Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have the opportunity to present this crucially important Bill to the House. When I presented the Bill to the Seanad, I declared it to be among the most important legislation to be introduced during this term. That is a point I want to emphasise again and with good reason. Simply put, this Bill is the key to delivering the infrastructure we will need to sustain and improve our quality of life.

Mrs. Thatcher, not my favourite politician, once said: "While you and I might travel by road, rail or even by air, only economists travel by infrastructure". During periods of under-investment in the past, one could have been excused for thinking that modern, high quality infrastructure existed only in the discourse of economists or as a remote aspiration somewhere at the end of a winding, pot-holed yellow-brick road. However, a healthy economy and sound management of the public finances have enabled the Government to set about delivering the quality and volume of infrastructural services our people deserve and which for a long time we have not been able to afford.

Our country has changed beyond recognition over recent decades. Seismic cultural, demographic and economic changes have brought us enormous benefits. Since the late 1980s but especially in the last decade, we have seen phenomenal growth in population, employment, disposable income and in the demands placed on our infrastructure. These changes deliver obvious benefits and bring about challenges too for the way in which we deliver services, especially key infrastructural services and projects, to accommodate a population of around 5 million by 2020. Our economic success is founded upon the hard work of citizens and successful policies we have put in place. We deserve to reap the benefits of our combined efforts through first class services and modern, well functioning infrastructure.

A dynamic economy of itself will not power homes and businesses, deliver people to their places of work or study or goods to markets, or provide clean water or solutions to our waste problems. For all these we require major investment in quality infrastructure to compliment our rude economic health. For this reason the Government is investing 5% of our gross national product in public infrastructure. Internationally this is a remarkable level of Government investment. We have already invested €24 billion under the national development plan since 2000 to enhance our economic and social infrastructure. The Government has recently announced investments in public transport under Transport 21 worth €34 billion. We are drawing up the next national development plan to direct our future investment programmes.

The national spatial strategy will be a crucial influence on infrastructural investment over the period of the plan and beyond. Our decision last year to broadly base the regional dimension of the next national development plan on the national spatial strategy underscores the importance the Government attaches to the alignment of our economic, social and environmental priorities. The strategy emphasises balanced regional development and the important role that good transport, communications, energy and other types of infrastructure play in enabling every part of the country to meet its potential. The delivery of the objectives of the strategy, in consultation with regional interests, will therefore be a key horizontal objective in the next national development programme.

Regional planning guidelines spell out how the national spatial strategy agenda flows into regional development, setting out how the objectives of the national and regional planning frameworks are to be delivered. Development plans then set the overall policy and planning framework within which development will take place locally. At national, regional and local level the importance of putting strategic infrastructure at the centre of all plans and programmes is vital to ensure the sustainable development of all areas.

However, we need to update our current planning processes to enable us to deliver on these ambitious plans. Our systems of infrastructure delivery have traditionally served us well in the past, but the level of ambition contained in the national development plan and in Transport 21 presents us with unprecedented challenges. If we do not take steps to tackle blockages, our planning system could potentially act as a barrier to the infrastructure we need for our dynamic economy and growing population.

Delays in the delivery of any key infrastructure projects have financial, temporal and environmental costs. We require a dynamic means of meeting our infrastructure deficit which safeguards the traditional central principles of our planning system, and which ultimately delivers investment ahead of demand. This Bill allows for a major streamlining of the existing planning consent process.

There is a substantial duplication of functions in the planning process for major infrastructure development between the relevant planning authority and An Bord Pleanála. That agency, with acknowledged expertise in this area, is involved only at the last stage and is constrained in the way it can handle these projects.

This process is bad for infrastructure providers. They must deal with multiple layers of regulators and they cannot have a face-to-face discussion with the final decision makers under the present system. They are denied access to the decision makers at an early stage when discussions might make a difference. It is bad for planning authorities which must invest massive resources into deciding these projects only to see them appealed. It is also bad for ordinary people who see poorly prepared planning applications submitted to local authorities and rightly feel duty-bound to object. It is also a sub-optimal use of An Bord Pleanála's expertise. It needs to be involved from the beginning, helping to ensure that the projects it receives are properly thought through.

Our existing system is an inclusive one which provides for extensive public participation at various stages and ensures all concerns can be fully taken into account when crucial decisions are being made. A streamlined system is required which will allow full democratic participation and ensure transparency and accountability, while striking the correct balance between the national interest and the views and concerns of local groups and individuals. The Bill protects the right of everyone to participate in the process and affords opportunities for members of the public, residents and environmental groups to express their views on proposed infrastructure projects. Under the strategic consent process, the board will be required to consult with and have due regard for the comments of relevant local authorities and, for the first time, elected local authority members. This is a novel provision because previous planning legislation excluded councillors from the executive planning decision process.

I acknowledge this is complex legislation and that the proposed measures will have significant impacts on our system. I want, therefore, to set out the objectives of the Bill in broad terms. There are currently three broad categories of planning consents for large infrastructure projects. Projects promoted by local authorities within their areas go straight to An Bord Pleanála on the basis that a local authority, as planning authority, cannot be a judge in its own case. Large infrastructure projects, such as motorways and major building programmes, will require formal environmental impact assessment.

Certain development projects are not covered by the normal planning system but by a separate consent system, often under the responsibility of the relevant Minister. Such projects include railway lines and metro, for which the Minister of Transport has responsibility, and gas pipelines, which fall under the remit of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.

Major infrastructure projects proposed by the private sector and State sponsored bodies or by local authorities outside their areas must go to the normal two-step planning process, involving permission from the local planning authority and, almost always, an appeal to An Bord Pleanála.

To help streamline the process, this Bill will extend the board's existing role in two ways. The board will now take on the consent role of the Minister for Transport as the consent authority for railway orders and the Commission for Energy Regulation and the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in respect of strategic gas pipelines. In addition, major transport, environmental and energy projects of the type referred to in the new Seventh Schedule, which is to be added to the 2000 Act, will now be submitted directly to the board rather than face successive hurdles.

To enable the board to meet the demands of this expanded brief, the Bill also allows for a restructuring of the board through the creation of a strategic infrastructure division to deal exclusively with national infrastructure projects. The new structures will provide an enhanced service for stakeholders, infrastructure providers, State bodies and the general public alike.

I will refer to some of the specific provisions contained in the Bill. Section 3 amends the Planning and Development Act 2000 by inserting new sections 37A to 37J. These will set out the detailed procedures for the new consent process for the types of strategic infrastructure contained in the new Seventh Schedule to the 2000 Act, inserted under section 5 of the Bill. In effect, this new consent process means that any infrastructure provider seeking permission to deliver infrastructure projects of the type listed in the Seventh Schedule will now apply directly to the new strategic infrastructure division of An Bord Pleanála. Section 19 of the Bill allows for the establishment of this new division.

The board will decide whether proposed projects constitute infrastructure of strategic importance according to the criteria contained in the new section 37A of the 2000 Act. Such projects must either be of strategic economic or social importance to the State or the region in which it would be located, contribute in a significant manner to the objectives of the national spatial strategy or regional planning guidelines of the region in which they are to be located or have a significant effect on the area of more than one planning authority.

Under section 37B, where a proposed development does not fall within one of these categories, the board must notify the developer in writing of this fact and direct him or her to apply for consent through the normal process to the relevant planning authority or authorities. The board will also notify the relevant planning authorities of its decision at this point. Where proposed developments fall within one or more of these categories, the strategic infrastructure division must then enter into a consultation process with the applicant. This consultation is intended to ensure applications and environmental impact statements are better prepared and have full regard to the requisite planning and procedural guidelines. I seldom give my unqualified agreement to comments made by Members of the Green Party but I think they are correct in this regard. Poorly prepared planning applications clog the system, add to frustration and help to bring the planning process into disrepute. This section will mean undue delay can be avoided and, crucially, any significant environmental ramifications of a project will be highlighted as early as possible in the process. I concur with Deputy Cuffe that environmental impact statements sometimes seem to have been written on the back of cigarette boxes. This matter must be dealt with seriously to avoid clogging the system or putting local communities through unnecessary frustrations, expenses and concerns. This is a progressive measure which is specifically intended to make the planning process work and, in particular, to make people compose planning applications in a thoughtful, comprehensive and accurate manner.

Section 37C sets out the key transparency provisions in respect of this consultation process. Our system is founded on the principles of transparency and accountability and these considerations are paramount throughout the Bill. This section makes a clear distinction between the consultation process and the further functions of the board in the consent procedure, which shall in no way be prejudiced by the consultations. This section will give the board the opportunity to advise at an early stage that an application does not make sense. The board must keep written records of the consultations and make these records available with other documents pertaining to the planning application, such as the environmental impact statement. That should address some of the concerns expressed by Members when I first introduced the Bill.

Section 37D is a standard scoping provision required under the EIA directive. It allows a prospective applicant to seek advice from the strategic infrastructure division on the information to be included in an environmental impact statement. This is a commonsense provision because, if a person genuinely wants to put forward a complete environmental impact statement, he or she should be able to ask An Bord Pleanála whether sufficient information has been supplied. This aspect of the consultation process shall not prejudice the functions of the board in any way.

Section 37E outlines the applications procedure with regard to transparency and democratic involvement. It requires,inter alia, that all applications to the board must be accompanied by an environmental impact statement and that applicants must publish notices of the proposed development, make the application and environmental impact statement publicly available and invite submissions and observations to the board. In turn, the relevant planning authority must prepare and submit a report setting out its views on the effects of the proposed development.

I am concerned that councillors, as the elected representatives of the people, have felt themselves excluded from the planning process. They do not want to be included in a negative way, to interfere or use undue influence, but to have the views they express on behalf of the communities that elect them heard. Too often councillors tell me they feel excluded from the system and are not listened to.

I want to reiterate in a practical way the importance I have attached to democratic participation in the planning process. While local authorities have a major role in setting overall planning policy in their areas' development plans, they normally have no direct role in executive decisions on planning applications. It is important that their views be taken into account in the consent process for major projects. Consequently sections 37E(4) to 37E(7) give a new specific role to councillors whereby managers will be legally required to convey the views of elected members of councils to the board. This deals with a lacuna. We have all had experience of talking to councillors who feel they are excluded from the process. This gives councillors a statutory right and managers a statutory responsibility to ensure that right is exercised. It means the views not just of the council executive and planning staff go to the board but also those expressed by the elected representatives who democratically speak on behalf of the public in the council.

I want to highlight a key quality control measure. Some commentators have suggested that delays in the delivery of infrastructure are caused more often by poorly prepared applications than by any flaws in the planning process. I have already mentioned Deputy Cuffe's comments on this, which are not far from my views. If that is the case, the board will have the important power to throw out an application that is badly prepared or where an infrastructure provider has ignored its advice on the project or the environmental impact statement. Section 37F affords a wide discretion to the board in the procedures it adopts in deciding these applications.

The section also allows for a shift from the traditionally adversarial nature of the handling of disputes towards a more flexible conciliatory process whereby the board can hold meetings with relevant stakeholders as it deems necessary. As we know, the adversarial approach can be resource intensive and time consuming, and I am confident the House will support me in my efforts to encourage mediation as a more desirable approach. I have had the experience as a councillor when mediation was wanted but there was no procedure to encourage people to use common sense and listen to the views and concerns of each side.

The Board's powers to grant or refuse permissions for strategic infrastructure projects are set down in section 37G. The early consultation process between the board and prospective applicants is intended to ensure that problems, for instance relating to a project's environmental impact, can be identified at an early stage in the overall consent process. This is especially important. As a result, I anticipate that relatively few applications will be formally rejected on such grounds at a late stage. If errors are dealt with early, it will lift a burden from the shoulders of local communities and will mean a planning process can go through without becoming sidelined into unnecessary areas. Where an applicant still wishes to pursue such a case to decision stage and where the board has already highlighted issues that are potentially problematic, the board must deal with the project. It will be up to the applicants to take that risk.

As Ireland is growing so rapidly, we should have a process in all planning consent procedures whereby communities that are hosts to development receive a community gain. This view is shared by Members across the House. I am pleased that the community gain concept has been bedded down as a practical way to mitigate some of the effects of permissions for major pieces of waste infrastructure. However, I have decided to take this a step further and avail of the opportunity to formalise the process, which has been happening on an informal basis in a number of councils. Under the new consent procedures the board will be given the power to attach conditions to permissions requiring that developers provide a facility or service which the board considers a gain to the community being affected by the infrastructure project. If a community hosts a major piece of infrastructure, it should receive some additional community benefit. This underlines our view of the necessity to balance national or regional interests with local concerns.

However balance is a watchword. While we must ensure that communities are not unduly affected by such development, applicants must not be unfairly penalised when seeking to provide key infrastructural projects. The Bill therefore also provides that the financial burden of such a condition cannot be disproportionate to the benefits likely to accrue to the developer as a result of the permission being granted. Nobody would argue the case for a disproportionate imposition.

Once a decision has been taken by the board under section 37G, it must send copies of its decision to the applicant, any relevant planning authority and any other persons who made submissions or observations on the application. This notification must give reasons for the decision. The costs incurred by the board in the decision-making process can be burdensome and run at an average of approximately €15,000 per case. Section 37H enables the board to recover its costs and those of relevant planning authorities incurred in the decision-making process from the applicant. This is just and fair. The taxpayers should not carry all the burden. The proposer of the infrastructure should share the cost.

Timing is always of the essence and is key in matching our infrastructural needs with delivery. It is an overall objective of this Bill that the period between application and final decision will be reduced. I intend to do this by reducing two stages in the planning process to a single stage and by ensuring that the quality of applications and environmental impact statements submitted is enhanced. I do not intend to abbreviate or compromise the deliberative processes gone through by the board in reaching its decision. Therefore, in line with the standard period that applies to all board decisions, section 37J sets out a statutory objective of 18 weeks in which a decision is to be made. Fine Gael moved a good motion in the Seanad and made a good argument for bringing this down from 18 weeks to 12. Although 12 weeks would not be practical to include all the other processes, I appreciated that debate.

Section 4 amends the Planning and Development Act 2000 by inserting new sections 182A to 182E. As I mentioned, these sections provide new streamlined consent procedures for major electricity transmission lines and strategic gas infrastructure development. Development applications for electricity transmission that either require completion of an EIS or will be situated in the operational area of more than one planning authority require consent from the board. That clears up an area of confusion that has existed for years. Similarly, applications for the development of strategic gas infrastructure for both upstream and downstream pipelines are now to be made to the board directly. Notification procedures and the decision-making roles of the board are similar to those provided for under the new strategic consent process under section 37E.

A new seventh Schedule to the Planning and Development Act 2000 is being inserted under section 5 of the Bill. This Schedule lists the classes of infrastructure project to which the new consent process shall apply and which up to now would have had to go through the two-stage planning process. Such projects fall under the three main headings of energy infrastructure, such as gas, oil and electricity installations, transport infrastructure, including airports, rail lines and motorways, and environmental infrastructure, such as waste or water treatment facilities. The Bill is upfront about what is include in the streamlined process. Nuclear energy installations are not included. I mention this for the benefit of Deputy Morgan who has been confused on this point.

My remarks so far have served as a broad outline of the new consent procedure to be executed by the board. The criteria by which projects are so defined are clearly set out. The Bill makes clear that the means by which such projects are funded neither contributes to nor detracts from the strategic importance of a major and needed project. If the board decides that a proposed development would be in the national interest, then the means by which such projects are funded, whether public, private or a combination of both, is of secondary importance.

If the House will give me a little indulgence, I will make a few last important points. In section 9, I make changes to the system to deal with rogue developers. Deputy Gilmore has mentioned this on more than one occasion. The amendment to section 35 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 shifts the burden of proof to the applicant and means the applicant will be required to apply to the High Court to have a decision to refuse permission overturned.

Section 12 replaces section 50 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 with new sections 50 and 50A. These relate to judicial review procedures and make certain procedural changes to applications for judicial review of decisions made by planning authorities to the board. I take our obligations under the Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation, decision making and access to justice in environmental matters very seriously.

Currently, decisions by the board are subject to judicial review by the courts. Environmental non-governmental organisations applying for judicial review must prove that theirs is a substantial interest in the matter concerned. The proposed change will mean that NGOs that fulfil certain conditions need not prove substantial interest although they must still establish substantial grounds for any challenge. By allowing such concerned groups access to the courts in appropriate cases we are again reinforcing the democratic process as well as ensuring that our Aarhus obligations continue to be fulfilled.

I am acutely aware of the impact of delays in the judicial process on the delivery of infrastructure. l welcome the initiative being introduced in the High Court to improve the management and prioritisation of these cases and the designation of specific judges to manage the process. This initiative will achieve a similarly positive effect to that of the new commercial division of the High Court.

The proposed new structure and functions of the board are provided for in sections 14 to 19, inclusive. These changes will include the establishment of a dedicated strategic infrastructure division that will deal with applications under the new strategic consent process. The chairperson and deputy chairperson will be given new duties to ensure that the work of the new division is carried out expeditiously.

Section 20 ensures that applications made directly to the board under the strategic consent process are brought within the provisions of section 125 of the Planning and Development Act 2000. Sections 134 and 135 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, which deal with procedural matters relating to oral hearings, are being amended under sections 21 and 22 of the Bill. Section 21 allows for the expansion of the provisions relating to oral hearings so that the board may hold oral hearings under the new strategic consent procedure in addition to appeals and referrals as is currently the case. The Bill also provides that the board is no longer bound by a requirement to hold a public inquiry but has absolute discretion on whether to hold an inquiry.

To highlight the importance of coherent national and local development, the policies and objectives to which the board must have regard in making decisions are being extended. At present the board must consider the policies and objectives of the Government, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, planning authorities and any relevant public authority. Under this Bill the board must have regard to the national interest, the national spatial strategy and any regional planning guidelines in force.

Under section 25, three new sections are inserted into the Planning and Development Act 2000. These provisions will permit the board to amend a previously granted decision, similar to the power previously afforded to the Environmental Protection Agency for licences. Errors have occurred in planning decisions, sometimes typing errors, and there is no process to correct them.

The need to submit an environmental impact statement for environmentally significant changes and issue public notices for consultation will remain. The objective is not to bypass the consultation stage but rather to streamline the process.

I referred to the importance of Transport 21 and its potential impact on national competitiveness. The transport network in the greater Dublin area will be transformed in the coming decade and the two proposed metro lines represent a major element in that transformation. In section 37 I have taken the opportunity to act on the recommendation of the Oireachtas all-party committee report on private property concerning the acquisition of substrata lands. The Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act 1919 is therefore being amended by the insertion of an additional compensation rule.

As well as streamlining the strategic consent process the Bill will also make the process more coherent across different classes of infrastructure by enabling the board to serve as a one-stop-shop for applications for developments that require compulsory purchases of land. The decision-making process for railway lines and metros was, under the Transport (Railway Infrastructure) Act 2001, the responsibility of the Minister for Transport. In section 38 I am bringing this process within the new strategic consent remit of the board, including the Minister's compulsory purchase order powers.

Our national, regional and local infrastructure forms the matrix through which we live our lives. The way we earn a living, the way we travel, the energy sources we use and the means by which we dispose of our waste are all defined by the quality of the services available to us. There are major challenges ahead but the range of measures in place at national, regional and local level will enable us to meet these challenges. This Bill is designed to sustain the concerted efforts of the Government to address gaps that exist in our strategic infrastructure. These ambitions are shared by Members across the political spectrum. I look forward to a positive and constructive debate on the Bill and I commend it to the House.

This Bill has been produced after the proposals were before the Cabinet for three or four years. We heard that the Bill was imminent and that the new strategic infrastructure board was about to be announced in 2003, but both disappeared. There are internal divisions within the Cabinet and, while the members consulted and fought among themselves, they did not put the heads of the Bill out to public consultation. Unlike the Planning and Development Act 2000, a more effective Act, no consultation or review took place. We were aware of the date for Committee Stage before the date for Second Stage had been set, and I am concerned that this debate may be truncated tomorrow in favour of some other Bill. I will oppose a proposal to the effect that this debate on Second Stage will not continue after 1.30 p.m. tomorrow.

Deputy O'Dowd need not worry.

The Minister had extra time; now it is my time. This is one of the most important Bills to be debated in this House. It will have serious, far-reaching effects and we should give it proper consideration. My colleagues on this side of the House, representing the relevant portfolios, will respond in this debate. It is something of an exaggeration to state that Ireland is a First World economy with Third World infrastructure. Our buses are overcrowded, our roads are clogged and our trains are non-existent. There is a sense that nothing works and that this Government is not working for the citizens.

The ordinary commuter often has 12-hour days. Many children never see parents during the week, except for fleeting moments early in the morning or late at night. Our road network is not progressing quickly enough. We have appalling broadband penetration in many areas of the country, hampering businesses and inconveniencing householders. Fine Gael believes in real quality of life gains. It wants a metro in Dublin, a rail link to the airport, an end to hospital waiting lists, an end to social housing waiting lists, a motorway network that works and a public transport network that leads to fewer journeys by car.

Fine Gael welcomes this Bill in principle but is concerned by some proposed changes, especially new powers the Minister is granting to An Bord Pleanála which are counter-productive and will lead to litigation and a loss of public confidence in the planning process. In preparing my contribution I have consulted what has been published in the media, pages fromwww.google.ie and papers from a seminar in University College Cork concerning this Bill. The papers are most worthwhile and many points raised are incorporated into my contribution.

I do not object to the extra time the Minister was granted. A Bill like this needs real input across the board and from the entire community. There is a lack of resources in Leinster House. While the Minister has his Department to inform him, we are dependent on the Internet. We need better input into legislation such as this, particularly from the universities and the Law Society of Ireland. I challenge the Government to address such issues. Lawyers in particular will benefit greatly from what we pass, but we need a direct information line from the legal profession and right across the board into Dáil Éireann. They must submit recommendations on Bills in a non-political process. That would inform debate since neither the Minister nor I has the collective wisdom of the country, lawyers or planners, particularly regarding the legal process. We need that and I have incorporated it as best I can.

At the core of the debate are the competing perspectives of local versus national and individual versus collective, and of economic growth versus environmental protection. We must get the balance right this time and in Fine Gael's view each application for such development must be accompanied not only by an environmental impact statement but by detailed economic and social analysis outlining the clear need for the proposals. We will table amendments to that effect.

The new legislation in particular must not be used by private developers to fast-track controversial, profit-driven projects. No one will argue with such projects as the Dublin metro and the western rail corridor using the new process, but we are very concerned that controversial projects such as shopping centres and office blocks that are profit-driven as opposed to being for the public good might use this legislation. One issue in this regard is that the Bill proposes that a regional, almost local, issue may go before An Bord Pleanála, even if it affects only two adjoining local authorities.

I have no problem with the major projects, and I will not be misunderstood on that, but I will not support the fast-tracking of profit-oriented projects against the public interest. That is the core of the Bill and the debate that we must have. Fine Gael said in its policy formulated last November that we want the Government to take a leaf from its Dutch counterpart, deciding at national level in strategic planning those regions in which large infrastructure projects must be situated and inviting public expressions of opinion before instigating a swift and effective planning process. That way, the process would be characterised by transparency regarding the Government's intentions, fairness concerning the perspectives that the regions and communities express and effectiveness in deciding where projects go.

We do not want a continuation of the current process. On waste management, communities which never listed for such projects in the regional plans must suddenly fight and target the issues. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, have had that problem regarding incinerators, as have I. Prison sites, motorways and power stations are also controversial at local level. We must have total clarity and honesty since we will bring greater integrity to the process by planning from the top down.

Strategic infrastructure projects merit a fast-track planning process, but only where the broad location and principle of the infrastructure in question have been considered and included in the national spatial strategy, which we must rewrite, as many significant players in the planning process, including, I believe, the head of the Irish Planning Institute, have said. The country has changed since the plan was adopted and the Government has totally messed things up regarding decentralisation, which is a mockery. We must revisit and rewrite the strategy, inserting critical infrastructure projects and identifying where in the regions they will be to allow proper and effective planning.

Fine Gael will also include the fast-tracking of urgent care medical centres in this Bill. It allows for social infrastructure to be covered. We believe that medical social infrastructure is urgently needed and absolutely essential, something that our health spokesperson will address. The Bill introduces fundamental changes to the Irish planning system that will have a profound impact on everyone, including local authorities, developers and, not least, the public. It will radically alter the nature, functions and composition of An Bord Pleanála. As I said, I support the principle, provided that it does not have an adverse impact on the quality of assessment of such developments or the degree of public participation in the development consent process.

People say that the Bill is necessary for planning, but that process works very effectively, despite delays at local authority stage. The reality is, as An Bord Pleanála shows in its reports, that it has been very effective and efficient in dealing with the planning process. The weakness in the Minister's Bill is that he deals only with the land strategy rather than with those issues causing the real delay. I accept and appreciate what he has said regarding what the High Court will do. I am a member of the Opposition rather than a Minister, and I see no Bill before me from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to introduce a new division to the High Court. Does it require new legislation?

Very well. Perhaps the Minister has seen the statement from the President of the High Court describing exactly what he will do, although I have not. It is very important, and I accept that it will be addressed.

A review of the board's decisions on applications has shown that it does a damn good job. Current delays stem from poor project design and management and other technical difficulties, the Dublin Port tunnel and the Luas being examples. Delays in such projects as the Corrib gas field and the completion of the final stage of the M50 related to the National Monuments Act 1930.

Other aspects of delay are not connected with this issue but with the fragmented nature of the planning process, the role of the courts and wider questions. For instance, I might apply for my project's designation as critical infrastructure but then have to go through other, separate procedures. I would have to secure a waste management licence under the Waste Management Act 1996, an integrated pollution prevention and control licence, a compulsory purchase order, a licence under the National Monuments Act 1930 and so on.

The Minister has missed the opportunity to put the ideas in this Bill out to public consultation and discussion, which would have allowed him to benefit from those views. In the Bill, he has no other way of dealing with the other significant delays caused in the planning process. When this Bill has been passed, they will still be there. His response is therefore one-dimensional and inadequate. It is not comprehensive and does not consider the entire system.

One of the key criticisms of the Bill relate to discussions between An Bord Pleanála and applicants. An Bord Pleanála is being fundamentally and radically changed regarding how it considers such issues. I support the Minister's view that local democracy and the opinions of local authority members are not being compromised in this Bill; I agree that they are being enhanced. For the first time, the manager is required to send a report to An Bord Pleanála in which he must mention elected members' decisions by resolution. I am a little concerned at the phrase "by resolution", since if 51% of councillors are in favour and 49% against, they may resolve that they are in favour. We can discuss on Committee Stage whether, if people are opposed to a project, they should be able to have their reasons recorded in the minutes of the council as at present.

Different views will be represented on local authorities and it is important that all of them, disparate, distinct and contradictory, go to An Bord Pleanála. I accept the principle that there has been no diminution and all major infrastructure projects ultimately go to An Bord Pleanála in any case. Having a one-stop shop is a good idea in principle, provided that we examine the problems that I envisage. The pre-planning discussions are fine since they happen already and are recorded in writing so that anyone can find out who was present, what happened, what was said, and our current position. Those discussions are mandatory rather than optional as in the 2000 Bill.

The board is being accorded wide latitude regarding whether the development, if carried out, would fall within the scope of the Act, the procedures involved in making and considering a planning application and considerations relating to proper planning and sustainable development which might have a bearing on its decision on the application. It is clear the wording gives the board very broad latitude in terms of the nature of the advice it may furnish to prospective applicants. The manner in which the board will exercise its options in giving this advice remains to be seen. It is evident developers will welcome the introduction of this provision. However, others will see it as ingraining inherent pro-development bias into the planning application and further undermining the credibility of the board as a neutral and independent body. The board is required to keep a record. The kernel of the issue is how the board will be viewed by members of the public who might be opposed to this.

It appears the board, more or less, has an executive authority or power to intervene in this whole process. Let us say the Minister is for the incinerator in Wicklow and the Green Party and Deputy Timmins are against it. The danger in that process is that while the board has the option to meet the developer and the objector and must record what is said, there is no obligation on it to meet the developer if it meets the objector orvice versa. For transparency and openness in the process, there must be equality of treatment before the board. If the board decides to meet the supporter of a plan, it must meet the objector. Traditionally, that happened through the oral hearing. However, this provision goes beyond the oral hearing and gives new authority to the board which it should not welcome and should not have.

When an issue goes to the board there should be transparency and openness in respect of all its meetings. I have no problem with the pre-planning process and I see the advantages of meeting the developer, submitting the plans properly and ensuring the project is not delayed. However, objectors and applicants should be treated equally and the oral hearing has ensured that up to now. It would bring the board into disrepute if it had private meetings with developers, which may be minuted, but not with objectors. There will be many objectors to this provision. That is the core of the criticism.

It appears there is no specific right for an applicant or an objector to request a meeting with the board but there is nothing in the Bill to prevent that from happening nor, as I pointed out, does it appear the board must hold a meeting with objectors even if it has one with the applicant. That is the key issue. With all its faults, the current process is transparent, open and consistent. One makes one's case at the oral hearing, as does the other side, and the inspector and board make decisions. That is a better system. We propose to table amendments to remove those extra powers to An Bord Pleanála.

As it stands, the system operates to maintain professional distance between the applicant and the decision-maker. However, the decision-maker will be compromised by becoming too closely engaged with the applicant during the course of what the Minister proposes. The provision seems to envisage a degree of negotiation between the applicant and the board to be conducted at such meetings. This process will occur in private and it appears in the absence of objectors and third parties. If the board, on a routine basis, exercises its power to hold meetings with developers during the course of applications, this will lead to it being identified too closely with developers and will operate to undermine its independence.

The provision also operates to emasculate the public oral hearing process which permits the board, through its inspector, to engage proactively with the developer and all interested parties in regard to all aspects of the development. The provision is unnecessary in the light of the express powers to seek further information during the course of the application procedure and the extensive powers of the inspector conducting any subsequent oral hearing.

Further, one would have to question the wisdom of empowering the board to intervene in disputes between an applicant for planning permission and third party objectors. This aspect of the Bill appears to involve the board engaging in a quasi-mediation role. Development consent not dispute resolution is the proper function of the board. That bears much thought and it is what the board has been doing up to now and which it should continue to do. By empowering the board with this function, one is inviting it and placing pressure on it to become involved in conflicts between developers, objectors and local communities.

Currently the board is under a general obligation to have regard to the policy and objectives of Government, a State authority and other public authorities and cannot ignore them. This provision has proved significant in appeal outcomes in waste management, in particular. Now the board must have regard to them in making its decision and also to national interest and any effect its decision may have on issues of strategic, economic or social importance to the State. However, by requiring the board to have regard to such broad and general policy objectives as the "national interest", the Bill will provide further ammunition for those who argue that it lacks independence and is merely a tool of Government and developers, a point of view expressed strongly.

The Minister addressed the question of a judicial review. In one way, he is making it easier to apply for a judicial review and the application can beex parte — in other words, one can seek an injunction straight away. At present it is on notice only. That is constructive. One of the key battles is to balance the need of a modern economy to develop and infrastructure with the need to give greater rights to the public, NGOs and to properly constituted environmental groups. Making it easier to apply for a judicial review is one way to do that. However, the Bill precludes the right, which currently exists, for any person involved in the planning process to go to the High Court on a point of law. An individual can only go to court under a judicial review. That narrows the options.

I also take exception to the following issue at which I ask the Minister to look again. The Bill makes it a statutory requirement for the courts to ask for a damages undertaking from applicants. In 1987 I, along with other people, went to court under the planning legislation when the local authority refused to act following the illegal demolition of Drogheda Grammar School in the middle of the night. If we had been asked to give undertakings as to damages, we could never have gone to court and the developer who knocked down one of the most historic buildings in the country would have got away with it. As a result of our High Court action, we were successful in getting the building rebuilt. When the Minister visits Drogheda shortly, he should go to see the building. The only reason the building is there is because of our High Court action. The only reason we took that action was because we believed in the justice, honesty and integrity of our case. Currently the courts have the right to ask the objector to give an undertaking as to damages if he or she loses the case. The Minister is now making it mandatory for a court to ask for an undertaking as to damages. That will have a very negative impact on communities with genuine convictions about their issues which are based on broad support and real arguments. The Bill will negate that.

On the one hand, one can take a judicial review but on the other, one will need millions of euro to be able to give an undertaking as to damages. I have no problem hammering those people who want to re-route roads and initiate legal cases and have no problem asking them to cough up money. I know I am being subjective but I do not believe they have a sustainable argument. The way it must go now will mean environmental NGOs will take these actions. In light of this Bill, it is incumbent on the Minister to better fund NGOs in terms of education, awareness of the law etc. There is certainly an argument for that.

In balancing the competing rights in the Bill, the Minister is wrong to insist that courts order one to give an undertaking as to damages. If one takes an action in the public good and does not have to give that undertaking, or is not asked to do so in certain circumstances, the judge can request one to do that, but the Minister is making it mandatory which is bad.

An bhfuil mórán ama fágtha agam?

I am quite prepared to allow some latitude because the Deputy was helpful to me.

This is the most important Bill to come before the Dáil this year, particularly in terms of planning development. What will happen in the communities in north County Dublin, where there is a serious problem, and in Wicklow, Drogheda and all around the country which must face these issues? The only way to face them is by putting the argument here and on Committee Stage to make the Bill fair and equitable. While we allow and accept the principle of the Bill, it is not balanced.

In his speech to the Seanad the Minister spoke of giving a scholarship, or something of that kind, as a form of community gain. Community gain is part of Fine Gael policy and I am delighted that the Minister read our policy document and included that idea in the Bill. He obviously did so because we published our document long before the Minister published this Bill. He has not mentioned this in his speech to this House. A scholarship is far too little. On the one hand, the Minister says there will be community gain but, on the other hand, he says it cannot be much. The Minister does not set out what the community gain will be from this multi-million euro expenditure, and I am not saying he should, but there should be some weighting. While the principle as stated in the Bill is good, it does not go far enough. We ought to work together, on all sides of the House, to ensure substantial but not prohibitive community gain.

The Bill endows An Bord Pleanála with that power as part of the conditions of planning. The board ought to be required to consult the local authority which, in turn, should consult the people in the area. This will not be as easy as one might like it to be but the views of the community on what form the community gain ought to take, as expressed to the local authority, should be expressed in some form to An Bord Pleanála, which will decide on it. While the Minister presents this idea in the Bill there is no clarity on its extent. If I was in An Bord Pleanála I would say a scholarship is nothing compared to community gain.

Community gain should include recreational amenities and An Bord Pleanála should be required to consult county councils on those needs in their areas. I would not leave it only to the county councils, however, because that might be the manager's or chairman's pet project. Proper and real exchange of need and views across the board would make a significant difference.

The Bill covers to some extent how the Minister will define NGOs by regulation but he has the power to add to that definition. They must exist for 12 months, have a wide membership and be genuine. This will eventually include organisations such as An Taisce, not that I have a problem with that. If something new is proposed and a group is formed it cannot be recognised as an NGO because it has not existed for 12 months. In other words, I would like further reflection on this on Committee Stage when the Minister might itemise what additions or qualifications he intends to add to the definition of NGOs which would gain this recognition under the terms of the Aarhus Convention. This would be useful and informative.

As a modern society and economy we need real change and we need to balance it. While I am convinced of the principle the substance is not right. I am not happy with the new role for An Bord Pleanála, or that there is sufficient equality before the board between the applicant and the objector, who are entitled to equal treatment, or the restrictions on the judicial review process in respect of who can apply for it and when an NGO may or may not do so. I look forward to the Committee Stage debate on this.

I am concerned that the Minister may rush this Bill through. Committee Stage is scheduled for 13 June and while that is not too soon, I wish to ensure that the Minister does not guillotine our amendments. Constructive and productive work will depend on full and adequate debate on these issues. Other Ministers have guillotined pages of amendments which have never been discussed. We will kick up one hell of a row if we do not have proper discussion on Committee Stage of all our amendments because that will be critical to the future of this Bill. We approach it in a spirit of agreement but with a desire to get it right. We are prepared to put in the time that is required on Committee Stage and I ask that the Minister leave that Stage completely open. We will work on it. We are not here to delay the Bill but to ensure it is right.

This Bill will fundamentally change our country's planning laws, not necessarily for the better. Under section 3 of the Bill, if passed, major construction projects, including private ones, can be built without having to go through the normal planning process as we know it. These projects include waste incinerators, chemical treatment plants, major landfills, oil refineries, large oil and gas storage tanks, oil and gas pipelines, wind farms, electricity pylons, airports, sea ports, railway stations and many similar projects. All are contained in the new Schedule 7 to the Planning Act. There will be no right of appeal on these projects because they will go to An Bord Pleanála in the first place.

The right to appeal to the board, as we have traditionally known it, for these projects is being abolished. The right of the public to object is being diminished and the local authority is effectively being carved out of the process. The Minister spoke about the involvement of elected councillors. This is a sham. Their involvement, as proposed by the Minister, is nothing more than allowing them to make a recommendation. It is no more than they can do at planning meetings of their local authorities where they can express an opinion on a planning application but have no real say in the executive decision on whether permission is to be granted.

The right to go to the courts is being limited. An Bord Pleanála will be able retrospectively to rewrite a planning permission after the permission has been granted under section 25. On page 18 the Bill states that the Minister can tell An Bord Pleanála which planning applications should receive priority. The role of An Bord Pleanála is being fundamentally changed from its original and essential role as a planning appeals board to a planning authority of first instance. There will be no planning appeals system for major projects covered by the Bill.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.