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

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Before the adjournment, I was dealing with the significant changes to our planning system proposed under this Bill. One of those changes, under section 15, allows the Minister greater discretion in appointing the members of An Bord Pleanála. We are being told that all of these changes are being made in order to speed up the planning of major infrastructure projects. The irony is that the Bill does not reduce the time projects will spend in the formal planning process. The Bill simply changes the process to cut out local involvement. More crucially, the Bill does not address the real reasons infrastructure projects are being delayed and it will not speed up the delivery of a road, a railway or an airport.

This country has a serious infrastructure deficit. In its document on the national development plan last year, the Institute of Engineers of Ireland stated Ireland has a premier division economy with a third division infrastructure. The World Competitiveness Yearbook 2003 rated Ireland 28th out of 29 countries for infrastructure. Infrastructure deficit is a polite term, but hardly the term most often used to express the frustration of the commuter stuck in Dublin traffic, of the business person who tries to get a train from any of our major cities at 8 p.m., of the Internet user without broadband waiting for a file to download, or of the hassled passenger in the overcrowded Dublin Airport.

The IEI, the professional body for engineers at the front line of infrastructure development, drew some very interesting conclusions in its document for January 2005. In essence, the document tells us that the national development plan is not being delivered on time. The targets set for 2006 in the national development plan will not be reached until 2010 at the earliest and, unless funding levels are significantly increased, the NDP programme will not be completed until approximately 2013.

With regard to specific sectors, the IEI stated:

At current spending levels the network envisaged under NDP will not be completed until 2013. The roads requirements to support the NSS have yet to be planned and scheduled for construction.

With regard to public transport, the IEI complained that key decisions on rail connectors to Dublin Airport and the new Dublin metro have yet to be made, although that complaint was made prior to the announce of Transport 21. The IEI also complained that many water services projects were delayed by an average of two years and predicted that the 2006 investment targets would not be met until the end of 2010. The IEI was particularly critical of the delays in delivering waste infrastructure, stating:

Progress in delivering the NDP waste strategy has been very disappointing...The expectation that the private sector would deliver a significant percentage of the required infrastructure has not materialised, the cost of landfill is nearly three times the UK and EU average.

What has gone wrong? The Minister, Deputy Roche, and his nine year old Government would have us believe it is all the fault of objectors and that we only need to change our planning laws to speed up the building of roads, railways, metros and airports. In his introduction to the Bill, the Minister said: "Simply put, this Bill is the key to delivering the infrastructure we will need to sustain and improve our quality of life." If this Bill is the key to delivering our infrastructure, why did it take the Government ten years to discover that fact and why have three years passed since the Bill was originally announced by the Taoiseach in autumn 2003?

The IEI appears to have identified a different cause for the delays in infrastructure. Professional bodies like the IEI sometimes use wonderfully understated language to make the most devastating political points. Its 2005 NDP submission states "The Institution is concerned that the vision and enthusiasm that gave rise to the NDP, the NSS and the National Development Finance Agency has waned". In translation, that means the Government has taken its foot off the pedal and is not driving the national development plan. Ministers are not doing their jobs in terms of pushing forward the projects for which their Departments have responsibility.

Let us look more closely at the delays in delivering and upgrading the country's infrastructure. Why, for example, is Ireland so far behind with regard to broadband? That has nothing to do with planning or protestors climbing up trees in the Glen of the Downs but has a great deal to do with the way in which this Government privatised Eircom while failing to establish an effective alternative for the provision of broadband. The delay on the second terminal at Dublin Airport and the ensuing overcrowding came about because the Government delayed too long in making a decision on who should develop the project. The delay at Dublin Airport has nothing to do with the planning process. The Dublin metro and the rail link to the airport have not been delayed on planning stage because the projects have not yet reached that stage. Much of the delay in terms of progressing road projects occurs during the design and land acquisition stages. Most road projects spend more time with design consultants than with planners. With regard to waste infrastructure, the differences that have emerged within the Cabinet over incineration probably caused longer delays than any number of objections on the formal planning stage.

The biggest problem this country faces with accelerating infrastructure provision does not arise from delays in the planning process but from the lethargy and incompetence of this Government. It did not produce the national spatial strategy until three years after the publication of the national development plan, whereas the reverse should have been the case. The national spatial strategy was then abandoned for the politically motivated decentralisation plan announced by the former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, in December 2003. Now, the Government is about to announce a new national development plan in chunks that are tailor made to be released as the Fianna Fáil general election manifesto before the national spatial strategy has been reviewed or renewed. After nine years in Government during the best of economic times, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats now tell us that the delays in providing essential infrastructure are not their fault but are due to objectors and delays in the planning process. There is nothing as pathetic as a Government in power for too long that looks for scapegoats for its own failures.

To be fair to the Government, it did not take a full nine years before the penny dropped with regard to infrastructure. It came to that conclusion after only six years. In October 2003, the Taoiseach told a Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis that legislation would be urgently prepared to speed up the planning process for critical infrastructure projects. Speed must be a relative concept for this Government because this legislation required nearly three years to be produced.

Fianna Fáil was founded by a mathematician, so I have a mathematical conundrum for the Minister. If the Victorians could build a railway line from Dublin to Cork and from concept to completion in only four years, why in the 21st century did it take Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats nearly three years to write a Bill about speeding up the construction of railways and roads?

This Government needs to catch up on infrastructure. The IEI stated: "the country's infrastructure deficit is contributing to the decline in Ireland's international competitiveness, quality of life and regional balance". However, if Ireland is to speed up the provision of infrastructure, it needs to change the Government instead of the planning laws. A club which finds itself in the relegation zone does not seek to rewrite the rules of the game but changes the management. I do not deny that delays arise in bringing infrastructure projects to construction or that changes in the process are necessary. However, the Bill before us does not address the real sources of these delays nor does it propose effective remedies.

Some projects are held up because of court challenges and delays in the courts. That can and should be resolved through the establishment of a dedicated division of the High Court that could deal with planning cases. The Labour Party has been recommending this solution for several years and I am pleased the Minister stated that arrangements are now being made to facilitate it. Such a move would not require the amendment of planning legislation because we can reduce delays in court challenges to the planning process by speeding up the process in which the courts deal with those challenges.

This Bill, we are told, is intended to reduce the time spent by major projects in the formal planning process but I fail to see how that will be achieved. According to the procedure for planning applications under the current Planning and Development Acts, an application is first made to the local authority, which is required to come to a decision within eight weeks. A period of four weeks is allowed for an appeal to be lodged to An Bord Pleanála, which in turn is required to make its decision within 18 weeks. The total is approximately seven and a half months.

Under the new procedure proposed in this Bill the following will be the position. The proposer of the project will be required to consult An Bord Pleanála on the project and there is an unspecified period of time for that. After that consultation period the proposer will be required to apply to the board to be considered to be in one of the three categories that would qualify to be processed under this legislation. Again, the period of time for that application is unspecified in the Bill. An Bord Pleanála then gives notice to the proposer of the project as to whether he or she qualifies under the so-called fast-tracking procedure under this legislation. The applicant then makes an application for planning permission to the board and there are six weeks for the environmental impact study to be examined and ten weeks for the application to be referred to the local authority for consultation, including the consultation of elected members of the council. It is not clear from the Bill whether these two periods are additive, but I will assume they are not. There are 18 weeks for the board to make its decision.

No matter how one tots that up, and allowing for the most minimal amount of time for the earlier consultation process with the board and the application under section 3 to see whether one qualifies for the provisions of this Act, it amounts to seven months. In both cases there is provision for the submission of additional information and for time extensions. I have been trying to do this tot to find out whether this Bill, which is supposed to fast-track the planning process, does so. I find there is no time gain in the formal planning process under the new mechanism proposed by the Minister. The system is being changed. The application to the local authority is being cut out and it is only consulted. The involvement of the public is cut out at local level and, critically, the right to appeal is abolished so a member of the public will have only one opportunity to express an opinion on a project under this system. There will be no right of appeal once a decision is made. One would have to go to court after that.

The Bill contains a number of provisions to which we will have to give detailed consideration on Committee Stage. The first issue is the type of development that will qualify for this so-called fast-tracking. It is not fast-tracking but short-cutting to planning permission by direct application to the board.

The Minister said this is about projects of strategic importance. Three categories of project will qualify for this Bill. Projects of strategic importance will qualify. According to section 3(2)(b) development would qualify if it “would contribute significantly to the fulfilment of any of the objectives in the national spatial strategy or in any regional planning guidelines”. That could be anything. The third category is a development that would have a significant effect on the area of more than one planning authority. That could be any kind of development, not necessarily infrastructure but any kind of private development that straddles the boundaries of two local authorities. The definition of what constitutes strategic infrastructure is wide. Any development relating to roads and railways, or gas, oil and electricity distribution is covered.

The provision on environmental impact studies, which appears in section 37D, is interesting. Under this section an applicant can request the board to give a written opinion on what information will be required to be contained in the environmental impact statement. With this idea of consulting the board in advance to tell developers what to put in the planning application they might as well have hired the board to prepare the planning application. The board would be steering the applicant and prejudging the process. Section 37G lists the questions An Bord Pleanála will have to consider when making a decision, one of which is the national interest. I searched the Bill for a definition of the national interest. The national interest is a wide and disputed term. We spend most of our time in this House deciding what it should be and we have many different opinions on it. The board will have to take the national interest into account, whatever it is supposed to be, and I would be interested to see the definition of the national interest the Minister intends to come up with on Committee Stage.

A number of changes are being made to the role of An Bord Pleanála. it was established in the 1970s by a Labour Minister as a planning appeals board. There was controversy and a need for an independent appeals board to hear appeals on planning issues. Applicants for planning permission and third parties who have a difficulty with a planning decision can go to an independent body to appeal it. This Bill changes the function of the board. We have seen many changes in the role of the board in recent years, for example, the new functions it has been given on the approval of road schemes. However, this legislation changes the essential role of the board from a planning appeals board to a planning authority of first instance. It is a dramatic change in the architecture of our planning process and requires more debate.

In addition to changing the role of An Bord Pleanála, the Minister wants the right to tell the board what to do. According to section 37J(6) the Minister will be able to contact the board to deal with a particular planning application immediately. It states: "Where the Minister considers it to be necessary or expedient that a certain class or classes of application ... are of special strategic, economic or social importance to the State be determined as expeditiously as is consistent with proper planning and sustainable development, he or she may give a direction to the Board that priority be given to the determination of applications of the class or classes concerned, and the Board shall comply with such a direction". The Bill provides that the board is to decide the planning application on these strategic projects and, in case it does not, it is required to have regard to the policy of the Government or individual Ministers and to the national interest. Lest the board fail to get the message in that subtle way, the Minister retains the right to send a message telling it to bring a particular application to the front of the queue. Given that the Minister would have such hands-on involvement in the functioning of An Bord Pleanála, it would be better to be up-front about it and say that Ministers will decide on strategic projects. This would dispel the idea that an independent body is making these decisions when that may not be the case.

The Bill provides for An Bord Pleanála to amend planning permission after it has been issued. If a problem arises with planning permission, An Bord Pleanála can retrieve and rewrite the planning permission. This measure, which is contained in chapter 4 of section 25, must be addressed on Committee Stage.

In section 15 the Minister proposes to change the composition of An Bord Pleanála. At present various categories nominate one candidate each for membership of An Bord Pleanála. The Minister will group these categories and will nominate two members from the group. This retains the nomination system but widens the Minister's discretion on membership of An Bord Pleanála. This marks a step towards membership being decided on a political basis.

I am interested in hearing the Minister's views on Committee Stage on the manner in which he will proscribe organisations for the purposes of making appeals to the court. The Minister will check its membership, how long it has been in existence and compliance with rules and objectives. Is that provision constitutional, given the constitutional right to freedom of organisation?

I welcome section 9 of the Bill, which the Minister introduced in response to the Labour Party Private Members' Bill that passed Second Stage in the Dáil. Its aim was to require rogue developers to complete housing estates, allowing local authorities to refuse them future planning permission if they did not do so. The onus of going to the court, currently on the local authority, will be reversed.

I am disappointed the Minister has not taken the opportunity to address the problem associated with management companies. I intend to return to this on Committee Stage. I will table amendments on the need to abolish the planning fee. In any event, we will be forced to do so when the European Court of Justice decides on the case before it. I will also table amendments to address noise pollution and the need to amend legislation to require developers of telecommunications masts to apply for planing permission. The development, extension or replacement of telecommunications masts causes many problems, including one such case in my constituency. I intend to table an amendment so that such masts are subject to the full planning control system.

I wish to share time with Deputies McHugh and Cuffe.

My party is opposed to this legislation, the brainchild of those irked by delays resulting from what they regard as annoying democratic input to the planning process. It is designed to facilitate ramming through unwanted infrastructure, such as incinerators, against the democratic wishes of communities and regardless of genuine concerns of those likely to be affected by such developments. One wonders whether the Government came under pressure from vested interests, such as Indaver Ireland, to publish this legislation. This is the Government that changed the retail planning guidelines to facilitate Ikea. The Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill is the practical expression of the Government's opposition to democracy.

A vast range of issues are covered by the Bill, including incinerators, landfill, thermal power stations, installations for the onshore extraction of oil and gas, oil and gas pipelines and associated terminals. Provisions within this legislation can establish a strategic infrastructure division within An Bord Pleanála. This is proof of a response to the overwhelming opposition of communities to the string of incinerators the Government is trying to build across this State. It is also a response to the opposition by archaeological experts and others to the vandalisation of an area surrounding the Hill of Tara to ram through a motorway to maximise profits for private companies. It is a reaction to the people of Rossport, who have stood up to the might of Shell, which seeks to run a gas pipeline through their lands beside their homes, regardless of the dangers to health and safety. The intention is not to ensure "the right infrastructure in the right place with the minimum of impact on the community and the environment". It is exactly the opposite. It is designed to quash opposition to such projects where opposition is based on health and environmental concerns or concerns about the destruction of sites of historical and archaeological importance.

We must reform the planning process to allow health and environmental considerations to be taken into account and examined. These include the concerns of local communities about infrastructural developments. The legal challenges cited by the Minister as the reason he brought forward this legislation could be avoided if health and environmental concerns were examined and considered as part of the planning process.

In the case of the proposed incinerator in Ringaskiddy, County Cork, An Bord Pleanála decided to overturn the local council's decision to refuse permission to construct the incinerator. The decision of An Bord Pleanála was taken against the advice and recommendations of the board's senior planning adviser, Mr. Philip Jones. The decision was at odds with the Cork development plan and the Cork area strategic plan. One reason the board gave for its decision was that it was precluded from considering matters relating to risk of environmental pollution. The appeal board was restricted to dealing with matters solely related to planning concerns despite the legitimate health fears of Cork people about the incinerator project.

Another example is the Carrickmines debacle, which could have been avoided. The report of the inquiry by the European Commission into the south-eastern motorway found a number of shortcomings in the environmental impact study, including a defective non-technical summary, underestimation or omissions regarding the impact of the development, an insufficient historical study and a lack of thematic maps.

It is easy to blame protestors and objectors but many problems arise from failure of the planning process. This legislation attempts to remove democratic input, compounding the situation where local authority representatives were stripped of powers with regard to waste management plans to advance the incineration and waste charge agenda. Under the Waste Management Act 1996 and the Protection of the Environment Act 2003 the making, review, variation and replacement of waste management plans has become an executive power of unelected and unaccountable city and county managers. These powers should be reinstated as a reserve function of democratically elected local representatives. The Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006 cannot be used to override wholesale opposition to incineration across the State. It will not make people drop their vehement opposition to incinerators, which produce toxins detrimental to the health of those communities in which they are sited. Incineration flies in the face of any real environmental waste management strategy and locks us into disposal as the primary approach to waste management. It creates a major disincentive for the reduction and recycling of waste, as incinerators must be fed large volumes of waste to remain viable. We need proper commitment and investment from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and a waste management policy based on reduction, reuse and recycling, guided by the ultimate goal of zero waste.

One issue of concern on which I would like to touch before concluding relates to the types of projects that this legislation is designed to fast-track. Included among the infrastructure developments to be expedited is an industrial installation for the production of electricity, steam or hot water with a heat output of 300 MW or more, allowing almost endless potential. One might reasonably ask if that means that the new division could be used to override public opposition to nuclear power if the Government desired to pursue such an agenda. Might a nuclear power station be fast-tracked under this provision? I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Had this legislation been in place in the 1970s, would we now have a deadly nuclear power station at Carnsore Point? I do not doubt that former Deputy Des O'Malley would have used it when he was Minister for Industry and Commerce. The public must be warned of the dangerous implications of this anti-democratic legislation, which will serve only to erode public confidence further in the planning process. There are deficiencies in that process, but this does not address them.

While genuine health and safety concerns continue not to be considered, concerned individuals and communities will continue to use every available avenue to challenge questionable developments. When official avenues of input and appeal are closed to them, they will take to the streets and engage in protest activity. The only way in which the difficulties encountered to date can be resolved is by ensuring that communities have their concerns listened to and considered so that there is full public confidence in the planning process.

I hope the Minister has deduced my opposition to the legislation.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which has been a long time in gestation. A very macho assessment of it would probably suggest the response that we have suffered long enough at the hands of cranks, do-gooders and other idealists, that we should adopt the legislation and go full steam ahead, riding roughshod over all and sundry. However, we must pause and give full consideration to the Bill's implications.

There is no doubt that it would restrict democratic rights that we have enjoyed in the planning process since the first Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1963 was passed. If enacted, it would not only restrict democratic rights but remove decision-making from the locality to the centre, away from the citizen and to a faceless body in Dublin, an official of which will breeze in and out of areas without reference to or engagement with locals.

The Bill changes the long-established procedures and planning law whereby one had local assessment and adjudication of all projects followed by the second layer of an appeal process to a national body. At a single stroke, the Bill removes the local tier of the planning process where citizens had the freedom to visit planning offices, inspect documents and discuss projects with local officials. It turns the principle of subsidiarity on its head.

I have focused on it restricting democratic rights pertaining to planning that we have enjoyed for decades, a fact beyond dispute. The question arises of whether such a restriction is required in the national interest. Consideration suggests two answers, "yes" and "no". The two contradictory answers arise because of the two categories of persons who feel that their rights are being curtailed.

One category, for want of a better description, is that of the professional objectors, who transport themselves from one proposed development site to another and raise what appear to the average person to be flippant, somewhat irrelevant issues. Some of those people pose and like to be seen as the defenders of our country in all things. It is also a fact that some have no connection with this country, and certainly not with the localities in which developments are proposed. The restriction that the Bill will impose on those people's democratic rights is required in the national interest, and it is a step in the right direction in that regard.

The other category of person to be affected by the Bill is that of local people resident in an area for their entire lives, who have enjoyed certain residential amenities, improved their properties, contributed through voluntary effort to the creation of a better community environment, and who feel all they have worked for during their lifetimes will be at best seriously damaged and at worst destroyed. I believe unequivocally that the restriction that the Bill imposes on those people's democratic rights is not required in the national interest. Their rights should not be compromised when it is considered.

The Bill's import is required in certain circumstances, but we must be careful of dismantling all planning procedures, which brings with it the prospect of extinguishing the rights of native citizens, whose lives will be affected and who will have to cope with the stresses that a major infrastructural development will impose on them for the remainder of their lives. Those people are entitled to every opportunity to have all a project's full details presented in a manner allowing them full opportunity to make an informed assessment, contribute views, engage in discussion, seek clarification, and make appeals.

My contribution thus far has related to the very delicate balancing act between the rights of the individual and the national interest. One could be forgiven for assuming I do not want vital infrastructural projects to proceed as quickly as possible. That is not true, since I want progress, but I also want the rights of indigenous people to be protected. Both aspirations can be accommodated and progress made.

Dealing with certain specific elements, I refer first to section 6, which amends section 2 of the principal Act by inserting several new definitions, including a definition of the national spatial strategy. The strategy was unveiled in a blaze of glory by the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen. It was to be the cure for all our ills, delivering balanced regional development. In summary, we would never see a poor day again. Irrespective of where we lived, all would be treated equally, reaping the benefits that the ambitious, futuristic strategy would bring to our country.

Imagine the disappointment of a nation subject to such hype when the national spatial strategy became an orphan, having been abandoned by the Government. I will give the House two very relevant examples of the Government's desertion of the plan. After the national spatial strategy had been published, a decision was made to reinstate the western rail corridor. One would have expected the Government to be keen to show that the new strategy was serious, delivering balanced regional development. Its decision to reinstate the western rail corridor should, therefore, have been accompanied by a decision to commence work immediately on the entire project, with a commitment to complete it within a realistic timescale of perhaps two years.

Imagine my disappointment to discover the western rail corridor would not be complete in two years, and would be finished only as far as Claremorris by 2014. That is ten years after the decision to allow it to proceed, which is nonsense. If any illustration is needed, that clearly shows the Government is not serious about development of the west. There is no reason for this procrastination. This western rail corridor project does not even need planning permission to proceed. There are no blockages, objections or appeals but simply Government disinterest.

I will give another example to illustrate the uselessness of the national spatial strategy. Tuam is the only town in County Galway to be included in the spatial strategy as a hub town. Therefore, one expects that the Government in its decisions would take this into account and would endeavour to ensure basic infrastructure would be provided to ensure this town develops as envisaged in the national spatial strategy. Imagine my astonishment when the Government was approving five towns in Galway to be provided with a metropolitan area network broadband infrastructure, which was very welcome, that the only town included in the national spatial strategy was the one main town not to receive a MAN. That clearly illustrates the Government disconnection from the objectives of the national spatial strategy.

Section 8 proposes to bestow a power on the deciding authority to impose a condition on the granting of permission regulating the development or use of land next to land proposed to be developed and in the same ownership. I disagree with this provision. The deciding authority's decision should only relate to land the subject matter of the application.

Section 9, which amends section 35 of the principal Act, is very welcome. This section will enable the planning authority to refuse permission to a developer on the grounds of his or her past history of non-compliance with planning. This, if implemented by the planning authority, will have a major impact on ensuring that the blight of unfinished housing estates will be considerably diminished. However, there is no point including a provision such as this if, when it comes to the practicalities of implementing it, we are told by the authorities that they do not have the personnel to carry out inspections so that it can be implemented.

There is certain merit in this Bill where there is unnecessary delay in some vital projects. However, I put it to the Minister that there are many projects in his Department which are not being held up by protestors or subject to opposition and which are vital for the prosperity of this country but which are being held up by him because he will not approve them. In my constituency we have the ridiculous situation where the Minister has, for example, in relation to vital sewerage schemes such as Dunmore and Kilkerrin, approved the civil works which are under way on site but he is still pondering on the decision to approve the treatment plant element of those schemes. Again, this is an example of cock and bull planning.

Kinvara is another case in point. The Minister is deliberating on this vital sewerage scheme while the waters around Kinvara are being destroyed by pollution from untreated sewage being discharged into the bay. We will have further debate on this Bill in future but, in the meantime, I would appreciate it if the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, would talk to the Minister, Deputy Roche, so that he would approve the Dunmore and Kilkerrin treatment works and the entire Kinvara sewerage scheme.

When the Minister praises the Green Party, as he did earlier, one knows he is up to something.

He is keeping the options open.

I was flattered by his conciliatory remarks about our sensible concerns regarding the Bill. However, let me reiterate, this Bill is an attack on democracy, it emasculates local authorities, sidelines little people and turns the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway Races into a permanent pavilion and institutionalises it. The Minister may well argue there is nothing wrong with the tent. He will argue that the big boys and girls need access to power and privilege, but so do the little people. This Bill will look after the big guys but will sideline the communities and the people who need support from the planning process.

Perhaps we need to speed up some of the major infrastructural projects. I agree with the Minister that things should move more quickly in certain circumstances but, curiously, even he tiptoed very carefully around the suggestion that planning is the problem. He merely stated that planning could potentially act as a barrier. What is the problem? Is it that the planning process is not moving quickly enough or is it that the Minister and his pet projects are not moving quickly enough?

The problem is ministerial incompetence, poor management and legal challenges to projects. The Luas lines in Dublin do not join up. That was not about bad planning but about ministerial incompetence and Senator O'Rourke and the Tánaiste doing this sweetheart deal because they felt it would be a bridge too far to join the Luas lines in central Dublin as it would upset the motorists. That is the fault of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. That is why one gets off the Luas in St. Stephen's Green and must walk the best part of a kilometre to get to the red line in the middle of city. That is a lack ofcoglioni, as the Italians would say. It is a lack of ministerial competence. That is not an issue of planning but is an inability to tackle the difficult issues at the outset.

There is a problem with poor management, the Dublin Port tunnel and the electronic voting project. These projects are not the result of poor planning or a slow planning process. It is a political problem which needs strong management and strong political resolve to address it.

The legal challenges are well known. We know a petrol station and a few other objectors held up the M50. The Minister's answer was that it was all down to a few tree huggers, but it was not. It was down to High Court challenges from landowners. The Minister thus far has done little or nothing to address that. He has made all kinds of grandiose statements about how he will give more powers to the courts. He does not have the competence to address that issue and he has not provided for it in the Bill. Three of the main issues have not been addressed in the legislation.

I wish to be a slight contrarian for one moment. Should all the major projects be flicked through at the stroke of a pen? Perhaps we should take a bit of time to decide on some of these larger projects which will be in place for 100 or 200 years. If these types of projects will be in place for our children and our children's children, let us slow them down a little and make the right decision, not just a quick one. I am not convinced this Bill will do that.

This Bill will take away one level of decision making. It is a bit like removing the Circuit Court or the High Court from the courts structure so that everything must go straight to the Supreme Court. That is not right. The big projects need to be carefully considered. If they were, the M50 would have gone around Carrickmines and the N3 would avoid the royal demesne at Tara. This archaeology has been here for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years. It does not make sense to plough projects through without adequate consideration or assessment. Rome was not built in a day, and rightfully so. The good things perhaps need to be thought about carefully.

By all means, let us speed up the right projects. I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, is in the House because he would do well to speed up the type of housing projects which have never seen the light of day and the grandiose aspirations of the national development plan which are not met in reality. How about speeding up the Navan rail link, new schools and health facilities? Those are the types of projects we need to speed up.

There is also a more sinister aspect to this Bill. It takes power away from local authorities. We should forget about the Minister's broad assurances that there will be consultation. It will not take place and if it does, it will simply be a token gesture. The Minister said An Bord Pleanála will have to have regard to the views of local authorities. That exact phrase was used in earlier legislation and when a court case was brought in respect of the regional planning guidelines for the greater Dublin area, the courts had to have regard to the regional planning guidelines but could then set them aside — in other words, completely sideline them. This Bill completely sidelines local authorities. It takes power from local government and centralises it with An Bord Pleanála. That has happened time and again under this Government which is centralising power because it is afraid of local democracy. That is a dangerous thing to do.

The legal challenges could be dealt with by establishing a separate division of the High Court but that is not coming through. Communities need to be fully involved in the planning process. The Minister knows from his own backyard in Bray how difficult it is for people to access the planning process. Bray Golf Club sold its lands to a developer who wants to build a shopping centre. This might be a great development but it is in the wrong place because it is located on the flood plain in the middle of Bray. To object to that, Joe Public must pay €20 each for three or four separate applications which amounts to €80. That may be small change for the Minister and me but it is a lot of money for the ordinary objector. The objector must then make three full appeals to An Bord Pleanála, which brings the total to €1,000. That takes planning out of the hands of ordinary people.

The amount of time and money needed for the planning process are making it inaccessible. This Government introduced the fee of €20. I hope the European Commission insists on its removal. The Government should set up community technical aid such as exists in the United Kingdom and on a limited basis in inner city Dublin. Communities need to be given the resources to assess adequately the planning issues coming before them, but the Bill does not provide for that.

Certain issues should be included in, and others removed from, the provisions for exempted development. Deputy Gilmore referred to mobile phone antennae. It is crazy that a dozen antennae can be added to a mobile phone mast without planning permission. Mobile masts such as that outside the Garda station in Shankill make the British Army watchtowers look like rabbit's ears. That should require planning permission and exemptions are unacceptable.

Electricity pylons should go through the planning process. Hundreds if not thousands of trees were felled at Carrickgollogan Woods to facilitate a golf course. On Coillte lands trees are knocked down to make space for re-routed electricity pylons. This went through a planning process but there was no site notice which made it difficult for people to comment.

Every planning authority in the country gives a different answer to the question of whether one needs planning permission to put solar panels on one's house. Let us exempt solar panels on ordinary buildings. The Minister might take that on board.

We need more good planning. The decentralisation programme filleted the national spatial strategy. There is no meaningful planning at national level and future generations will pay the price for that. We need to make the right decisions in a timely way, but this Bill will consolidate power at the centre and reduce the ability of ordinary individuals to have a say in the planning process.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I agree with the Minister's opening comment that this is one of the more important Bills to be introduced during this term. Several speakers have been selective in attempting to prove to us that there is no need for change while simultaneously ridiculing the existing system. That two-faced approach to so many issues is a problem with which we must deal.

The primary purpose of the Bill is to provide for the introduction of a streamlined planning consent for strategic infrastructural development which will be achieved through a new strategic infrastructure division within An Bord Pleanála. The Bill allows for changes needed to the 2000 Act. It also provides for a specialised planning consent procedure for major electricity transmission lines. It amends the Transport (Railway Infrastructure) Act 2001 to provide that An Bord Pleanála will approve railway orders. It amends the Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act 1919 to provide for the compensation that will be assessed for the substratum of land. This issue has arisen only in recent years since the question of the metros and so on arose. It should probably have been dealt with then.

We can have a good discussion on this Bill and on many related matters, some of which have already been raised. It is good to engage in such a timely and important debate. The people who whinge about bringing in legislation will complain if we lose industry or if tourists cannot come here because the roads are clogged up and so on. Those are further examples of wanting to have it both ways.

This Bill is essential and is approximately ten years too late. Much of the action outlined here should have been taken a long time ago which might have prevented the waste of billions of euro in time lost through objections, missed opportunities and traffic being clogged up. In the 1990s we could not carry out energy-related infrastructure projects which crossed the Border because of the probability of their being blown up if they went ahead. That included the infrastructure for natural gas and electricity and would probably have affected other joint proposals too, such as water schemes.

There were many other impediments to the provision of infrastructure, particularly in respect of transport and energy. People have had to take sides, in which they might not always believe, on some of the issues. We need a forum, such as this Bill provides, for a full discussion, and hopefully, eventual agreement on what we want by way of the provision of such facilities for the public.

Someone referred to the rights of the individual over those of the public, which we need to discuss, but there must be a balance. We cannot say every time somebody objects to an issue that we will go along with that because the person has a God-given right to object. Deputy McHugh said there are positive and negative responses to questions on this Bill. Many individuals express a wish to have things both ways. For instance, we need to highlight the conflict between people expressing concern about the number of fatalities and serious car crashes on some second class roads and the objectors who delay work to provide superior and safer roads.

The Green Party in particular says there is no need to waste billions of euro on the roads but I often drive from Cork to Dublin and I am entitled to have the best possible standard of road, namely, a good dual carriageway. That has been proved to be the safest road to travel. I am entitled to one, as are drivers in all other parts of the country, be it County Meath or elsewhere. People are entitled to public safety provisions and this must be taken into consideration. I argued this point regarding the delays in Kildare. I felt the slugs or worms that were found during the construction of the bypass were being put ahead of the safety of the public. I took the opportunity to sit in the middle of Kildare town a few times while on my way to Dublin just to observe elderly people trying to cross the main street. The way the public, especially the elderly, were treated in trying to strike a balance between environmental concerns and safety concerns was scandalous.

There are many other points of conflict we could examine, including those that arise in areas with a ban on mobile phone masts, as referred to by Deputy Cuffe. It is perfectly legal to have such a ban but it can be seen in a different light on foot of complaints about the lack of a phone reception in the same area. The same people complain about both mobile phone masts and the lack of a reception. Complaints may arise because of the lack of employment in an area. Potential employers will be reluctant to locate in an area without essential and basic facilities.

If I want an area sterilised of all contaminants, such as phones, phone masts, roadways and oil pollution from cars, I must then accept that I will live in a wilderness without a job. If this is what somebody wants, so be it. Let him argue the point. It is not a logical argument and one cannot have it both ways. It is hard to accept it when the same individuals are found on both sides of a given conflict. They support the objectors but at the same time want to be seen to be to the fore in requesting the proposed facilities. One or two Members have tried to do this in their contributions. Why should facilities exist in one county and not in another?

Being on both sides of an argument can often result in short-term political gains but, as seen many times, it does not always lead to a lengthy career in politics. There are times when positive political leadership is needed and it may not always involve a populist approach. Some have learned this and others have not. We need to get on with the work but it will not always be popular to do what is correct.

There are many reasons this Bill is necessary, one of which is that it will eliminate the circumstances under which a planning application can be delayed for years through the pursuance of many avenues of objection. I am not exaggerating in saying this. One only has to bear in mind those who resorted to the European Court of Justice, for example. Delays should be eliminated in all cases, irrespective of whether planning permission is granted or refused. I am not saying every application, be it on the part of the State or anybody else, should automatically be granted. There will be cases in which projects should not go ahead. Regardless of the decision on an application, it should not be possible to drag out the planning process for a number of years. Doing so is illogical. Irrespective of whether individuals or groups are involved in making an application, the process should be subject to a reasonable time limit so a final decision can be made one way or the other.

It is wrong that the planning process can be dragged out to the extent that a project can become non-viable or be affected so adversely as to be not worth pursuing. We are well aware that this can happen. Instigating delays seems to have been a particular strategy in one or two cases such that the applicants were simply forced to abandon their projects. In the longer term, we will suffer for having adopted such approaches.

Deputy Ned O'Keeffe is well aware of the fate of the beet-growing industry, as is Deputy Connaughton. We saw what happened to it in two months or less and, therefore, those who believe we will never again see a poor day will get a surprise at some point in their lives. We must maximise our potential but we have not been doing so by allowing some of the carry-on that has occurred.

Individuals have said to me at times that delays in State-sponsored projects are all right because the State is paying for them, but they should realise it is the taxpayer who is paying. In some instances, the taxpayer has had to pay too much because of a system that allows for tactics that were never intended when the original legislation was passed. We know of challenges to applications that were based on very technical matters. Some believe that once such a case goes to court, the toss of a coin decides whether one's application will be favoured.

This Bill requires much discussion and it should result in a fairer method of dealing with specific types of planning applications. It is a question of specific types of planning applications and not of putting a reception mast on one's roof, as referred to. It is matter of major planning applications for projects of strategic national importance. The majority of Members want to see changes to curb the existing potential for dragging out the process for what most would deem to be an unacceptable period. The length of the timeframe can be discussed and, I hope, agreed to. I appreciate that the Minister is designating 16 weeks as the period in which the process should be completed. There may be occasions when this will not be suitable but party spokespersons can make a case in this regard on Committee Stage.

I welcome the fact that Fine Gael has generally welcomed the Bill but I am concerned that its spokesperson went off on a tangent about shopping centres and related matters. These are clearly not covered by the Bill. The spokesperson said Fine Gael wants a metro, a major road network, hospitals, etc. and, as the song goes, so do all of us. This Bill is an attempt to ensure that we get these facilities when we need them and not after many years of delay, which has happened with too many projects.

Deputy Cuffe suggested there were no delays in the process pertaining to the port tunnel and that it was a question of bad management. There were delays and major arguments about compensation and the ownership of the ground under the affected houses. This Bill, if it had been enacted, would have put in place a process to deal with many of these arguments and, therefore, the Deputy is incorrect to suggest there were no delays. There were also delays in the planning process pertaining to many other facilities needed by the public. We must deal with the issues that arise, regardless of whether they arise in my constituency or anybody else's.

There are very welcome changes in the Bill and I am surprised more Members did not refer to them. Deputy Gilmore welcomed section 9 which deals with rogue developers. We have argued that those who half build an estate or fail to complete one should not get planning permission for a development next door or anywhere else. When we raised this point over the past 20 years, we were invariably told it could not be taken into consideration and I am therefore glad the position has changed.

I am glad the Bill allows for greater input from local councillors. It is very important that they have an input. Their input in the past may have been tarnished by the activity of a small number of councillors in one or two authorities. The input of councillors was also damaged by the overuse, in one or two councils, of what were known as section 4 motions. In discussions on such issues, one seldom refers to material contraventions to the local plans, which almost invariably emanate from city and county managers. They propose material contraventions that are usually much more significant and likely to change the development plan than any proposed by a councillor. This has given rise to concern. The city and county managers' material contraventions can have a great effect on the areas they cover but never draw the unfavourable comment other planning activities seem to draw. On many occasions I have questioned An Bord Pleanála and the rest on the Committee of Public Accounts about the use by management of these section 4 motions. It is time the public got a better balance in the planning process. I particularly welcome the inclusion of that section.

People may say they have had an impact on the formation of five-year plans, but for many reasons that is only part of the process. They need to have specific input into large projects as they crop up. The five-year development plan is usually a type of wish list. The term "may" is used as often as planners can include it because it gives them the opportunity to decide "yes" or "no" on particular issues rather than the elected members. It is time we re-introduced this for the elected members to let them have a say. It is they who must face the public. Members of other parties referred to the local community not having a voice or representation, as if the public representatives were elected by people from Mars or somewhere, and were not part of the process at all. I am glad we are changing that.

We heard this morning about one of the down sides of the present situation. Deputy Healy-Rae referred to a situation with which we all disagree, but concerning which we are helpless. Somebody living in Donegal or someplace can object to a person's application in Kerry, and has the same degree of input on the planning application as someone living next door to the applicant. That is crazy, and it has been abused. We must examine issues such as that and see if we can put them right, as they crop up. We should be somewhat more flexible in our approach and review the planning legislation on a five-year rolling basis, or something like that. Compensation for land issues, for example, was dealt with as long ago as 1919 and we are only now catching up with that, in planning for the metro. We should update and review some aspects of the legislation much more frequently.

There are very positive issues within this Bill. The primary one, however, is that it will put the country in a position to compete. I have mentioned the loss of the beet industry. We could lose much more. We will lose tourists because we cannot facilitate them or transport them around and we will lose industry because nobody is willing to become bogged down in planning. On one trip abroad representing our committee, I asked about the development and building programme for a project and how long the process would take if one came up with a prototype. The answer was nine days, for everything — planning, supplies, electricity, anything one wanted would be up and running within that time and dealt with. Here it would take three months to make the application alone. If we cannot compete, we will not get the jobs or the industry. If we cannot supply power or have stoppages on the railways, as we did last Monday and Tuesday, we will not get the tourists. If we have a breakdown in power supply, for whatever reason, we will lose industry. We saw Fruit of the Loom finally closing the other day. Everybody knew it was coming, for different reasons. However, that is what will happen. We will have the same people who want to give the objectors somewhat more powers whingeing and whining. That is the other side of the coin.

Deputy Cuffe referred to the young people and future generations. We want them to have a prosperous future, as we have had for the past ten years, so they do not face the type of future I faced when I had to emigrate, along with others, many of whom did not come back. I do not want future generations to face that future because I failed in this House to make provision for power, the gas lines and the road network to transport goods, along with the facilities for carrying tourists and the rest. I have a role to play, namely, to support the implementation of this Bill, which I hope will be enacted shortly.

There will be long discussions on it and concerns will be expressed. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, who is doing an excellent job, will be quite willing to take on board any logical and reasonable amendments. Apart from a small group that, perhaps, makes a career out of supporting objections, 95% of elected Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas totally support the concept of being able to provide the necessary strategic infrastructure this country needs although there may be arguments about amendments, small issues or topical matters Members many want included.

As I pointed out to the Minister my big concern is about staffing. I am glad he has made a start in this regard by increasing the membership of An Bord Pleanála from seven to nine. We need to do much more, however. We had 78 planners from the UK commissioned to work on projects for An Bord Pleanála, because we did not have the personnel. We have the talent in specific areas, engineering, transport or whatever. It is vital that we have the talent available within the special unit and that we are able to employ the people we need. When we checked with the National Roads Authority, for example, we found it had plenty of engineers but not the people with the cost accountancy expertise needed for the level of expenditure in terms of the enormous increase in funding over the past six or seven years. When up to €24 billion is being spent on major infrastructural projects, the very best is needed, and we must ensure that the people employed in the special unit to deal with the strategic issues being put forward, are of the highest calibre. We cannot allow any backlog to develop at any point in dealing with this. In the past if somebody wanted to build a kitchen, say, a modest enough development, an objection might be raised and it would end up in the Bord Pleanála pile, just the same as objections to the metro, if there is an objection to that, as was mentioned by the Fine Gael spokesman earlier. Those two cases will take their place, equally, in the Bord Pleanála pile and that is a crazy situation we should not tolerate. This Bill will change that, and I welcome it.

Speaking of ability, expertise, and so on, a different type of process is needed for back kitchens or minor developments — or even housing developments, regardless of their size — to deal with pylons, gas lines and so on, just as happened with the courts. A commercial division was introduced in the courts to get consistency and to apply the expertise that would enable case-related profiles to be built up. We need the same with planning. We had enormous claims because An Bord Pleanála overturned some inspector's report. This happens with large and small issues. The board will overturn reports in many instances. Otherwise, one could argue that the single inspector should have the final say, rather than An Bord Pleanála. Logically, when a person reports back, the board can decide to change the ruling and in a large percentage of cases it has done this. We have evidence for that and it will continue.

I wish the Minister well with this and An Bord Pleanála well with its future. I hope we will saturate the board with projects. I hope it will be up to its tonsils with work because we will spend that €24 billion. Everybody in these Houses must be supportive to ensure that facilities are in place to analyse and assess each project and give a speedy decision on it. Otherwise, we will find ourselves disadvantaged when the likes of China and the rest start to take off. As an island, Ireland is handicapped in having to ship everything in and out. Up to now we have been able to compete by using the education, ability and natural talents of our people. However, if we do not speed up and drive on projects and continue to allow individuals to delay us, we will be in big trouble.

I welcome the Bill and look forward to the debate on Committee Stage.

This legislation may be beneficial as some aspects of the Bill could be useful to our future economy. I have, however, some deep-seated doubts about it, on which I will elaborate.

Everybody is aware of the remarkable changes that have taken place in the country in the past ten to 15 years, especially in the past five or six years. We must understand that whatever infrastructure worked for us when we had a population under 4 million is now creaking and will not work when we have 5 million. Census figures show that by 2020 — a short time in terms of planning — the population will have risen to just over 5 million. We need to relate this growth to towns and villages and be aware of the planning required for this number of people. We must realise that most major projects being thought of now will not be delivered for approximately 15 years. Against this background I understand from where the Minister is coming with this Bill.

The strength of an economy is based principally on the ability of industry to grow and prosper and on the ability of the education system to train workers for this industry. If we are to have balanced regional development, every area of the country must be made as accessible as possible.

The people have been sickened by some of the highly visible confrontation that has taken place in planning matters. Let us take the example of Carrickmines. I do not know all the details but I know of other developments that were even slower. While there were some justifiable reasons for objections to the development, the greater good of the community was stymied. The objectors went too far.

I remember using the road from Bray through the Glen of the Downs to Wicklow town. One certainly needed to have a loose time schedule when travelling that road, but its development was delayed for years by the so-called eco-warriors. Every aspect of the planning procedure was exhausted repeatedly before the development could proceed. At the conclusion, it was clear the development was for the greater good and that any damage caused was minimal compared with what the protesters said it would cause. It would be a different matter if the area had been destroyed because a road was built through it, but that did not happen.

There are two main types of objectors. It was said previously that there is a type of professional objector who, if he or she cannot find something to object about in one part of the country, will turn up in another. Objecting seems to be these people's full-time occupation. I am not sure it is a pensionable job, but they are fond of it. These objectors have no interest in the local community and follow their own agenda. I agree with my colleague that we need a provision in legislation to overcome this group of objectors.

Many aspects of the Bill will need close scrutiny on Committee Stage. The Minister seems to give the impression that the only problem with delivering the infrastructure we need so badly has to do with planning. This is one of the problems, but not the only one. Several speakers have outlined graphically the other difficulties that delay developments. It seems no Minister is in charge. One would wonder how it takes so much time to deliver even small projects.

Let me give an example of a small-scale project that illustrates this. Five or six years ago somebody at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government came up with the good idea of design, build and operate schemes. This was tried by Galway County Council in the case of a combined project for three villages: Kilkerrin, Dunmore and Leenane. These villages had no sewerage schemes or development for years. It was decided the three villages would get new facilities and the Minister of the day announced the money was available. After several false starts the development was divided into two separate contracts, one for the civil contractors to lay the pipes and the other to a different contractor for the sewerage facility. It may be difficult to believe, but the three villages will soon have the pipes laid and that contract completed, but there is no sign of approval for the contract to deal with the sewerage facility. Talk about half a job done. It has taken five years to get this far and I am told it could take another year before the project is completed. How can we expect the public to have confidence in any Minister or Government that would allow this happen?

Imagine the situation when we transfer this experience to the national scene. I remember being at a press conference in 2000 where it was declared that the national development plan would deliver the N6, from Dublin to Galway city, by 2006. What have we got? We have a small part of it, but the major part will not be completed until 2010 or 2011. Why do we have traffic jams in all our towns and cities every morning and evening? We can rest assured that what has been happening will not change overnight, even if this Bill is passed.

I am not sure what has gripped the Government. There must be some strange reason for its inaction. Its failure to deliver the projects needed cannot be blamed on a lack of money because we have never had as much money. We are able to throw money at everything we can think of. The people will give their verdict on the Government's handling of this matter in the next 12 months. They will say they were led to believe during the years that it knew what is was doing with the projects, knew what had to be done and had the money to do it, but it was unable to deliver them. It is clear it does not have the will and the ability to deliver what is needed. The debate on this Bill, parts of which anybody could subscribe to, needs to be viewed in that light. If the Bill is passed, I sincerely hope the Government will take note of the factors we have discussed — Deputy O'Dowd mentioned some of them this morning — and do its job in a businesslike and efficient manner. It is obvious that is not happening.

This Bill will increase the powers of An Bord Pleanála, in effect, in the same way as increased responsibilities were given to the National Roads Authority. The concept is the exact same. Legislation of this nature sidelines the local authorities — they are relegated to a lower division than they are in. There was a huge debate in this House in 2003 when the waste management legislation was being considered. It was decided at that time that executive power would be given to the county managers. That meant the thoughts of local authorities were taken out of the equation when decisions were being made on landfill sites, etc. What is happening in this legislation is even more insidious in so far as the local authorities are concerned.

We should call a spade a spade — there is no point in saying that the local authorities will be fully informed of what An Bord Pleanála will do, that they will have an important role in the board's work or that their concerns will be taken into account. If one removes statutory powers from any organisation — the local authorities in this case — the body to whom such powers are given will be able to do whatever it decides to do thereafter. Regardless of the conduit that is used to get the views of local authorities across — An Bord Pleanála in Dublin in this case — one can rest assured that their representations will not have the same impact as they would have had if they had been the subject of a statutory decision. That is the way life is. Local authorities will be given an opportunity to say what they think, but their views will have no bearing on the planning decisions taken.

I highlight an issue that will arise on Committee Stage. I have no particular axe to grind with An Bord Pleanála. I am aware of good decisions and powerfully bad decisions. What part of the legislation outlines the extent to which the board will be responsible to this House? Where is the link made between the Oireachtas and An Bord Pleanála? Is it like the link between the Health Service Executive and this House? One cannot telephone or write to anybody to make representations about aspects of the health service. If one does, one cannot be sure that one will get an answer. The removal of this House and the Seanad from the process of decision-making on significant infrastructural projects is not a good thing at all. I can appreciate that the Minister will say that certain powers have been vested in An Bord Pleanála and that the Oireachtas has no say in such matters. I do not think that is good, however. There is a need for a consultative approach in cases of projects of dramatic significance. If such a case arose in County Galway, for example, there should be some sort of conduit to allow all the national representatives of that county, from all parties, to make some sort of input into An Bord Pleanála's decision on the matter. I do not think there would be anything wrong with that.

Another important aspect of this matter to which many speakers have referred relates to what has not been done and what could be done. When something is being proposed for an area, it is important to take account of the manner in which the case is presented. There can be outright opposition to proposals in local communities. Such cases are often difficult because there can be huge conflict between local interests and the national interest. I am not silly enough to believe agreement can always be reached if enough discussions, deliberations and consultations take place. We know it is sometimes difficult to reach agreement. I give the Minister of State a word of warning. If local communities feel the general idea of a project is to shaft them, to use a vulgar expression, there will always be local agitation against it thereafter regardless of what is done to resolve the problems.

We are familiar with such difficulties in cases of roads projects, for example. We all know we have to agree to the upgrading of existing roads and the construction of new roads in the national interest. It is no harm for those who support such projects, including the civil servants who may be involved, to bear in mind that if one proposes to drive a new road like the N6 beside towns and villages and through farms, one will be the cause of huge human hardship. It is all very well for people who are removed from local areas to say such projects are necessary in the national interest. We all know about that aspect of it. There is no doubt, however, that significant attention will have to be paid to the connection between the terrible and genuine trauma suffered by such communities and the significance of such projects in the national interest. I know it is hard to balance those two considerations, but I am afraid the day will come when people will think a beefed-up An Bord Pleanála can do what it likes. That is the problem we will face.

As someone who has been in this business for almost 30 years, I have seen every possible row that God could think of in various communities. I have seen disputes about masts, roads and dumps. If local people are given opportunities to make their feelings known at certain times, they eventually come around, by and large, although it is not an easy process. They have taken new approaches in recent times. They do not agree with the view expressed in this House earlier today that they enjoy local representation as long as their local councillors and Deputies are working for them. I assure the House that local groups do not agree with that notion at all. They genuinely believe they are in the eye of the storm. Just over a week ago, every man, woman and child in the small parish of Menlough, which is near Ballinasloe in County Galway, went on a walk in opposition to a proposed O2 mast. As they have heard all about co-location in the context of some other masts which are in place in the locality, they want to know why co-location was not used in this instance. Nobody can answer that question. The planning section of the local authority has not said why O2 should not be asked to co-locate on a nearby site. Local communities are concerned about such matters. Unless some sort of safety valve is provided for such communities to believe that someone, somewhere will listen to them when they have a sensible point, the Minister of State may rest assured there will be widespread civil unrest.

When this legislation inevitably passes, I hope An Bord Pleanála will have sufficient expertise available to it to be able to perform this task. I refer to the prior consultation aspect, which is positive and which will be liked by the infrastructure providers. One will bring one's project before the ruling body and will acquire its evaluation before spending a great deal of money on going through the planning process. I assume this will be an extremely costly exercise for providers and I imagine that serious money will be involved. An Bord Pleanála will be obliged to acquire an army of people for this purpose. I hope it will include people who have the requisite know-how, knowledge and expertise for such vital projects, which is missing at present. The Minister could validly state that many local authorities do not have such expertise. Moreover, I do not believe that An Bord Pleanála is in possession of such expertise to the degree it is likely to require, given the quantity of work that will pass through the system.

I hope this matter has been thought through. I hope there will be a clear line of distinction between those projects which must go through An Bord Pleanála and those which do not. There should be no necessity for the development of a dual application system, whereby one is obliged to go to both An Bord Pleanála and the local authority, thus incurring double costs. There should be a clear definition as to what should go to An Bord Pleanála.

This Bill will not solve all our problems and many systemic problems will remain after it becomes law. However, some of its aspects should be good for the future.

In the future, the Bill before the House today could stand out as having been of ground-breaking importance. It will have a profound impact on all significant players involved in the planning system and could mark a watershed in every aspect of our future development as a nation. The Government's attempt to tackle the future of Ireland's strategic infrastructure head on is commendable. This country's critical infrastructure clearly lags behind that enjoyed by our European and global competitors. Recently, A & L Goodbody recommended a mammoth €140 billion public sector investment in the next 15 years so that the economy will remain competitive and efficient.

Clearly, one must address the situation at hand and this revised planning Bill, which is aimed at fast-tracking strategic infrastructure projects, has been mooted for the past three years. One must start to take action before the problem begins to spiral. However, care must also be taken to ensure this is done without expending other factors which play an equally valuable part in Ireland's future. While the demands of the economy are crucial, a balance must be struck between such demands, the operation of local democracy and the protection of our environmental heritage.

It is easy to see why this Bill has been greeted with a mixed reaction. Planning in respect of both small and large-scale developments has become a major issue. Throughout the debate this afternoon Deputies have cited a number of local examples. It consumes column inches in national and local newspapers and provokes hardened opinions from the vast majority of those potentially affected.

The key element of this Bill is the introduction of a strategic consent process which will consist of a one-stop procedure for decisions on certain types of major infrastructure. A new department, namely, the strategic infrastructure division, will be created within An Bord Pleanála. It will bear responsibility for those decisions involving major environmental, transport and energy-related projects deemed to fall under the following criteria: the development should be of strategic economic or social importance to the State or the region in which it would be situated; the development should contribute significantly to the fulfilment of any of the objectives of the national spatial strategy, or of any regional planning guidelines in force in respect of the area in which it would be situated; and if the development would have a significant effect on the area of more than one planning authority.

It is hoped the new division will be the central cog in the machinery designed to achieve the objective of speeding up the delivery of major infrastructure projects. This is in keeping with the current wider international trend towards a deregulatory approach, which aims to streamline the consent process for such projects and must be welcomed.

I do not envy the job of the new strategic infrastructure division. It will have a difficult task. A number of competing interests lie at the core of this Bill, such as national versus local, the individual versus the collective and economic growth versus environmental protection. The new division will have the task of untangling such competing interests and its members are likely to come under attack and criticism, regardless of the decisions to which they commit themselves. They will certainly be obliged to be brave in their verdicts.

The Bill bestows considerable responsibility on An Bord Pleanála. It will be under immense pressure and scrutiny in judging what, in its view, comes under the wide-ranging classification of strategic, economic or social importance referred to in the text of the Bill, or what entails a significant effect on an area. These definitions are extremely loose and may warrant re-examination for the sake of clarification and to prevent serious wrangling in future.

Applicants to the strategic division will also have the opportunity to consult the section before putting forward their submissions for consideration. This is a sensible and pragmatic provision, which aims to save time by preventing developers from being obliged to go back to the drawing board. The Bill offers a broad scope, in terms of the nature of the advice that can be put forward under this new provision. Again however, there is potential for outside criticism in this regard. In a critical analysis of the Bill which was delivered in a lecture at UCC in April 2006, the barrister, Mr. Tom Flynn, pointed out:

[O]thers will see [this clause] . . . ingraining an inherent ‘pro-development' bias into the planning application process and further undermining the credibility of the Board as a neutral and independent body.

A fine line is being drawn in this regard and I am pleased the Bill specifically provides that any consultations held between the board and the applicant will not be allowed to prejudice the performance by the board of any of its other functions and cannot be relied upon in any formal proceedings, legal or otherwise.

I know from experience that An Bord Pleanála works to extremely high standards. It is a highly regarded body and I am confident it will retain every ounce of its impartiality and will continue to work as a first class organisation if these proposed changes are put into effect. I cannot stress that enough. It is a board of the utmost integrity.

Deputy Dennehy said earlier in the debate that he hopes the board is inundated with applications arising from the provisions outlined in the Bill. It will also need the resources to fulfil its obligations. I am Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government which regularly monitors the activities of An Bord Pleanála. It is important that we listen to the board when it claims it needs more resources or has difficulty doing its work within the timeframe provided for, which the committee will monitor carefully.

One of the main points of attack to which the Bill has been subjected involves the effect it might have in eroding local democracy. It is thought by some that the provisions set out in it will have a detrimental effect on the public's right to participate in the planning process. The creation of the strategic infrastructure division of An Bord Pleanála means a transfer of power from local authorities to the board in respect of strategic infrastructure development. Understandably concerns have been expressed that this will have implications for local communities and their inputs towards changes that might impinge on their areas. Deputy Connaughton outlined a number of examples in his constituency where such problems have arisen.

Frank McDonald, the environment editor ofThe Irish Times, wrote an article on 17 February attacking the consequences of the Bill for democratic participation in vital decisions. He argued that the public will be cut out of the planning process for major infrastructure projects and stated: “Local authorities, including councillors, would have a right to be consulted and have their views “taken into account” — but that’s all.” This belittles a significant part of the Bill, contained in the amendments to sections 37E and 37F of the 2000 Act. Under the 2000 Act, local councillors currently have no direct role in taking decisions on planning applications, other than in setting the general planning policies in their own areas under land-use development plans. The amendments to the 2000 Act before us now give councillors a new, specific and statutorily enshrined role. If this Bill is passed, managers of planning authorities will be required to obtain and forward the views of the elected members. It would be naïve to think or suggest that councillors will not seize upon this and exercise their new power to its fullest. Are they not the first tier of local democracy and are they not elected to represent and defend the interests of their constituents?

Without such adequate provision for these matters at community level, a great deal of friction would be created between local government and central Government, and we would risk a build-up of resentment towards central Government. To expose these Houses to this possibility would clearly be foolhardy and unhelpful to all involved. As I said previously, no decision made within the remit of this Bill will satisfy everyone, but serious action needs to be taken with regard to the critical infrastructure of this country and of course some sacrifices will need to be made if our quality of life is to match expectation.

The Bill gives more than adequate opportunity for all to comment on applications, including local communities, residents' associations, environmental groups and individual citizens. There will be no erosion of local input into the planning process and this should be emphasised. Environmental impact statements will continue to be a core part of the application process and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will need to be notified in respect of heritage issues. I expect every heritage and environmental concern that arises to continue to undergo rigorous assessment.

Members of the public will certainly be pleased with amendments to be introduced to section 35 of the Planning Act, which are intended to deal with rogue builders. The amendments will make it easier for authorities to reach a decision to refuse to consent without recourse to the High Court. Instead, it will be a matter for the applicant who is refused permission to seek confirmation from the High Court that the planning authority must reconsider its initial decision. This has the effect of reversing the burden of proof. The developer will instead need to show that his or her past performance does not warrant a refusal of permission. It should, therefore, make it easier for local authorities to tackle bad performance by rogue developers. This is a serious issue that has been repeatedly highlighted by Members of these Houses and by local authority members throughout the country. I welcome the provisions in the Bill to address the problems of rogue builders who represent a serious problem given the massive developments taking place here.

The overriding fact is that we need to take decisive steps to pull our critical infrastructure into line with the EU norm, now that we finally have the means to do so. For example, on waste management, we are reaching crisis point in terms of our waste disposal options. Figures released this week show that we are now recycling more than two thirds of our used packaging, thereby surpassing EU targets for 2005. This is excellent news and I very much hope that we will outdo ourselves again next year. Kerbside dry recycling rose by a massive 140%, following the introduction of pay-by-weight charges and collections at bring banks are up 31%. However, by comparison with other OECD countries, Ireland produces a disproportionately high level of wasteper capita. According to OECD statistics, Ireland, which produces 700 kg per capita, is second only to the United States, which produces 730 kg per capita. This is an astounding statistic.

As the problem of waste management will never go away we simply must address it in the best way possible. Local authority landfills are rapidly running out of capacity and we have a major problem of illegal dumping. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 287,000 tonnes of household rubbish was unaccounted for in 2003. In addition backyard burning is the single biggest producer of dioxin emissions in the country. How can we, as a nation, continue to fight against modern, engineered waste solutions that are the norm in every other EU member state? We need to start taking a realistic approach to the problems that face us. We need to get down to business and this Bill provides us with a prompt and pragmatic means of doing so. We cannot continue to take five years to deliver a waste facility, as is the case with a number of proposals currently at the planning stage.

In the same vein, Ireland's attractiveness as an investment location is diminished by poor transport, distribution and communication links, which hinder efficiency. Recently, the Government launched the Transport 21 programme, which will reinvigorate Ireland's transport infrastructure. It is an extremely far-reaching and exciting project which will bring untold benefits to our everyday lives, as well as our economy. We have made great strides in the development of the road system in this country, taking into account, for example, the number of bypasses that have been built, which have made a great difference to a great many. The implementation of this transport plan, among other matters, will be advanced to a beneficial degree, if we can move forward with a new planning Act on the Statute Book.

As with almost every Bill passed by Parliament, it remains to be seen how these provisions will operate in practice. We can only apply our better judgment in these circumstances but the Bill is a pragmatic solution to a problem that must be addressed and solved. The economy, the environment, our heritage and the public's right to participate in the development of the State all have to be taken into account in a balanced manner and this necessarily means give and take. A realistic approach must be adopted. The legislation allows us to do this in the best possible way.

I will shortly chair the Select Committee on Environment and Local Government which will scrutinise the legislation. I look forward to leading a close examination of the issues I have raised and others, on which I have not had time to deliberate. Given the importance of the Bill, many issues will be raised. The Minister will take all aspects of the debate into consideration when the time comes.

Deputy Connaughton has stated he has been a public representative for many years and witnessed every planning row imaginable and various protests. I have witnessed similar protests in my constituency and throughout the greater Dublin area. The Dublin Port tunnel begins and ends in my constituency and I have gained invaluable experience dealing with local communities and the planning process generally. The tunnel will open later this year.

It has taken a long time to complete.

Many lessons could be learned from the port tunnel planning application about balancing competing interests. Consultation took place with local communities on the project and our experience and wisdom of dealing with it and the incinerator in Ringsend are reflected in the Bill which has been brought forward in a sensible and pragmatic manner.

I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, who is from my neck of the woods is present, as he will relate to a number of the planning frustrations and concerns to which I will refer. I welcome the fact that the Bill has finally been introduced in the House because we have heard rumours for a number of years about legislation that would attempt to streamline the planning process in regard to projects of national significance and importance. The prolonged planning and appeals process has been a significant contributory factor in delaying large-scale, important building projects. As a result, projects under the national development plan, for example, are way behind schedule and have significantly exceeded their original budgets. As Deputy O'Dowd correctly pointed out, the planning appeals process is far from the only contributory factor in delaying projects but it is a major consideration. In addition to the legislation, the Minister needs to streamline the planning process and ensure improved structures and timeframes are addressed in the other areas that cause unnecessary delays in much needed projects of national significance and importance.

Fine Gael supports the principle and thinking underpinning the Bill. Ireland is developing and progressing rapidly. Our population is increasing by almost 100,000 annually. Some 80,000 housing units are being built annually, while retail and industrial development continues apace. Cities, towns and villages are expanding at a rate we have never experienced. However, as the public sector has not kept pace with private sector demand, this is negatively affecting the quality of life of communities, while limiting the potential for development in many areas, as well as directly affecting our international competitiveness. Roads, bridges, tunnels, railways, commuter rail and underground links, airport extensions, port developments, energy and telecommunications infrastructure, gas and oil pipelines and terminals and waste management facilities which are unpopular but necessary are fundamental to expanding communities. As legislators, we must strike a balance between establishing a process that facilitates a reasonable timeframe for planning and appeals considerations and ensuring fair and balanced public consultation with a provision for legitimate objection and comment. That is the challenge we face in this legislation.

Unfortunately, the Minister and his Department decided that a broad consultation process was not necessary before introducing the Bill. This is a shame. It is such fundamental legislation that he would have received constructive suggestions and comment if he had done so. This is evidenced by the main Opposition party supporting the legislation. Seminars on the Bill which took place at UCC, for example, demonstrated that if people had been given an opportunity, they would have provided constructive criticism before the legislation was introduced in the Oireachtas. This may have eased its passage politically. However, it is not a bad start and, with amendment, will improve the planning process in the area it targets.

The planning process as a whole needs to be reviewed because it is unnecessarily frustrating for many. A totally inconsistent approach to planning is adopted by different local authorities. For example, arranging pre-planning consultations with planners is difficult, frustrating, time consuming and expensive for people who only wish to undertake small-scale developments. However, the inconsistency in decision-making among planners in different parts of the same county frustrates people the most.

The legislation aims to replace the two-stage planning process for major projects, whereby local authorities and An Bord Pleanála do considerable work on the same file consecutively. This is costly to the taxpayer and time consuming and the result is a duplication of work at times. Such projects are always referred to An Bord Pleanála. Therefore, the thinking behind the Bill is sensible. The planning applications for major projects should be sent to the board directly, if they are going to be referred to it anyway by local authorities. It is proposed that An Bord Pleanála will establish a strategic infrastructure division to handle all major projects. A strategic consent process will be undertaken for such projects, which will replace the current system. However, the dangers involved in switching from a two-stage planning process involving local authorities and An Bord Pleanála to a single stage process involving the board only must be addressed before the Bill is passed. Local planning considerations will not receive the same hearing and local planners, although they may be consulted, will not be involved in the final decision-making process. They will not have the same input. People with local development knowledge will have less of a say in the big projects in their counties. We need to ensure the new system is as watertight as possible to ensure everyone is consulted. It needs to be transparent from the pre-planning, consultation and application stages, right through to the decision-making stage. It needs to provide for a rigorous assessment of all projects, in particular related environmental concerns.

The new public consultation process being proposed, which may include oral hearings, needs to be credible. An Bord Pleanála has not covered itself in glory under the current system of oral hearings. The Minister of State will know what I am talking about following a recent case in Cork. I do not agree with Deputy Morgan on too many issues, but I agree with his sentiment on the Indaver proposal. The hopes of the community were facilitated by an oral hearing that continued for a long time, involving much effort and expense for people who had genuine objections to the project. They managed to convince the chairman of An Bord Plenála's oral hearing that their case was right. The chairman recommended that the board reject the overall planning application, based on 15 judgments. However, the board went ahead and granted permission. People will continue to be sceptical of oral hearings if they win the debate at such a hearing, yet lose the war when An Bord Pleanála ignores the recommendations made. That is what happened in the Indaver case on the south side of Cork city and it continues to cause so much grief. Comment and objections must be seen to be taken seriously. It must not be a polite PR exercise on the part of the board. This gives a pretence that it is listening, when the reality is that the final decision runs roughshod over the oral hearing process.

I welcome the section of the Bill dealing with the issue of working to a fair and reasonable timeframe. I look forward to discussing it on Committee Stage in order that we can come to an agreement between the two large parties. The process proposed by the Minister seems to be reasonable. A person or body, whether State, semi-State or private, needs to apply to the board for a decision on whether a particular project is of strategic importance. We must ensure that what is categorised as "of strategic importance" is limited and defined and not merely a process for facilitating private developers progressing profit-driven large-scale projects. That is not the purpose of the Bill. We could have a long debate on the planning process for other such private profit-driven large-scale developments. I would like to see more efficiency in that regard, but that is not what the Bill is about. It is about projects that are of specific national importance to the national spatial strategy, the national development plan or Government policies that need to be implemented across the country.

I wonder if we are giving too much power to An Bord Pleanála and overly reducing local authority input in the assessment process of projects of strategic importance. We need to examine carefully the input process for local authorities and elected members to ensure it is real, as Deputy Haughey pointed out. An attempt is being made to ensure a real consultation process, whereby An Bord Pleanála will listen to what local representatives, local planners and local management have to say. However, I wonder whether that will happen in practice, or whether An Bord Pleanála will make decisions based primarily on national spatial strategy considerations or Government policy. That is the big fear. Consideration of local authority views by An Bord Pleanála is already questionable.

A good example is the case of Indaver — I have nothing against the company — the application of which has been resulted in a long, protracted planning process. I was a member of Cork County Council when it decided to vote to ensure the site chosen by Indaver Ireland on which to build an incinerator would not be zoned for that purpose. Management accepted our decision, but Indaver appealed to An Bord Pleanála to get its way. Despite the outcome of the oral hearing to which I referred and in spite of the fact that the largest local authority in the country had voted democratically not to allow it to happen, An Bord Pleanála decided to allow the planning application to proceed in line with the national waste management strategy. If we are to work on this principle in the future, does local input matter if the overriding motive for a decision is guided by national policy? If we are not careful, we will see a power shift from local decision-making in big planning projects to centralised decision-making. If we can make this work to improve efficiency, then I am in favour of it. However, people need to be aware of the dangers involved.

My biggest concern with the Bill relates to the requirement for the board, when assessing an application, to have regard to the national interest on issues of strategic, economic or social importance. Government policy in areas such as waste management, the national development plan, the national spatial strategy and regional planning will strongly influence board decisions. They should do so, but not to the exclusion of other issues. In such cases the board becomes more than a planning agency. It is now taking on the role of facilitating and implementing often unpopular Government policies. In the case of the development of incinerators across the country the board is being used by the Government as a mudguard. Government Deputies do not back planning applications for incinerators in their own constituencies. Instead, we get helpless press releases claiming that the decision is up to An Bord Pleanála which is required to make its decisions on the basis of national interest and Government policy. Incineration forms part of the national waste management strategy, which people will learn if they read the small print. Therefore, the Government is driving the decision making process while blaming An Bord Pleanála for making the decisions. An unhealthy and undemocratic process has thus arisen in which An Bord Pleanála facilitates or forces through unpopular planning decisions and the Government puts its hands in the air and claims it can exert no influence, even though the Government's policies are driving An Bord Pleanála's decisions.

That policy runs into further trouble where we have regional or local plans that are inconsistent with national policy. God help An Bord Pleanála if it has to make a decision on a significant national project linked with decentralisation, for example, because the Government's decentralisation plans are totally inconsistent with the national spatial strategy. If a project of national interest is categorised within the target area of this Bill, there will be inconsistent strategies coming from Government and An Bord Pleanála will have to make a decision between the two. It will be even more common when local area and county development plans are inconsistent with national policy, forcing An Bord Pleanála to make policy rather than planning decisions. The members of An Bord Pleanála are planners who for the most part make very good decisions on planning applications but we are moving towards forcing An Bord Pleanála to make policy decisions. If we are doing that in an effort to achieve more efficiency in the planning process, we need to be very careful how we do it. For that reason, the House will see detailed discussion and amendments on Committee Stage before Fine Gael can support the Bill.

I welcome the opportunity to comment on this Bill which represents a major development in our planning code. The changes proposed are badly needed if we are to meet the demands of a modern state. In terms of the provision of infrastructure, it is probably the most important legislation to have been introduced during this parliamentary term. Planning attracts all sorts of preconceived notions, not all of which are well grounded.

Much of our experience has been informed through our involvement in local authority planning issues. Deputy Finian McGrath and I served on Dublin City Council and have debated issues such as the development of the Kill waste management centre and the port tunnel. I am sure I will hear more from my constituents on these and other matters.

The constituency I represent will benefit from this legislation in respect of the proposal in Transport 21 for the construction of a Dublin metro. The new runway and the second and third terminals at Dublin Airport will become important and probably controversial issues. I wonder whether the airport's third terminal will be of sufficient strategic importance to come within the remit of this Bill.

The Bill proposes a streamlined planning procedure for major projects of critical economic and social importance. I will not rehearse the litany of projects which have experienced delays. The process will be administered by a new strategic infrastructure division within An Bord Pleanála, which represents a more cost-effective solution to the problem than the establishment of a fast-track planning authority. I acknowledge the claims made by Deputy O'Dowd and others that the Bill is deficient in some respects but these problems can be addressed on Committee Stage. Given the changing nature of planning and our evolving needs, we will probably have to revisit this Bill at some point in the future.

It is important to recognise that the current planning system is largely successful. Much can be said in favour of the tried and trusted current system, although criticisms can certainly be directed at the abuses that have taken place. Recent years have brought significant improvements in planning, a process in which this House played no small part. Planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála have performed impressively. For example, local authorities granted planning permission for more than 100,000 housing units in 2004, an increase of 30% on the 2003 figure. An Bord Pleanála now delivers 85% of its decisions within the statutory period. I commend the Minister and the Government on providing additional resources in this area, although professional analysts claim that further funding will be needed when this Bill is enacted.

Although there have been successes on a local and small-scale level, the current planning regime has given rise to many problems in terms of the delivery of major infrastructural problems. We could discuss the difficulties experienced in delivering the Luas and the M50 which was delivered at a snail's pace. If the planning issue is not addressed, there is a danger that we will have that intractable issue unresolved for some considerable time. The current system creates unnecessary delays which present a barrier to catching up on infrastructural development. Recently, I read an article in theEconomist which outlined the difficulties this nation has faced in coming to terms with new ways of delivering necessary infrastructure.

There is a clear need to balance individual democratic rights with the need to get things done. We do not have this perfectly right. The proposed legislation goes a long way towards achieving a balance but it has been argued that the current system places insufficient emphasis on Article 43.2 of the Constitution, which refers to the exigencies of the common good.

A balance must also be struck in the planning process between local and national bodies. This arises from the not in my backyard phenomenon, whereby nobody wants anything even vaguely detrimental to take place in his or her area. I have seen this happen many times. When the planning process was established in the 1960s, nobody foresaw that we might need to row back on any aspect of it. It made sense to build the process around two pillars, the local application process and the appeals procedure. Some 40 years later it needs to be refined and reviewed. Although I do not go for such dramatic shifts in legislation, modification is necessary.

All one hears about in the media is projects delayed and budgets overrun. Nobody can deny that there have been delays. Adjustments to the way contracts are drawn up and delivered and the targets for delivering decisions of An Bord Pleanála have brought improvements. This legislation will bring more. When projects reach construction stage, the timescale is manageable. We have examples of this. The new section of the N2 is to open this week three or four months ahead of schedule. Deputy O'Dowd would know about this better than I. That is an example of best practice. On many projects the problems begin when archaeological or other issues arise. These problems are accorded the same importance as the overall need to deliver the project. We have got this wrong. There are anecdotal stories about the natterjack toad being responsible for delaying a project, while a snail has held up another. I wonder if these are the real reasons projects have been delayed. We know how the castle at Carrickmines delayed the completion of the M50 for a long time. The planning process makes no allowance for the prompt altering of road routes to avoid important heritage or environmental features. Therefore, once a problem is encountered, the whole project seems to stall. The recent decision in Waterford is a good one. A way has been found locally to preserve a heritage site without seriously delaying the delivery of the project. It appears this systemic inflexibility is hindering our efforts to close the gaps in our critical infrastructure which pose a real threat to Ireland's growth and the standard of living the people have, rightly, come to expect.

The Minister has stated we cannot run a modern economy with 20th century infrastructure or architecture. We need to find ways to get millions of people to work and children to school without having to spend hours in cars. We must treat our wastewater for the good of our environment. We need new and secure ways of powering our homes. To do this we need to get our planning laws in order to ensure we can spend the money necessary to achieve these goals. A reference was made to the A & L Goodbody report and its estimate that €140 billion must be invested in infrastructure in the next 15 years if the economy is to continue to be competitive. The Government has a clear commitment. I assume the next Fianna Fáil led Government will be as committed to investing similar and greater amounts in the delivery of infrastructure from 2007 onwards. Members are aware that the draft development plan being prepared envisages considerable investment in infrastructure and I suspect we will receive all-party support.

We find it difficult to reach the target of 5% of GNP on public capital programmes. Last year expenditure came to approximately 4.2%. We need to examine critically the reasons for this underspend when there is a crying need for the delivery of infrastructure. The money is meant to provide for the State's future economic development. If we do not spend it, we may not have the capacity to maintain economic growth. If we underspend now, we will find it difficult to reach the levels to deliver the ambitious transport plan. Enabling legislation such as this is needed in order that areas such as Dublin Airport and beyond can be developed. Last night I spoke to a group of people who suggested the metro should be extended as far north as Balbriggan at least to serve that growing area. Deputy O'Dowd will want it to go all the way to Belfast.

Dustin the turkey's idea was that the DART should go to Dingle. He was right.

We would have to call it An Daingean. In this regard, the Bill is vitally important. It deals with improving the quality of life and protecting the environment. Both are possible if we are serious. I commend the Minister, Deputy Roche, for his determination in progressing the Bill.

The single stage process is important but I do not pretend it will be easy. I have heard others, including Deputy O'Dowd, discuss the possibility of our being trapped in resorting to judicial review and the courts in this process. Because I come from a local authority membership background I am not certain we have the correct balance in giving a real right of input to members of local authorities. The idea is a good one. I am not trying to row back on it, but I wonder if there is a danger, given the structure of city and county management and the lack of balance in the powers of elected members and managers, that the transmission of the views of the local authority to the board will be an exercise in tokenism. My reservations may be found to be without foundation. However, it is my experience that the views of local authority members are not taken with the same degree of seriousness as those of management.

The Bill proposes that specific types of infrastructure which are listed may be eligible to apply within the one-step application process. As others have spoken on this, I will not go through it in detail. We have not developed public consultation to its full potential in Ireland. We have the environmental impact process and public consultation, which we have gone through in respect of public housing and even small-scale projects where Part 8 or Part 9 of the planning Act is invoked and there is no recourse to the board. I am not sure, however, that it has always worked out well as far as local consultation is concerned. I do not suggest we provide opportunities for people to be obstructive because most interest groups are not. While there is much positive support for most developments flagged by local and national authorities, the concept of transparency which is often lacking should be developed further. In certain respects the Bill goes some way towards doing this.

Many delays have been caused by poorly prepared applications and environmental impact statements. The board will be able to tackle this directly. That the board will be able to access notes on consultation between developers and local authorities will assure the public of the transparency of the system. I commend the Minister for that measure. Any member of the public, a residents group or an environmental group will have the opportunity to make its views known on the proposed infrastructure project. We must strengthen this provision if possible. The board will have regard to a range of issues, including the submissions and objections made by local people and the local authority. The local development plan must be taken into account.

The metro project will test this Bill. Public consultation has begun, generating a high level of interest among local groups. It is a significant positive development for the city, the north side, the airport, Ballymun and Swords areas. Although one cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs, this Bill enables residents' concerns to be taken into account. The residents associations with whom local representatives are working are making a coherent case.

Deputy O'Dowd referred to the port tunnel and community gain. An informal, unsatisfactory arrangement was agreed to provide for the upset caused to the adjacent community by work on the port tunnel. The Minister is now making provision in statutory form for this community compensation. In the metro project area, one of the largest parks, Albert College Park beside DCU, will be out of commission for the duration of the construction and may never reopen. Finding the balance between local authority input and An Bord Pleanála is important.

I am pleased that section 9 will, at long last, make rogue developers pay for bad behaviour. I would like to have those branded rogue developers precluded from tendering for public projects. I do not know how this would be worded in the Bill but a number of these rogue developers come to mind.

Will they be kept out of the tent at the Galway Races?

I have been to three race meetings in my time — none has been in Galway.

Perhaps this Bill represents an apology from the Government to the people for the repeated failures to complete the infrastructure that people have a right to expect as citizens of a modern EU country. For most people, infrastructure means roads, trains and buses. There are metros in most European cities of comparable size to Dublin and Cork. A decent bus service should be available in cities and towns. Many Members have travelled in Europe and will have been staggered by the difference between public transport infrastructure there and in Ireland. This Government has had nine years to achieve success on this matter but is still floundering. Many Ministers are jaded and exhausted from holding office for so long. Their efforts to meet the infrastructure gap have been disappointing.

Planning is not an easy matter, particularly if one is in a growth area. I began my political life on the former Dublin County Council at a time when the area was experiencing the kind of expansion only experienced by other towns and cities around the country in the past seven years. Dublin county was the key area for expansion. Three new towns were designated for the area around Tallaght, Blanchardstown and Lucan 30 years ago. Swords grew as a new town without designation. The rest of the country has been experiencing something similar in recent years. The development of new towns or areas must be accompanied by infrastructure. The Government gets it consistently wrong and there is a reason for this.

When Fianna Fáil is in power, planning is not done for the general good to meet the needs of people, traders and employers. It is driven exclusively by developers and builders. Although they have a role to play and are essential to the process of development, should they dominate it to the extent they do when Fianna Fáil is in power? This is the reason for the massive scale of public distrust. Our planning process is backward, with consultation at the end rather than the beginning as happens in most countries. Much pseudo consultation takes place because it is required under recent legislation. Many individuals do not wish to take part in pseudo consultation. I find it strange that the Government is perpetually surprised at the negative reaction to notices in the newspapers and meetings where one learns nothing concrete.

I speak from personal experiences of being in Dublin County Council in the early 1990s. I was pestered by developers on all sides, queueing up to propose their land for development. This Bill does not address the value and enormous gains accruing when land is rezoned for infrastructure development. The gain is always to a coterie of builders and developers, of which 90% support one political party in the State. That critical lack of confidence in the planning process originates in the fear of corruption and belief that decisions have been arrived at in an underhand way. It has poisoned the political well for the past 20 years to the extent that, when something is put forward nowadays, even with cross-party agreement among local authority members, the general public still feels left out and suspicious that something has been got over on it. We should look to the United States of America where discussions are held first and proposals are in the public domain, instead of the Irish system where consultation with the public comes last.

This week we have had an example of decentralisation. Across the board in this House, every party agrees with decentralisation, but Fianna Fáil agrees with it as "stroke politics". Some 53 locations are necessary to achieve the big bang within three years of the 2003 budget. Not one Member listening that day did not know that the principle of decentralisation was good but the small print was so crazy that it would not happen. Deputy Kelly knows what happened in Longford in the early 1990s when the Government of which I was part decentralised significant elements of the Department of Social and Family Affairs to the north west. We know that it worked, since it brought great benefits. In many ways former Deputy Albert Reynolds who was Taoiseach at the time spearheaded that decentralisation. However, we know how long it took and that there was an initial rush of up to 25% to the social welfare offices relocating from Longford to Sligo and Letterkenny. Another 25% went easily enough on foot of promotion and with agreed time and space to do so. Then the process stalled and there was local recruitment.

It is no wonder that what is being done has resulted in strikes in public bodies. It has been implemented in a back-door manner with only limited consultation with those involved. Such stroke politics in infrastructural projects makes people suspicious. This week, for instance, I asked the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, a question. That an embryonic department with responsibility for children is developing is good.

I see that the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Browne, is present to represent County Wexford. I am sure that he will recall that, when a new structure, the EPA, was being created in those years, the Government stated that, as such, it was an obvious candidate for decentralisation. Johnstown Castle rightly was home to a very good project. One hopes it will now be added to.

When the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform was expanding computer services in such key areas as payroll, high quality jobs were decentralised to Killarney over a period, a move that proved very successful. Both the civil servants involved and Killarney very much welcomed it.

The Government is now creating a department with responsibility for children. It has created a Minister of State with special responsibility in that regard with power to go to the Cabinet and argue children's cases. The department will combine functions from the Departments of Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and Education and Science to address children's needs coherently. That is a new development.

The overseas aid section of the Department of Foreign Affairs has specialists dealing largely with developing countries and embassies based in Dublin and London. This specialist agency, whose employees must work around the world, may now be relocated to Limerick. They do not know when or for how long. Without consultation, we tell them that they are going to Limerick, yet we decentralise the embryonic Department with responsibility for children to within 100 yards of St. Stephen's Green. That is stroke politics at its worst.

All major parties in the House have successfully implemented decentralisation programmes and we know what does and does not work. When it comes to the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006, we must ask the critical question of the stroke elements that will cause people to lack confidence in the process. The first thing the Minister should do is clarify the position on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the proposals for a heat treatment plant in Ringsend. The Minister has let it be known far and wide that it will not happen on his watch. The Minister of State, Deputy Browne, may smile and I can understand why. Fianna Fáil will probably not have a seat in Dublin South East after the next general election as a consequence.

Or in Wexford.

What is the situation? Will this treatment plant be covered by a regulatory section that the Minister will not bring into force until after the next general election? Will it be exempt completely? We would like to hear the story.

I have been in a constituency probably subject to more mega-development plans than any other in the country, barring north County Dublin and parts of County Kildare. I will give some more examples. Approximately four years ago the Government nominated a strategic development zone of 3,000 units at Hansfield, Clonsilla. That number of houses is not unusual in Dublin West and the planning process deals with it regularly and very often without many objections, since a system has developed of trying to work in blocks of what is good for an area. However, in the strategic development process at Hansfield, the Government decided to make absolutely no commitment regarding infrastructure such as schools, access to public transport or the road network. People naturally objected, although not to the principle, since everyone accepts that the area is a good one to locate more housing. However, it is located along the line of the Dunboyne railway line spur which has, unfortunately, been closed for more than 50 years. The Government has promised that one day it will be reopened. However, living in Dublin West, people know the Government's track record. It is a case of promises upon promises, with precious little delivery.

There was the land at Abbotstown where the Taoiseach proposed to build a large stadium. There was the development of the National Aquatic Centre which I welcomed as soon as I heard it announced. Some 15 years ago in the Fingal development plan I proposed that the entire site be reserved for amenity purposes and a park, something supported by all parties represented on the council. As a public representative in Dublin West, I am now on my fifth stadium proposal. I know very little about football but have learned a great deal about stadium plans such as which ones work and which ones do not.

The critical point concerns the relationship of the proposals to the people and developers in the area and how realistic they are if the key issues of road and rail access are not addressed. I want to know about the ancillary facilities to which such projects give rise.

Let us consider Blanchardstown which has probably the best town centre in the country. It is open to all and everybody uses it but the road network which serves it is dreadful. Some 20 years ago there was a line drawn in the development plan for a railway but we are still waiting. I presume the metro, the grandson of the original railway proposal, will serve Blanchardstown. How do we know, however, that a developer will not get on the inside track, to which the public does not have access? That is the critical issue.

If there is strategic infrastructure alongside a designated strategic railway development which almost everyone would welcome, what happens to the lands on either side of the development? Obviously, their value will increase by multiples as a consequence. If we do not ensure the bulk of the increase in the value of the land accrues to the public, developers will walk away with unreasonable profits. I am a realist. Like other business people, builders are in business to make money and good luck to them. However, I draw the line at them making unreasonable profits where they avail of the benefit of the increase in land values and decamp to Marbella or some other location to buy their millionaire homes and the people left behind are left without infrastructure.

The reference to community gain is not to a small playing pitch which a developer suggests to a residents association to try to get it to change its view and support a planning decision. It is a much broader concept which has been developed in places such as Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom where when land values rise and developers make money but it is a reasonable profit and the bulk of the gain goes to the community. If the Government could address this issue, we would not have as many innate objections to projects which may be essential in the public interest but in respect of which people believe there is corruption involved at base because there is a golden circle on the inside track and the citizen is not within the ring of stakeholders and left without primary schools.

People cannot believe that since January, up to 600 parents in five housing growth areas in Dublin West have been told that there will be no place in a primary school for their four year old. The people concerned work, pay their taxes, buy their houses and do everything the right way. They are model citizens. Some 30 years ago when the country had no money, each child could find a primary school place but one cannot do so today in Dublin West. The reason is that the developers own the land and the Government is afraid to take them on. It makes promises but does not comprehensively address the issue. We have reservations about the Bill because it is only by cutting to the chase and providing infrastructure for the good of the community, not just to satisfy developers' naked greed, that we will make progress.

I am delighted to speak on the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill, which is one of the most important pieces of legislation to pass through the Dáil this session. Ireland is a great country and it is important we promote it in a positive manner and tell the world what a great place it is in which to live, work and visit.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to say a few words about the social welfare office in Longford which has been mentioned by others. Albert Reynolds was the Taoiseach of the day. He was a great Deputy for his constituency and a great Taoiseach who made us proud. There was no delay in the decentralisation of the social welfare office to Longford. The developers and builders were P. J. McLaughlin and I compliment them and their staff. They were decent, honourable, conscientious and great community people who contributed greatly to every aspect of life in Longford and elsewhere in the country — business, sport, social, cultural and charitable activities. They are the third generation in Longford and a credit to the developers and builders of this country. Only for people like them, we would not have this major development. They cannot be questioned; one could not put a mark against them. One would give them 100 out of 100 for everything.

I also compliment the 300 staff in the social welfare office. If one wants to know the facts about decentralisation, one should not ask me but the staff of this office. Those who decentralised to Longford are enjoying every minute. Hundreds of civil servants are on the waiting list to move to the town. The Prison Service is being decentralised to it and the project is on target. Building work is taking place and we look forward to opening the office shortly. No doubt it will be opened before the general election. I thank Deputy Burton for giving me the opportunity to promote my county and decentralisation in a positive light.

The Bill amends the Planning and Development Act 2000. It introduces a new consent process for major infrastructural projects of national and public importance. I cannot emphasise enough how badly Ireland needs new and improved infrastructure to remove bottlenecks in the economy, enhance competitiveness, improve the quality of life of citizens and protect our precious environment. Every delay in dealing with an infrastructural project adds to the cost of its provision, not only in financial terms but also in terms of the time lost and lost opportunities.

The Bill will introduce a new consent process for major infrastructural projects of national and public importance. An Bord Pleanála will be restructured by the establishment of a dedicated strategic infrastructure division. The Bill will provide for the provision a better service for all stakeholders, infrastructure providers, State bodies and the public through a single stage process of approval for projects, a rigorous assessment of all projects, including their environmental impact, full public consultation and certainty of timeframes.

An Bord Pleanála is already responsible for deciding on proposals in respect of road, motorway, water and wastewater projects from local authorities. The Bill extends this process to projects of strategic importance. In addition, infrastructure provided by other statutory bodies and private promoters will also be subject to a single stage process. This will cover core energy, environmental and transport infrastructure.

Debate adjourned.