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

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

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill which has been going through the House for several weeks. I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to the House.

My concern with the Bill is that the Government parties are using the planning process as a scapegoat for their appalling record on delivering key infrastructure projects. Underlying that, there seems to be a perception that the balance in the planning process has swung too much in favour of the objectors. This seems to reflect my party's perception that within the judicial system the balance has tilted in favour of the accused. Something like that was seen with regard to the recent release of a sex offender, with the balance tilted away from the victim to the convicted person.

When it comes to planning, I am not convinced that the perception that objectors to infrastructure projects have held up such projects is correct. When making his speech later, the Minister might provide some examples.

In this day and age it is hard to find examples of infrastructure projects which have not been held up. However, I blame the Government, in terms of poor project design, a failure to properly plan projects, a failure to anticipate technical difficulties, pandering to particular interests and a failure to place key projects into an overall integrated plan. These have been the hallmarks of the Government.

Some weeks ago, Deputy Peter Power spoke in his contribution about the Madrid metro, how it was fast-tracked and built in record time, in 18 months or so. This is an example of how key infrastructure projects can be fast-tracked. We can also point to the hold-up of the Dublin port tunnel, colossal overspending on major road projects and delays in their completion. In County Clare, the Ennis bypass is currently under construction, two years behind schedule. It was to be completed in 2005 but is now due for completion in 2007. I welcome the progress being made but I understand problems have arisen and are being considered by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin. The Government refused to give employment permits to skilled Turkish engineers and quantity surveyors working on the Ennis bypass. I hope the situation will be resolved as quickly as possible as these skilled workers are needed to compete the bypass. If there is a problem with their permits, it could have serious consequences for completion of the bypass. Gama has a commitment to Clare County Council to complete the road and to its sub-contractors. It is important that there are no hold-ups as Ennis is chock-a-block with traffic. While the scheme is due to be completed by April 2007, Ennis does not need another summer of hold-ups. Every local road is a rat-run. With the volume of traffic passing through the town, it now takes an hour to cross it when it used to take ten minutes. With the recent fine weather, working hours on the site have been extended, which is to be welcomed. I am, however, concerned that the Turkish workers may become the victims of the stand-off between the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Gama management following last year's dispute.

The failure to invest in other key infrastructure areas cannot be put down to the planning process. The failure until recently to invest in the rail network, particularly west of the Shannon, is one example. Last November the Government announced Transport 21 which finally gave some recognition to the need to reinvest in railway infrastructure. Much of it in the west has lain idle for years. The Limerick to Claremorris passenger service has not run for 30 years. In a recent Adjournment debate I asked the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Gallagher, for a commencement date for phase 1 of the western rail corridor. In reply he informed me that he hoped it would commence in the next several weeks. I hope he will live up to that promise. It is a key project to the western rail corridor and part of Iarnród Éireann's decision to expand the rail service. There has already been the successful reopening of the Ennis to Limerick line. If the Ennis to Athenry phase were open, three cities — Cork, Limerick and Galway — would be linked.

With other key infrastructural projects, I am struck by the degree to which Government incompetence and mismanagement play a role. The decision to fund the equestrian centre in Punchestown was made without proper appraisal by the then Minister for Agriculture and Food and was subsequently highlighted by the Committee of Public Accounts.

The failure to appreciate the importance of broadband as a driver of industry and development has resulted in Ireland falling to the bottom of the European league table on broadband take-up. Forfás, the Government's enterprise advisory board, placed Ireland below such states as Hungary, Lithuania and Slovenia. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, has been revealed to be the first region in Europe to offer 100% broadband Internet access. The Republic's record in this regard is dreadful and the Government fails to acknowledge it. Its only solution is to apply piecemeal, patch-on solutions, although it has been advised by Forfás that broadband is of major strategic importance for economic growth, enhancing social and cultural development and facilitating innovation. Broadband is essential to revitalising rural areas in order that people can set up businesses in their homes. This, in turn, could offer a sustainable future for new families without the need for long commuting times and the stress this entails. I read recently inThe Guardian of one British study which showed how rural villages could be turned around when they had broadband and good road links. This is one of the most innovative ways of generating new employment in a sustainable way.

From other infrastructural projects, there is little evidence that the planning process is holding up development. In County Clare scores of towns and villages are without adequate sewerage schemes. I will raise the lack of such schemes in Carrigaholt, Cooraclare and Labasheeda in the Adjournment debate tonight. The schemes have been promised since 2001 and I hope the Minister will have a more positive answer tonight. On his many visits to County Clare he has met interest groups from Mollogha, Scarriff and Quilty on the lack of such schemes.

The problem lies with the Government's policy on the costing of such schemes, not with the planning process. Many water and sewerage schemes will be cut back because of such costings. Core areas in villages will be facilitated with schemes, while outlying areas will be neglected. People are frustrated because without an adequate sewerage scheme in place, they cannot get planning permission for one-off housing in particular, yet developers with major housing schemes of 40 houses or more, backed by privately built sewerage schemes, are waved through the planning process. The one-off housing planning applicant is told the application is premature and depends on the construction of a sewerage scheme.

It is difficult to see how the Government or the country can win out with this attitude. Pollution of the waterways continues because of antiquated sewerage schemes. Last week County Clare received six blue flags for its beaches but lost one on Lough Derg owing to algal bloom. This can be put down to the failure to implement pollution controls. Related to this is the short-sighted approach to funding town and village sewerage schemes.

Many Members spoke about the judicial review process associated with planning objections. They claim a project can be held up if a judicial review is granted. It is true there can be lengthy delays before a project is completed. Developers and other interested parties can be frustrated at such a long drawn out process. Such a delay, however, is not due to the planning process. It is a problem confined to the administration of the Courts Service and the backlog of cases that builds up. The Bill will not remove the backlog. It will only restrict access to the judicial review process, particularly by conferring the High Court with the power to require an undertaking from an applicant as to damages as a condition of the grant of leave.

A few years ago in County Clare there was a long drawn out legal challenge to the Government's proposal to build an interpretative centre at Mullaghmore in the heart of the Burren. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, can recall that case. It was a hugely divisive issue, as many naturally viewed such a development as an economic boost for an area badly in need of it — this was the approach taken by the Government also — and many people were angered by the perceived ecological impact of such a development on an area of natural beauty. Those opposed to the development took what turned out to be a long drawn out action to have the decision overturned and they were ultimately successful. They took the case at considerable economic risk to themselves. Without going into the merits of the case or taking sides on it, I support the right of people to take such actions and seek that this right would be protected.

One can well ask if it would be possible to mount such a challenge under the provisions of this Bill, and if a different outcome would be achieved today. If the wherewithal had not been available to challenge the decision to build the interpretative centre, it would have gone ahead. It is important to examine this possibility in the context of the Bill.

If the High Court had sought an undertaking in regard to damages from the applicants in the Mullaghmore case, the case would never have got off the ground. As it is, the Government ungraciously appointed debt collectors to recoup legal costs of £35,000 from the group before it finally backed off, having wasted more than £5 million over a nine-year period in its battle to build the centre.

Planning is a hugely contentious area. Planning issues have presented the most fundamental challenge to our democratic form of government in recent years. Abuse of the planning process led to the corruption of our institutions of State. At one time the taking of bribes became the norm for a large number of individuals. As a result, cynicism in regard to local and national government was at an all-time high as citizens found themselves powerless to make their protest heard and were let down by their elected representatives.

In contemplating the legislation before me I must take a step back and consider the wider implications of the proposed sweeping changes to the planning appeal process that will remove another layer of accountability from the Government. One must bear in mind the rights of citizens to challenge the process, particularly in view of the lack of evidence to support the argument that key developments have been delayed.

Planning issues take up at least half my constituency work, and I am sure that is also the case with my colleagues. Issues arise with regard to one-off housing, especially in terms of the rights of sons and daughters of landowners' to build on their own farm in rural areas, and the obstacles they come up against, particularly when they seek to build an entrance on to a national secondary route. I am familiar with a number of cases where local farmers' sons and daughters have wanted to build houses with direct access to national secondary roads. Even when applicants had satisfied the local planning authority at considerable expense to themselves in respect to issues of traffic, site distances, and safety audits, which can cost up to €2,000, and been granted planning permission by the local authority, in many cases the decision was overturned by An Bord Pleanála which upheld the objections of the National Roads Authority. In spite of all the work and expense involved, these people have had to go back to the drawing board again. The young people in these situations want to continue living in the areas in which they were born and grew up. However, they are deeply disillusioned with the planning system as a result of their experience.

In Ennis, another State body, the ESB, appealed to An Bord Pleanála a planning refusal by the local authority to erect a mast for telecommunications purposes. Again, the celebrations of huge numbers of local people were short-lived. Despite the agreement of a planning inspector from An Bord Pleanála with the local authority planning refusal, the board ultimately overturned the original decision. I raised this issue with the chief executive of the ESB, Mr. McManus, in view of the latest development where the local authority has made the decision not to seek a judicial review because of the expense involved for Ennis Town Council in this regard. I believe the cost would have been in the region of €100,000. In this case, An Bord Pleanála made a decision in opposition to the recommendations of its planning inspector. In my letter to Mr. McManus I outlined the case that despite claims by some of his officials, a body of evidence now points to the adverse health effects of new generation phone masts. A new phone mast is also due to be erected in my area.

I again appeal to the Minister to examine the situation with regard to planning when it comes to mobile phone masts or to people applying for permission to build houses in rural areas. The Department guidelines supposedly aim to promote and support vibrant rural communities, but all too often they achieve the opposite effect. I accept this Bill does not directly address such issues, but it is important to refer to them.

I share the concerns expressed by my colleague, Deputy O'Dowd, on the granting of a range of new powers to An Bord Pleanála which may further erode confidence in the planning process. Currently, the board has sweeping powers on planning issues as long as it keeps within its procedural framework. The Bill would grant it extensive discretion in terms of deciding whether a project should come under the remit of its strategic infrastructure division.

I am surprised at the lack of preparation and consultation by the Government parties with regard to this Bill. No evidence has been produced on the major infrastructural projects alleged to have been held up as a result of flaws in the current planning Acts which the provisions in this Bill seek to plug.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. I have considerable reservations about this proposed legislation in terms of how it is presented and what it proposes to do. It will not expedite the development of strategic infrastructure throughout the country but will cause more problems than it addresses.

The Bill is seriously flawed in at least two respects. First, when the Minister seeks to address problems relating to strategic infrastructural planning, he completely fails to address policy issues, especially spatial and social policy which contribute to good planning and which impact hugely on the quality of life of citizens.

Second, in his eagerness to facilitate infrastructural projects, the Minister has thrown out the baby with the bath water. He has removed the two pillars of democratic decision-making which currently underpin planning decisions, namely, the local authority and An Bord Pleanála. In doing so, the Bill makes the current appeals mechanism of An Bord Pleanála, the sole planning authority. Accordingly, the role of residents in the planning process will be eroded and limited to small-scale developments while the major infrastructural projects which will have most bearing on the quality of their lives will be beyond their scope to influence.

I do not believe the Bill will speed up the planning process by eliminating one of the current pillars of planning. The issue of High Court challenges has not been addressed by the Bill and by undermining the local authority and the role of citizens in the formal planning process, the Bill will give rise to far more legal challenges which will have the effect of greatly delaying planning applications. This is the exact opposite effect to the intention of the Minister. For example, the current unsavoury legal row between competing developers has created a scandalous six-year delay in developing the prime Carlton site on O'Connell Street. This is an enormously lucrative site and the hold-up prevents the integrated area plan from moving forward because a couple of developers are dug in. Developers have large pockets and, as we have seen, can take their case all the way to the Supreme Court. Residents, however, cannot take such action. Given the enormous sums of money involved, we may find ourselves getting bogged down in legal challenges. A national, independent appeals mechanism is required to which any person unhappy with the decision made by a local authority in respect of a planning application can make his or her case. This is the rational and logical way forward.

Although many pressing matters are omitted from this legislation, I am pleased with the provisions of section 9, which amends section 35 of the principal Act. The explanatory memorandum states:

This section amends the provisions of Section 35 of the Principal Act to enable the planning authority to refuse permission to a developer on the grounds of his or her past history of non-compliance with planning. The applicant would be required to apply to the High Court if he or she wished to have the decision overturned.

This means a local authority is not obliged to apply to the High Court to chase a rogue developer who has left a housing estate unfinished. Instead, the onus is now on the developer to prove he or she has behaved lawfully. The Labour Party has argued for such a provision for decades. As a Member of the Seanad, I argued some years ago for legislation to this effect. It is only now, however, that a provision will be included in the Statute Book to ensure that rogue developers who leave successive estates unfinished and in a grotty mess for years will face penalties. They will be refused planning permission if they do not conduct their affairs properly. This is a most welcome development.

I hope the Minister will consider accepting amendments to cover some of the provisions omitted from this Bill. The most urgent outstanding legislative provision relates to the recommendations of the Kenny report. The Minister is well advised to turn his attention to implementing those recommendations, which would regulate the value of development land. They would put an end to the obscene windfall profits made on land rezoning in recent decades. The Mahon tribunal presents us with a daily diet of stories of councillors and officials bribed by greedy developers who stood to make a fortune on rezoning even a small parcel of land.

The lack of effective planning and rezoning law has effectively corrupted the system in several areas throughout the State and, in many cases, has corrupted those working in that system. We can deal with this by implementing the Kenny report recommendations. Perhaps the Minister intends to do so in some other legislation but I would like to see it included here in order that it can finally be progressed. This would serve to eradicate the terrible greed and bribery that has been so much an element of the political and development business for several decades. This is the most important requirement of legislation in this area.

It is unacceptable that the law currently permits a developer to build a structure without presenting a planning application, erecting a notice and consulting residents. Moreover, having constructed a structure without the necessary permission, he or she is permitted to apply for retention. Many such retrospective applications are successful even though the very concept is a contradiction in terms, it being possible only to plan forward. Our system, however, facilitates backward planning and that is no planning at all. This issue must be dealt with urgently.

During a debate on local government legislation in 2001, the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, told me it would not be right to abolish the retention provision because this would mean, for example, that a little old lady who may have forgotten to apply for planning permission for an extension would be penalised and given no chance to retain that extension. These are the terms in which the Minister spoke of the issue. It is not, however, little old ladies who forget to lodge their planning applications but big bad wolves, of whom there are many waiting to get their hands on profits and find a loophole in the system.

Will the Minister also examine the horrible modern phenomenon of management companies, which has exploded throughout the State in recent years? These companies are set up by builders to manage apartment complexes and housing estates and householders often find themselves obliged to pay management charges which generally rise sharply every year. The law provides that the developer's nominees in the management company can outvote the owners, even in cases where the developer retains only a single unit. I understand conveyance law may not be the Minister of State's area of expertise but it is within his general ambit. This law means home owners may never get to manage their own estates and that the developer could potentially retain control indefinitely. This must be addressed in the interests of the citizen. Once the home owner has bought the property from the developer, the latter should have no further say in its management.

Will the Minister of State outline the charges that will be imposed in regard to making submissions to An Bord Pleanála under this new dispensation? Perhaps he will take the opportunity to show his goodwill by eliminating the current charges of €20 and €200 for local authority submissions and An Bord Pleanála submissions, respectively. He should at least make some move in the direction of easing the situation for the long suffering resident who is the subject of a planning permission that may have a detrimental effect on his or her life because of the intensity of development taking place.

Ireland is a wealthy country that is very poor in terms of its infrastructure. The Minister is to be applauded for seeking to address this problem but I am not convinced he will achieve the desired effect by the means he has employed. Deputy Pat Breen observed that Northern Ireland has 100% broadband access while the Republic is at the bottom of the European league in terms of broadband availability. We present ourselves to all comers as an educated, thrusting young nation that is light years ahead of any other country. The reality is we are way behind our neighbours. When opening a new constituency office last year, I had to wait six months to access broadband in Dublin. That is incredible. It has nothing to do with poor planning but is a consequence of poor administration and management.

Look at the situation with regard to roads. There are roads of poor quality everywhere and tolls in inappropriate locations. We also have one of the worst accident records in Europe. Many of the problems with our roads have nothing to do with planning issues. Often they are caused by mismanagement and, as we saw in the Mahon tribunal with regard to a road project in south Dublin, ill-advised rezoning and corruption.

We had a much better rail network 100 years ago. Trains were much quicker and more comfortable. In fact, 100 to 150 years ago the rail network was not only far more comprehensive, it was also far speedier and more comfortable than it is now and we have not been able to do anything to change this. There has been much talk about reopening the western rail line, but we will believe it when we see it happen.

On sea transport, Irish Shipping no longer exists and we saw what happened with Irish Ferries a number of months ago. The Irish merchant navy has gone down the Swanee. We do not have an infrastructural network to deliver our goods internationally. Now we are about to sell our national airline, the only link with the outside world over which we have control. We have no merchant navy and when we privatise Aer Lingus, we will find ourselves without any infrastructure to allow us to control the export of our goods. That is a dangerous road to go down.

These are not planning matters; they are Government decisions or, in some cases, the lack thereof. Even on the matter of the second terminal at Dublin Airport, it has taken forever and a day for a decision to be made. The Government could not make a decision on it. In fact, it cannot make a decision on the privatisation of the airline either. It is on and off again. We do not know what will happen ultimately.

Our infrastructure must be well planned. A more holistic approach to areas such as spatial and social policy is required. We must know where we are going in the longer term. If one takes my constituency of Dublin Central, the port tunnel will finally be completed years after its original deadline at a price three or four times the original estimate. The situation with the Luas was the same. The timescale was totally out of synch with what it should have been, as was the price. The metro will be built in due course, although "in due course" is probably the operative part of the sentence.

A further series of developments is due to take place in Dublin Central. The DIT is moving to a site in Grangegorman; Dalymount Park, the grounds of Bohemians Football Club is to be sold to a developer; Mountjoy Prison is being closed down and will be sold to a developer, if the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is to be believed, while the children's hospital at Temple Street and the Rotunda Maternity Hospital are to be relocated to a new site adjacent to the Mater Hospital, if the Taoiseach gets his way. This adds up to massive development in a particular part of inner city Dublin. What will the planning process do with this? It will deal with each of these projects individually. Why not have an integrated area plan to deal with all of them? Otherwise, a certain type of development will be constructed on the prison site, while across the road another development will go up on the Dalymount Park site. Further down the street, the new DIT college will be built with no thought given to addressing transport needs or an integrated network of communications. How are people going to get to the college or hospital? Phibsboro is already a massive bottleneck.

Will the Bill address any of these issues? I do not think it will. It will take each of these major developments and streamline the planning process for each one or attempt to ensure a decision is reached on each of them quickly. Will it improve the final result, or will we still have various parts with no interconnecting link? I fear the latter will happen in the case of the aforementioned developments.

We need a broad spatial plan. We also need integrated area or regional plans for a collective of developments. That is not happening. Currently, developments are proceeding totally independently of each other, with no interconnection. The result is often a dog's dinner, with poor communications systems, a snarling up of traffic and difficulties for people in getting to work. Lop-sided developments take place because of a failure to look at the broader picture. The Minister has not addressed this issue in the legislation. He must look at the broader picture and address the issues causing so much grief. Implementation of the Kenny report would sort out the rezoning problems. The Minister must also tackle management companies to deal with the management of estates, as well as the charges local residents have to pay. He must also deal with the issue of planning retention, the greatest anomaly. I do not know who came up with the idea, but it has nothing to do with good planning.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006. We have heard much in the past few years about plans for infrastructure and about the billions that will be spent on roads, railways and so forth. However, if one looks at what has happened in recent years, for example, the picture is not so positive. One only has to look at the delays on the M50 and the associated costs and trauma, or the M3, that is, the road from Dublin through Navan to County Donegal. These situations are unacceptable. From that point of view, I welcome the Bill and hope that when it is implemented, it will be capable of delivering what it promises in a constructive and proper manner.

I do not wish to suggest for one second that infrastructure should simply be put in place without consultation. It is vital that there is consultation but some degree of realism is also essential. In the case of the M3 which services Cavan and part of County Monaghan, if those who are opposing the development had to travel that road on a daily basis, in commuting to or transporting goods to Dublin from Cavan or County Donegal, some of the issues they have raised would not be so important to them.

Counties Cavan and Monaghan have had the lowest growth rate in Ireland in recent times, partly because industry has not been prepared to develop in these areas because of the infrastructural deficit. Interest has recently been expressed in County Monaghan because of the excellent service provided by the M1, linked to Ardee and Carrickmacross. I hope that in the next few years the towns of Castleblaney and Monaghan will be bypassed and the improved road will continue towards the Border.

We are spending some amount of money.

I am very proud of the fact that I was part of the group which campaigned for this. This year——

We delivered it for the Deputy.

——we are getting over €51 million for the M2. That will make a major difference.

Other issues must be examined. A deal was done before the last general election by the IFA and the Government on the purchase of property for infrastructure. Having dealt with many farmers in County Monaghan in recent months, I am sad to see that deal has been completely ignored. The Government must look seriously at this issue. When property is being bought under a CPO, it must be done compassionately. Many farmers are being put out of business, while property owners are being seriously affected. Issues must be dealt with constructively and realistically. Why send people from Dublin to meet a property owner for the first time when someone could go from the council who understands the background and could construct the deal in a positive manner? When these affairs drag on for years, it brings rancour and distrust. We want to get the practical details right, as well as the legal issues. If infrastructure is to be delivered speedily and with the consent of the public, we must go back to the agreement between the IFA and the Government. One element is taxation, where farmers were guaranteed a roll-over if they bought other land because they were replacing land to carry on a business but that is not the case. If someone sells land under a compulsory purchase order to the State through the council or the NRA, he or she must pay 20% tax and a rate of 9% for the purchase and transfer of the land. The money he or she was supposed to get for the land is cut by 30%.

There are difficulties and delays in planning. A mill was burned down in County Monaghan and I went to see if the owners needed help. They said they wanted to have the rebuilt facility fast-tracked through the planning process. We met the personnel involved but when the final plans were submitted, papers were not transferred from one office to another, leading to a delay for months. The company eventually gave up. It had missed a deadline for the purchase of steel which meant it could not produce cattle feed for another season. Delays such as this cause job losses.

The most interesting case I dealt with recently was that of a biomass plant. I got the system through Brussels under the fifth programme. As a result, this House did not have to deal with it. It was only then that the problems started. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources talk about their great plans, yet when the plans for the biomass plant were submitted, they took 27 months to get through the system. It is claimed it was the result of boundary problems. Eventually planning permission was refused in the High Court and the case is now before An Bord Pleanála. This Bill is needed if we are to overcome such problems. I had the full list of dates of submission and examination for the plans and the times excuses were given. This practice cannot be allowed to continue. One company involved in the business pulled out at an early stage when it saw difficulties and applied for permission for a similar plant in west Cork. That plant was built in Enniskeane and now provides electricity. The project in County Monaghan is being examined by An Bord Pleanála. I sympathise with those in the area of the proposed plant because it was not initially meant to be located in that area but Forfás, which owned the original land, claimed it had all been sold, although there was a written agreement, and it pulled out. Such behaviour disillusions people. They put enormous work into an enterprise and every possible obstacle is put in their way. I hope this Bill will speed up the process.

Does the Bill cover cross-Border issues? County Monaghan has 100 miles of the Border and we must ensure similar problems to that I outlined cannot happen again. I ask the Minister to check this to ensure the Bill can avoid such hold ups in future. It is not fair to industry or those who put their money where their mouth is when putting forward such plans. I have nothing against the planning process; I am not lobbying one way or the other, but I want to see it move more quickly. Hold ups such as those on the N3 are not tenable. If such problems are sorted out in the legislation, it will be easier to create jobs in rural areas.

Railways are equally important in terms of infrastructure. Dublin has seen major improvements but where I live there is not a single railway; we are totally dependent on roads. When looking at infrastructure, the Minister must ensure the railway lines that are in place are not done away with because some day the country will re-establish them to ensure people can be brought into and out of the city with ease and in peace.

For instance, there was a railway from Navan to Dublin. Its return has been promised within the next generation, but it could continue to Kingscourt, taking a great volume of traffic from Cavan-Monaghan directly into Dublin without adding to traffic volumes on the roads. If infrastructure such as park and ride schemes was put in place, it could be of major benefit to those of us who must commute to Dublin city, into which we must drive in a single line of cars, with a bus lane beside us that is virtually empty. If there was a park and ride scheme along the M50, it would ease congestion.

I wish to comment on something mentioned by Deputy Costello, namely, the new Mater Hospital proposal and the need for proper planning. One must wonder about access and parking. We are saying, on the one hand, that we will decentralise the Civil Service, forcing staff at senior level to move; yet here we are centralising matters as much as possible. We have been requested by the HSE to attend a meeting tomorrow and told it will examine hospitals in the north east based on a study it has conducted without consulting anyone locally. The e-mail simply states it will brief us on the report from a London based company which would not even understand the situation in Cavan-Monaghan. It also states it will explain how it will deal with the report. In other words, it is suggesting it will take action on a report on which there has been no consultation locally.

There is also a proposal for a brand new hospital in Drogheda, to be built either immediately adjacent to Lourdes Hospital or on a nearby football pitch. Anyone who considers the area will see that Ardee would be the ideal site. There are already the Mater and Blanchardstown hospitals in the north east. I say to the Minister bluntly that he must take hold of the issues at Government level. The Chair did not give me a chance to raise it with the Taoiseach today, but as a Government and as politicians, we must surely accept some responsibility for how services are run.

The one issue that worries me about the Bill is that we are handing so much power to the NRA, a body which, like the HSE, is not answerable to this House in any real sense. It can be brought before a committee, but it cannot be brought before the House to answer the thrust of debate. That is the angle that worries me. I know we must have some independent body which can push these issues, but it should also be answerable to the House. The Minister must be able to attend on its behalf and tell us exactly what is being done.

That would be interference.

We are not talking about interference but about the Minister telling us the facts of how and why something is being done, something to which people are entitled. If the Minister of State was in my situation, representing a constituency such as Cavan-Monaghan — the Minister for Health and Children did not even think it worth her while to visit either hospital in the area — he would wonder why we have Ministers at all. I wish to warn him, before the Bill is finalised, that there must be clear political accountability to ensure that whoever is in charge does not get carried away.

We need the infrastructure, and we make no apology for saying this. I will support it 99% of the way, but I am scared, from what I have learned of the new HSE, that the powers to be given to the NRA will be similarly abused. That is not good for democracy or how the country is run.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006 which purports to amend the planning Acts to introduce a strategic consent process for infrastructure of national importance provided by statutory bodies and private promoters and restructure An Bord Pleanála to establish a strategic infrastructure division to handle all major infrastructural projects. It is claimed the Bill will provide a better service for all involved, including the infrastructure providers, State bodies and the general public. It is to do so by providing for a single stage process of approval for projects, rigorous assessment, including environmental impact assessment, full public consultation — or so it states — and certainty regarding timeframes. Among the infrastructure to be included in the process are major environmental, transport and energy projects. The decision on whether a project is to be dealt with under the strategic consent process is a matter in each case for An Bord Pleanála.

The Bill's key features include introducing a one-step strategic consent procedure for certain types of major infrastructure. It also deals with responsibility for deciding on approval of railway orders, including light rail and metros, which are to be transferred from the Minister for Transport to An Bord Pleanála, and on large electricity transmission lines and strategic gas pipeline infrastructure, also to be transferred.

A new division will be established within An Bord Pleanála to handle decisions on all major infrastructural projects, including major local authority projects and motorways, which are already its responsibility, strategic infrastructure consents, major electricity transmission lines, railway orders and strategic gas infrastructural projects. The types of projects covered are set out in the Schedule to the Planning and Development Act 2000. The persons or bodies seeking permission for such strategic infrastructure will apply in the first instance to An Bord Pleanála for a decision on whether it is of strategic importance. Where the board decides positively, an application, with an environmental impact statement, may be made directly to it. It has been claimed that the public, local authorities and stakeholders will be consulted and that their views will be taken into account. The Bill also introduces major changes to the way in which the board handles infrastructure consent issues.

Debate adjourned.