I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to have the opportunity to present this crucially important Bill to the House. When I presented the Bill to the Seanad, I declared it to be among the most important legislation to be introduced during this term. That is a point I want to emphasise again and with good reason. Simply put, this Bill is the key to delivering the infrastructure we will need to sustain and improve our quality of life.
Mrs. Thatcher, not my favourite politician, once said: "While you and I might travel by road, rail or even by air, only economists travel by infrastructure". During periods of under-investment in the past, one could have been excused for thinking that modern, high quality infrastructure existed only in the discourse of economists or as a remote aspiration somewhere at the end of a winding, pot-holed yellow-brick road. However, a healthy economy and sound management of the public finances have enabled the Government to set about delivering the quality and volume of infrastructural services our people deserve and which for a long time we have not been able to afford.
Our country has changed beyond recognition over recent decades. Seismic cultural, demographic and economic changes have brought us enormous benefits. Since the late 1980s but especially in the last decade, we have seen phenomenal growth in population, employment, disposable income and in the demands placed on our infrastructure. These changes deliver obvious benefits and bring about challenges too for the way in which we deliver services, especially key infrastructural services and projects, to accommodate a population of around 5 million by 2020. Our economic success is founded upon the hard work of citizens and successful policies we have put in place. We deserve to reap the benefits of our combined efforts through first class services and modern, well functioning infrastructure.
A dynamic economy of itself will not power homes and businesses, deliver people to their places of work or study or goods to markets, or provide clean water or solutions to our waste problems. For all these we require major investment in quality infrastructure to compliment our rude economic health. For this reason the Government is investing 5% of our gross national product in public infrastructure. Internationally this is a remarkable level of Government investment. We have already invested €24 billion under the national development plan since 2000 to enhance our economic and social infrastructure. The Government has recently announced investments in public transport under Transport 21 worth €34 billion. We are drawing up the next national development plan to direct our future investment programmes.
The national spatial strategy will be a crucial influence on infrastructural investment over the period of the plan and beyond. Our decision last year to broadly base the regional dimension of the next national development plan on the national spatial strategy underscores the importance the Government attaches to the alignment of our economic, social and environmental priorities. The strategy emphasises balanced regional development and the important role that good transport, communications, energy and other types of infrastructure play in enabling every part of the country to meet its potential. The delivery of the objectives of the strategy, in consultation with regional interests, will therefore be a key horizontal objective in the next national development programme.
Regional planning guidelines spell out how the national spatial strategy agenda flows into regional development, setting out how the objectives of the national and regional planning frameworks are to be delivered. Development plans then set the overall policy and planning framework within which development will take place locally. At national, regional and local level the importance of putting strategic infrastructure at the centre of all plans and programmes is vital to ensure the sustainable development of all areas.
However, we need to update our current planning processes to enable us to deliver on these ambitious plans. Our systems of infrastructure delivery have traditionally served us well in the past, but the level of ambition contained in the national development plan and in Transport 21 presents us with unprecedented challenges. If we do not take steps to tackle blockages, our planning system could potentially act as a barrier to the infrastructure we need for our dynamic economy and growing population.
Delays in the delivery of any key infrastructure projects have financial, temporal and environmental costs. We require a dynamic means of meeting our infrastructure deficit which safeguards the traditional central principles of our planning system, and which ultimately delivers investment ahead of demand. This Bill allows for a major streamlining of the existing planning consent process.
There is a substantial duplication of functions in the planning process for major infrastructure development between the relevant planning authority and An Bord Pleanála. That agency, with acknowledged expertise in this area, is involved only at the last stage and is constrained in the way it can handle these projects.
This process is bad for infrastructure providers. They must deal with multiple layers of regulators and they cannot have a face-to-face discussion with the final decision makers under the present system. They are denied access to the decision makers at an early stage when discussions might make a difference. It is bad for planning authorities which must invest massive resources into deciding these projects only to see them appealed. It is also bad for ordinary people who see poorly prepared planning applications submitted to local authorities and rightly feel duty-bound to object. It is also a sub-optimal use of An Bord Pleanála's expertise. It needs to be involved from the beginning, helping to ensure that the projects it receives are properly thought through.
Our existing system is an inclusive one which provides for extensive public participation at various stages and ensures all concerns can be fully taken into account when crucial decisions are being made. A streamlined system is required which will allow full democratic participation and ensure transparency and accountability, while striking the correct balance between the national interest and the views and concerns of local groups and individuals. The Bill protects the right of everyone to participate in the process and affords opportunities for members of the public, residents and environmental groups to express their views on proposed infrastructure projects. Under the strategic consent process, the board will be required to consult with and have due regard for the comments of relevant local authorities and, for the first time, elected local authority members. This is a novel provision because previous planning legislation excluded councillors from the executive planning decision process.
I acknowledge this is complex legislation and that the proposed measures will have significant impacts on our system. I want, therefore, to set out the objectives of the Bill in broad terms. There are currently three broad categories of planning consents for large infrastructure projects. Projects promoted by local authorities within their areas go straight to An Bord Pleanála on the basis that a local authority, as planning authority, cannot be a judge in its own case. Large infrastructure projects, such as motorways and major building programmes, will require formal environmental impact assessment.
Certain development projects are not covered by the normal planning system but by a separate consent system, often under the responsibility of the relevant Minister. Such projects include railway lines and metro, for which the Minister of Transport has responsibility, and gas pipelines, which fall under the remit of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.
Major infrastructure projects proposed by the private sector and State sponsored bodies or by local authorities outside their areas must go to the normal two-step planning process, involving permission from the local planning authority and, almost always, an appeal to An Bord Pleanála.
To help streamline the process, this Bill will extend the board's existing role in two ways. The board will now take on the consent role of the Minister for Transport as the consent authority for railway orders and the Commission for Energy Regulation and the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in respect of strategic gas pipelines. In addition, major transport, environmental and energy projects of the type referred to in the new Seventh Schedule, which is to be added to the 2000 Act, will now be submitted directly to the board rather than face successive hurdles.
To enable the board to meet the demands of this expanded brief, the Bill also allows for a restructuring of the board through the creation of a strategic infrastructure division to deal exclusively with national infrastructure projects. The new structures will provide an enhanced service for stakeholders, infrastructure providers, State bodies and the general public alike.
I will refer to some of the specific provisions contained in the Bill. Section 3 amends the Planning and Development Act 2000 by inserting new sections 37A to 37J. These will set out the detailed procedures for the new consent process for the types of strategic infrastructure contained in the new Seventh Schedule to the 2000 Act, inserted under section 5 of the Bill. In effect, this new consent process means that any infrastructure provider seeking permission to deliver infrastructure projects of the type listed in the Seventh Schedule will now apply directly to the new strategic infrastructure division of An Bord Pleanála. Section 19 of the Bill allows for the establishment of this new division.
The board will decide whether proposed projects constitute infrastructure of strategic importance according to the criteria contained in the new section 37A of the 2000 Act. Such projects must either be of strategic economic or social importance to the State or the region in which it would be located, contribute in a significant manner to the objectives of the national spatial strategy or regional planning guidelines of the region in which they are to be located or have a significant effect on the area of more than one planning authority.
Under section 37B, where a proposed development does not fall within one of these categories, the board must notify the developer in writing of this fact and direct him or her to apply for consent through the normal process to the relevant planning authority or authorities. The board will also notify the relevant planning authorities of its decision at this point. Where proposed developments fall within one or more of these categories, the strategic infrastructure division must then enter into a consultation process with the applicant. This consultation is intended to ensure applications and environmental impact statements are better prepared and have full regard to the requisite planning and procedural guidelines. I seldom give my unqualified agreement to comments made by Members of the Green Party but I think they are correct in this regard. Poorly prepared planning applications clog the system, add to frustration and help to bring the planning process into disrepute. This section will mean undue delay can be avoided and, crucially, any significant environmental ramifications of a project will be highlighted as early as possible in the process. I concur with Deputy Cuffe that environmental impact statements sometimes seem to have been written on the back of cigarette boxes. This matter must be dealt with seriously to avoid clogging the system or putting local communities through unnecessary frustrations, expenses and concerns. This is a progressive measure which is specifically intended to make the planning process work and, in particular, to make people compose planning applications in a thoughtful, comprehensive and accurate manner.
Section 37C sets out the key transparency provisions in respect of this consultation process. Our system is founded on the principles of transparency and accountability and these considerations are paramount throughout the Bill. This section makes a clear distinction between the consultation process and the further functions of the board in the consent procedure, which shall in no way be prejudiced by the consultations. This section will give the board the opportunity to advise at an early stage that an application does not make sense. The board must keep written records of the consultations and make these records available with other documents pertaining to the planning application, such as the environmental impact statement. That should address some of the concerns expressed by Members when I first introduced the Bill.
Section 37D is a standard scoping provision required under the EIA directive. It allows a prospective applicant to seek advice from the strategic infrastructure division on the information to be included in an environmental impact statement. This is a commonsense provision because, if a person genuinely wants to put forward a complete environmental impact statement, he or she should be able to ask An Bord Pleanála whether sufficient information has been supplied. This aspect of the consultation process shall not prejudice the functions of the board in any way.
Section 37E outlines the applications procedure with regard to transparency and democratic involvement. It requires,inter alia, that all applications to the board must be accompanied by an environmental impact statement and that applicants must publish notices of the proposed development, make the application and environmental impact statement publicly available and invite submissions and observations to the board. In turn, the relevant planning authority must prepare and submit a report setting out its views on the effects of the proposed development.
I am concerned that councillors, as the elected representatives of the people, have felt themselves excluded from the planning process. They do not want to be included in a negative way, to interfere or use undue influence, but to have the views they express on behalf of the communities that elect them heard. Too often councillors tell me they feel excluded from the system and are not listened to.
I want to reiterate in a practical way the importance I have attached to democratic participation in the planning process. While local authorities have a major role in setting overall planning policy in their areas' development plans, they normally have no direct role in executive decisions on planning applications. It is important that their views be taken into account in the consent process for major projects. Consequently sections 37E(4) to 37E(7) give a new specific role to councillors whereby managers will be legally required to convey the views of elected members of councils to the board. This deals with a lacuna. We have all had experience of talking to councillors who feel they are excluded from the process. This gives councillors a statutory right and managers a statutory responsibility to ensure that right is exercised. It means the views not just of the council executive and planning staff go to the board but also those expressed by the elected representatives who democratically speak on behalf of the public in the council.
I want to highlight a key quality control measure. Some commentators have suggested that delays in the delivery of infrastructure are caused more often by poorly prepared applications than by any flaws in the planning process. I have already mentioned Deputy Cuffe's comments on this, which are not far from my views. If that is the case, the board will have the important power to throw out an application that is badly prepared or where an infrastructure provider has ignored its advice on the project or the environmental impact statement. Section 37F affords a wide discretion to the board in the procedures it adopts in deciding these applications.
The section also allows for a shift from the traditionally adversarial nature of the handling of disputes towards a more flexible conciliatory process whereby the board can hold meetings with relevant stakeholders as it deems necessary. As we know, the adversarial approach can be resource intensive and time consuming, and I am confident the House will support me in my efforts to encourage mediation as a more desirable approach. I have had the experience as a councillor when mediation was wanted but there was no procedure to encourage people to use common sense and listen to the views and concerns of each side.
The Board's powers to grant or refuse permissions for strategic infrastructure projects are set down in section 37G. The early consultation process between the board and prospective applicants is intended to ensure that problems, for instance relating to a project's environmental impact, can be identified at an early stage in the overall consent process. This is especially important. As a result, I anticipate that relatively few applications will be formally rejected on such grounds at a late stage. If errors are dealt with early, it will lift a burden from the shoulders of local communities and will mean a planning process can go through without becoming sidelined into unnecessary areas. Where an applicant still wishes to pursue such a case to decision stage and where the board has already highlighted issues that are potentially problematic, the board must deal with the project. It will be up to the applicants to take that risk.
As Ireland is growing so rapidly, we should have a process in all planning consent procedures whereby communities that are hosts to development receive a community gain. This view is shared by Members across the House. I am pleased that the community gain concept has been bedded down as a practical way to mitigate some of the effects of permissions for major pieces of waste infrastructure. However, I have decided to take this a step further and avail of the opportunity to formalise the process, which has been happening on an informal basis in a number of councils. Under the new consent procedures the board will be given the power to attach conditions to permissions requiring that developers provide a facility or service which the board considers a gain to the community being affected by the infrastructure project. If a community hosts a major piece of infrastructure, it should receive some additional community benefit. This underlines our view of the necessity to balance national or regional interests with local concerns.
However balance is a watchword. While we must ensure that communities are not unduly affected by such development, applicants must not be unfairly penalised when seeking to provide key infrastructural projects. The Bill therefore also provides that the financial burden of such a condition cannot be disproportionate to the benefits likely to accrue to the developer as a result of the permission being granted. Nobody would argue the case for a disproportionate imposition.
Once a decision has been taken by the board under section 37G, it must send copies of its decision to the applicant, any relevant planning authority and any other persons who made submissions or observations on the application. This notification must give reasons for the decision. The costs incurred by the board in the decision-making process can be burdensome and run at an average of approximately €15,000 per case. Section 37H enables the board to recover its costs and those of relevant planning authorities incurred in the decision-making process from the applicant. This is just and fair. The taxpayers should not carry all the burden. The proposer of the infrastructure should share the cost.
Timing is always of the essence and is key in matching our infrastructural needs with delivery. It is an overall objective of this Bill that the period between application and final decision will be reduced. I intend to do this by reducing two stages in the planning process to a single stage and by ensuring that the quality of applications and environmental impact statements submitted is enhanced. I do not intend to abbreviate or compromise the deliberative processes gone through by the board in reaching its decision. Therefore, in line with the standard period that applies to all board decisions, section 37J sets out a statutory objective of 18 weeks in which a decision is to be made. Fine Gael moved a good motion in the Seanad and made a good argument for bringing this down from 18 weeks to 12. Although 12 weeks would not be practical to include all the other processes, I appreciated that debate.
Section 4 amends the Planning and Development Act 2000 by inserting new sections 182A to 182E. As I mentioned, these sections provide new streamlined consent procedures for major electricity transmission lines and strategic gas infrastructure development. Development applications for electricity transmission that either require completion of an EIS or will be situated in the operational area of more than one planning authority require consent from the board. That clears up an area of confusion that has existed for years. Similarly, applications for the development of strategic gas infrastructure for both upstream and downstream pipelines are now to be made to the board directly. Notification procedures and the decision-making roles of the board are similar to those provided for under the new strategic consent process under section 37E.
A new seventh Schedule to the Planning and Development Act 2000 is being inserted under section 5 of the Bill. This Schedule lists the classes of infrastructure project to which the new consent process shall apply and which up to now would have had to go through the two-stage planning process. Such projects fall under the three main headings of energy infrastructure, such as gas, oil and electricity installations, transport infrastructure, including airports, rail lines and motorways, and environmental infrastructure, such as waste or water treatment facilities. The Bill is upfront about what is include in the streamlined process. Nuclear energy installations are not included. I mention this for the benefit of Deputy Morgan who has been confused on this point.
My remarks so far have served as a broad outline of the new consent procedure to be executed by the board. The criteria by which projects are so defined are clearly set out. The Bill makes clear that the means by which such projects are funded neither contributes to nor detracts from the strategic importance of a major and needed project. If the board decides that a proposed development would be in the national interest, then the means by which such projects are funded, whether public, private or a combination of both, is of secondary importance.
If the House will give me a little indulgence, I will make a few last important points. In section 9, I make changes to the system to deal with rogue developers. Deputy Gilmore has mentioned this on more than one occasion. The amendment to section 35 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 shifts the burden of proof to the applicant and means the applicant will be required to apply to the High Court to have a decision to refuse permission overturned.
Section 12 replaces section 50 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 with new sections 50 and 50A. These relate to judicial review procedures and make certain procedural changes to applications for judicial review of decisions made by planning authorities to the board. I take our obligations under the Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation, decision making and access to justice in environmental matters very seriously.
Currently, decisions by the board are subject to judicial review by the courts. Environmental non-governmental organisations applying for judicial review must prove that theirs is a substantial interest in the matter concerned. The proposed change will mean that NGOs that fulfil certain conditions need not prove substantial interest although they must still establish substantial grounds for any challenge. By allowing such concerned groups access to the courts in appropriate cases we are again reinforcing the democratic process as well as ensuring that our Aarhus obligations continue to be fulfilled.