Tuesday, 27 January 2015
Wind Energy Guidelines
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coffey, to the House. We are dealing with motion No. 3 which was tabled by Senator Byrne.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht an deis a thabhairt dom an t-ábhar an-tábhachtach seo a ardú ag tús suí an tSeanaid inniu.
I am pleased to be presented with the opportunity to raise this issue in the Seanad today. The people of north Meath, and I presume people all across the country, are hopping mad with the Government because left, right and centre, planning permissions are being submitted, and in some cases approved, that were based on outdated guidelines. It was previous Ministers who appeared before us in this House that coined the term "outdated guidelines". Such a system is completely wrong. I thought we had moved away from that type of planning system.
An Bord Pleanála has received a planning application for six turbines to be located in Nobber, County Meath which has already been refused by Meath County Council. An application has also been submitted, under the Strategic Infrastructure Act, and refers to Element Power's proposal for across north Meath. Due to the Government's delay in issuing guidelines these firms appear to be trying to take advantage of the gap generated. The firms have used outdated guidelines but the Government appears to be facilitating them which is completely wrong. It is about time the Government issued new guidelines which are acceptable to the majority of people and acceptable to people who would otherwise have to put up with these monstrosities being located beside them.
We are embarking on a whole new ballgame because supersized turbines have not been seen in this country before. The public do not accept the situation. The Government should say "No", stop the planning applications - it is within the power of the Minister to stop these applications - and say it is thinking about this matter. We cannot have a blot on the landscape and have turbines located in some of the nicest and potentially lucrative tourism areas without looking at what guidelines, rules and regulations are being set down. The Minister has a choice - either we have a proper planning system for turbines or we do not.
I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly and I thank the Senator for raising the issue.
Proposals for wind energy developments are subject to the statutory requirements of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, in the same manner as other proposed developments. Planning applications are made to the relevant local planning authority with a right of appeal to An Bord Pleanála. In the case of wind development proposals which meet the statutory threshold criteria for classification as strategic infrastructure developments under the Planning and Development Acts, such applications must be submitted directly to An Bord Pleanála.
Planning authorities, including An Bord Pleanála, are required to have regard to my Department's wind energy development guidelines, which were published in June 2006, when making determinations on wind farm development proposals. These guidelines provide advice to planning authorities on catering for wind energy through the development plan and development management processes. The guidelines are also intended to ensure a consistency of approach throughout the country in the identification of suitable locations for wind energy development and the treatment of planning applications for such developments.
In December 2013, my Department published proposed draft revisions to the noise, setbacks and shadow flicker aspects of the 2006 Wind Energy Development Guidelines. These draft revisions proposed the following: the setting of a more stringent day and night noise limit of 40 decibels for future wind energy developments; a mandatory minimum setback of 500 m between a wind turbine and the nearest dwelling for amenity considerations; and the complete elimination of shadow flicker between wind turbines and neighbouring dwellings. A public consultation process was initiated on these proposed draft revisions to the guidelines which ran until 21 February 2014. My Department received submissions from 7,500 organisations and members of the public during this public consultation process.
It is intended that the revisions to the 2006 Wind Energy Development Guidelines will be finalised as soon as possible. In this regard, account has to be taken of the extensive response to the public consultation in framing the final guidelines. Further work is also advancing to develop technical appendices to assist planning authorities with the practical application of the noise measurement aspects of wind guidelines.
The revisions to the Wind Energy Development Guidelines 2006, when finalised, will be issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. In the interim, the 2006 guidelines will continue to apply to existing planning applications.
It is a matter for the relevant planning authority to make the appropriate determination on a planning application or appeal, having regard to relevant planning guidelines issued by my Department. However, these guidelines are issued for guidance purposes to assist planning authorities in the performance of their functions. Ultimately, planning authorities - be they the local authorities or An Bord Pleanála - will make their own decision based on the specific merits or otherwise of individual planning applications.
Once again, the blame is put down to the volume of submissions received, which is causing the delay. Although the Minister of State did not say this explicitly, the previous Minister did. What is happening is the message is being sent to An Bord Pleanála, in particular, that this is not a major issue of importance to the Government because there has been no effort on its part to update the regulations in this area. There has been a mad rush to get planning applications in and we continue to see that. The Minister of State must also see this. Why is the Department so slow when the industry is so quick? That is what is going on.
It would be well within the senior Minister's entitlement under section 28 to issue a direction to county councils and An Bord Pleanála asking them to cease accepting applications until guidelines are introduced. That would be a reasonable compromise for everyone to ensure no planning decisions are made during this process. We have asked for this on numerous occasions and there is no doubt guidance could be issued in this regard under section 28. That should be considered because what is happening is not fair. Young couples trying to build a house in these areas are put through the mill in the context of rules and regulations with which they must comply. Some people wish there was a gap in the regulations for young families trying to build a house in rural Ireland but there is not. Regulations are strictly applied to them and that is not the case in respect of wind turbines.
As I am sure the Minister will see from the submissions that have been made, his predecessor's proposals do not go far enough. When the finalised guidelines are published, they will have to go much further. In the meantime, it is well within the Minister's gift to cease the processing of applications while they are decided.
I note the Senator's comments but I remind him that the current guidelines were adopted as recently as 2006. The Government recognises that they need to be reviewed and that is what we are doing. We have consulted widely with all stakeholders in this regard. We have received 7,500 submissions and, therefore, it is wrong to state the Government is making no effort. We are making every effort. We are carefully considering all the submissions and taking everything into account, including the advice of the Attorney General, because we need to be sure that everything we do in the context of the guidelines is constitutional. Ultimately, it is a decision of the planning authority, whether it is the local authority or An Bord Pleanála, to make those decisions. We will publish revised wind farm guidelines as soon as possible and I expect some progress on them in the near future.