Dáil debates

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

10:00 am

Photo of Seymour CrawfordSeymour Crawford (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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Deputy English is giving way to Deputy McEntee.

I wish to thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me and my Oireachtas colleagues to raise the extremely important issue of the 400 kV Meath-Tyrone interconnector passing through Cavan-Monaghan. We want to know where the Minister stands on this issue given that EirGrid withdrew its application on 29 June due to misinformation that was put on the planning notice, and possibly on other issues.

Community groups and individuals made a great voluntary effort to brief themselves on the planning laws and how this application would affect their homes and communities. They collected significant moneys in their communities and this has been spent on costs of legal and other experts whom they had to pay. I urge the Minister to ensure that these groups are reimbursed their out-of-pocket expenses in light of the fact that EirGrid withdrew the application.

Under the relevant section of the relevant legislation, section 182, the cost does not have to be reimbursed in a Bord Pleanála case for electricity or gas lines. On EirGrid's own admission, however, the application in this instance was faulty, in which context the circumstances are totally different.

Under ordinary planning laws, a plan would be examined and validated by the planning authorities before acceptance. However, no such requirement exists regarding An Bord Pleanála, which is unfair. It is also unfair that a differentiation should be made between an interconnector and a road structure. Section 182 must be changed as it is unconstitutional and unfair under EU law.

Can the Minister of State advise when the planning structures will be put in place in Northern Ireland? If there is a public hearing, it could take up to six or seven years. Does the Minister of State not agree that, in the present economic circumstances, the scheme should be put on hold until the legal issues are sorted out and until more research is done regarding underground cabling, which is becoming more possible technically by the day.

Photo of Shane McEnteeShane McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank my colleague Deputy English and all my colleagues in the north east for the opportunity to speak on this matter.

I want to make a few basic points on the recent embarrassing withdrawal by EirGrid of its planning application for the Meath-Tyrone interconnector project. I live in the heart of the north east where serious stress and anxiety have been visited on many constituents on foot of EirGrid's proposal. There are a number of lessons that need to be learned from the sorry state of affairs brought about by EirGrid's performance and actions at the oral hearing into its planning submission.

An issue arises regarding respect for the integrity of the public consultation process, which is a central pillar of our democracy. Three years ago, EirGrid announced its intention to place over 100 km of extra-high-voltage lines and over 300 massive pylons across the region. The public responded by engaging fully in the democratic process of public consultation. It formed local representative groups, such as NEPP and others, and met elected representatives. They made submissions at joint Oireachtas committee hearings, met EirGrid and even went abroad to meet other transmission system operators. The people of the north east raised significant funds to examine acceptable alternatives, especially the undergrounding of the cables. They have never resorted to any activities other than those associated with dialogue and persuasion, based on well-researched evidence. They have participated fully with the oral hearing process and have at all times behaved in a respectful and professional manner.

The groups were met by a semi-State company that has shown total disregard for its duties and its responsibility to the very public it is charged with serving. It is unacceptable that EirGrid, which through the taxpayer had access to unlimited resources and consultant expertise, could have been allowed to submit such a shoddy application, withdraw it whenever it suited and then walk away with no apparent accountability or penalties. This is an injustice to the people of the north east, an injustice which we as elected representatives cannot ignore, nor can we stand idly by. EirGrid may or may not have a statutory obligation to reimburse the public participants and voluntary groups for their reasonable costs, but it certainly has a moral obligation to do so. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, has an even greater responsibility to ensure they are reimbursed. Ignoring the issue will only serve to alienate the public even further from the democratic process and will harden their resolve in vigorously opposing the project. EirGrid has lost all credibility in the eyes of the people of the north east. Let us not join it by sitting on our hands.

The second lesson we need to learn is that the oral hearing has shown yet again that undergrounding cables is a practical, win-win solution for all concerned. However, EirGrid has remained steadfastly opposed to examining this option properly. There is deep frustration in rural communities that EirGrid can ignore this alternative without any accountability. In contrast with other countries, we have not been subjected to a blight of pylons across our countryside and we should not allow it to occur. When established, they impose significant negative effects in terms of visual and environmental impact, land and property devaluation and health and safety concerns. This clear fact is neither addressed by EirGrid nor factored into its project cost estimates.

I call on the Minister to compel EirGrid to return to the drawing board, rid itself of its inherited bias towards pylons and get real about addressing the practical option of undergrounding. I understand there are technical challenges around this option, but technology moves quickly and we need to move with it rather than against it. For EirGrid to submit a patched up version of its original planning application would waste taxpayers' resources further because it would be a futile exercise.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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The Deputy's time has elapsed.

Photo of Shane McEnteeShane McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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The confrontational approach taken by EirGrid and its complete reliance on using large pylons have a low likelihood of making constructive progress in upgrading the national grid in a realistic timeframe. Fresh thinking allied with a new mindset is required.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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The long oral hearing by An Bord Pleanála on EirGrid's application for the construction of an overhead pylon-supported 400 kV interconnector from County Meath to County Tyrone has exhausted individuals, families and whole communities through counties Meath, Cavan and Monaghan physically, emotionally and financially. The time expended, the energy employed and the financial outlay demanded of all concerned has been considerable.

Given EirGrid's decision to withdraw its application in the later stages of the hearing process, the Government must commit to meeting all reasonable costs incurred by these individuals, families and communities. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources must also undertake to amend the strategic infrastructure Act to provide for automatic reimbursement in such cases and for a verification by An Bord Pleanála of the detail of all applications made under this legislation in future.

In light of all that has been exposed and the toll the process has taken on so many ordinary citizens, the Minister should instruct EirGrid to place a stay on any further application of at least 24 months, inform itself of the prospects of approval and the intention to proceed to work stage if approved of the NIE application North of the Border, and undertake to set international best standards in preparing any future application by committing to employ underground cabling in place of the overheard pylon-supported power lines.

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to apologise on behalf of my constituency colleague, Deputy Conlon, who had hoped to be present. Unfortunately, she cannot attend due to illness. She had intended to share time.

Last night, I attended a meeting of North East Pylon Pressure, NEPP, in Monaghan. Much anger and concern was expressed at the fact that EirGrid needed to withdraw its application from An Bord Pleanála on the 22nd day of the hearing because of errors in the public notices, something that should not have occurred. The concern was at the prospect of needing to go through the whole procedure again, given the amount of time and expense involved, particularly on the part of members of the public with legitimate interests in this development. Those at last night's meeting were anxious that Oireachtas Members would draw the Minister's attention to section 182 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 and that the Act would be amended to ensure provision for legitimate expenses for members of the public with an interest who wish to give evidence.

Will the Minister consider the strategic planning Act, given its apparent defect? An Bord Pleanála does not need to validate applications, which local authorities must do when they receive applications for planning permission. It is important that this matter be examined. If An Bord Pleanála was obliged to validate an application, we would not be in a situation in which an application was withdrawn after a 22-day hearing.

A great deal of time will pass before we get back to the point at which we left off last week at the hearing. I hope that, during this time, everyone concerned will examine the rapidly developing technology to determine whether it is technically feasible and economically viable that the cable would be placed underground, as requested by me and my Fianna Fáil colleagues in counties Cavan, Meath and Monaghan in our submission to An Bord Pleanála.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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Does that include the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food?

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all of the Deputies who raised this matter. Having dealt with EirGrid and its predecessor, the ESB, it is not a pleasant experience for any public group. It is unforgivable that an error appeared in an advertisement taken out by a body such as EirGrid. Under strategic planning legislation, the expectation would be that EirGrid would at least get its advertisements right. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, has provided a long reply, but I will truncate it to suit the time allotted.

The Government's overall policy objective is to ensure that energy is consistently available with minimal risk to supply disruption to meet the needs of businesses and domestic consumers. No Deputy would argue against this objective. The Minister has no direct role in the operational planning and construction of transmission systems,-----

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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We got that first page previously. The Minister of State can skip it if he wants.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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-----which are operational matters for EirGrid, or in the planning process, which is a matter for An Bord Pleanála.

EirGrid has been developing proposals for a 400 kV interconnection project from County Meath to County Tyrone. It is a large interconnector. This transmission and interconnection project is a key policy priority from a number of perspectives. It will further consolidate the all-island single electricity market, with which every Deputy agrees, providing for the seamless transfer of electricity across the island of Ireland, delivering greater competition and reducing the need for further investment. It will assist in the integration of renewable electricity and provide security of supply, new business opportunities and more sustainable energy. It will also enhance competitiveness and opportunities for inward investment.

EirGrid applied for planning consent for the development in December 2009 under the Planning and Development Act 2000, as inserted by the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006. An Bord Pleanála convened an oral hearing on the matter in May 2010. On Thursday, 24 June, it was drawn to EirGrid and the inspector's attention that there was an error in the newspaper public notice and site notice relating to pylon height ranges. Full details of the correct heights of the towers concerned were fully described in the environmental impact statement, EIS, and in the accompanying planning drawings, but the error was in the advertisement. Following consultation with its legal advisers, EirGrid was advised that, under the applicable legislation, there was no mechanism to correct the error within the context of the application. When the original legislation was drafted, there was a presumption that statutory agencies like EirGrid would get something right. EirGrid notified An Bord Pleanála on 29 June of the withdrawal of its application. The Meath-Tyrone 400 kV interconnection project is of significant strategic importance from an all-island electricity market perspective. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has already made clear his strong disappointment that EirGrid has had to withdraw its planning consent application for this important development.

EirGrid is undertaking a full review of the circumstances which led to the error in the public notice and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, has asked to be fully informed of the findings of this review. It is estimated that the total costs incurred by EirGrid on this project since 2006 are approximately €8 million. EirGrid advises that most of this work remains valid and applicable to the new planning consent application and that the new application will largely reflect the original application.

EirGrid has been working closely with its Northern Ireland counterpart, Northern Ireland Electricity, NIE, on development of this important strategic project. The planning application for the Northern Ireland section of interconnection development project was submitted by NIE to Northern Ireland's Department of the Environment Planning Service in December 2009. The Minister understands that the planning authorities in Northern Ireland are considering the application and the Deputies will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me or Minister Ryan to comment on a live planning consent application in either jurisdiction.

The two application processes are entirely separate and will be the subject of a separate decision in each jurisdiction. The Minister is advised that EirGrid's revised application will largely reflect its original application, and it is not anticipated that the revised application should have any bearing on the Northern Ireland process. While the Minister has no operational role in respect of transmission development or planning, he expects that EirGrid will work assiduously and quickly to prepare the new planning consent application, with a view to avoiding any further delays in progressing this important project. Once the updated application is submitted, it is a matter for the relevant planning authority, in this case An Bord Pleanála, to bring the process to its conclusion, and the Minister cannot prejudge the outcome of the process. As Deputies will be aware planning legislation is a matter for the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the issue of costs borne by applicants or participants in any particular planning consent process are appropriate to that legislation.

The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources works closely with the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the question of any amendments to the existing legislation is obviously a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is advised by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that since the introduction of the Strategic Infrastructure Act in 2007 over 35 formal applications for major strategic infrastructure projects have been received with 26 now completed. The overall rate of compliance with the statutory objective to decide these cases within 18-weeks is high, with nearly 70% of cases being determined within this period.

I will pass the very specific points that Members have made to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and draw his attention to the points that were made, regarding the cost imposition in particular. The point made by Deputy O'Hanlon as regards the delay perhaps being a mixed blessing in giving developing technology an opportunity to look at under-grounding, is particularly interesting. In my view, however, it is unforgivable for a State agency such as EirGrid to make such a fundamental error as to get an advertisement wrong in a local newspaper. That should not happen.