I welcome this Bill, which indicates the priority the Government are giving to environmental matters. Indeed, this is a common theme throughout Europe at present where environmental matters are becoming more and more important. We have not been slow to follow that trend and in some cases to lead it. This Bill is a further step in that process.
Both this Government and the previous Government have good records in the area of environmental protection. They have introduced a number of Acts — for example, the Water Pollution Act and the Air Pollution Act. The Minister of State has also taken action to resolve the smog problem in Dublin. Last year the Government published an action plan for the environment. This is probably one of the most significant documents published by the Department of the Environment during the past decade. It is important to note that not only did the Government outline their aspirations in relation to the environment in that document but they also provided the money to implement those aspirations and ideas. A further aspect of that document is that it has allowed local authorities to plan ahead. I can cite the example of Meath County Council who have gone to the Department on the basis of the plan and outlined their needs. They have been told well in advance that funding will be available in 1991, 1992 or 1993 and they can go ahead with the planning of sewerage and water schemes. This very important change in the Government's attitude has meant that local authorities no longer have to work in the dark. One could wait for ten years for a sewerage or a water scheme or some anti-pollution measure, without approval in principle or otherwise from the Department and suddenly be told towards the end of a financial year: "X amount of money is left, we will give you the go ahead" and the necessary planning would not be done. That environmental plan was very important and I compliment the Ministers and the Department involved for putting it forward and also the new attitude within the Department where people are told in advance to plan ahead for 1991, 1992, 1993 and so on.
I give a general welcome to the Bill. Most people have welcomed it. Possibly many people have welcomed it because they have some vague notion that if it is an Environmental Protection Agency it will protect the environment; so, therefore, the Bill must be good. It conjures up all sorts of visions of a concerned society seeking to protect the natural environment and even visions of knights in shining armour tackling the big bad world of pollution. Because of that everybody will welcome it. Perhaps we should query whether in itself it is a good thing or why is it necessary that we should have an Environmental Protection Agency? We should ask ourselves the question: why do we need this agency or, more basically, do we need an Environmental Protection Agency? Have our local authorities not been given the task of environmental protection? Should they not be environmental protection agencies? We have 87 local authorities and if they are not environmental protection agencies we should ask ourselves why. Why is it the perception among the general public that local authorities are not fulfilling their role as protectors of the environment? Heretofore, one of the reasons for that perception was the lack of funds given to the local authorities by the Department of the Environment. Thankfully, as I have indicated at the outset, that has changed for the better over the last number of years, even to the extent of indicating that funds will be available at some future date which allows the planning to go ahead.
However, much damage was done in the past to local authorities because they were not getting the funds. We have examples in every county in Ireland where local authorities are the biggest polluters in their own local authority areas. It is very difficult for a local authority to police environmental matters when the local authority are guilty of pollution. Local authorities had no credibility in that area. That is one reason for the public perception that local authorities are not doing their job for the environment. The second reason is that, as I have indicated over the past three or four years, the laws which existed previously were totally inadequate. It was very difficult for local authorities — and still is in some instances — to obtain a prosecution in relation to pollution offences. That has improved, but there is still a long way to go. It is damaging to local authorities that the legislation is not sufficiently tight to allow them to prosecute and to do so more regularly. A third reason — and one which is understandable at a time when jobs are scarce — is that in the past local authorities did not put the environment first but rather put the possibility of jobs at the top of their agenda. As a result, in some cases environmental issues were ignored and local authorities lost credibility. It led to many problems and much local confrontation that the local authorities appeared to ignored the whole area of environmental protection.
In the last couple of years I was lucky to have visited Taiwan, which is said to be one of the most advanced industrial nations in the world; they are the fifth largest trading nation in the world, about one-third the size of Ireland. They put industry first and, unfortunately, they are reaping the harvest of that policy. The environment is completely and totally ruined. At the time of my visit serious consideration was being given to a whole range of environmental measures including banning cars from their capital city and various other stringent measures that would have to be taken. If we pursue a policy of jobs first at all costs, then we could end up the same; but, as previous speakers have said, we are beginning to get the balance right.
The fourth reason for saying local authorities have lacked credibility in the area of environmental protection was because of a lack of expertise within the local authorities in dealing with highly technical planning applications. Very often the expertise they needed was not available. It is fair to say, in some cases, that some local authorities refused planning applications on the basis that they were not able to deal with them sufficiently well because of lack of expertise. They thought that by refusing the planning permission it would be passed on to An Board Pleanála who might get the expertise.
All of this combined has led to an undermining of public confidence in the role of local authorities in environmental protection. That is the problem as I see it. The question I ask is whether this Bill addresses that problem. I have to be honest and say I am not sure it addresses it fully. I have to ask myself whether this Bill will restore public confidence. Will the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, as a body, restore confidence in the whole area of environmental protection? I doubt it. The doubt I have arises from the fact that whenever we run into a major problem in Ireland the solution is to set up a commission, a committee or work party to study or to take action on a particular area. Very few of these bodies seem to work.
I take one example from the area of planning which is closely related to the whole area of environmental protection. In the late seventies people wanted a change in the planning system: they wanted it moved out of political control. The solution at that time was An Bord Pleanála. The question we should ask is whether they solved the problem we had in relation to planning. My answer to that question is a very firm and resounding "No". There is hardly a more discredited body in the country at present than An Bord Pleanála. Instead of improving the perception of the planning process, as it was designed to do, it has made it worse. There are examples from other areas which I could give, but that is the most glaring example of setting up a so-called independent board which was supposed to solve the problem but did not. I simply pose the question, because I do not want to see the same thing happening in the area of environmental protection. I see a danger arising where the Environmental Protection Agency will end up being as useless in the eyes of the public as An Bord Pleanála.
My theory in relation to many of these decision-making bodies and the decision-making process in Ireland generally is that the nearer to the people a decision is made the more acceptable it becomes; the converse is that the more remote the decision-making the less satisfactory it is for the people. If less than satisfactory decisions are made, obviously they become less acceptable and that gives rise to all forms of pressure groups. We saw that in the planning area. Removing responsibility to so called independent groups makes our society a lot less democratic. Because it becomes less democratic we come nearer to anarchy if we continue to pursue that type of solution to problems.
Over the past decade the catch-cry has been to look for independent bodies to be established. The question I pose is — independence from whom? I presume that what people mean when they say that — even politicians — is that they are looking for bodies to be independent from politicians. We as politicians are doing ourselves a disservice by giving in to every call for an independent body. We have all dealt with independent bodies and the general public and we know that when the decision of the independent body is made and it does not suit a person, it is not the independent body that gets all the criticism but the politician. Politicians get it in the neck every time some so called independent body makes a decision. We have had plenty of examples of that over the last two months.
What I am saying is by way of an appeal to the Minister to ensure that the Environmental Protection Agency has a limited role. Rather than giving them wide ranging functions and roles, the Minister should ensure that the local authorities get the finance for environmental protection work. They should be given the funds as they have been given them over the last number of years to prevent pollution being caused by themselves and by others. The role of the agency should be to set environmental quality objectives and standards. The agency should have support and back up services and should provide expertise in technical areas where such expertise may not be available at local level.
I agree with the role outlined — using the agency for monitoring the impact of industry on the environment and so on — but they should not be involved in the nitty gritty of day to day environmental matters. If they are, their effectiveness will be diluted and we will have another useless body on our hands.
One aspect of the agency's role as outlined in the Bill, with which I am not at all happy, is the licensing role for certain industries. It is a good idea for them to have an advisory role to the local authorities, as they will have the expertise, but it will cause endless problems if the Environmental Protection Agency have the licensing role separate to the local authority's role. How would licensing work? Would a company have to seek a licence first in relation to discharges or will they have to seek planning permission first? If they first require the licence, then the local authority is immediately put under pressure to grant planning permission and we will hear stories of local authorities being afraid to refuse planning permission because a company had a licence and there could be a compensation claim.
We will hear stories of companies having invested millions, once they got the licence, before applying for planning permission, assuming that they would automatically get planning permission. That would cause difficulties. Alternatively, a person could first get planning permission and having spent huge sums trying to get the planning permission, carrying out environmental impact assessments and so on they could be told they cannot have a licence. Will that also not give rise to difficulties?
I know there is a co-ordinating role between the local authorities and the agency but I see a grave difficulty here. I know they will consult, but the two functions should not be separated. I know they are separated in the legislation but that is a mistake. The Minister should look at that.
The major role of the Environmental Protection Agency should be mainly advisory and to provide expertise. The Environmental Protection Agency performance should be monitored closely by the Department and the Minister in the first few years, and if they are proving successful we should then extend their role.
The Environmental Protection Agency should also be involved in co-ordinating environmental policy across all Departments. The Department of Agriculture and Food will have one set of anti-pollution grants, the Department of the Environment another, and perhaps the Department of Industry and Commerce yet another. The Environmental Protection Agency should play a leading role in tying all these strands together and should produce a policy document to cover all aspects of development.
Subject to the reservations I have expressed, this Bill is a move in the right direction. I hope the agency will prove to be a lot more successful than some of the agencies set up in the past.