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.