I had virtually concluded my speech last week when we ran out of time. Suffice it to say that on behalf of the Green Party I oppose this Bill and will be supporting the amendment put down by The Workers' Party.
Roads Bill, 1991: Second Stage (Resumed).
I congratulate the new Minister for the Environment. I was delighted with his appointment and I am sure he will make an excellent Minister.
I welcome this comprehensive Roads Bill which will establish the National Roads Authority on a statutory basis and update the law relating to public roads. The National Roads Authority will have overall responsibility for planning, supervising, constructing, improving and maintaining our national road network. The national roads represent approximately 6 per cent of our roads and carry 37 per cent of our road traffic. The national roads programme will cost in the region of £3.6 billion, with £3 billion going to national primary roads and £600 million to national secondary roads. I presume the local authorities will still draw up the plans for the national primary and secondary roads and that the criteria for the plans will be issued by the National Roads Authority and the work carried out by the local authority, if the local authority are competent and willing to do it.
The new authority will have tremendous powers. They will have permission to borrow £500 million and to enter into toll franchise agreements with private interests and so on. The Bill will empower the Minister to assign additional functions relating to national roads to the National Roads Authority.
I hope the Authority will take notice of national primary and national secondary roads in County Kerry where we have not received either Structural or Government funding for the development of our national primary and secondary roads. We have a national primary road from Feale bridge to Castleisland on to Tralee town. We also have a national primary road from Tralee to Killarney and from Killarney to the Cork border. Kerry has 60.5 miles of national primary roads, 193 miles of national secondary roads, 2,450 miles of county roads and 193 miles of regional roads. Thirty per cent of tourists who come to Ireland come to County Kerry. Our income last year from tourism was £145 million. For the first time, tourism income surpassed that of agriculture in our county. Our roads are not properly developed to take this tourist traffic. We have a thriving dairy farming community in Kerry and that necessitates a good roads structure capable of carrying heavy machinery.
Under the Bill, the council will still purchase land for road improvements and provide the road designs. I am glad the county councils will still do the roads development work. In his reply, would the Minister let us know if the local authorities can tender for road development? That is very important for local authorities since they employ many people in road construction and use a lot of machinery as well for that purpose.
As a person who drives 190 miles to Dublin every week I have noticed a vast difference in workmanship and the quality of work carried out by different local authorities. Some local authorities are doing a great job while others are doing very inferior work. I often felt that I should inform some of those authorities that they should let Kerry County Council do the work and that they would end up with much better national primary roads. Since I travel through so many counties every week coming to the capital, I have first hand experience of this.
The Roads Bill will update the legislation and give the National Roads Authority a modern, legislative framework within which to operate. The classification of public roads is to be changed to national roads, regional and local roads. I also noticed from the Minister's speech that temporary dwellings would be prohibited on national roads. The Minister should give the local councils authority to remove temporary dwellings from county roads as well.
The Minister referred to unauthorised vehicles and caravans used for trading not being allowed on national roads. What about farmers? Can they sell their produce, strawberries, green trees and other farm products along the road? When travelling along national primary roads from Dublin to Kerry I noticed that farmers sell their produce along the roads and that they have a special place in markets in the towns through which I pass. Will they be prohibited from selling their produce on the side of national primary roads?
I notice that the Bill gives power to the Authority to extinguish public rights of way. I completely disagree with this. This power should be given to the local authorities so that councillors can have a big input into these decisions.
Will the National Roads Authority have their own headquarters or will they be in the Custom House?
From County Kerry alone, we have submitted plans for works totalling £80 million for the development of secondary, national and regional roads. It is a disgrace that we have not received any money for the development of these roads for a number of years. It is my hope that we will fare better with the establishment of the National Roads Authority.
I wonder who will provide all the necessary finance. I have observed that, under the provisions of the Bill, the National Roads Authority can borrow up to a limit of £500 million. When replying perhaps the Minister would inform us whether the new National Roads Authority can themselves apply for Structural funding, or whether that will be undertaken by the Minister and/or Department of the Environment.
I notice also that there is provision in the Bill for the building of motorways. I predict that could cause problems in that there may not be adequate access to them in addition to causing many problems for farms and small holdings generally nationwide, leading to an incredible number of objections to motorways being built in specific areas. I contend it would be better that we forgot about the building of such motorways and instead provided moneys for the development and maintenance of our national, primary and secondary roads. Such money is not being provided in my county, Kerry, for roads to make them capable of taking farming and tourist traffic.
I observe that the provisions of section 24 give the Minister for the Environment power to pay grants to the National Roads Authority and to borrow up to £500 million, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, who will be responsible for its repayment. It will readily be seen that the National Roads Authority will have enormous power. I hope they will be in a position to improve our roads network generally and that the necessary finance will be made available for such road development and repair. I hope the provisions of this Bill will prove to be a good foundation for the development of our public roads network over the ensuing 20 years or so.
In introducing this Bill on 27 November last the Minister said it constituted the most comprehensive roads Bill to be introduced in the history of this State. I suppose that says something. However, it is a great pity it is not sufficiently comprehensive. I contend that to be really comprehensive taking account of all our real transport needs — because of the inadequate road transport system — its provisions would need to take account not merely of roads but also railroads because our railroad system could accommodate a great deal more of our transport requirements. Indeed it is a feature of transport here that we depend on our roads to an extent not matched by any of our European counterparts. For example, approximately 96 per cent of all passengers moving about this country travel by car on our roadways and in excess of 90 per cent of all freight is transported by road. When one considers that such freight is transported on roads whose capacity to adequately accommodates the vehicular traffic using them is grossly inadequate one clearly realises how unbalanced is our transport policy overall.
I welcome the establishment of the National Roads Authority. If there is one thing that had bedevilled roadbuilding and policy here it is the piecemeal approach adopted to date. For example, national roads traverse several local authority areas when one local authority may give priority to one stretch of a national primary or secondary road and seek and receive funding from the Department whereas another local authority — in whose area the same national primary, secondary or indeed regional road crosses — will not give priority to that stretch of road resulting over the years in their piecemeal development and repair. The new National Roads Authority might well adopt a single, co-ordinated policy and approach to expenditure on the development and repair of our roads over the next decade to 20 years.
I am informed reliably that transport costs here represent approximately 10 per cent of all production costs of all exporting industrialists here, representing approximately twice the level of that of our European partners on the Continent who trade with one another. It is vital that we have in place and implement an effective overall transport system. Indeed, one of the effects of a bad transport system is the high contributory cost of transport to production especially in the case of goods produced for export. This means that, as long as the cost penalty prevails, we cannot compete effectively with our trading counterparts because of the inadequacy of our national roads system.
To illustrate my point, in 1977 something less than £90 million was spent on all roads development here whereas last year something in the region of £240 million was spent on all road development. Over those 15 years, if the expenditure on our roads was to have been maintained at current money values, in the current year we should be spending something of the order of £380 million on our roads network. That example will clearly demonstrate how much expenditure has lagged behind our cost of living or any other index one may wish to apply to money values and how they have eroded over the same 15 years. The fact that we allowed that to happen was not a good contribution to our overall economic policy.
Hopefully, the new National Roads Authority will put an end to what I might describe as the political influence often attached to where money was spent on our national roads network. I happen to live in a county crossed through the middle by the national primary route, the N5, running from Longford to Castlebar in County Mayo. It has approximately 43 miles across its broad middle of County Roscommon; about seven miles in County Longford and approximately 28 miles in County Mayo.
Since the inception of Structural Funds in 1989, and indeed for some years before that, expenditure on that road is a salutary example of the political clout and presence of the Minister for the Environment in a certain place. We discovered that of the 27 miles in County Mayo, most of it in the vicinity of Castlebar, Mayo County Council received £1,418,000 from the Department of the Environment in respect of that national primary route, the N5. By contrast Roscommon County Council with 43 miles, the most efficient, single stretch of national primary route nationwide, received no money whatsoever to spend on that roadway.
In 1989, the first year of application of Structural Funds, Mayo County Council spent a sum of £2,810,000 on that road whereas Roscommon County Council received a mere £15,000 from the Department. In 1990 Mayo County Council spent £2,100,000 on the N5 in the vicinity of Castlebar whereas Roscommon County Council received and spent absolutely nothing. In 1991 Mayo County Council received £1,514,000 for expenditure in County Mayo whereas Roscommon County Council received £50,000 to repair a stretch of road destroyed by flooding. Indeed, had it not been destroyed by flooding it is arguable whether they would have received any funding at all. Those are examples of politics moving available money around. I submit that that is not a very fair basis of allocating resources. We do not argue that Mayo County Council or the N5 in County Mayo should not have got that level of investment — of course it should — but when dealing with limited resources some basis of fair play should be found by which these resources are distributed. I recommend to the National Roads Authority that they not be persuaded by the political purposes of politicians in certain areas. The case I referred to is a blatant example of the Minister for the Environment of the day using his power within his Department to ensure that substantial funding was directed towards his constituency.
Very little attention has been devoted to the state of minor or county roads of which there are about 8,000 kilometres. They carry between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of all traffic in the country and 80 per cent of the traffic on these roads is work related. I know that the preponderant percentage of traffic on all roads is work related but it is equally true of the rural road network which is so extensive. That whole network has been starved of realistic funding for the past 15 years.
A report by the city and county engineers association in 1988 found that 35 per cent of the structures and 37 per cent of the surfaces of these roads were critically deficient. They were referring to road structure, the basic metal upon which the road is built, and, the surface. That report has been with the Minister since 1988 but there has been no realistic response in money terms to that problem. The county road network plays an enormous part in our agricultural economy. On the county road network each day millions of pounds worth of agricultural merchandise is carried. Yet there is a policy which dictates that funding is not directed to that very important section of the national public highway. That will not be part of the remit of the National Roads Authority. I recommend, since the Department of the Environment will no longer be closely involved in national roads policy, they now divert more attention to the rural roads bearing in mind that they represent 80.2 per cent of the mileage of all roadways in Ireland and that they carry a very high percentage of all traffic.
I spoke earlier about transport costs to exporting industries. It is reckoned that transport costs to industry, generally speaking, are about £1,200 million per annum. It is estimated if we had a proper road structure that cost could be reduced by one third. That amazing figure points out how bad our system is. It is important that deliveries are made on time, that goods are got to port in time and so on. A leading industrialist in my area told me that his company lost a container of meat because of a bottleneck close to their own plant which resulted in a delay of one hour. When they got to port the ship on which they were to export had left. The meat, which had to be returned to the plant, had deteriorated. That is the result of a bad road network especially in the way it relates to industry.
We have never had a good regional road network development. It is very important that the new Authority bear in mind that there is a distinct relationship between good roads and where industries will locate. For those who represent less favoured regions it is very important that that aspect be borne in mind by the new Authority. It is important that the composition of the new Authority be such that it is representative of the various regions. I know it will have representatives from various economic interests but it also must have representatives from the various regions and the economic interests of these regions.
It is often said that the Minister may err by appointing people who will take a cold cost benefit analysis of where money should be spent on our roads. If good roads are built to areas economic development will follow. Some people say that because there is no level of economic development in an area there is no point in spending money on good roads to it. That would be a very persuasive argument with many of the mandarins in the Custom House who make our policy on roads. The Minister said very little about who will be appointed to the Authority. They should be people from less favoured regions, regions with little or no industrialisation and which cannot reach any level of industrialisation due to the present roads structure.
Another industry in less favoured regions is forestry. Irish forests, and the Irish forest estate, is notoriously serviced by bad roads. Those who travel to any major mature forest estate will be struck by the fact that it is serviced by an inadequate road. There is little doubt that that needs to be addressed. Many of our forests are matured and are at the point of clear felling but developments of that kind are retarded in many parts of the country because access is restricted by the condition of the roads which service them. This is something the National Roads Authority are not asked to address because forest lands will be serviced by rural roads which will not be within the remit of the new Authority. I urge the Department, who will be released of the responsibility of planning for the major roads, that they look anew at the road service to our forests.
One of the deficiencies of the Irish road system is that it cannot deal with the capacity forced on to it. In other words, our roads no longer have the capacity to deal with the type and size, and speed of vehicles now being forced on to them and this leads to accidents. We have one of the highest levels of road accidents in Europe. There are many other contibutory factors; we think mostly in terms of speed etc, but one in four accidents can be directly related to the condition of the roads. It is stated in this quite good publication which the Department prepared in respect of their application for Structural Funds that in 1984 a survey found that 42 per cent of road fatalities occurred on our national roads, which constitute only 5.6 per cent of the total length or mileage of the road network. I suggest that a high proportion of these lose their lives due to the condition of our roads rather than to bad driving or the condition of the vehicle in which they were travelling. There is a very compelling argument for ensuring that we spend a greater amount of resources to bring our roads up to an acceptable standard. We spend a great deal of time propagandising about the danger involved in driving with excess alcohol and its relationship to road fatalities but the Minister's Department should be improving road conditions which have as much to do with the number of road fatalities, as excessive drinking.
I also notice that in 1984, the last year for which we have good records, 31 per cent of injuries occurred on our national roads. Granted between 60 and 70 per cent of all traffic in the country moves on our national roads; nevertheless that is a frightening statistic. Again, I make this point, purely and simply, to illustrate that they can be directly related to the condition of our roads.
A report which I saw last year estimated the cost to the economy of road accidents at least £200 million — perhaps the figure is well in excess of £200 million — in terms of time lost in industry and compensation for injuries etc. That is an enormous amount of money, almost as much as we spend each year on our roads. This year the total amount of money that will be spent on our roads is £257 million, most of which will come from the EC. According to one reputable survey the cost of road accidents to the economy about amounts to the figure we are willing to spend on our roads system in one year.
We should also take a close look at the relationship between bad roads and energy costs. I understand that road transport, of all kinds, accounts for about 18 per cent of all energy resources used. One of the economic arguments in favour of improving our road network is that it would reduce our energy bill by one third. In other words, any money invested in our roads can give us a return of three or four times that amount within a very short time, in terms of the cost of road accidents, the cost of energy, of lost production and lost exports.
A report on the findings of a scientific survey carried out in 1980 on passenger transport services in Dublin proved conclusively that, in the event of a traffic hold-up in Dublin, following a vehicle breakdown involving several hundred cars, between 1,000 and 1,500 gallons of petrol could be wasted. The report also said that there is a need to invest more to get rid of bottlenecks which result when one vehicle breaks down in the middle of a street carrying a large flow of traffic and it highlights the effects of this, in terms of wastage and time lost etc.
I am concerned about another problem relating to the projected growth levels in the volume of traffic on our roads over the next 20 years and the amount of funding that we propose to provide over the same period. If the projections are correct there is no way that the amount that we propose to spend over the next 20 years or before the end of this decade will match what is required. In this country there are about 240 vehicles per thousand of the population, which is below the European average and certainly well below the American average, but by world standards generally it is fairly high. Over the next decade and into the next century, it is expected that traffic volume will increase by about 3 per cent per annum. It has been suggested that we will have to spend approximately £6 billion during the remaining eight years of this century and into the next century if we are to cope adequately with that growth in traffic. No such commitment has been given in any set of proposals I have seen. During the latter half of the seventies, there was major growth in vehicle numbers in this country. They increased by over 7 per cent per year. In the eighties, certainly between 1980 to 1988, the growth rate was less than 1.5 per cent per annum. Expenditure in those years did not match the amount needed for road development to meet that level of growth in traffic numbers.
That is most of what I would like to say in relation to the economic aspects of road development and the need to identify economic and social needs, our economic needs in particular, and to ensure that what we propose to do is well balanced and in tune with the economic needs of the whole country. Coming from a western county I find it is very disappointing that we have benefited hardly at all from the Structural Funds, given that we were told that these would be specially targeted upon less favoured areas. Yet, if one looks at the figures for road expenditure in a county like mine, or in County Offaly where there has been a certain lack of political clout in recent years, it is clear they have received no money from the Structural Funds. If I ask a question of the Minister in this regard he will say that our council got £3 million last year for major roads development and that 70 per cent of that was from the Structural Funds. We do not deny that but in 1986 and 1987 my county was getting a similar amount and there were no Structural Funds at that time. Of course the Minister is now displacing what we used to get from the Exchequer and from the old regional fund and giving us the same amount of money which is, in real terms, a lot less. However, we are not getting any extra money to tackle an infrastructural problem in a county like mine which has one of the worst road networks in the country. The greatest block to any kind of economic development is the fact that our roads are so bad.
I am also disappointed that so much of regional funds earmarked for spending between 1989 and 1993 are being spent in the east and south-east coast. With the exception of certain charmed parts of County Mayo — which may not be as charmed any more — the funding to less favoured or disadvantaged regions is probably less than ever. It is a betrayal of the original promise and of the principle on which Structural Funds were to be expended. They were supposed to bring greater cohesion, not just within the Community, but within a member state. They were meant to bring the structures of the weakest parts of the country up to some kind of comparison with other areas. However, that has not happened. An analysis has not been done but I submit that if one looks at the way funding is now directed at road development here, one will find that in percentage and real terms, the major urban centres are getting a far greater amount than they were getting five and ten years ago. I know the argument will be made that the road system in Dublin was the worst in the country but that is a result of a long history of neglect by many Governments. It is not an argument to be made at the expense of less favoured and poorer regions which are declining more rapidly than five years ago.
According to the census of population figures, County Leitrim lost 6.4 per cent of its population in the five years from 1986-91 while County Roscommon lost 5 per cent of its population. One must go back to the thirties to find figures of comparable population losses. During the period 1965-85 the population either grew slightly or stabilised. However, from 1986-91 the population went down by 5 per cent or 3,000 people. People between the ages of 18 and 55 years leave because there is no employment, the lack of employment is because there is no infrastructure from which employment can grow and which will attract investment. It is a policy which needs to be tackled and I hope that when phase II of the Structural Funds, which we are half promised and which should come into effect in 1994 is passed, the less favoured regions will have a positive loading in their favour because the agreement which established these funds was that there should be positive discrimination in favour of less favoured regions. I accept the difficulty in seeing this country as a single unit in relation to structural or regional development, which is totally inappropriate at present. This is obvious from looking at the recent result of the census of population.
I support the principle of a National Roads Authority. We will be tabling amendments on Committee Stage to ensure that the Bill is more comprehensive as it should have taken a much broader view of transport and should not just relate to roads. We should also see railroads as an essential part of the transport network because more developed countries who have a better road system than ours do not have the level of freight on their roads which we have; they use their railroads. In certain states in the United States 50 per cent of all freight is carried inter-state by railroads and passenger systems which are not on the roads are much higher than ours; ours are only 3 per cent or 4 per cent of the total number of passengers being carried.
As other Members wish to join the debate I will keep further remarks until Committee Stage.
Thank you, Sir, for allowing me some time in this debate. I must echo some of Deputy Connors' questions about where the Bill fits into the general scheme of transport policy. It is a roads Bill and, undoubtedly, we need to fit our policy on roads into our overall transport policy and needs. However, the intention here apparently is to set up — at least on the face of it — an independent roads authority, although I have some doubts as to the true level of its independence. I will come to that in a moment. To the extent that we can take it at its face value, this is supposed to be an independent, or quasi-independent, road authority to look after roads. There is no provision in this Bill for the Authority to have any inter-action with agencies, companies or bodies which affect other areas of transport policy; nor is there any suggestion that in any of the many dealings the Minister for the Environment will have with the Authority there will be an obligation to examine the implications of policy in this area, other areas of transport policy orvice versa.
I said I had some doubts as to whether this agency will really be independent. This question has also arisen in other areas. In a document issued last October by the CII — it is fair to say that they have been one of the most enthusiastic proponents of a national road authority — it is stated that the new agency will be an operational agency rather than one which has to deal with the conception of overall roads policy much less overall transport policy. Therefore, I do not see any great indication of independence here. There are others reasons for saying this which I will come to later.
I do not see any role being given to the National Roads Authority in the articulation of a national transport policy. It may be that the Minister for the Environment has some ideas on the subject. The then Minister for the Environment, when introducing the Bill on 27 November last, gave no indication of any wider policy context for the Bill. In fact, I found the Minister's Second Stage speech on this issue to be singularly disappointing in that it consisted mostly of what I might call a fairly potted version of the explanatory memorandum to the Bill. It did not go into any of the policy issues involved or give any assessment of why particular options have been chosen in the Bill; rather it left a great many questions unanswered.
I suppose the then Minister could have been forgiven for a rather sketchy treatment of the subject because, if my memory serves me correctly, he had not been in office for more than ten days when he introduced the Bill into this House. Like me, the then Minister for the Environment is now an inhabitant of the back benches of this House. Whatever else one may say about the Bill I am not sure that so far we have any great guarantee that there will be continuity in approach or policy in relation to the matters dealt with in it.
The Minister's introduction of the Bill and the Bill itself leave a great many questions unanswered. It is an important Bill and it deals with some very central issues not only in regard to road planning but issues which have implications in other areas of planning also. I should like to raise some questions on Second Stage so that the Minister can respond when replying. This will enable us to see what amendments, if any, might be required on Committee Stage. I believe that a number of technical amendments at the very least will be required. It seems there are some policy issues which may require some changes of direction. However, it is not possible for any of us to discern to what extent those policy changes may be needed because we have had no systematic explanation of the reasons certain policy options were identified and included in the Bill.
I hope I will be forgiven for saying that a number of provisions in the Bill lead me to take out one of my old hobby horses for a canter around the track. This has to do with the provisions for making regulations. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle has heard me on this point before and I apologise for boring the House. This is dealt with first in section 7 (2) which provides that:
Every regulation made under this Act, other than a regulation under section 10 or 17, shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after it is made and, if a resolution annulling the regulation is passed by either such House within the next subsequent twenty-one days on which that House has sat ...
That is what is more or less called the passive way of making regulations — regulations are made unless this House decides otherwise.
The provisions in sections 10 and 17 are different because they require this House to specifically approve the provisions of the regulations before they can come into effect. I do not argue with that provision in relation to sections 10 and 17 because they are important sections. Section 10 deals with the classification of national, regional and local roads. Obviously this is a matter in which this House would have a very substantial interest as that classification basically decides where policy is made in relation to the roads, which authority have the primary responsibility and who directly have to provide most of the money. Under the general scheme of the Bill a road which is classified as a national road comes within the competence of the National Roads Authority who are funded in the ways set out in this Bill. I will have something to say about that later on. It becomes a matter which more or less must be specifically dealt with by this House and for which moneys have to be allocated by this House to the Minister for the Environment for allocation to the National Roads Authority by agreement with the Minister for Finance; it becomes a matter of national policy. If I understand the Bill correctly, regional and local roads are dealt with at a different level. As I said, I can only agree that in making regulations governing the choices made in that kind of classification this House should be involved and should have to give explicit consent.
Section 17 deals with the functions of the Authority. Since the Authority are going to be relatively important — I have my doubts as to the extent of that importance — in relation to issues of national roads policy it is entirely appropriate that the Houses of the Oireachtas should have to give their explicit consent to the proposed description of the functions of the Authority as set out in the Bill. Many other cases dealt with in the Bill will be the subject of regulations. These regulations which will be laid before this House will have effect unless they are annulled by a conscious act of this House and the other House of the Oireachtas.
It has always been represented to me — I have been riding this particular hobby horse for almost 11 years — that there are very good reasons for adopting that method of making regulations. The reason most frequently advanced is that many of the issues to be dealt with are fairly ordinary humdrum day-to-day issues with which it would not be appropriate to bother the wise heads of this House. I am prepared to agree that there may indeed be many issues which do not need to be brought before this House in that explicit way but which can be dealt with otherwise. However, I am not sure that the kind of regulations we are talking about provide the correct vehicle for that. It seems an issue is either important enough to be debated here and require the attention of this House or it is not. If an issue is important enough to be brought to the attention of this House to be debated, and may be voted on, then it is certainly important enough to require an explicit Act of this House; in other words, it deserves to come before this House in a way which requires this House to explicitly agree to it before it can be passed, rather than the kind of procedure which is implicit in these passive methods of making regulations.
If on the other hand the issue is more an executive or an administrative one it should not come before this House at all. The legislation should provide a very clear method of deciding what kind of issue it is and whether it needs to come before the House, and if it does not need to come before the House, an explicit way of dealing with it having regard to the necessary accountability to this House for the expenditure of public funds. My conclusion is that orders and regulations that come before this House should not come into effect without the explicit agreement of this House and the other House or alternatively there should be provision in legislation allowing these decisions to be made outside this House, through the Executive or the administrative system with the proper accountability that goes with that system. We should not have this half man half beast order procedure where month after month umpteen orders are deemed to have been made by this House because they have not been annulled within 21 sitting days.
I know I may be whistling past the graveyard, wasting my time saying that. With great regret I have to say I have never found any great receptivity to this idea on the part of this Government, the last Government or the one before that. Although I had a greater degree of success between 1982 and 1987, I cannot pretend the idea was favourably received then either. The procedure of passive orders is unacceptable. It is a bad way of implementing legislation and of giving effect to what are otherwise important provisions in legislation that come before the House.
If I cannot make a dent in ministerial consciousness in that matter I might begin to make some slight dent in the Civil Service consciousness in the matter. I have a feeling it is a subject with which I will be dealing in this House for a long time to come. I may be misinterpreted in saying that if I ever find myself in the position of being in charge of a Department again that Department would have to work very hard to make the proper distinction between applying regulations, orders and procedures in the way I believe they should be applied and the more administrative way of doing it. That is a notice of intent but it might be a long time before I get an opportunity to put that procedure into practice. However, it is one I will continue to defend.
The Chair always thought the Deputy was an optimist.
I am the eternal optimist. It is an essential quality for politicians. If we are not optimistic we get into dreadful trouble with the Chair.
On the more detailed provisions of the Bill I would like to deal first with Part II, section 10, which deals with the classification of roads and assignment of functions, one of the areas where the regulations fall to be made under what I regard as a proper and respectable parliamentary procedure. A few questions arise here. Section 10 (6) provides that a road authority shall, at the request of the Minister and in such manner as may be specified by him, carry out an inventory of all public roads, or of any class or subclass of public road, in respect of which it has responsibility. It is a very wholesome thought that road authorities should do that. It immediately begs the question, have they not done so up to now? Are there road authorities around the country that do not have an inventory of all public roads or of classes or subclasses of public roads in respect of which they have responsibility? If an inventory is to be carried out, when will that be done? If it has not been carried out already, why is that so? If it has been carried out, why are we providing for it again in this Bill?
What is the purpose of such an inventory? That is probably an even more important question. I would assume that the purpose of an inventory that identifies all public roads or any class or subclass of public road surely would be to give the Minister and/or the Authority a clear view of what they are dealing with when they make the major policy decisions that are required here. I would like the Minister to share his views with us on the extent to which an inventory of this kind already exists and, if there is no such inventory, the implications of that.
From travelling the public roads in County Kildare and many other counties I am forced to the conclusion that a great many roads do not appear on any inventory because they seem to have been neglected for many years. Only about a half mile from my home there is a road I walk along very frequently; it is a public road for only part of its length because it leads to a bog where I often walk my dog but it is one of these forgotten roads. It has not been repaired for years. It would be very interesting to know whether that road appears in an inventory. There are many other roads, from the Bog of Allen to the Beara Peninsula and across to the west coast, that seem to have been forgotten and that should be put on an inventory. That might bring them to the attention of road authorities which seem to have been benevolent in their neglect.
Section 11 deals with declarations of public roads. It provides that a roads authority may, by order, declare any road over which a public right of way exists to be a public road. I would like the Minister to give us the reason for making this specification at this stage. I suspect it is very much the same as the reason behind the carrying out of the inventory, so that roads authorities and the National Roads Authority will know where they stand as regards the mileage of roads around the country. I wonder if there is any property right implication in this provision? As I understand it, the provision means that where a public right or way exists, a road authority may decide to designate the road covered by that public right-of-way a public road. The legislation provides that a road authority may declare such a public right or way to be a public road, but I would like to know why these roads have not been already classified as public roads. I would like to know if there is any implication that road authorities are being given, under this legislation, a right to trespass on, usurp or overcome any previously existing property right.
It seems that in order to declare a public right of way as a public road a road authority must satisfy themselves that the road in question is a general public utility. That is an interesting concept. What is a general public utility? That should be defined in the Bill. It seems that in these cases they will already exist as a public right of way. If a public right of way already exists, then almost by definition the public must be getting some utility, value or welfare out of it, but the Roads Authority have to satisfy themselves that the road is of general public utility. I would like to know what that definition is.
The Roads Authority also have to consider the financial implications for the Authority of the proposed declaration, and there we come to the heart of the matter. What happens if, having considered the financial implications, the road authority decide not to go ahead, satisfy themselves that the road is of general public utility and declare that the public right of way is a public road? Does that mean that, even though this public right of way may be of general public utility, if the Authority do not have the money it will not be declared to be a public road? If not, why not? Since we appear to be declaring public roads for the purpose of the definition of this Bill, we ought to know how we define the criteria on which such declarations are based.
I am strengthened in that belief by a perusal of section 11(3), which provides that the Minister may prescribe criteria for the declaration of roads to be public roads. Does that mean that the Minister will prescribe what he means by "general public utility"? Does it mean that he will give the Roads Authority either guidelines or comfort on the financial implications for the authority of the proposed declaration? If the matter relates only to general public utility and financial implications, why will the Minister be involved at all? If this deals only with the declaration of public roads; this is not the section under which we could declare a public road to be a national, regional or local road. This is a procedure by which we simply declare that a given bit of territory is to be a public road. I wonder why the Minister is getting involved in that. This is something on which I should like to hear the Minister expand.
On several occasions I asked one of his predecessors on a previous Bill which came from the same Department, the Local Authority Reform Bill, why the Minister was being involved so much in so many aspects of what was provided for in that Bill. I did not get a satisfactory answer from the Minister of the day, now the Minister for Justice, Deputy Flynn. I wonder whether the current Minister for the Environment has anything more to say about the apparently prevasive influence of the Minister through this Bill. In other legislation emanating from the Department of the Environment we find the Minister's fingers everywhere. I wonder why in the declaration of public roads the Bill provides that the Minister should prescribe criteria for the declaration.
The next section deals with the other side of the coin, the abandonment of public roads. On the whole, I do not have any great difficulties with the section. However, I find section 12 (5) (b) rather puzzling. The subsection states that the abandonment of a public road shall not affect any public right of way over such road and a road authority shall not do anything to interfere with such right of way save as is provided for in law. The last saver is important but, not being a lawyer, I do not know what it means. I wonder what the scope of that saver might be. I also question why we should set about declaring the abandonment of a public road if, by doing so, we are not affecting any right of way. As I understand it there is provision for a road authority to say that they are abandoning a stretch of road but it will remain public right of way; the public will still have the right to use it, to traverse it and to travel up and down it. By abandoning it, the Roads Authority mean they will not take any responsibility for maintaining or repairing it. If it is to be abandoned as a public road but will remain a public right of way, what is its status? What happens to it? Who maintains it? If the road is still to be maintained, why abandon it in the first place? Indeed, if it is felt useful to maintain the road as a public right of way, why abandon it at all? I would like an explanation.
Section 13 deals with the responsibility of road authorities for the maintenance and construction of public roads. One is tempted to go on at length about the condition of many public roads, the potholes and all the picturesque things we may say about them, but we will take that as read. I do not think there is anything I could add that would further underline the feelings my colleagues on this side of the House have expressed. Last Thursday I was happy to hear my colleague, Deputy Boylan, whose acquaintance with potholes is unparalleled, speak in this debate.
Section 13 (6) (c) provides that, without prejudice to the generality of subsection (5) and save as otherwise provided by law, a road authority may provide artistic features. That is wonderful; I am delighted to know the road authorities may provide artistic features and I am very grateful to the Minister for allowing road authorities to do that. However, I wonder what those artistic features might be. Is one of them, for example, the famous white elephant at the Red Cow? That is a rare piece of art. Is another one of those artistic features to be the necklace of roundabouts that is seen, for example, around the town of Carlow? From time to time I have had occasion to drive from Kildare to Kilkenny or to other parts of the country and I had to circumnavigate Carlow on the way. It would make one's head spin to drive around Carlow these days. On the trip around Carlow one negotiates at least three roundabouts in the space of a few miles. It is even more interesting to travel to the north of Dublin. If you took the Swords Road north, you would get dizzy at travelling around the roundabouts. One should always be wide awake when driving, but if you were not paying too much attention you could suddenly find yourself heading at 90 degrees to the direction you wanted to go if you missed your turn on the roundabout. I do not know——
You must pay attention all the time when driving.
I do pay attention all the time, but I have other advantages about which I shall tell the Minister another time because they are not germane to this discussion. Where does this passion for roundabouts that seems to beat in the breast of the Department of the Environment come from? The country is damned with them. I do not know whether there is a good financial reason for that flavour in our roads policy but it seems the white elephant at the Red Cow will continue to cost us more and more money. Every other week some new idea is being tried out. First, there was the roundabout itself; next there was the installation of lights, then there were all of the rows about access to the southern side of the roundabout from Clondalkin, threats to close parts of roads and so on; now we have paving everywhere. There are actually pedestrian crossings there — the last time I saw a pedestrian there was long before the white elephant was born. There seems to have been a great deal of expenditure to little effect.
I wonder if anybody in the Department, or in the design offices, at any stage looked at the comparative cost benefits of building a proper clover leaf junction instead of the monstrosity that is there. This has never been satisfactorily ventilated in public. Now I hear that there is another roundabout to be built in Ballymun on this Northern Cross which nobody seems to know much about and which nobody seems to be prepared to talk about in public. We seem to have opted for the roundabout solution to all these problems. I do not know whether that is because it is the cheapest in the short term or because somebody believes that that is a better way to manage traffic than underpasses, overpasses and clover-leafs. There may be artistic features, but somehow I doubt that that is what the Minister has in mind under section 13 (6) (b).
I am delighted to find that road authorities are to be allowed to provide artistic features. I wonder do those artistic features include the kind of permanent displays of secondhand and much battered tar barrels that we see on roadworks all over the country, or these hateful heaps of gravel we see on lay-bys throughout the country which seem to be left there for years by road authorities and which gradually grow a delightful green fuzz of mixed ragwort, thistle, dock, grass and so on, and which then have to be excavated when the local authority get enough money to fill the potholes. Are they artistic features? Are some of these ugly lamp standards we get on our roads to be the new artistic features? I wonder. I suppose we can all enjoy ourselves a bit on a provision like that, which is good in its intent but which does not fit in too well with the context of the Bill, or the context and the appearance of the roads that have been built in some parts of our country recently.
For a long time we have been used to a degree of co-operation between road authorities to rationalise the work in order to give us better roads and better value for money. I am delighted to see provision in section 14 to continue that. However, I wonder whether or not it is a bit heavy-handed because in section 14 (1) (a):
The Authority may, after affording an opportunity to the road authorities concerned to make representations to it in writing and considering any representations made, direct them to enter into an agreement.
In other words, if the National Roads Authority do not get their way, they can come along and preside over a shotgun wedding. It means that the National Roads Authority can virtually take over the decision-making functions of the roads authorities. The National Roads Authority are given quite extensive powers which are subject to a great deal of supervision and interference by the Minister in relation to the roads authorities. I wonder why they have to be given this power to bring about shotgun weddings between roads authorities, telling them to love one another or else.
Section 14 (1) (b) provides that the road authorities concerned shall comply with any direction given by the authority. Section 14 (1) (c) provides that an agreement entered into under this subsection shall not be revoked save with the consent of the Authority. The Authority can force the marriage and then if they so desire they can say that from here on it is divorce.
There is the same approach in sections 14 (3) and (5), the difference being that in subsection (5) it is not the roads authority who have the shotgun and arrange the wedding, but the Minister. I wonder why. In section 14 (1) (a) this matchmaking is carried out by the road authority whereas in section 14 (5) the job is to be done by the Minister. It seems that the National Roads Authority carries this out where the co-operation between the road authorities concerns the national roads and it is the Minister who carries out this function where co-operation between the authorities concerns regional or local roads. Why is it necessary to have this outside authority to compel road authorities to co-operate?
Section 15 gives the Minister power to issue directions and guidelines to local authorities in relation to any of the functions assigned to them by or under any enactment. That is a very wide power but in the manner of all these Bills, this Bill gives the Minister the power but it does not require him to give the road authority any of the wherewithal to carry out his directives. I wonder if authorities will not be tempted to reply to the Minister, as some have in the past, "Look, Minister — no mon, no fun; we cannot carry out your guidelines and directives without funding".
I suppose it is the nature of a Bill like this that no indication is given as to how much money will be given to road authorities, although the Minister in introducing the Bill referred to a possible borrowing limit of £500 million for the Authority. It is impossible to say whether any guideline or directive to any road authority would be accompanied by the necessary money and we have to suspend judgment on the desirability of the measure until we see how the authorities are to be funded.
Part III deals particularly with the National Roads Authority. One of the bodies who were keenest to have this, and I agreed with them, was the Confederation of Irish Industry. I was wryly amused just yesterday reading back over the various pieces of material I collected on this Bill to note the comments of the CII on 22 October 1991 in their newsletter which had a big heading saying "National Roads Authority will have `teeth"'.
The Roads Bill, 1991 was published by the Minister for the Environment on April 30, 1991 and was on the Order Paper in the last Session of the Dáil. It is anticipated that it will be introduced immediately and enacted before the end of the year. The Establishment Day could be January 1, 1992.
So much for the hopes that had been held out to us last year by the Minister when the Bill was first published. I hope we will have some sense out of it soon and that now that things have settled down on the Government side we will see some progress being made in regard to the enactment of this Bill. I hope the Minister for the Environment will have a better track record in keeping to his promises and commitments than the current Minister for Justice had when he occupied that place.
Great things are expected of this Authority. That was dealt with by the CII in their comment of last October. They had this to say about the way the Authority should be treated and the place it should have in our world:
There must be no additional layer of bureaucracy which means that all of the functions heretofore performed by the Department of the Environment must for the future be performed by the NRA in respect of the network of national roads without any residual part of those functions remaining in the Department of the Environment. The NRA must be authorised to use mechanisms which will increase productivity by reducing legislative and administrative delays and by improving operational practices and procedures and the NRA must be authorised to use financial mechanisms which will significantly increase the level of investment in the network of national roads.
I find those sentiments to be entirely laudable but I am not sure that the provisions of this Bill measure up to them or that there will be no additional layer of bureaucracy but I am sure that the provisions of this Bill do not provide that all the functions performed heretofore by the Department of the Environment in relation to roads must be undertaken by the National Roads Authority in respect of the network of national roads because there remains in this Bill quite a margin of influence for the Minister.
In relation to financing and financial mechanisms, there is a later Part in the Bill dealing with them about which I will make a few comments when I come to it. I am not sure that the provisions of the Bill measure up entirely to the ambitions set out there by the Confederation of Irish Industry.
As regards the functions of the National Roads Authority, despite a lengthy section dealing with them, section 17 (3) states:
(3) The Minister may make regulations providing that any function relating to national roads conferred on him or on a road authority under any enactment (including this Act), or on the Commissioner of the Garda Síochána under the Road Traffic Acts, 1961 to 1987, shall, where the Minister is satisfied that the function could be more effectively performed by the Authority, in lieu of being performed by him or by that authority or by the Commissioner, be performed by the Authority with effect from a date specified in the regulations.
I do not see anywhere any objective test the Minister must apply in order to satisfy himself that the functions can be more effectively performed by the new National Roads Authority. If it is the case that the Minister and the Bill suggest to us that, as a matter of course, all of these functions can be more effectively carried out by the Authority, then I am prepared to argue on that basis. But here we are being sold the idea that this transfer of functions will be carried out only where the Minister is satisfied, without being given any indication on what basis the Minister will so decide or any indication of the criteria he will use to come to that kind of conclusion.
Section 18 deals with the preparation of plans by the Authority, a very important part of their functions if not the very nub. I wonder whether the authority will be given any idea of a financial framework within which they must work in the preparation of their plans. If they are not, there will be much argument and dissatisfaction about the business of planning our roads network.
I will say it now, because it may be too late to say so at a later stage, that the record of the Minister's party in relation to national road plans has not been great. They have actually torn up more roads than any other party in the history of this State. For example, there was a 1979 road plan talked about frequently which seems, in the past couple of years, to have become the basis of whatever little Fianna Fáil say about roads. There was a further detailed plan drawn up at the end of 1984, one to make progress on the principal national roads to be con structed or improved. In turn, that was changed in 1987 and, yet again, all changed at the beginning of 1989 when the plans for using EC Structural Funds for the current period were drawn up and brought before this House.
Of its very nature the planning of a national roads network is a longer-term business than that and, desirably, should not be upset every three or four years just because a different Government or Minister happen to assume office. As far as we can provide it—it is never possible to provide it completely — we need some consistent, predictable financial framework for the planning of investment in national roads because they take a long time to build. We need a reasonable planning horizon, particularly so that the National Roads Authority can perform their task efficiently and properly. Of course, the Minister has a large part to play in this. Again I find no indication of what criteria the Minister might use in giving his judgment on plans put forward to him by the Authority. Can the Minister tell us whether the provision of section 18 and the type of planning involved there, constitute an overall planning famework for roads or a more limited context in planning.
There are other provisions in relation to planning in later sections, for example, sections 21, 24 and 26. The conclusion I draw from all of them is that the Authority will not be fully independent in drawing up and implementing these plans because they will have no role in fixing the overall financial framework within which they will perform their task; they will be dependent on how the Government of the day fix the Public Capital Programme. Indeed their planning horizon will be largely affected by the way the Government of the day perceive their planning horizon. Let it not be argued that the borrowing powers of the Authority deal with that because, wisely, they are rather circumscribed in their effect.
Section 18 and other sections deal with permission to lodge objections to plans. It is perfectly proper that that should be the case although I know there are a number of people who argue that we would have more rapid investment if we reduced people's ability to object to plans for physical development. That is another day's work.
The question I want to ask of the Minister is this: whether he has any intention to specify who may lodge objections. For example, section 18 (3) (a) (iv) states the following badly:
(iv) stating that objections or representations may be made in writing to the Authority in relation to the draft plan before a specified date (which shall be no less than two weeks after the end of the period for inspection);
For example, it is not set out who may lodge such objections or who is entitled to make representations. Will it be any person who is affected, any person who has an interest or whoever? For example, could I lodge an objection to a road plan for the construction of a road that did not come anywhere near me? Am I limited to making objections to road plans that directly affect me, or what? It would be useful to know just what is the scope of the right to lodge such objections or representations.
Section 19 deals with the specific functions of the Authority. Many questions arise here. For example, section 19 (2) states:
The Authority shall, as far as possible, arrange that the functions referred to in paragraphs (a) to (d) of subsection (1) shall be performed on its behalf by the relevant road authority but, in any case where the Authority considers that it would be more convenient, more expeditious, more effective or more economical that the function concerned should be performed by it, it may decide accordingly.
This is where the National Roads Authority can take over the functions of a road authority if they consider it more convenient and so on. While I would not necessarily argue that that is a bad thing I am really unable to draw a mature conclusion on that unless I know in what circumstances it is envisaged the Authority might decide to do so. For example, section 19 (4) (a) states:
The Authority shall not be liable for damage caused as a result of any failure to maintain a national road.
The National Roads Authority will be the body responsible for national roads but we observe here that they will not be liable for damage caused as a result of any failure to maintain a national road. Why is that provision contained in the Bill? Is there any question of an action being taken against the authority for a misfeasance? Is that something that could happen if this provision were not inserted? I would like to know why it has been judged necessary to insert the specific provision. Section 19 (5) states:
Development consisting of the carrying out of any works by or at the direction of, or on behalf of, the Authority under this Act in relation to the construction or maintenance of a national road shall be exempted development for the purposes of the Act of 1963.
In other words, the National Roads Authority do not have to seek planning permission in order to have these works carried out. Of course, there are other matters to which they must have regard and other things which they must do. I wonder whether we are doing the right thing in simply classifying all these works, and other works carried out by public authorities, as exempted developments. I know they are required in some cases to prepare environmental impact statements and that an environmental impact assessment has to be carried out.
What I am worried about is — and if I remember correctly this matter arose in connection with the Environmental Protection Agency Bill where I had the same kind of question, in relation to some kind of works where an environmental impact statement was not required — these famous interpretative centres which seem to mushroom up all around the country. I said on that occasion — and I still believe it — that the best interpretative centre you can have is your own pair of eyes. I am not so sure that all these interpretative centres, whether in The Burren or in the Wicklow mountains or anywhere else, are necessarily such a good idea; there is just so much spoon-feeding one can do for people. That is a case where an environmental impact statement was not required, although I am delighted to see that the Commission of the European Communities, in relation to the proposed interpretative centre in The Burren, has now come along like Offenbach's cavaliers late in the game and has required such a statement to be made and said "If you do not make such a statement we will not give you the money".
I wonder whether we are taking the wrong route by saying all these public works can be dealt with through a different procedure from that to which most physical works that obtrude in our environment are subjected. I recognise the fact that sections 20, 22, 48 and 49 deal with other aspects of the problem. I wonder whether it is wise to take these public works out and deal with them in a way that is so totally different from the rest. I have never heard a convincing case made for that and, indeed, the strongest case I have heard made for treating public works differently is largely a matter of administrative convenience. A public authority which is itself a planning authority would have some difficulty in credibly sitting in judgment on an application which it would make itself. Here we will have the Minister, who is the ultimate public authority in these issues, having these plans submitted to him for approval requiring environmental impact statements to be carried out and where he will have to carry out the environmental impact assessment. I am not sure that is a particularly great gain for the general public or the public interest in dealing with these issues. That matter, as well as many other matters in relation to the kinds of directions which the Authority may give to road authorities is dealt with in section 20.
One kind of direction which the Authority may give under that section is to require the road authority to prepare, or arrange for the preparation of, a scheme for the provision of traffic signs. That is an essential part of any such plan and is highly desirable. I am delighted to see that is specifically included because it is an area which is much in need of attention and improvement in this country. I am not sure if the Minister, who has some of the same advantages which I have now, looks around him when he gets to that famous white elephant at the Red Cow. If so, he will notice that the situation has improved somewhat in the last few weeks. Up to a few weeks ago when you went out from Dublin on the Long Mile Road heading south-west, there was a large green sign which pointed to the left at the white elephant if you wished to go south. If you took that road you would eventually be on the road to Wexford. Most people who are heading for the south think they are heading for Cork or Kerry, they do not go to Wexford because we all regard that as the south-east. I notice that sign has been changed in recent weeks and it now conforms to the popular idea of what is south and south-east.
That is one of the many examples around this country of the deficiencies in signposting of our principal routes. There have been enormous improvements in recent years but there is still room for much more improvement. I am sure the Minister has met this difficulty in his travels around just as much as I have, although there is not much of the country that I have not travelled. I always have a fair idea of where I am going but I can imagine that for an average foreign tourist it must be very frustrating to find that the last sign for your destination tells you it is 80 kilometres away and after that it does not appear on the sign untl you get to within three or four miles of it. Some years ago in the Minister's constituency I asked for directions to get to a particular place. I was told: "go down to the left, take the second last turn right and then the first turn left of any consequence". I am not saying our road signs are that bad.
Where was the Deputy going to?
I found him. We were canvassing a vote for the Seanad. God knows whether we got it or not but we found him.
Just tell me where you were going.
It was Toomevara. Discretion would forbid me from going any further because it is not a place where the Minister got a vote in that election. I am delighted to see that there is a power——
I would never lead the Deputy astray in north Tipperary.
I know that but I might want to go to places which the Minister would not want me to go to.
That is a different day's work.
I am delighted to see that the Authority can direct the preparation of a scheme for the provision of traffic signs and I look forward to seeing further improvements. Traffic signs should be designed on the assumption that the person reading them has not the slightest idea in which direction he should go— by the sun or by any other objective measurement — to get to his destination but everything should be made as clear and as simple as possible.
Before issuing a direction in relation to the preparation of a scheme for the provision of traffic signs or any of the other matters — dealt with in section 20 (1) — in relation to works which in the opinion of the Authority, if carried out, require a road authority to contravene materially a development plan or a special amenity area order, there are certain things which the Authority must do. Does the Minister believe that it will often happen that a direction given by the Authority under this section will require a road authority to contravene materially a development plan or a special amenity area order and, if so, why? We must bear in mind that in the majority of cases the road authority which will be receiving these directions from the National Roads Authority will themselves be a county council or a planning authority who have prepared the development plan. It is illogical to envisage that a planning authority which has drawn up a development plan in accordance with their own wishes and the law as it stands, should then be directed by the National Roads Authority materially to contravene that development plan. Does the Minister believe this is likely to happen very often because somebody must or we would not have this provision in the Bill.
I wonder why the National Roads Authority find it necessary to direct that a material contravention might take place. The Authority, or indeed the Minister, should be very careful to avoid giving directions that would conflict with the provisions of a development plan duly drawn up by an authority authorised in law to do so. We should have a degree of coherence and consistency in planning and in the way we do these things to avoid this problem. We know already what the difficulties are and what the abuses have been in material contraventions. I am not suggesting that the National Roads Authority would have any ulterior motives in directing that a material contravention take place, far from it, but I find it worrying that we would envisage explicity the possibility that one State agency may direct a planning authority to commit a material contravention.
This section allows the National Roads Authority to direct road authorities to do a wide variety of things, all of them desirable in themselves. Subsection (5) provides that where a road authority refuse or fail to comply with a direction, the National Roads Authority may decide to perform the functions specified in the direction, subject to such modifications, if any, as they consider appropriate. That is the big stick behind the carrot in the Bill. I suppose it is necessary to have such a power so that an obdurate road authority can be obliged to see sense — they may be one of the partners in one of these shotgun weddings we talked about earlier. However I will not go into the metaphor too closely, but they can be told to do what is required or else the National Roads Authority will do it themselves.
The question arises: if the road authority have shown this reluctance because they are being directed to contravene materially a development plan which they have drawn up, is that a good reason for allowing the National Roads Authority to do the job? I am worried that a road authority may tell the National Roads Authority that they do not want to do that because it requires material contravention of their development plan; that will allow the National Roads Authority to say they will do the work themselves. Are we giving the National Roads Authority or the Minister the power to carry out such a material contravention and is it a good idea to allow the National Roads Authority and/or the Minister to second guess a local authority's plan?
We then have the provisions relating to programmes for European Community assistance and here we find the Minister has nearly all the say. Section (1) (b) in practical terms, says it is the Minister for the Environment and not the National Roads Authority or anybody else who has the final say. He can approve a plan, approve it with modifications, direct that it be resubmitted to him in a modified form for approval or refuse to approve it. The Minister has the say and that is a fact. The Minister may challenge me on some other grounds but I state it as a fact that it is the Minister who decides, not the National Roads Authority.
That incidentally brings me to the reflection that we have not seen in this Bill, the Environmental Protection Agency Bill or the local government reform Bill, evidence of any real commitment on the part of this Government, or even this transmogrified Government, to any real attempt to devolve powers to local authorities, local democracy or regional democracy of any kind. Against that background it is not surprising to find that section 21 gives the Minister the final say.
Section 22 deals with the Authority and the physical planning process. Again, this is a very important section. I would like to know whether this section gives the Authority power to make recommendations generally in relation to the planning process, in relation to roads generally or only in relation to national roads. It is not clear to me from the text if that is what is meant. It seems to relate to national roads only but I think the text could be a great deal clearer.
Section 24 takes away any financial autonomy from the National Roads Authority. There is a lot to be said for including that particular section given current policy in relation to the interface between national Government and local government. This section confirms that the National Roads Authority will not really have anything like full independence in carrying out their job.
Section 25, which deals with borrowing by the Authority, makes it very clear, again rightly given the present interface between national, local and regional government, that the responsibility rests with the Department of Finance. I am not saying that is the ideal relationship between them. I deplore that we have had only a sham reform of local government and that no real attempt has been made on regional devolution. I am not surprised that this Bill takes its present form against that background.
I have a question on section 25. Section 25 (3) deals with the way the National Roads Authority will exercise powers conferred on them by this section, that is the powers to borrow. If the National Roads Authority can, at any particular time, have borrowings or liabilities up to the amount of £500 million it appears that the National Roads Authority and the Minister for the Environment, acting together, can run substantially ahead of the funding provided under the public capital programme. I know, in the famous old phrase, "taking one year with another", that they cannot do this but it seems that at particular times this provision would allow the National Roads Authority to be ahead of the provision made by central Government under the public capital programme. Again, I am not saying if that is a good or a bad thing. It might be a good thing in some respects but if that is what is intended, it should be made clear in the Bill. If that is what is intended I would like the Minister to indicate why it is and in what circumstances he would envisage the National Roads Authority and himself getting ahead of the public capital programme, potentially to the amount of £500 million.
I am glad to see some of the provisions of section 26 relating to guarantees by the Minister for Finance in respect of the borrowings of the Authority. Does section 26 (1) (a) mean that not necessarily all the borrowings of the Authority will be guaranteed? It is important that we know that. Indeed, it is important that the financial institutions know that. Subsection (2) is very well set out and is a very necessary subsection in that it gives the kind of transparency that is needed to ensure that the National Roads Authority use their money properly, and within the limits they can manage. However, I wonder about subsection (3). Subsection (3) seems to indicate that there will be a circular transaction that might not be necessary. Subsection (4) makes it very clear that the final decision rests with the Minister for Finance. As a former Minister for Finance, I cannot say that I object very much to that. I would like to know whether the provisions of those two sections together are intended to mean that the National Raods Authority can get ahead of the public capital programme provision at any given point in time.
Section 27 — and this is only a footnote of curiosity — refers to the Central Fund or the growing produce thereof. I know there was a time when people hoped that the Central Fund would have a growing produce but that hope has long since died.