That Dáil Éireann:
agrees that Ireland’s electricity infrastructure and transmission capability be modernised, as well as expanded, to allow for a clean, sustainable and affordable supply to the public and to support all future economic and societal development; accepts that Fáilte Ireland has raised concerns about erecting overhead pylons in certain areas, and there is considerable concern amongst the public about the lack of consultation, as well as health and visual concerns on the proposals being put forward by EirGrid, that involve high voltage lines to a height of 135 feet being erected in many regions throughout the country; and calls for an independent international assessment of the EirGrid proposals to take place, so that the health and visual concerns held by the public are fully addressed, the cost and placing underground of the transmission cables are fully examined and a report on these matters to be published by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.
The Fianna Fáil Party introduces this motion at a key moment in the planning of electricity infrastructure which will ensure the nation's energy supplies for decades. We fully accept and agree with plans to upgrade the national grid. Ireland must ensure that its electricity infrastructure and transmission capability is modernised and expanded to allow for a clean, sustainable and affordable supply to members of the public. It must support all future economic and societal development and ensure we remain at the forefront of the renewable energy revolution.
My party has tabled this motion for three reasons. First, we are responding to growing concern among communities nationwide at the possibility that pylons of 135 ft. in height will be erected beside their homes. We seek to highlight the ineffective consultation conducted by EirGrid thus far in the process, which has caused great anger in many communities. Second, we are seeking clarification and justification for the decisions taken by EirGrid well in advance of the public consultation on the national grid upgrade plan. In particular, we seek to understand the reasons EirGrid ruled out any construction of lines underground and chose single high voltage lines over regional lines. Third, we are offering a credible solution to address the justifiable concerns of the communities in question. We urge the Government to support our call for an independent international assessment of EirGrid's Grid25 proposals for upgrading the national grid. Previous reports conducted on certain aspects of the Grid25 proposals in 2013 and 2012 were too narrow in their approach and did not take into account the impact on residential areas or areas of high tourism potential.
The consultation process associated with the Grid25 plan was supposed to herald a new era of transparency and openness in the planning of national strategic infrastructure. We have found that local communities feel neglected, uninformed and ignored in the planning of this massive project. As a result, trust between EirGrid and the local communities has broken down. The failure of the consultation process has resulted in citizens finding it necessary to form protest and representative groups to ensure their voices are heard in this debate. This is not acceptable and the only way to restore trust in the process and ensure the voices of local communities are properly heard is to establish an independent body to assess the EirGrid proposals. The motion sets out such a proposal.
The appointment of an independent assessor to conduct a full examination of EirGrid's proposals is clearly required. For this reason, the Fianna Fáil Party urges the Government to support our call for an independent international assessment of EirGrid's plans. This assessment, unlike previous reports, should be allowed examine all possible options and seek out best international practice for the implementation of the Grid25 project. It could address all health and aesthetic concerns held by communities and thereby create local confidence in the planning process.
The concerns of residents about the implementation of EirGrid's plans are understandable. The planned pylons and transmission lines are of a huge size and scale. EirGrid has done little to correct fears surrounding the health and aesthetic impact of the planned overhead lines in rural areas. On the contrary, it has stoked these fears further through its refusal to engage in proper consultations. These concerns, it seems, are held by the new chairman of EirGrid, Mr. John O'Connor. Responding to questions from members of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications this morning, Mr. O'Connor stated he would not like to live close to a pylon. He and EirGrid, as an organisation, must understand how communities that will live close to pylons feel on the matter. The company's plan to construct new grid lines in the north east, south east and west regions constitutes the most comprehensive upgrading of the national grid for more than two decades. For this reason, this investment must proceed correctly with the support of the communities which will be affected.
The Fianna Fáil Party is concerned with EirGrid's current plan to erect overhead pylons near residential areas and areas of scenic beauty. As I outlined, residents in a number of counties do not believe the company is listening to their concerns and have lost faith in the consultation process. One of the reasons for this lack of confidence was the fact that EirGrid made a number of key decisions in advance of any public consultation in planning the Grid25 project. The company decided that the capacity of the new power lines would be 400kV and the upgraded network would be carried in single routes. It also decided against underground lines due to perceived cost. These decisions need to be clarified as they have resulted in members of the public having little influence in the final planning decision of the project.
For these reasons, it is necessary to have an independent international assessment of the EirGrid proposals. An all-encompassing review is required to analyse the cost of placing the new transmission cables underground. It is vital that this option is considered. The report should also allow the proposed projects to be developed to the best international standards. In Denmark, for example, pylons are increasingly rare sights in the landscape because the country's policymakers have decided that underground cables are more sustainable and aesthetically pleasing. While this approach may result in increased costs in the short term, it would have incalculable long-term benefits.
The Government should support a review, especially in light of concerns expressed by Fáilte Ireland in response to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Dara Calleary in which the organisation stated the "character of the landscape" and "cultural heritage" of parts of the country close to the proposed electrical pylons could be at risk. The national tourism development authority indicated it had met with EirGrid to discuss the proposed schemes and outline its "objectives to protect the key tourism assets and amenities within the vicinity of these schemes". Fáilte Ireland has commenced working on a number of the schemes to ensure "key tourism assets and amenities are identified and considered appropriately within the planning process". This demonstrates that the concerns of residents about the impact of new power lines on the countryside are shared by the national tourism authority.
In its reply, Fáilte Ireland also stated, "It is considered that the character of the landscape and the various aspects of the cultural heritage of the area within the vicinity of the proposed [pylons] are the main tourism amenities that could potentially be at risk." We welcome the decision of the organisation to make a formal submission on the proposed schemes by the first week in January. It is also noteworthy that proposals to erect pylons have been accepted without restrictions as part of a planning process which imposes severe restrictions on other types of planning applications in sensitive areas and so forth.
Fáilte Ireland's concerns further highlight the need for proper and thorough consultation with communities and interest groups. The authority has clearly emphasised the need to consider alternative means of electricity transmission in certain areas where the landscape and tourism may be significantly damaged by overhead pylons. While the need to upgrade our electricity transmission system is clear and supported by Fianna Fáil, it must be done in a way that does not undermine other key strategic national assets. EirGrid must consider sustainable alternatives to overhead pylons in areas with high tourism potential.
Fianna Fáil's position is clear. We accept that the Grid25 projects are of national strategic importance and as such support the projects' construction. However, we believe that the public consultation needed to advance and best inform the planning permission being sought has not been conducted properly. The fact that residents in most counties affected by these plans have accused EirGrid of not engaging in proper consultation shows that such consultation is not working. These accusations should be investigated, addressed and properly resolved.
From listening to every group that has contacted me and that I have met, those involved have far more to be doing with their lives than forming groups that are concerned about health, visual impact, their residential areas etc. They have joined these groups because they are genuinely concerned about the future of their families and communities. In some of the scenic areas, there are significant restrictions on any kind of alteration, even in some places in changing the pier of a gate, through the normal planning process through the local authorities, and I cannot understand how we can foist these pylons on them.
We believe that the construction of these projects must not have any substantial impact on residential properties in the regions which are currently being assessed. EirGrid must consider the laying of these transmission cables underground where possible. There is a precedent for this course of action. In 2004, similar concerns were raised in Cork and an independent mediator was brought in to adjudicate. In the end, transmission lines were laid underground in a number of areas where pylons were judged unsuitable.
This is not an insurmountable challenge. There is a way forward which will be acceptable to both EirGrid and local communities. The only way is to appoint an independent international assessment body which would report impartially on the EirGrid proposals. In addressing the health, visual and economic concerns held by the public and examining best practice internationally, we can go forward together.
To date, consultation has been lacking. Communities are up in arms trying to protect what is theirs for generations to come. The motion asks that we take a step back and appoint an independent international assessor to look at all the options so the best informed decisions are made on how we progress with this project.