Wednesday, 8 March 2006
Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed).
We had no redress when we went back to my local authority and we got no suck from them either.
I also have been contacted by a resident in Lucan, County Dublin. This woman told me that one had only to witness the official vandalism visited by Dublin South County Council on the residents of south Lucan by the intransigent insistence on driving a major distributary route through the most densely populated part of west Dublin, thus sundering further the fragile community. She told me that over 300 trees have been mercilessly cut down, never to be replaced, in this venture — which was demonstrated at two oral hearings — and that it will not alleviate Dublin's greatest traffic problem, the gridlock in the Lucan area. What happened there will not alleviate the problem but it has divided a community, pushing the road through the most densely populated part of Dublin.
Whereas the Bill gives all of this power to An Bord Pleanála, heretofore a local authority decided and there was an appeals process where people could appeal to an independent body, An Bord Pleanála. If An Bord Pleanála will now be the body to which such matters will be fast-fowarded, will there be any independent appeals system afterwards or is a judicial review the only recourse open subsequently? This is an important point. It strikes me, from reading the Bill, that there will be no independent recourse for genuine objectors. Let us face the reality that there are communities who have been badly affected by certain infrastructure. While there are cranks out there as well for whom I do not have any great time, local authority members must have a genuine say on behalf of the people who elect them. The local authority members must have more of a say about the powers included in this Bill. It strikes me that people who are genuinely affected will have no recourse to an independent appeal other than through judicial review. We all are aware of the cost of judicial review. It is an enormous task to ask anybody to go the route of a judicial review if he or she has a grievance against a piece of critical infrastructure that is being put in place.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Roche, back to the House and wish him the best of luck during Second Stage of this Bill. As he stated in his speech yesterday, our planning system works well at the local level and in the local framework. It is up to date and it is ideal for that, but it does not work adequately for infrastructure which brings a major public benefit to a wider area or to the entire community. That is why we need to bring forward the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill in the Seanad. It represents one of the most important Bills of his career as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
The Bill represents a major evolution of the planning code to meet the demands of a modern State. It will use the experience and competence of An Bord Pleanála, which already deals with many major types of infrastructure, including motorways, and can be expected to give the same robust examination to the projects covered by the Bill.
The new legislation is needed to ensure the continued economic development of our country in a sustainable manner. Ireland is regularly criticised by international consultants, and recently by the OECD, to the effect that our infrastructure is not up to date and has not been able to cater for our increasing population, the return of our diaspora and the many thousands of immigrants. There are major gaps in our critical infrastructure and they pose a significant threat to the country's sustained growth, to the environment and to the standard of living people have rightly come to expect of a modern 21st century economy.
The Bill is of fundamental importance to our economy. We cannot run a modern economy on 20th century infrastructure. We need to find ways to move millions of people to work and to school every day, as the Minister stated in his speech, without having to spend hours in their cars.
I want to focus on two particular types of infrastructure. The specific types of infrastructure listed in the Bill will be eligible to come within a single step application process to An Bord Pleanála. The board itself will decide if they are of strategic importance having regard to the criteria, which are listed in the Bill. The Bill will take over responsibility from the Minister for Transport for deciding on rail orders, heavy rail, light rail and the metro. Importantly, as was stated already here this morning, major electricity transmission lines will be subject to a special consent process direct to An Bord Pleanála. The Bill will also be amended to include consent for strategic gas pipelines. We all know how much controversy the Corrib gas pipeline has caused in the affected local area in County Mayo and that will be an important measure.
I totally support another point the Minister made in his speech, that the decisions will be made for the overall benefit of the country and of the people in the country, but I want to put on the record here again today the bizarre planning going on in the Poolbeg peninsula in Dublin. An environmental impact statement is being undertaken currently on the proposal to build an incinerator on the Poolbeg peninsula. As I said to the Minister privately, I would have had no problem with this if the Dublin eastern bypass had been built. The bypass should ideally take the form of a tunnel and a feasibility study is under way in this regard. It should go underground at Sandymount Strand and merge with the port tunnel. It was wrong to locate the incinerator in the Poolbeg peninsula because it is more or less a cul-de-sac. I travelled the roads there three or four times daily for 16 years. I drove along Bath Avenue, South Lotts Road, Strand Road and Merrion Road and they were congested back then. They were originally designed to service villages such as Sandymount, Ringsend and Irishtown and they cannot cope with the traffic nowadays, particularly trucks. I saw a child being knocked off his bicycle and killed by a truck at the Ringsend Road junction.
The incinerator will convert domestic refuse from the four Dublin local authorities through thermal treatment. It is estimated this refuse will be brought in and out of Poolbeg using 400 trucks every day. There is no rationale to this planning. I have no personal grievance with members of Dublin City Council on this matter and I have sympathy for them because of the position they are in. However, a total of 2,500 residential units and 1,500 sq ft in office space are expected to be constructed on Poolbeg peninsula, increasing the local population by 6,500.
Poolbeg will become a mini-city. This is bizarre planning. The waste to thermal treatment system is fair if the refuse used in the incinerator is strictly domestic. However, my rationale for supporting the local residents is the existing road infrastructure will not cope with the increased traffic.
I wish the Minister the best of luck with the legislation. It is a great tribute to him. As he stated yesterday, it will be one of the most significant Bills he will introduce in his term of office.
I refer to the need for additional staff in An Bord Pleanála and in the planning departments of local authorities. Senator Burke made sense when he commented on the need for forward planning. If we plan adequately and properly ahead, many of the problems that arise currently could be eliminated. For example, Ballon, County Carlow, is crying out for a bypass to the east of the town. I was trying to impress on the council officials in Carlow recently the need to earmark land for a bypass but they would not do so. Unfortunately, this land will be built on and the bypass will proceed in ten or 20 years, at which point the local residents will go bananas because they will not want the road. However, if the locals knew now that the road would be built and land was set aside for that purpose, it would eliminate numerous problems.
I concur with Senator Burke's comments on rezoning. Not enough rezoning was undertaken in Dublin in the past. "Rezoning" has become a bad word lately but it should not be regarded as such. If I am asked by a new councillor what is his or her main job, I tell him or her it is to make sure adequate rezoning is undertaken. Last Monday, I walked around Carlow town with a constituent. She is a mother who is keen to have a new park built in a different part of the town. We examined potential sites and, hopefully, I will meet the director of planning for the area and engage in the planning process. The park might not be built for five or ten years but, at least, we are planning ahead. A park was built on an estate in the town recently but there was uproar because the residents did not want it. However, if the park had been earmarked from day one, there would have been no difficulty.
Local authority planning departments and An Bord Pleanála need more staff. The condition of a number of planning departments is shocking. For example, the reception area of the planning department in Carlow must be the worst in the State. It is a big block of wood and one must ring a bell to contact a planner. I appreciate the pressure they are under and the difficulties they have but the departments should be more user friendly. I have no problem with the planning staff but they should be more hospitable and amenable to the public. Some people find these departments intimidating, as do public representatives, because of the decor. Perhaps local authority staff should undertake feng shui courses.
I dealt with the planning staff of Kerry County council recently and I could not get over how professional they were. They might have a bad name because of section 4 referrals and so on but I was impressed by the access I had to maps. I was able to click on a screen and find out whether planning permission had been granted or refused in an area. This electronic system has not been standardised throughout the State. Resources for planning departments should be beefed up and they should become more user friendly for the public and the staff.
Many councillors have done significant work on planning and rezoning land over the years, which resulted in individual becoming very wealthy, yet they did not even receive as much as a telephone call afterwards thanking them for doing so. There has been much publicity recently about councillors taking money for rezoning but many of them got nothing, yet their work benefitted the local area significantly and provided people with housing and so on. Not every councillor receives a brown envelope while rezoning land and I will stand over that comment.
I recently attended a meeting with planners in Tullow, County Carlow, which is near the Minister's constituency. Planning permission has been granted for a new estate comprising 140 houses near the town on a bad stretch of road. I pointed out to the planners that I am always bemused driving past new industrial estates. When such estates are constructed, roads are built first, followed by footpaths, lighting and so on with the industrial units built during the final phase. It is a pity the same model is not followed for housing estates, where the reverse occurs. The houses are built first and the rest of the infrastructure is provided subsequently or, in some cases, not at all. There is an onus on local authorities to be specific when granting planning permission by sequencing the order in which estates and so on should be constructed. People often apply for planning permission and, when it is granted, sell it to another developer. Everyone then is at the mercy of the developer regarding whether he or she complies with the planning permission.
A member of staff of every local authority should travel around monitoring planning permissions while buildings are under construction, not afterwards. Every Member has spoken to a planning enforcement officer after the event. It is next to impossible to get a conviction or to have a problem rectified. However, if somebody in the council could monitor and supervise building projects to ensure planning permission is observed, there would be less difficulty down the line.
I am one of the few members of my party in favour of incineration. It is time we got real on this matter. I am delighted Ringsend is to get an incinerator as it is about time Dublin took responsibility for its own waste. Counties outside of Dublin should not have to handle its waste. Some people think that Carlow, Kildare and Meath are ideal dumping grounds. There is an onus on all of us to manage our waste. Putting an incinerator in Ringsend may bring home to the people of Dublin the reality that the waste they produce must be dealt with.
Some people think that recycling costs nothing and have no idea of the very significant costs involved. It is not free and there is little market for it. There may be local issues, such as the inadequacy of the roads, etc., to deal with in the case of Ringsend. However, it is time to get real and become mature on the issue as we are over 80 years old as a State. We should look at alternatives to landfills which are not good. I have yet to meet anybody in favour of extending or putting in a new landfill. I see incinerators as a last resort. I agree we must reduce, reuse and recycle, but we will still have waste to get rid of and should consider the incinerator approach. If we explain the issue properly to people, they will appreciate it better.
Perhaps this Bill will address the concerns. Many infrastructural projects have been held up for ridiculous reasons by certain factions. The hold-up in the Glen of the Downs was a classic case which got much media exposure. When the road was completed, nobody could understand what the original problem was, but at the time when people turned on their televisions for the evening news, they would have thought very tree in the country was to be chopped down. I admit that my cousin is an eco-warrior and may have been up one of those trees. We all have family members with whose views we do not necessarily agree. I am sure she would not agree with mine.
I welcome the Bill and hope it goes well. I was in Spain recently with members of the Joint Committee on Transport and was amazed by its system whereby the State owns all land more than 10 ft underground, which enables it to complete projects quicker than we do. The public and taxpayers here are sick and tired of seeing projects fall behind schedule and going way over costs. While there must be a balance with respect to the rights of individuals, we cannot afford to continue for years with High Court and Supreme Court actions that ultimately benefit only the lawyers, while the public must continue to put up with substandard transport facilities. I welcome the Bill. Hopefully, it will help to improve infrastructure in the country.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire chuig an Teach chun an Bille tábhachtach seo a phlé. I compliment the Minister on this major legislation which will have significant benefit. The issue has needed to be addressed for some time and the Minister has been innovative in tackling it, particularly through the arrangement for the President of the High Court to ensure there will be designated judges in the court to deal with what are often complex issues in planning. Hopefully the legislation will streamline the process and avoid the major delays we have seen as a result of court cases, particularly those dealing with public projects. These delays have added considerably to the overall costs of projects and been a huge burden on taxpayers.
I welcome the Bill because there is a need for major projects of strategic importance to be considered in a particular way. I have noticed from applications that have come before local authorities that often there is not sufficient expertise within each authority to deal with complex or technical issues. Often there is a reliance on consultants. This is something about which I have some qualms as consultants are not part of the public process. It is undesirable, therefore, to give them a pivotal role in planning applications.
I note that the engagement of consultants can be extended beyond public sector projects to those that come in from the private sector. It is important that there should be a pro bono publico benefit or application to any such projects permitted by this legislation. Straightforward commercial projects that do not serve the public good should go through the normal local planning process with the right to appeal to An Bord Pleanála.
I have a particular concern with regard to environmental impact statements. I have been at the other end of the planning application process on occasion and have seen these statements produced at huge cost by consultants. Consultants will give clients whatever answer they want. I have seen these statements prepared in support of projects and have seen the same consultants prepare a contrary opinion in support of projects of a similar nature. This brings the integrity of the statements into question. A burden is placed on commercial enterprises to engage consultants at significant expense to produce environmental impact statements, often for relatively minor projects. One often wonders whether these statements are necessary. Sometimes the local authority requests them in order to cover itself. This is an area that needs to be examined.
I welcome the general thrust of the Bill which takes the right direction. I hope that on Committee Stage the Minister will be amenable to looking at other areas of the planning code that may need strengthening or simplifying. It is an anomaly that An Bord Pleanála operates to no timescale whereas local government must operate to strict timescales. An Bord Pleanála has a type of "wish" period of four months to give decisions, but there is no statutory compulsion to do so.
With regard to the board, will the Minister look at its function and role? Rather than expanding the board, perhaps he should give consideration to its role in regard to small projects such as extensions to houses. Perhaps he could remove the right to appeal to An Bord Pleanála and include the right to appeal to the local authority. This might simplify the system. A body in Dublin with a national remit that focuses on major infrastructural and strategic projects should not adjudicate on minor applications involved in an appeal process. This area should be examined.
There are other areas and minor issues that could be simplified. For example, if somebody is refused planning permission and reapplies within six months, a yellow notice must be put on the site. It is hard to substantiate the need for it to be yellow. Why can it not be an ordinary notice? On the need for applicants to publish their application in a local newspaper, a simpler approach would be to remove that requirement and, instead, require the local authority to publish the list of applications on a weekly basis. These would be more likely to be seen by the public because people would see them together on one page and could go through them to see if any was of special interest for them. Perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity to deal with issues such as this to simplify the code.
I welcome the Minister to the House and commend him on the introduction of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006. This Bill will help to drive the Celtic tiger to new heights by laying the foundation upon which enterprise can build. The Minister is making good his commitment to tackle bottlenecks in our economy, to enhance competitiveness, to improve the quality of life and to protect the environment. The Bill is a major step forward towards a streamlined planning system that can respond to the changing needs of a rapidly growing economy and society.
Every delay incurred in dealing with an infrastructural project adds to the cost of providing infrastructure. The establishment of a dedicated strategic construction division in An Bord Pleanála is an innovative approach to ensuring that key projects are delivered ahead of schedule and within budget. I am sure the Minister was so frustrated with the Glen of the Downs project in his constituency that he decided when he got into his current position to try to bring some Bill forward to speed up such projects which have been badly affected from the point of view of cost, delays and safety.
I ask the Minister to confirm whether, as Senator Jim Walsh suggested, major private sector projects could be brought under the remit of this Bill. If that is the case, I suggest that the proposed three-stage development by Newfound Consortium at Lough Key forest park is a project for which a fresh application could be made. As the Minister is aware from representations made to him, the first phase consisting of a 100-bed hotel and 27 holiday homes was rejected by An Bord Pleanála. The second phase, consisting of 78 holiday homes was also rejected. The third phase, comprising a golf course and 200 holiday homes is before An Bord Pleanála for decision. A project of that type, with a beautiful golf course close to the Lough Key forest park would be of great benefit to the people of the area.
Statements have been made by Senator Feighan regarding officials in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I will not name any officials but I ask the Minister to ensure that all officials make declarations of interest. I further ask him to check the declarations of interest of two officials in his Department who have had an input into the recommendation to refuse permission for the Lough Key forest park project. This is affecting the economy of County Roscommon and has major implications for the people of that county.
This is a small country and, unfortunately, too many people know too many people. If a person has a house in Boyle, County Roscommon, overlooking Lough Key, then he or she should make a declaration of interest to the Department stating whether he or she had any involvement in the decision to turn down this project, particularly if that person made a statement to the effect that no development would take place adjacent to——
It is a very serious issue but I ask Senator Bannon to resume his seat. I have asked Senator Leyden not to continue with what he was saying because there are other methods of raising this matter and he has agreed to that. Therefore, I ask Senator Bannon to resume his seat.
I make no allegations but I ask that all officials make declarations of interest and those declarations be clarified. Senator Feighan made allegations. I made no allegations and we must be clear about that. I ask the Minister to respond.
I will do my best to comment on the points raised by Senators in the four or five minutes remaining. To take the last point first, the proposals for the forest park are private and would not be affected by this Bill in any way. If Senator Leyden or any other Senator believes that any official in my Department has behaved improperly, there are ways other that the debate on this Bill to raise their concerns.
The National Competitiveness Council in its recent annual report pointed out that, in terms of investment and infrastructure, Ireland is now ranked 13th out of 16 developed countries. That is a position that we, as a progressive, modern, forward-looking economy cannot tolerate. Many Senators on both sides of the House spoke thoughtfully on the Bill and I mention in particular the contribution by Senator Quinn. He acknowledged the difficult decisions that have to be made and I agree with him on that. Getting the balance right, as mentioned by Senator Bradford, is crucial. I agree with Senators Quinn and Bradford that getting the balance right is exactly what this Bill is about.
This legislation is putting the public interest to the fore and all too frequently that is left out debates. Senators Coghlan, Maurice Hayes, Phelan and Browne expressed concerns about the resources available to An Bord Pleanála. I assure the House I have been in discussions with the board on the issue of resources. Significant additional resources have been allocated for 2006 and the board is content with the resources at its disposal. Senator Browne also mentioned the issue of resources for individual local planning authorities. The important point is that this Bill will shift onerous, large-scale projects into the remit of An Bord Pleanála, which will come as a relief to the local authorities.
Senator Maurice Hayes welcomed the development of a central competence within the board. That is why I chose to have the strategic focus within the board, rather than setting up a separate body. Senator Norris was not confident of the board's competence, which is a little unfair. There is significant competence within the board, which has been amply demonstrated and it is not right to adopt an À la carte attitude to An Bord Pleanála, praising it when it agrees with our particular prejudices and then criticising it when it does not.
Senator Ryan made an interesting point with regard to the tremendous improvement in the handling of road development, about which he is correct. That has come about as a result of Government decisions in 2000 to amend the process. This Bill simply extends that improved system and its economic and social benefits to other strategic infrastructural projects. If Senator Ryan welcomes the improvement for roads, I trust he will also welcome the improvement for other infrastructural areas.
Senator McCarthy demonstrated an imperfect understanding of the Bill and its intent. He suggested, as did others, that the Bill removes the local democratic element from the planning system but nothing could be further from the truth. Since 1963 planning rules have specifically excluded elected councillors from making interventions in individual planning cases. Planning decisions are an Executive function. This is the first legislation in 43 years to write the councillors back into the process.
A number of Senators made reference to the Poolbeg incinerator and asked why it will not come under the remit of the Bill. The answer to that is simple. Any planning application which is under way when the Bill comes into operation will not be covered. The Bill will not have retrospective application. Broadband was mentioned by Senators Paddy Burke and McCarthy but it is not affected by the Bill in any way.
A number of Senators raised the issue of balanced regional development and referred to rail and other projects. I agree that this Bill will be critical in developing balanced regional infrastructure. The problem we have had to date is that the roll-out of the infrastructure can take an inordinate amount of time. In that context, a number of Senators raised the case of the Glen of the Downs road project, which is a classic example. Extraordinary claims were made in that case. People who are now in politics in this country have never apologised for misleading the public. People were saying that every tree in the glen would be cut down and there was a genuine belief that this would happen. The project was held up for the best part of two years, tens of millions of euro were added to the cost of the project and who paid? The taxpayer and the people who were stuck in their cars paid. Senator Browne made that point and one could apply it to a number of other areas.
A number of Senators expressed concern about sustainable rural housing guidelines and their application. That is obviously not dealt with by this Bill but I wish to make a point which touches on courtesy and the way local authorities operate. I am keeping the implementation of the rural planning guidelines under close observation. They are not something that can be applied as a desideratum by planning officials. They apply and must be applied uniformly across the country. I will keep a close eye on this matter and if Members know of individual cases where they believe the guidelines are being breached, I would be delighted to hear from them.
I have also published draft development management guidelines. These will deal with issues such as good manners and management, consistency of approach, and good communications, all of which we expect from the public service.
On the issue of the value of a substratum, section 33 will value land 10 m or more below the surface of that land at nil. It is a progressive and positive provision which works, as several Senators observed, in Spain and elsewhere. It should work well in Ireland.
Senator Finucane wrongly suggested that it is generally impossible to get planning permission for major projects. Exaggerating the problem is not the best way to finding a solution for it. Some 83% of planning applications are granted and up to 60% are decided by eight weeks.
Although much good work has been done in the planning process, I am the first to accept there is room for improvement. Legislation alone will not fulfil our demands for infrastructural development. However, without a strong and certain framework for processing modern infrastructural applications, certainty in projects will not be assured. The Bill is part of an overall jigsaw that incorporates funding and structural innovations.
Senators referred to the role of the courts in the planning process. I cannot legislate for the courts as they set their arrangements. It is recognised that large improvements have occurred in the High Court's process for dealing with planning matters, particularly with the advent of the Commercial Court. The courts have shown themselves to be innovative in this area. I am certain that if we, as legislators, do our business, the Judiciary will do its.
I thank Members for their contributions. In the short time that was available, I could not, as I like to, deal with each individual contribution. We can deal with those various matters in more detail on Committee Stage.