How much time I have left?
Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).
There are 15 minutes remaining in this slot but Deputy Cowley must share time with Deputies James Breen and Ferris.
Further to the discussion that has already ensued, I was amazed to hear people stand up in this Chamber and try to make excuses for the lack of infrastructure in this country, particularly in north-west Donegal where people who are ill must travel repeatedly by bus to Dublin for radiotherapy services, an essential third part of the treatment necessary to give them the best possible chance of cure. Last night a certain Government backbencher, Deputy Keaveney, voiced a criticism in the Dáil Chamber by stating surgeons were wrong to stop the service in protest at the terrible prognosis for people, where people are having radical mastectomies because of the reluctance to undertake these hazardous journeys.
I was also amazed to hear Deputies stand up in the Dáil and try to justify the lack of balanced regional development in this country. There was an underspend of €3.65 billion in the national development plan in the Border, midlands and west, BMW, region. There was also an underspend of €500 million on national roads in the BMW region. It is difficult to listen to Deputy Cooper-Flynn speak as a so-called Independent Deputy on this issue when there were many opportunities for her to do something about it in the past when her party was in power. Time is of the essence and we must ensure that the necessary infrastructure is put in place, otherwise we will not have the future we require in the west. Half our graduates have to go to the greater Dublin area to get their first job. The infrastructural deficit must be made up as a matter of urgency.
The Minister for Finance has made certain promises but we need to see these come good. We must have an improvement in the roads system, the development of broadband and reliable sources of power. Adequate infrastructure is necessary to give us an equal opportunity to compete, which is not the situation at present. This is urgently required. The western rail corridor must be completed also.
Knock airport celebrated its 20th anniversary recently, which is a wonderful achievement. It received no more than €5 million compared to the hundreds of millions of euro received by other international airports such as Dublin and Cork among others. There is an urgent need for the Government to continue to invest in the west. The Government has usurped the right of the people to express themselves by way of a say in planning matters. It has removed a tier from the system and abdicated responsibility to An Bord Pleanála which is an unrepresentative body with no community representation.
Anything that will help to progress the delivery of infrastructure is to be welcomed but I do not believe this Bill is the means by which it will be achieved. That said, certain aspects of the Bill are welcome. I refer in particular to the stipulation whereby non-compliance by developers with planning conditions previously imposed will result in future planning refusals. This clause has been sought for years and its inclusion in the Bill is a step in the right direction.
Part of the problem with the Bill is that it is perceived to be driven by IBEC and the chambers of commerce at the expense of participation by the general public in the planning process. Not enough has been done to try to allay these fears. The fears of the public are understandable given the increased powers awarded to An Bord Pleanála. Currently that body is the only appeals mechanism within the planning process outside redress to the courts. Consequently, to grant sole adjudication on planning matters to An Bord Pleanála or a strategic infrastructure division and thereby remove the appeals division of the board is disquieting and will result in more cases going to court and an even greater slowing down of the planning process.
At present, confidence in An Bord Pleanála is extremely low, particularly in County Clare, due to a lack of transparency in decision making and confusion regarding the criteria used to arrive at planning decisions. I refer again to a recent planning application made by the ESB for the construction of a telecommunications mast at its site on the Rocky Road in Ennis. This site is within a couple of hundred yards of St. Flannan's secondary school, Éire Óg GAA club, several residential housing estates, Cahercalla community hospital and hospice, and the proposed site for the new Ennis national primary school.
I praise Clare County Council for refusing the planning application, given the proximity of the mast to all these institutions. Following an appeal to An Bord Pleanála, an inspector from the board, having examined all aspects of the application, recommended upholding the county council's decision. However, the board reversed the decision stating that to refuse the application would not be in line with Government policy on telecommunications. It is difficult to understand how this policy is more important than the health of school children, the old, the sick and young families. Small wonder the people of Clare have lost faith in An Bord Pleanála.
Last week, permission for a second such mast close to Knockanean national school was granted by An Bord Pleanála on the grounds that the other application was successful. This is nothing short of perverse. Decisions such as these are in danger of becoming more common if the Bill is enacted as the initial assenting authority, the county council, will effectively be removed from the decision making process. More importantly, the Bill will give An Bord Pleanála the power to decide on applications as it wishes, as long as they comply with proper procedures, not necessarily logic, so that its decisions cannot be reversed by means of a judicial review.
Members who spoke in support of the Bill stated that delays in the provision of infrastructure previously caused through reverting to the courts would essentially be eradicated by the introduction of the Bill. However, serious delays are not caused solely by the courts system. The National Roads Authority, NRA, has played a significant part in such delays. Approximately 12 years ago an initial design for the construction of a new N85 route, from Ennis to Ennistymon, was forwarded to the NRA. Various excuses have been given to rationalise the inordinate delays in advancing the development of the route. To date, nothing has been done, not even an announcement on the exact route the road will take.
Landowners in the area have been refused planning permission for development by Clare County Council on the basis that their applications were premature. If this Bill eliminates such delay, I will welcome it with open arms. Shannon Airport, which was recently cut off and left to fend for itself needs the immediate improvement of all infrastructure in the mid-west, especially road and rail, if it is to deliver successfully on its potential.
Another worrying feature of the Bill is that it empowers the strategic information board to meet and gain further information from any planning applicant but, in such cases, there is no obligation on An Bord Pleanála to meet objectors. Surely this flies in the face of so-called transparency, an ideal the Government continually promotes. While I accept that any such meetings with applicants will be minuted, there is a justifiable fear that these meetings will be seen as a possibility for private negotiation in the absence of a third party or objector. Again this is something that should be addressed immediately.
There is also the possibility that pressure will be put on the board to intervene between planning applicants and objectors in a mediation role. The granting of powers to do this is foolish and would merely serve to delay the process even further. It is time the Government grasped the opportunity available to it and created a department of infrastructural development, dedicated to the provision of proper planning and the delivery of schools, housing developments, community centres, child care facilities, Garda stations and local GP facilities. A visionary comprehensive approach to these issues will have the long-term effect of reducing crime, drug use, eliminating accident and emergency unit problems and providing proper educational facilities in line with EU requirements. Instead we get this Bill into which I can only guess the Taoiseach had an input as participation in the planning process by local government has become purely cosmetic.
The main concern with this Bill is that the objective of streamlining the planning process will mean that controversial projects may be enabled to circumvent the current possibility that ordinary members of the public and communities can mount effective objections. The example that immediately springs to mind is the proposed Corrib gas pipeline. We are all aware of the difficulties which have arisen from this and that it has now been confirmed that not only did the local community at Rossport and other objectors have legitimate concerns that were not properly addressed, but also the project managers were less than honest in their presentations and later flouted the conditions that were imposed, most notably their proceeding with works without having the proper ministerial consents.
The shortcomings of the original process and the appeal by the consortium against the original refusal by An Bord Pleanála have also been highlighted by the fact that further reports had to be conducted into the safety aspects of the project. These are far from satisfactory and amount to no more than an attempt to put a public relations gloss on the determination of a multinational consortium, with the full support of the State, to proceed with a project that faces massive local opposition, but which as the opinion poll inThe Irish Times showed, only has the support of 20% of the electorate.
The suspicion that this legislation is designed to facilitate controversial projects such as this is proven by the fact that a strategic infrastructure Bill was discussed by the Taoiseach with the president of Shell following the initial refusal of planning for the pipeline. When my colleague, Deputy Ó Caoláin, raised this with the Taoiseach during Leaders' Questions on 13 October 2003, the Taoiseach confirmed that Shell had specifically asked whether legislation to bring into effect what this Bill proposes would be in place before Shell resubmitted its planning application to An Bord Pleanála. The Taoiseach stated he had informed Shell that it was unlikely that the Bill would be passed prior to the application being heard. However, it is significant that Shell believed this legislation was of such importance to it. The only logical explanation for this belief is that the Corrib consortium was frustrated by the fact its project was subject to at least some open, transparent and democratic adjudication and its wish to bring about a situation whereby projects such as its own project could be fast tracked without the inconvenience of having to undergo public scrutiny.
As Deputy Ó Caoláin noted at the time, "while we all wish to see faster processing of planning applications, we cannot do so by sacrificing the importance of the system in ensuring that the highest standards of safety and health considerations, irrespective of the scale of the proposal". How prescient these words were in light of what we have subsequently witnessed in respect of Shell's open flouting of the existing process and its claims to have conducted independent assessments of risks. How much less transparent and, therefore, potentially more dangerous will be a process in which such decisions are taken with the minimum of democratic and open accountability? It is all very well to claim that objectors to pipelines, incinerators or prisons are selfish people who do not want such projects in their own backyard. They may be guilty of such selfishness in certain cases but we all know from the planning process in our own counties that objections must have substance if they are to succeed. If objections are not legitimate, well and good, but it is surely better that they be permitted to be made and publicly scrutinised than that potentially dangerous projects are fast tracked.
The value of this process can been seen in the Corrib pipeline affair. Had this legislation been in place, it is unlikely there would have been anything like the level of scrutiny witnessed and that the project would now be proceeding. Had it done so without first being rejected and having a spotlight shone on it by the community in Rossport, we may already have witnessed negative consequences. We should imagine what might have happened if Shell had been allowed to place the pipeline along the originally proposed route at Pollathomas where a landslide occurred, which according to experts would have severed the pipeline. As this controversy has gone on, more has emerged as Shell makes minor concessions in order to be allowed to proceed. Hopefully, public pressure will force Shell to also concede in respect of the placing of the pipeline at sea, as proposed by the local community and supported by the majority of respondents to a poll published byThe Irish Times.
I wish to share time with Deputy Moloney.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this important legislation. In years to come when it is used in respect of some of the largest infrastructural projects in this country, such as the metro or major environmental infrastructural projects, this Bill will be regarded as one of the most important passed in this Dáil term. The fact the Bill, when enacted, will allow these projects to proceed at a speed which is comparable to those of other modern developed countries will be regarded as a good day's work in this House.
Ireland has lagged behind the majority of countries in western Europe for decades in respect of its ability to deliver and roll out modern infrastructural projects in the areas of the environment, roads, rail and public transport which other western European countries have enjoyed for many years. We lagged behind in our ability to roll out and deliver this kind of infrastructure inside any reasonable timeframe because we lacked the resources to undertake these kinds of projects. When we finally acquired the resources, we played a considerable game of catch up and were unable to deliver these projects within the timescale employed by other European countries.
Even after we have acquired the necessary resources and commenced our major national development plans and major infrastructural projects, we still lag behind most developed countries in our ability to deliver these projects within a certain timescale. As Vice-Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Transport, I visited Spain to examine the metro system in Madrid, which is one of the best metro projects in years. Due to their legislative framework, authorities in Madrid were in a position to build 48 km of metro track around Madrid in 36 months, or three years. We have been talking about building a metro system for the last six or seven years and when we eventually push the "go" button, I assure the House it will take much longer than three years to complete a system measuring only 8 km. Why is it that countries such as Spain and Denmark can apparently build these projects at will within a fraction of the time and cost it apparently takes us?
We asked the project leader on the Madrid metro, Professor Emanuel Melis, why his project could be delivered more rapidly than any Irish counterpart. The answer lies in a small anecdote. We were due to meet Professor Melis in Madrid at a proposed metro stop, which was being constructed at the time. We arrived at the proposed stop, which was simply a hole in the ground, at 11 a.m. and waited for Professor Melis for approximately an hour and 30 minutes. When he arrived at the site, he told the project managers, site foremen and workers to cease construction on the site and move operations approximately 200 m up the road. The reason for this was because the utilities in that area were not conducive to building a metro station at the site in question and it was impractical to build a station there. All the engineering advice available to Professor Melis suggested the station should be built approximately 200 m up the road.
It took 90 minutes for this decision to be made. Once the relevant Minister was briefed about the problem and certified that this project was one of national importance, it bypassed the normal system. It would have taken approximately 18 months for a similar decision to be made in Ireland and we wonder why authorities in Madrid can build 48 km of tunnel in 36 months when it will take us approximately six years to build 8 km of tunnel, a project which has not even commenced.
This is the question which this Bill seeks to resolve. When major national infrastructural projects are decided upon and a political decision is effectively made to build such projects, such as a metro system, Luas, the port tunnel or the proposed bridge from Foynes to Shannon Airport, with which the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is familiar, the State should accept political responsibility to deliver this project on time. Any objections should be fed into the system but the Government should take responsibility for any flak that develops and stand on its decision and plans to deliver this kind of infrastructural project. Every member of the delegation which visited Madrid was struck by the ability of other governments to make such decisions very quickly.
Professor Melis, a world-renowned expert in this field, likened every infrastructural project to an accordion and told us that the major plan of those behind such projects is to squeeze the accordion. He said it is necessary to compress every aspect of the project, from planning to delivery, into the shortest possible timeframe.
It would take a bit of squeezing to get trucks into the tunnel.
The professor said that, as inevitably as night follows day, if one does not compress the project, costs will begin to escalate in profound ways, as we have seen in respect of infrastructural projects such as the tunnel and so on. Another issue relates to the delivery of projects rather than to the Bill, that is, the necessity to introduce fixed price contracts to deliver projects on time after the planning stage. I welcome the fact that work is being done in this respect.
The aforementioned situation was a small anecdote to illustrate how other countries have grasped this nettle, namely, once a decision is made to go ahead with a project, its planning and construction processes must be streamlined if it is to be delivered in the quickest possible time. The Bill seeks to do this while providing adequate safeguards in terms of public consultation. I heard Deputy Ferris's contribution in this respect.
It is the reality that these projects are becoming complex and unwieldy. I say this with the greatest respect for local planners who deal with a one-off house in County Limerick or so forth on one day and an incinerator or tunnel stretching 15 or 20 miles on the next. These projects require different specialties. The Bill seeks to separate projects that need to be fast-tracked and require specialist care and attention, which is a reasonable proposition.
The Shannon Foynes Port Company has proposed to build a major infrastructural project, that is, a tunnel from the port at Foynes in County Limerick to Shannon Airport to link both transportation hubs in a way that would allow significant volumes of manufactured goods to be brought in and broken down and then distributed via Shannon Airport. While the project will have a minimal effect as only a handful of people would be affected, it will take approximately two years to go through the system.
For some time, I intended to put something that I have experienced on the record, that is, people who abuse the planning process wholesale by making objections and subsequent appeals to An Bord Pleanála for the sole intention of extracting money from the relevant developer, be it a State agency or private body. Those people know that because their rights are enshrined in legislation, they hold the power to frustrate and delay developments for years, which is an abuse of the system. The Bill, in conjunction with other measures and planning legislation, seeks to curtail this type of abuse. It is high time for such to occur. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the Bill and this opportunity to speak in its support. While the Bill is not the resolution to all planning problems, it is necessary. It is also slightly late but I support it nevertheless as its underlying theme is to deliver the infrastructure we will need to sustain and improve our quality of life.
In the County Laois part of my constituency, there have been significant developments in terms of road infrastructure improvements. Everyone in the House is aware of the Dublin to Cork and Dublin to Limerick motorways. While there were a number of objections during the planning process, time should have been provided in a different forum for people who had concerns, not necessarily objections, and who felt they were left out of the planning process. Over the years, we have all made the point that local public representatives should be involved in planning matters. However, that representation was curtailed to one-off housing or small developments while there was little input from local representatives in issues of considerable economic benefit to a county or constituency.
We must help to fast-track decisions to improve infrastructure if we are to meet the significant changes in future. This Bill is not controversial. While we have different ways of examining it, public representatives are ultimately meant to ensure value for money and the quick delivery of projects that will be of direct benefit. The Bill is not meant to curtail discussion or make it difficult for right-minded people to convey their concerns.
We must urgently improve our infrastructure to address the obvious changes in Irish life, particularly the increase in population. While cities have considerable infrastructural problems, the same problems are becoming the norm in heretofore rural areas. Other issues include the increase in employment levels, disposable income and new business investments.
I am not trying to criticise the planning process but I am from a small town where, in 1997, a ring-road was proposed. I wish our friend, the noted professor from Spain, was around at the time as the site dig has still not commenced nine years later. I do not mean to be critical of An Bord Pleanála or people with objections, but a 1.4 km ring-road that took take nine years to reach An Bord Pleanála could have been fast-tracked by allowing local public representatives and local objectors into the process.
Often, objectors are not objectors by their nature, but are people who voice their concerns. However, as soon as they do so, they are considered objectors and the process is closed to them. Under the new provisions, the process will be open to people with concerns who do not want to take the next step of becoming objectors. I am led to believe that conditions may be established whereby the ring-road could proceed and those conditions could meet the concerns of would-be objectors.
This situation is reflected throughout the country where significant infrastructural investments, supports and improvements have been proposed, but because of the outdated planning process, to give people time to make proposals, that process is delayed, which leads to cost over-runs. It is important that we take into account the national spatial strategy, which cannot succeed or advance at the speed we would like unless we provide the required infrastructural supports. If we are to deliver the spatial strategy, which must be an undercurrent in our economic development, specific supports must be in place.
That the Government is spending 5% of GNP on public infrastructure underlines the need to fast-track the process. Since 2000, the Government has invested €24 billion under the NDP to enhance our economic and social infrastructure. If we are to continue this trend, a further €34 billion investment in public transport under Transport 21 is on the cards. Economic progress cannot be secured if the planning process slows it down. The Government is drawing up the next national development plan and it behoves all Members to ensure the necessary infrastructural supports are in place to allow it to gain currency. We must update the planning process to deliver all the ambitious plans Members have suggested for their constituencies. If we do not tackle the blockages in the planning process, we could potentially add a further barrier to the infrastructural improvements we need for a dynamic, growing population.
I support openness and accountability in planning. We have all learned from past mistakes and must ensure that planning is transparent. I do not support the withholding of information or excluding people from the planning process. For the first time, instead of councils only being involved in a small area of planning, helping people with applications for a house or developers with applications for schemes, public representatives can feel they are involved in the securing of planning permission for projects that will bring great economic benefits to the area. They will be able to add to the considerations through their local knowledge, speeding up the process.
Under the strategic consent process, An Bord Pleanála will be required to consult the relevant local authorities and have due regard to their comments. This should have been in place years ago. Thinking back on the development of motorways out of Dublin and the public meetings that seemed to go on forever, much of the controversy could have been resolved if local landowners had been able to go to their public representatives who could then make their case at a consultative forum.
I commend the Bill to the House.
We must make provision for the administration of development to ensure efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of the services to the public. There is not much sense in planning something that is built ten or 15 years later because the associated costs have risen by multiples of ten. Deputy Moloney mentioned projects that were planned 12 years ago. The costs in the meantime have increased by at least 10% per annum or more. In some cases there have been increases of 300% in ten years. We must recognise that delays in the delivery of services and infrastructure means higher costs and less efficiency, leading to turmoil.
The M50 is a classic example of the provision of infrastructure, never mind its planning. I can recall when the Palmerstown interchange was being designed. I discovered it was a scaled down model and I asked why we were doing this, that we should be planning for at least 40 years hence. We remember the roads designed and built in Germany in the 1930s by a very nefarious individual. At least he was good at one thing, he laid down infrastructure. He had the foresight to do that. He had some other peculiar ideas, but he achieved that. The roads designed and built in the 1930s are still in use today because there was much forward planning. The people looked ahead and did the job.
I looked at a five-mile queue of traffic crawling off the M4 on to the M50. In any other country in the world, it would be considered an example of how planning should not be done. The traffic cannot move. I have asked how the port tunnel will work and how traffic will be funnelled into and out of it, expecting to be told that plans had been made, but no such thing happened. After asking questions for four years, I was told that Transport 21 would provide for it, but it has not even been arranged. That is not planning for the future, it is for the past.
The tunnel is barely able to keep out the water but hopefully it will open at some stage this year. Now, however, we must figure out how to get traffic to the tunnel from the N11, N9, N7 and N4, bringing it all the way around the city. Another tunnel could have funnelled that traffic but no one thought of that. Why not? These people are paid to plan ahead. This does not come from politicians, it comes from consultants and planners who are well paid for this — too well in my opinion.
This Bill is needed to speed up the process but I hope it is not abused. It centralises power to a great extent in the hands of An Bord Pleanála and, ultimately, the Government. I do not accept that decision in all cases. If an arbitrary body is doing its job right, it offends people but there is a notion that An Bord Pleanála is always right. It is part of the process and entitled to deal with cases but under this legislation it will have a supervisory role with intervention at an earlier stage whereby it will give an opinion. This is not a reflection on the members of the board but there is a tendency now to predetermine the outcome whatever the circumstances. That should not be the case.
There was a time where if an appeal went to An Bord Pleanála about a one-off housing project, the person applying for planning permission might win the case. It is clear now, however, what the decision will be before the hearing if An Taisce objects to An Bord Pleanála about a one-off house in a rural area. The applications are conveniently located in local authority offices, where one-off houses form a category on the computer list so they can be easily objected to. There may be genuine planning reasons for objections but increasingly the reason appears to be that there should be no housing in the countryside, that it should all be kept for urban tourists at weekends observing local inhabitants in their natural habitat. I strongly resent that. In a case of the kind I have mentioned where an An Taisce objection was lodged to a one-off house, or whatever the case may be, the An Taisce side will prevail in 100% of cases.
On the question of centralisation of control, that is the bones of our problem. In the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2002, changes were made to the structure of local authorities and to this House in the sense that Members of this House can no longer become and no longer are members of local authorities. In a few years from now, the local authorities will find out how much poorer they are for that because there is now a complete separation of the power and influence of the Oireachtas from the accountability that had to be given to the Members of the Oireachtas while on local authorities. That is now gone.
Local authorities are laughing at Oireachtas Members. They do not care about them despite the assertions at the time of the Minister to the Members of this House and to my colleague, Deputy Ring, who, rightly, had a different view, that the Minister could give an assurance that there would be no diminution in the degree to which Oireachtas Members would be entertained in making representations or having their views expressed to local authorities. That assurance has not and will not be honoured. Centralisation of control continues because all whoever is in Government need do is instruct the county manager to centralise authority up along the line to the exclusion of all other public representatives, including Government ones. It now comes from a central source — Government. It is a serious development and it will be seen to be increasingly so as time goes on.
Dublin Airport is a major topic for debate and is an important issue in terms of an island community with a growing economy and a growing population and access. All the interest is concentrated on the airport and the building of new runways and terminals. While all this is important, there is little debate, except in the context of Transport 21, about how people are expected to get to the airport. Has anybody ever thought about that? Are we expected to get to the airport using the M50? Has anybody tried to do that recently? Does anybody know what it looks like? How are we to get to the airport, day or night? This is critical infrastructure.
We are debating the Bill to speed up and strengthen the construction of infrastructure, to improve such construction and to increase its efficiency and make it more cost effective. I will be watching with interest, I hope as a Member of this House, although one can never tell because the electorate are very fickle, to see the outcome of that and I hope whatever access to Dublin Airport is chosen is more effective and efficient than the M50.
Why do consultants generally do the work for local authorities now? The authorities no longer appear to employ county engineers and senior personnel. The work is now done by consultants. Everyone is a consultant. We may all be obliged to become consultants of some form in future.
In the 1950s, the Naas dual carriageway was designed and built. It took some time to do that but it was a mould-breaking project at the time and stood the test of time until a few years ago. Currently, new roads are being built and designed, including one from Enfield to Edenderry which is a waste of money because it will not do the job it was intended to do. It will be a reorganisation of the existing road with a consequent impact on the people living adjacent to it. It will not provide for the 25,000 to 30,000 cars per day for which it should provide. It will be three quarters of the expense of a new dual carriageway to Edenderry, which is what should have been built, although Edenderry is not in my constituency. That is a classic example of where we, as public representatives, can no longer get through to the people now empowered to design and build these projects. We cannot influence them in any way. They do not want to listen to us.
It is also a serious matter for the diminution of democracy. In my home town of Maynooth, consultants arrived in the past 12 or 14 months to design the traffic management. No roads were being changed. A new shopping centre was being built, which was welcome because it was a nicely designed, modern development. The possibility of building a roundabout arose but somebody said that could not be done because the traffic had to be slowed down. Instead, they installed a set of traffic lights. They then installed two sets of traffic lights on the other side of the road to ensure they did not bung up the subsequent set of traffic lights. When another problem arose, they decided to install two more sets of traffic lights further up the town to block off access to the other sets of traffic lights. They made certain that there would be chaos in any type of traffic signalling situation and, just to ensure that everything would not go right, they decided to install another set of traffic lights in front of the local hotel, which meant that people could not get in or out of the hotel. In doing all that, they achieved the ultimate.
Let us think seriously about this issue. These consultants did a good job. They call themselves Traffic Solutions Limited as far as I recall. All public representatives made representations. We asked them to listen to our views but they said they could not do so. In other words, our view does not count. It is serious when we get to a situation where public representatives' views do not count. They will not say that but that is a fact. Our views do not count. Democracy is obsolete. Modern thinking is that democracy is for the minions. We will have a little here and a little there but who can afford democracy now? All these consultants, who are very effective, are very expensive. Those are just a few examples.
When I make these types of comments, they go crazy. They swear a hole through a tin pot and indicate what they will do the next time they get a chance, but they fail to recognise that they do not stand for election. We still have democracy and, until such time as they stand up for election and face the democratic process, they should keep their counsel until they are asked to give a view.
The right to object is very important but the objection should be assessed to determine whether it is mischievous or for genuine reasons. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out one from the other. The objection should be locally based as well. A previous speaker made that point in the House because they could not understand why it continues. To assess whether an objection is genuine, it should be locally based. Ten or 15 years ago, the legislation was changed to ensure that anybody proposing to object under section 4 had to come from the electoral area in which the development was located. Otherwise it was not valid. Why not apply the same principle to assessing the authenticity of the objection? Why should somebody living in Cork object to a development in Monaghan or Tyrone?
I remember a case years ago which involved a one-off house. The man objecting alleged he lived somewhere in Glasgow. He was eventually tracked down because we were anxious to determine the authenticity of his objection. In the course of this legislation, something should be done to investigate such matters. There must be grounds for objection. Many genuine cases arise and they must be provided for. The mischievous objections should be eliminated because they are useless and a waste of time.
Somebody mentioned earlier a disturbing factor which I pointed out on a number of occasions to the Committee of Public Accounts. I never really received an answer. The issue is an objection which is withdrawn on foot of a payment. That is a serious deviation from the way the system is supposed to work. If, for example, a person would be likely to be living in the shadow of a proposed tall building, I can understand why there would be payment for an objection. It would be compensation, and it would be fair and equitable. If a person were to object to a proposal for Wexford, Meath or Dublin but lived in County Kildare, I would not be able to see the validity of pushing a case and being paid to withdraw the objection. It is a serious, dubious and questionable procedure. When I was a member of the Committee of Public Accounts some years ago, I raised that question with An Bord Pleanála. I did not get absolute answers, and that question is still hanging in the wind somewhere. The matter should be examined.
I remember advising somebody on an objection to his proposal, which objection seemed to have no reason behind it. I told the person to find out the nature of the objection. He did so and found out there was no real reason, but there was a principle. When I heard it was a principle, I was immediately alerted. I told the person to have a chat with the objector to see what the principle was. The person spent a little longer with the objector and found out he was looking for €20,000. The principle was quite clear.
If there is a genuine negative impact on a person's property from a proposed development, I can understand how there could be compensation. I have no problem with that. An Bord Pleanála or the local authority should be the arbiter for any compensation claim. Otherwise, such a claim would be extortion. It is a dubious practice.
I have a final point. It has been my opinion for many years that oral hearings, reviews of county development plans, material contraventions, etc. in the case of a major development should be held in the centre of the location affected by the proposal and nowhere else. Such hearings should be in the local parish hall of the village or town affected. The discussion should take place there, where all the people have access and can see and hear what is going on. It is crucial to do this and it would eliminate much of the hassle.
I hope this proposal is not abused and that it does not see the centralisation to which I have referred. I hope we see an end to the tomfoolery in forward planning in this country, to which I have also referred.
I wish to share time with Deputy Grealish.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill. I agree with the Minister when he described this Bill as among the most important legislation to be introduced this term. I will try, in the course of my brief remarks, to stick to the provisions of the Bill.
There is no doubt that the public is demanding the delivery of high quality, cost effective infrastructure, which is vital to the future growth of the economy and the well-being of our society. The Minister, his colleagues and his officials are to be congratulated on bringing forward a Bill that has been carefully considered, is well crafted and balanced in its approach. It sets down a benchmark that we will no longer tolerate the lengthy and costly delays that have dogged us on some critical projects in recent years. The costs of these delays have been principally economic, but a social and environmental cost has also been incurred.
The Bill strikes the correct balance between the need to protect the right of the man and woman on the street to object to any significant project which they feel could effect their every day lives, and the need to deliver as expeditiously as possible the vital roads, sewerage, energy and transport projects which many Deputies have referred to in the public interest.
The concept of the strategic consent process represents a radical new approach which caters for all these requirements in turn. The public will be consulted and have their views taken into account, while at the same time local authorities will be consulted. I congratulate the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, on his initiative in ensuring that local elected representatives are fully involved in the process and that their views, as well as the views of council officials, are taken into account as part of the new approach being adopted in this worthwhile Bill. This matter has been alluded to by Deputy Durkan. The Minister has not lost sight of where he came from, and he remains fully committed to the role of the local councillor.
Another very positive aspect of the Bill relates to the issue of community gain, and I welcome that power will be given to An Bord Pleanála to ensure that in certain circumstances direct benefits will be provided to local communities affected by major projects. This will be done by attaching conditions to the eventual grant of consent. I ask the Minister to ensure that the issue of community gain is thoroughly explored and agreed at the early consultation stage of any project if at all possible, and that the greatest possible consensus be achieved between local community stakeholders and the local authorities involved.
This approach, coupled with the specific role identified for local councillors in the Bill, will strengthen local democracy in that the councillors' role in policy formulation, which is limited to the development plan process, will be extended to include an important input to the decision-making process on major strategic projects which affect their area.
I welcome the inclusion in the Bill of the provision in section 9, which aims to tackle the activities of rogue developers. Deputy Durkan will be familiar with difficulties in County Kildare. We have too often come across contractors and developers who bring with them a poor track record for finishing work properly or finishing it all. They may have exploited local authorities and the planning system time and again and visited cost and frustration on individuals and communities.
The Bill will place the onus, correctly, on the contractor to show that past performance does not warrant a refusal of permission. This provision will allow local authorities to take on rogue developers in response to shoddy previous performance. I hope that councils will demonstrate a willingness to rise to the challenge that the Bill presents to take on and eradicate cowboy developers. There has been a willingness on the part of local authorities to take on small players and individuals. I hope they will show the same enthusiasm, given the provisions in this Bill, to take on those who have been a burden on local communities.
The Bill also provides for wider access to the judicial review process for environmental non-governmental organisations, thereby protecting their right to object while at the same time eliminating the costly delays experienced in the recent past. The right of an individual to object to a specific infrastructural project is maintained, as it should be. However, the streamlining of the public consultation process and the new arrangements allowing for judicial reviews should allow projects to be dealt with more speedily. I hope this new approach will end the delays caused to many vital projects by a seemingly endless series of legal actions.
The framework of the strategic consent process will now commence with an initial submission to An Bord Pleanála and, if it decides a project is eligible for inclusion in the strategic infrastructure process, it will see the proposals through to a final decision, with a defined consultation process and a strict timeline giving clarity to the delivery of infrastructural projects nationally. There have been vast improvements in recent years in the speed of delivery of major road projects. The bypasses of Monasterevin, Cashel and Kilcock, among others, have all been completed months ahead of schedule and within budget. However, this performance needs to be replicated in all other areas of infrastructural development, as the time lost in the planning of all these projects has been hugely costly to the taxpayer and detrimental to our economic development.
This Bill gives the opportunity to streamline the planning process and protect the taxpayer from further delays. I welcome the emphasis the Bill places on the necessity for comprehensive pre-planning discussions for the type of major projects envisaged. This sensible approach will help to speed up the delivery of vital projects by ensuring all major issues and concerns are flagged well in advance of the formal application process.
Indeed, the day to day operation of local planning departments, such as my own in Kildare, could be enormously enhanced, with output increased and decision-making accelerated, if there was a similar emphasis on effective pre-planning consultations on routine applications. Not alone could this be done, but we could, through consensus, achieve a much better quality built environment across the country.
There has been criticism in some quarters of the delay in bringing this Bill before the House, but the changes being proposed are fundamental and will radically change the management of the planning process in this area. Therefore it is entirely proper the Minister gave the matter due consideration before coming forward with the measures included in the Bill. It is better to have carefully crafted legislation than an ill-considered, badly thought out set of proposals, which would not achieve the aim of removing the various bottlenecks which hinder the delivery of major projects throughout the country.
Effecting these changes will require the creation of a new section of An Bord Pleanála to oversee the specific requirements included in the Bill. The Minister has set out the particular responsibilities he intends to give to the chairman, deputy chairman and other members of the board and I hope the necessary level of experienced staffing will also be provided to the new section to ensure the work is done effectively.
The decision to designate specific judges to manage the process of applications through the High Court represents another positive step in the right direction. The benefits of these changes will be obvious as time progresses and the common sense of the approach being adopted will engender widespread public support. There is a public appetite for the changes envisaged among people who have been frustrated at the delays inflicted on a number of vital projects around the country in recent years.
My home town of Kildare was denied its bypass for a number of years. Deputy Dennehy referred to the hours he spent sitting in traffic logjams in Kildare. The delays were due to a succession of challenges, some of which have entered modern folklore. While the battle was being fought for the snail a number of people lost their lives unnecessarily on the old N7. Had this legislation been in place during that debacle in the 1990s the twin objective of human welfare and environmental protection could have been achieved in a far speedier timeframe. I do not wish other communities to suffer in the same way.
The ongoing development of our country is dependent on the achievement of vastly improved levels of infrastructure. The public is firmly convinced that we are living in a very wealthy country and wants our new found wealth to be prudently invested in the fast delivery of facilities and services, similar to what they have experienced in other parts of the world. The public mood will no longer tolerate cost overruns or inordinate delays.
It is appropriate that the planning service will now be improved in four vital areas. First, there will now be a single stage process of approval for projects, thereby reducing drastically the timescale in completing the application. There will also be a rigorous assessment of all projects, including their environmental impact, involving public consultation and input from local authorities and non-governmental organisations at all stages. There will be certainty of timeframes, which will undoubtedly allow for a sharper focus on the application and its future delivery. Finally, the Bill incorporates the concept of community gain, which will be of great benefit to the communities directly affected by largescale projects.
The Deputy's ten minutes have elapsed.
We must ask ourselves whether these changes are worthwhile, and if they will improve on the delivery of infrastructural projects. I believe they will and I support the Bill. I look forward to its early implementation.
I acknowledge the significant investment the Government has made in infrastructural projects around the country in recent years. One only needs to drive out of Dublin to see all the work that is under way. I was in Laois yesterday and was amazed by all the work being done. Unfortunately, all the work that has been done leads out of Dublin. Since I became a Dáil Deputy for Galway West in 2002 there has only been one project, the Loughrea bypass at a cost of €25 million.
The National Roads Authority, when it draws up its programme of infrastructural projects, must adopt a more balanced approach. The west has been severely starved of investment in roads and other infrastructure. For example, there are four or five major projects in Galway, such as the Galway City outer bypass on which there is an ongoing debate as to whether it will be built as a toll road. It might be built more quickly if it was a toll road whereas otherwise it might be delayed by two or three years. Another is the new N17 proposed for the western seaboard corridor but that is not proposed to be built until 2013.
The N6 was proposed four or five years ago and was the subject of a recent oral hearing. I attended the hearing and listened to the debate for a number of days. Some of the objections to the road were absolutely ridiculous. One person drove up from Cork and spent three days objecting to a road linking Galway and Ballinasloe, at a cost of €10,000 per day. The full cost of the oral hearing amounted to between €500,000 and €600,000. I hope vexatious objections will be dealt with in this Bill but it is important that local people have the right to object.
The ESB recently proposed a 110 kV line straight through a small rural area in my constituency, about which nobody knew until I received a telephone call from a journalist who heard about it. The site notice had been posted at the substation where hardly anybody could see it and the planning application was lodged before we even knew about it. There was practically no consultation with the landowners, just a little note shoved in the door notifying them that the project was going ahead. It is not acceptable that such projects are proposed and commenced without sufficient consultation with local people.
I listened to what Deputy Durkan said about the decision-making process relating to infrastructural projects. We hear the little village of Claregalway mentioned every morning on the traffic report on "Morning Ireland". Some 35,000 cars per day travel through the village but the National Roads Authority states it will not go through a CPO process to build a new road. It states the new N17 will alleviate the problem but the new N17 will be approximately 10 km from Claregalway. As public representatives we must attend public meeting after public meeting about the traffic in the village but we have no say in whether a road should be built. Officials of the National Roads Authority will not attend the meetings to explain why they feel a road is not needed. They undertake to meet us as Members of the Oireachtas, in Dáil Éireann, to give us their reasons, leaving us to return to the people in Claregalway to explain the situation to them. That is completely unacceptable because we should have a role in deciding what projects should be built. The people of Claregalway will not put up with the traffic congestion, morning and evening, seven days a week, for much longer. They will block the road, which nobody wants to see happen because the poor motorists on their way to work will suffer. The road is 4.5 km long but there are 27 landowners involved. I call on the National Roads Authority to seriously consider the situation in Claregalway.
The previous speaker referred to the way in which rogue developers operate. Several years ago, I encountered a case in which a developer bought land which effectively left adjoining landowners landlocked at the rear of their lands. When they applied for planning permission, they found they could not gain access to the strip of land blocking the back of their lands. As a result, they were forced to band together to buy out the individual in question at an astronomical price. It is unacceptable that developers can lock landowners in, thus preventing them from developing and making a few bob out of their land.
I hope the introduction of this legislation will speed up major infrastructural projects. The N6 from Ballinasloe to Galway, for example, will provide a much-needed road into the city and I hope it and the N18, a vital project to link Galway with Shannon, will proceed. Galway is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe and has done exceptionally well under the Government. I compliment it on the large number of jobs created in the city in recent years. Unfortunately, however, Galway is falling behind in terms of the investment needed in infrastructure projects.
Last week, I wrote to the Taoiseach regarding his planned visit to Galway next week when he will open the Marine Institute, one of the welcome success stories of the decentralisation programme. I am disappointed he was unable — the reason given was his busy schedule — to accede to my request to meet representatives of the community of Claregalway to discuss the prospect of proceeding with the bypass of the town.
I do not blame him.
I hope my two constituency colleagues in Galway West, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, and the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, will bring the Taoiseach to Claregalway to allow him to see first hand the traffic congestion in the town.
Incineration is also a matter of concern in Galway. A number of incinerators are planned under current waste management plans. Recycling in Galway has reached 52% of total waste, a record which is of great credit to Galway City Council. Cities which work hard and reach high recycling levels should be rewarded. Galway County Council is now working hard in this area and achieving considerable success. For this reason, I am opposed to the construction of an incinerator in Galway and the west in general. We do not need six or seven incinerators around the country and current proposals should be reconsidered with a view to devising a better system to deal with waste.
As the owner of a small business employing several staff, I am aware that waste continues to increase and is an important issue which must be addressed. Nevertheless, we cannot impose projects on members of the public. Genuine individuals should be given the right to object to infrastructure project and make a strong case against them if they so wish.
The Bill will address many issues and, I hope, expedite the delivery of the critical infrastructure this country needs. Members regularly travel abroad and often hear colleagues in other countries refer to the success of Ireland. When one drives through other European countries, particularly in the east, one cannot fail to notice the standard of their infrastructure and roads. In contrast, despite its status as one of the leading economies in the world with one of the lowest unemployment rates, Ireland lacks critical infrastructure, including roads. I hope the Bill will speed up the delivery of this type of infrastructure projects, while also addressing the serious concerns many people have about such matters.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. A number of issues arising from the Bill are of considerable concern, not least among them the gaps in the proposals. The Government has missed an opportunity to address a number of issues and I propose to focus on several of these which relate specifically to much of the development under way in my urban constituency where the glut of apartment blocks and other developments continues apace. I will also address in general terms the reason strategic infrastructure projects are being delayed and the reasons this Bill will do little to address that delay. I also propose to discuss several short-sighted proposals contained in the Bill, for instance, the exemption from environmental impact statements requirements for certain categories of project and problems associated with An Bord Pleanála, which have not been reviewed or tackled in any significant manner to improve planning procedures.
I will focus first, however, on specific problems associated with new apartment developments. There is a major flaw in this regard which affects my constituency and its residents virtually on a daily basis. The management of multi-unit dwellings or apartment blocks has not been addressed and serious shortcomings persist with regard to the need to guarantee the rights of residents of such developments. This category of development differs from those consisting mainly of houses in that it is not usually envisaged that a local authority will take in charge the common areas of an apartment block or the private or public open spaces which surround it.
Hardly a week goes by without one or more of my constituents, either a short-term tenant, long-term leaseholder or owner of an apartment, contacting me concerning problems they must endure regarding the upkeep of the common part of their building. Similarly, I am contacted almost every week by constituents complaining about the increasing cost and diminishing return of paying a management agent to manage the common part of buildings containing apartments and the land surrounding them. For example, some of my constituents recently complained that the management agent of their block is seeking a 50% increase in the management fee demanded last year. The individuals in question are reluctant to pay this fee hike because the management company and agent have not maintained the building as they should. In the past year, for example, grass has been allowed to grow all over the place, with some areas now completely overgrown and infested with weeds, vermin have appeared and windows have not been cleaned as agreed. The complex is in a general mess.
In addition, a promise to provide a 24-hour management service turned out to be a myth. This only came to light when the fire alarm went off twice this year in the middle of the night without a response. So much for a 24-hour management service. Gutters are also blocked and water overflows on to residents' balconies, creating a source of stagnant water. The reason residents contacted me was to find out what could be done about the horrific smell this water had created.
Recently, I was in touch with another group of residents of an apartment block who are experiencing a similar array of problems. The residents of the two developments in question have managed to use existing legislation to have most of the difficulties they face resolved. It is possible to ask what is wrong with the system if the problems can be solved using existing legislation. The answer is that getting solutions to these problems is an expensive and complex process, with residents effectively forced to carry the cost and nuisance value of trying to find redress and have action taken on the management of their apartments.
I will describe the lengths to which the residents in question had to go. They had to obtain expensive legal advice, following which they were required to use company law to have the current directors removed from the management company. They then compelled the management company to provide access to its accounts. In one of the cases brought to my attention, the management company had not even bothered to draft accounts. In this instance, the residents were compelled to contact the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement to report the management company's failure to hold annual general meetings and draft accounts. These are complex, difficult and expensive processes and the only reason the residents were able to secure some redress was their capacity and ability to pursue these matters. There are many apartment blocks whose residents do not have the ability, resources or legal back-up to allow them to do that.
In another case, residents had to contact the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement to report the management company that was controlled by the developer. It had failed to consult the shareholders of the management company — in reality the residents — on the draft accounts. After much work, residents of one of the apartment complexes managed to appoint their own representatives, using provisions within the Companies Act, as directors on the board of the management company. Having done all that, the residents succeeded in firing the management agent who was dreadful. They have now appointed a managing agent who is considerably better. I am pointing out the complexity of the difficulties involved, including costs. These matters could have been dealt with in the new legislation but the opportunity to do so has been ignored.
Using current legislation, none of the residents in contact with me has succeeded in forcing the developers to hand over ownership of the common parts. Even when resident-controlled management companies are maintaining the common parts of their apartment blocks, these companies are not always the legal owners of the areas they are maintaining and paying to maintain. Discovering and executing the solutions I have just described to the problems faced by the residents of apartment blocks in my constituency has required an enormous amount of work, money, patience and co-operation between the apartment owners.
As legislators, we are responsible for the laws providing the framework within which apartment developments are allowed and their continued upkeep is regulated. We have an obligation to provide a much easier means of resolving the problems that residents of apartment blocks constantly face.
I wish to outline some of the solutions to the problems that apartment dwellers are facing. I have raised these issues in the House before but there is now an opportunity to incorporate them in the legislation. These points will be raised again on Committee Stage when I hope they will be addressed.
First, planning permission should not be granted for an apartment building unless there is a condition attached to such a permission which compels developers of apartment blocks to form management companies and grant shares in the company to all those who purchase units within it. There is a section of the Planning and Development Act 2000 that could be strengthened to include this specific stipulation.
Second, a planning condition must be imposed on developers — I know this has been discussed already — to complete satisfactorily within a specified period an apartment complex, regardless of whether the development includes two or more houses. Options could be introduced in this regard, so perhaps the Minister could examine them on Committee Stage to see how they might be incorporated in the Bill.
Third, as soon as an apartment development is completed satisfactorily, ownership of the common parts must be handed over immediately to a management company. My constituents tell me that, too often, developers are refusing, for one ostensible reason or another, to hand over ownership of the common parts of an apartment complex. The developer may suddenly apply for planning permission to add an extra storey or block, and then we learn why the developer was so reluctant initially to hand over ownership of the common parts. Amending section 180 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 would offer a mechanism for doing this. It would enable management companies, upon application to the court by a simple majority of individual property owners — that is, such an amendment must be drafted in such a way as to prevent a developer thwarting the desires of residents to take control of the common parts of their apartment complex simply by retaining ownership of the apartments within that complex — to gain ownership of the common parts of the apartment complex.
Fourth, developers must not be allowed to take control of apartment complex management companies. In Britain, where there is a much longer history of dealing with multi-unit apartment blocks, the solution that has emerged is called the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002. Within that Act, a right to manage was established, which is vested in residents of multi-unit apartment blocks. To exercise that right, residents of buildings within two or more units do not even have to apply to the court. They simply have to serve notice to manage on the developer or the owner of the common parts of an apartment complex. The notice to manage provides that the residents concerned wish to manage the property instead of the freeholder or developer and that they have the right-to-manage company for the purpose of doing so. To exercise this new right to manage, residents do not even have to say that the developer is mismanaging the property.
However, if the property is being mismanaged, which is clearly the case in the examples I have outlined and that have occurred numerous times in my constituency, the residents can apply to the court to have the developer's interest in the property vested in the residents. In practice, the mere existence of this legislation on the statute book in the United Kingdom has led to a significant improvement in the conduct of managing agents, management companies and developers.
I have outlined some of the major difficulties that have arisen with ongoing developments in my constituency where we have what I would call a rash of apartment blocks all over the place. There seem to be endless apartments being built but there is a lack of infrastructure around them, which is the core of this debate. We talk about the need for housing, and more accommodation is certainly welcome in my constituency, but we must examine the quality of such housing. We must also examine the impact of such construction on the existing community, as well as the infrastructure provided for new developments. Sadly, in the vast majority of such developments there has been a lack of any significant quality of appraisal of what is needed for the existing community — I take a strong line on that matter because they are the people who will ultimately suffer on account of such developments — or for the residents who will move into those new apartment blocks. It is a big issue now and it will get worse unless significant standards are imposed on developers.
I reiterate the importance of some of the issues raised by my colleague, Deputy Gilmore. The so-called strategic infrastructure deficit in Ireland is not down to a few people, as he said, hanging off trees in the Glen of the Downs. We have problems for much more fundamental reasons. When introducing the Bill, the Minister, Deputy Roche, said: "Simply put, this Bill is the key to delivering the infrastructure we will need to sustain and improve our quality of life". Infrastructure is delivered through applying money to well thought-out solutions to well examined and identified problems.
This Bill is about trying to avoid a repetition of the same problems we have had in the past in Ireland, with one major difference. In the past when somebody had a slightly hair-brained idea, it was difficult to implement it, not because of the planning process but usually due to a lack of money. Now, with the availability of greater resources, if the Bill becomes law, anybody with a crackpot idea will have much less difficulty in implementing it.
The national spatial strategy identified many problems in a considered way but sufficient money was not provided for its implementation. However, the reasons there is a strategic infrastructure deficit are manifold and complex, and will not be addressed simply or comprehensively by the Bill before us. The reason the Government has not implemented the national spatial strategy is not because of delays in the planning process, it is because the action of the Government pulled the rug from under the strategy by inadequately funding its implementation. In addition, the Government announced a half-baked decentralisation plan that has been a disaster. The national spatial strategy was published three years before the national development plan but it should have been the other way around.
Cutting out local involvement in the development, planning and construction of so-called strategic infrastructure projects is an affront to democracy. If all the reasons Ireland suffers from a strategic infrastructure deficit were eliminated, perhaps a Bill such as this purports to be would be worthwhile. It would be a worthy sacrifice of democratic participation.
I also wish to raise the cost of planning objections. While a €20 fee may sound like very little money to impose on somebody wishing to object to a planning application, the issue must be addressed. While awaiting developments at European level on this matter, we have no reason to retain the €20 fee. This was introduced supposedly to stop vexatious objections to planning applications.
I will again reflect on what happens in my constituency where many individuals in the local community feel strongly about the development taking place in their immediate area. Many of these people are elderly or old age pensioners and while, for some of us, €20 may be little or nothing, for them it is a huge amount of money. They feel passionate about their area and community and the €20 fee is a block to their getting involved in the democratic process. There is no justification for retaining the €20 objection fee.
The exemption from the environmental impact statement should be reconsidered. The Bill gives power under section 4 for An Bord Pleanála to grant applicants an exemption from the necessity of preparing an environmental impact survey. This is unacceptable. It applies to electricity and gas providers and, in fact, to anyone who wants to carry out a project An Bord Pleanála deems to be of strategic importance. That is to give An Bord Pleanála a major decision-making role on what is or is not important from an environmental perspective.
The necessity for developers to draw up an environmental impact study was one of the great advances in the protection of the environment. The environmental effects of projects had been ignored for decades and the cost of that can be seen in the deficiencies in the quality of the environment in which we live. Thankfully, environmental impact statements were introduced but it appears there will be a rolling back in that regard if An Bord Pleanála can effectively decide which projects are of strategic importance and can make the running on what is environmentally significant. The Bill wants us to return to year zero. One could make the comparison with China, where dams are constructed without any reference to the environmental impact. None of us would want to believe we were comparable with such decision makers.
Pre-planning consultations are valuable and probably cut out much time wasting. The problem with these consultations in their current form is that they are effectively weighted in favour of the developer. The same provisions or facilities for pre-planning advice are not provided to the average resident when a development is to proceed. It is not acceptable that a lack of transparency will persist when pre-planning applications and discussions are weighted in favour of a developer but residents or residents' associations are effectively precluded from the process.
There is a lack of transparency and perhaps even democracy in the advice given to people in a community when a major development is about to take place. I accept that planning notices are erected but we know of many occasions when residents did not see the planning notices and did not appreciate their significance or the timeframe involved. There is a gap in terms of informing local communities specifically and definitely in this regard. It should not be left just to the planning notices, with which many residents would not be familiar and the relevance and timeframe of which many would not understand.
Each household and individual within a specific radius of any major development, including apartment block developments, should be informed by mail. It should not be left to chance that residents will be alert, observe a planning notice and be able to do something about it. This would not be a major burden in the context of a major infrastructural project, given the value of the project to the developer relative to the cost to the community if the application period should pass and the community did not have the opportunity to have a say.
While I support the idea of community gain, I am interested to know precisely what it means. We need a wider definition. It is important that community gain is not just a sop to the local community but a significant and valuable contribution to the area and its people. Every effort should be made to ensure the community gain is relevant and relative to the value of the major infrastructural project to be delivered.
I call Deputy Boyle.
Is the Deputy sharing time?
I am not sure. Deputy Joe Higgins might be in this slot.
I understand Deputies Connolly and Ó Caoláin will also speak.
I will speak until they arrive or the time runs out. Every Bill has a context. The context of this one can be summed up by the phrase, "Time is money." The Government would present this as being public time and money, but any analysis of the colossal excess expenditure on public projects in the lifetime of the Government will show that the factors that have caused the excessive spending are not those which the Bill attempts to address. It was not an overly democratic planning process that caused this excess expenditure. It was bad management, bad decision-making and planning on the hoof which tried to change the context of what was to be built and how it was to be built.
The roads programme is a case in point. The national development plan roads programme went from a costing of £580 million to an eventual cost of €1.8 billion, mainly because the Government decided as the plan was being rolled out that the roads identified by the National Roads Authority were not sufficient to the Government's needs and would have to be broadened and expanded, despite the fact they could not be justified in road traffic terms.
If one is looking for excuses why projects are delayed and why costs have over-run, one need look no further than the Government party benches. It is the quality of the decisions made and the wasteful way public money was wilfully spent that has brought us to this sorry pass.
It is laughable that the notion that our planning laws are too democratic is entertained by the House. I have been through the planning process many times in my constituency. On each occasion I found it to operate against the interests of the citizen. The Bill contains nothing to address the need for proper prioritisation in seeking planning permission and integrated pollution licences from the Environmental Protection Agency.
There were just two public oral hearings on the national toxic waste incinerator proposal for the Ringaskiddy area in my constituency, one for An Bord Pleanála and one for the EPA, each of which was a flawed process. In each case, a private developer, who was seeking to impose what the Government terms as strategic infrastructure, was assisted by the State and its agencies to impose on a community a project which many of us believe is unnecessary and, if built, will have many dangerous consequences.
The An Bord Pleanála oral hearing was a farce. The senior planning inspector listened to the case for a number of weeks and brought a report to An Bord Pleanála that listed 14 different grounds why the incinerator should not proceed. However, the board chose to ignore this hard-hitting report from its own inspector and to approve the project on the basis that this was a Government policy priority. How can citizens have confidence in the planning process if they participate in the process, it shows them they are correct in the arguments they make, yet the board, which is largely composed of political appointees, makes such a negative decision against those citizens' interests?
This is the type of reform in which the Government should engage but is far from interested in doing. As part of the same process, an integrated pollution licence was subsequently sought from the EPA. That was subsequently granted on the basis of reviewing a decision the EPA had made. These are the inconsistencies that will be eventually exposed to court actions which will have been brought about because of bad legislation introduced by the Government. While we have a Government that wants to represent vested interests over the interests of the citizen, we will get legislation of this nature. This is not in the interest of public infrastructure but of private developers who have offered to provide various infrastructure the Government has identified as being needs of the State. There has been no wide-ranging proper public debate on whether the infrastructure is needed or if it is the right type of infrastructure.
The Government likes to congratulate itself on any development by erecting national development plan signs wherever it can. This money belongs to the public. We need to ask whether it is being spent in the right way, and in many ways it is not. In the roads programme, a type of infrastructure the Government has identified, it is far from being spent in the right way. We can certainly see, once those decisions are made, that the Government has been a failure. As a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, it never ceases to amaze me how public money is pumped into infrastructural projects without proper pre-planning or accountability. This is largely because the funding mechanisms the Government has chosen to use are not the standard State mechanisms that have proved largely successful in the past. Given that the new mechanisms are direct partnerships with private enterprise, the State is exposed unnecessarily to spending these huge sums of money with little to be seen in terms of improved public infrastructure.
On the general question of how democratic is our planning system, Deputy Upton put her finger on the button when she said that a fee must be paid for planning objections. The tenor of much of the debate so far implies that any person who seeks to make an objection or an observation is one who is holding up a process. The reality is that the process already has a set time and if nobody chooses to make an objection, it will not be completed any sooner. The subsequent objections to An Bord Pleanála and court actions are different arguments. The right of people to observe and object should be enhanced in legislation and not constantly undermined. The Government lives by the myth that somehow its programme, which it sees as exclusively its programme and not the programme for the country's needs, is hampered by a few individuals who are vexatious in their philosophy and just exist to stop the building of infrastructure.
It is right and proper for citizens to ask questions because we have seen in the past week where the failure to ask questions leads us. Sadly this is a Government that chooses not to ask questions. It bull-headedly proceeds with projects and we all suffer the consequences later. This is a cost on the right of citizens to object and appeal that intensifies through the An Bord Pleanála process where people must pay upwards of €300 for a public oral hearing. I have seen vexatiousness on the part of developers who have made multiple planning applications on the same site to ensure that people who are likely to object will have to pay An Bord Pleanála hundreds of euro on each occasion. These are the areas that are in need of reform. These are the vested interests that benefit from our planning system.
It is not a failure of democracy that is at fault. It is a philosophy of a Government that is unwilling, because of where it gets support and how it funds its activities, to challenge the vested interests who wish to see any type of development in any circumstance taking place. As custodians of our society, we have a right to check and challenge development to ensure it is right type of development and one with which we, our children and future generations are happy. Sadly the legacy of the Government is one that history will judge harshly. When reforms take place in the planning area, it will not be the parties of this Government that will introduce such legislation.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill with its stated aim of fast-tracking major infrastructural projects since world class infrastructure is critical for any successful economy. I have a major difficulty with incinerators or any other major infrastructure that has health and safety implications. It is clear that the issue of health and safety in respect of incinerators has not been proven otherwise. Scientists have proven that dioxins from incinerators are carcinogenic agents and cause a cancer. I have listened to people who suffered from cancer in Belgium who lived down wind of an incinerator, and I have heard of the health effects on people. The recent leak from Sellafield, which is another huge infrastructure, would have filled a 25 m swimming pool. That has implications not only for the health of people but for marine life. We should be clear about the type of infrastructure that should be speeded up.
Something is needed to speed up certain aspects of our infrastructure. The number of planning applications a county council must deal with has increased enormously. One has only to look at one's local newspaper to see the one or two pages of planning applications that must be dealt with.
From a rural perspective, one of the difficulties is people obtaining planning permission in rural areas. Reference has been made to people getting a free site in return for looking after their parents. I doubt whether in many cases that site can be classed as free. The recipients provide a valuable service to the parents and the State in terms of the level of care provided, often on a seven-day, 24-hour basis. It is not that they have any objection to the care provided but such sites are far from free. We should try to encourage people to look after the elderly because the culture has changed in that respect.
A relaxation of the planning laws should be given serious consideration in respect of carers seeking planning permission to build a house near the person they are caring for. Not only do such people operate as a carer in the house, they act as a local taxi service because, in the main, there is no public transport in rural areas. They take those cared for to town, to doctors and so on. I call on the planning authorities to look favourably on such planning applications and to encourage this type of development. Such people take much pressure off another institution, namely, the health service.
It strikes me that when planning permission is sought, especially for major infrastructure, that there are perennial objectors who almost object for a living and have nothing to do with the locality in which the infrastructure is proposed. It is not right that those people can object willy-nilly. If they object to the N3 or whatever, they should not do so for fun or almost as if it were a profession. I would have major difficulties with that type of objector. If there are genuine objectors from the area, they should be heard. How such people can be dealt with and the infrastructure fast-tracked is a major issue. This Bill is a long time in gestation, with the Government having originally undertaken to reform the planning system and speed up major infrastructure back as far as 2003. To some extent, this is better late than never. Having been on the political agenda for years, plans for a new critical infrastructure board to fast-track planning had to be shelved.
The Bill aims to speed up the planning process for large infrastructure projects deemed to be of national importance. Nobody can deny there are such projects which need to be developed. Simply to get to work, one can consider what has happened for example with the M50, or any of the motorways around Dublin or around the country. We must move into the 21st century and develop our roads, which need to be fast-tracked, along with our trains. This is a major issue. I welcome such fast-tracking. We need it to compete. Whether it be a North-South or east-west corridor, such projects should be examined quickly. Delays in the past have cost taxpayers a lot of money. We should be asking if we are getting value for money, and in terms of objections being made. I do not believe we are getting value. What is happening is not good for our people and our country.
A number of criticisms have been made of the Bill, notably that it would favour private interests while hindering legitimate objectors. A balance must be struck in any Bill. Developers may often drive the economy but planning issues often come in second place, and the prime objective of developers is to make money and make projects pay. Legitimate objections should be catered for but I question the legitimacy of objections being made by those who come from another country or from an outside area.
I hope the Bill will be instrumental in speeding up major projects and spending programmes without undermining the rights of objectors. The right to object is basic. A careful line will have to be walked between speeding up the planning process while protecting constitutional rights. Objectors have a constitutional right, but it must not be abused.
The Bill will also allow projects in environment and transport infrastructure to be dealt with by An Bord Pleanála in a single stage process. One of the current difficulties is that the process seems to drag on forever. We need a speedier means of handling objections and examining the validity of projects. Motorways, roads, waste and water projects by local authorities have already been decided on by An Bord Pleanála.
Much power has been handed to county managers. It may not always be useful to put a county manager on the spot, because the manager is in effect left with Hobson's choice in terms the decisions he or she can make.
The Bill makes provision for new a strategic infrastructure division within An Bord Pleanála. This will act as a one-stop-shop for planning decisions on big projects, short-circuiting the current system, including local authorities and An Bord Pleanála itself. A further complementary element of the new strategic infrastructure division will be the establishment of a specialist division in the High Court. This is greatly needed because we all know that to make an application and get a hearing in the High Court takes a long time. This is where many of the processes are strangled. It takes people quite a long time to settle High Court claims in general and I have known of cases which have taken seven years. That is not acceptable. Rather than merely creating a new division, we will have to provide resources too. We will have to create a number of new High Court judge positions to cater for the extra work. It is not acceptable that people should have to wait simply on a court judgment. The new division will deal with legal challenges to infrastructure projects with mandatory timeframes for decisions, which is welcome. It would be good to tell people decisions will be made within a timeframe. People will accept them if they are adhered to.
For the new division to operate efficiently, it will be essential it be adequately resourced, both legally and technically. Judicial reviews of the planning decisions are in many cases responsible for the planning delays which have taken place up to now. Delays have been occurring in the legal system.