatever is necessary. The Government should take some difficult decisions. The Minister talks about giving power back to councils after the Government took power from them in many decision-making processes relating to power and waste management. The decision to take power from councillors was correct in certain circumstances because many councillors do not want the power to introduce unpopular decisions. It suits them to be able to blame the Government or the EU. There is no point taking power away and then stating that it needs to be restored. We need a concise approach to the matter that will always involve local authority members and give them a proper say in both popular and unpopular decisions.
According to the Bill, councillors will have access to the executives of An Bord Pleanála, a provision with which I have no difficulty. This access is present in oral hearings but councillors have not been listened to. One oral hearing with which I am familiar was held on a strategic development zone, SDZ. This is another great planning concept to deliver fast development that involves planning and developing a piece of land all at once rather than one field at a time. The idea behind it was sound but SDZs have yet to be introduced so there is something wrong with the system. We have all these great ideas but the system lets us down. At the oral hearing, we had access to the staff of An Bord Pleanála. The local councillors, who knew about local traffic and infrastructural problems, knew most about the number of vehicles the roads in the town could take but were told by An Bord Pleanála that they were wrong in their estimation of phasing for traffic. We were told that our roads could take more than 1,000 more cars. An Bord Pleanála did not believe there was any point in listening to local councillors but they are the ones who deal with problems on the ground. There is no point stipulating in this Bill that local councillors will have a greater chance to have a say if they will not be listened to. Planners think they know everything but they do not. They do not live in all these towns so they cannot know everything. They should listen and make some changes.
If an inspector from An Bord Pleanála visits a site, be it that of a major infrastructural project or house, and submits a report that is overruled by the board, people are surely entitled to an explanation. It does not make much sense if the evidence collected by the expert sent out to investigate the matter is set aside and the decision is taken anyway. This does not boost faith in the system. This is what is wrong with this country and why people object to every development. They feel they must object because they do not trust those in charge to do the right thing on their behalf.
Any new Bill or changes must guarantee that proper procedures will be followed for the right reasons. The Minister of State spoke about how the Bill will help deliver the national spatial strategy. This strategy passed over the county and town I represent. It forgot to mention County Meath and its main town, Navan. The town was referred to in one line in the section dealing with the greater Dublin region. The greater Dublin region is not doing anything for Navan. The strategy gives it houses, but no proper developments.
Interestingly, the Minister said the economic success of the greater Dublin region is based on rail connectivity. Navan is the only town that does not have rail connectivity and will not have it for at least ten years under this Government. There is a plan, which we are told is great, but we do not act on it.
Rail is a separate issue and I will revert to it with the Minister for Transport. Counties such as Meath and towns such as Navan are ideal spots to provide springboard links from the city of Dublin to the hub towns. What do we call the other ones?
Yes. Monaghan, Cavan and Dundalk are out further. What would have been wrong with using the towns on the outskirts of the city and linking them inwards? They could develop economic links to the city and the other marked areas. Such would comprise a proper plan.
Will the spatial strategy be re-examined and will the Government consider places such as Meath, Navan, Kells, Trim and other towns? The last strategy bypassed us. A proper spatial strategy does not skip over some of the main areas under such pressure. When there was no spatial strategy, they endured the pain and counties Meath, Louth and Wicklow experienced a great deal of housing and other developments. There was no proper plan to direct those developments elsewhere. When this spatial strategy was introduced, it should have corrected the problems in those counties around Dublin. Such would have been proper planning.
In its current form, the planning system can act as a blockage and delay projects. My County Meath colleague, Deputy Johnny Brady, mentioned the M3 motorway. Other areas where there have been delays were also mentioned. On the events surrounding the M3, objectors have delayed it by a certain period, but not by seven years. At my first council meeting in July 1999, which will be seven years ago next month, members were shown the four or five potential routes for a new dual carriageway through County Meath. The process started seven years ago and no one in this House could tell me it has been delayed for seven years by objectors. It will shortly be in its eighth year of delays. The matter went through the courts and has been delayed for the past six months by objectors, but until that point no objectors had delayed it. It spent six or seven years in the system of An Bord Pleanála hearings, evaluations and route selections.
I am not going in circles. I will make my point clear now that the Minister of State has woken up. In simple terms, the Bill is supposed to do away with delays caused by objectors. The road, which is badly needed in County Meath, was not delayed by objectors for seven years. They probably delayed the project for the past year and will possibly do so during the next six months or eight months, which comprise two years of the seven to eight years. What happened during the other five years? The system is wrong in this respect and no other.
The Bill might help to speed up the last process, but that is only part of the matter. The Minister of State should not tell me I am going around in circles. I am clear in what I am saying. I represent an area that has suffered the most from pathetic planning, particularly in terms of housing, infrastructure or any key component in a good quality of life. I wish I could speak on this matter for hours. The Bill will not solve all our problems.
One section provides for face-to-face consultations between An Bord Pleanála and those proposing developments. It makes sense if one is to put money into development, one will speak with those who make the final decision. However, this would only be right if the opposite side also got its say with the same people. Currently, it is wrong that people cannot get access to decision makers even at county-level planning. While pre-planning measures are a step in the right direction, they do not do a good job.
The proposer of the development has a chance to appeal a planning decision, but objectors never receive the chance to meet the decision makers. It is important to have a balance, which is a change Fine Gael would support in the Bill. It makes sense for opponents of developments to meet decision makers. Consequently, one will have faith in the system, which is a key aspect.
As the Minister said, a streamlined process for the public is important. I welcome that local authorities will promote growth and that they will go straight to An Bord Pleanála. The prior situation made no sense to me. We should go a step further, as councils make decisions on their own projects, such as on one-off housing. This is a waste of time because the councils will not refuse themselves permission. It is good that they will go straight to An Bord Pleanála so that people can add to the issue and fast-track some of the projects.
There is a great deal of talk on the part of the Minister and others about badly put together applications. I agree with this, but the Bill does not necessarily address that matter. The Bill would address it if An Bord Pleanála sent back the application and did not want to deal with it any further, but not in general. We need a higher standard of development applications. We should put in law the requirement for stakeholders who are negatively or positively affected to be involved from day one. Clever private industries know this and do such from an early stage, but others do not and try to sneak applications through by placing notices that will never be seen in newspapers. The system does not work that way.
There should be a legal requirement that from day one, one's neighbours should be involved in any planning decision one is making. Neighbours should be told what is happening, what right of say they have and what can change. The response might not be negative, as they might have some good ideas. However, we do not have this provision. We have touched on it in terms of environmental impact statements. With scoping areas, one must consult stakeholders, but this does not really happen.
To get fast-track planning, one should sit down with the people affected, deal with them and try to address their concerns in one's early application. It is the clever way to approach the matter and might even delay many objections. I welcome the provision to attempt negotiations when there are problems. In the case of a road, what one is allowed to do when negotiating is amazing. If I read the Bill correctly, a little negotiation and change is allowed. It should be encouraged, particularly at council level. People should be allowed to engage in proper mediation to solve the problem. They have better things to do in their lives than to complain and object, but they feel they must.
The Bill frequently refers to how environmental impact statements must accompany applications. The statements are of poor standard and not many people in the local authorities and An Bord Pleanála are trained to assess them. As a rule, as soon as an EIS accompanying an application passes the door of a planning authority, it should be sent to be assessed and graded with an A, B, C or D. If it does not reach C, it should be thrown back for not being good enough, as we should not accept shoddy work.
An EIS is an important document. For €1,000, it could be independently assessed, we would know it was good enough and could then accept it. If it is not good enough, it would be sent back to be redone. We should not accept bad workmanship.
In respect of planning, who is in authority? It does not seem to be the councils. There was a chance to review the Planning and Development Act 2000 in this Bill. In that Act, councils were given the right to refuse applications based on a person's or developer's previous history, but only after they went to the High Court. That provision should be removed, as councils should not need to go to any court. If a local authority believes a developer's track record is so bad that his or her application should be reviewed, it should be able to refuse the application there and then instead of taking the risk and going to the expense of going to the High Court, which could cost €500,000. Councils cannot afford this cost because it would mean less money for footpaths, lights and so on.
If councils are to be in control, we should let them deny planning permission to a developer who has done a bad job or not finished an area until the problem has been addressed. The Minister of State lives in Dublin and I live in County Meath, but my local authority cannot go to the High Court every second week, as it might lose. This grey area should be addressed. I will accept correction if I am wrong.
Noel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context
That matter was addressed in Private Members' time and has been referred to a committee.