Before the adjournment, I was dealing with the significant changes to our planning system proposed under this Bill. One of those changes, under section 15, allows the Minister greater discretion in appointing the members of An Bord Pleanála. We are being told that all of these changes are being made in order to speed up the planning of major infrastructure projects. The irony is that the Bill does not reduce the time projects will spend in the formal planning process. The Bill simply changes the process to cut out local involvement. More crucially, the Bill does not address the real reasons infrastructure projects are being delayed and it will not speed up the delivery of a road, a railway or an airport.
This country has a serious infrastructure deficit. In its document on the national development plan last year, the Institute of Engineers of Ireland stated Ireland has a premier division economy with a third division infrastructure. The World Competitiveness Yearbook 2003 rated Ireland 28th out of 29 countries for infrastructure. Infrastructure deficit is a polite term, but hardly the term most often used to express the frustration of the commuter stuck in Dublin traffic, of the business person who tries to get a train from any of our major cities at 8 p.m., of the Internet user without broadband waiting for a file to download, or of the hassled passenger in the overcrowded Dublin Airport.
The IEI, the professional body for engineers at the front line of infrastructure development, drew some very interesting conclusions in its document for January 2005. In essence, the document tells us that the national development plan is not being delivered on time. The targets set for 2006 in the national development plan will not be reached until 2010 at the earliest and, unless funding levels are significantly increased, the NDP programme will not be completed until approximately 2013.
With regard to specific sectors, the IEI stated:
At current spending levels the network envisaged under NDP will not be completed until 2013. The roads requirements to support the NSS have yet to be planned and scheduled for construction.
With regard to public transport, the IEI complained that key decisions on rail connectors to Dublin Airport and the new Dublin metro have yet to be made, although that complaint was made prior to the announce of Transport 21. The IEI also complained that many water services projects were delayed by an average of two years and predicted that the 2006 investment targets would not be met until the end of 2010. The IEI was particularly critical of the delays in delivering waste infrastructure, stating:
Progress in delivering the NDP waste strategy has been very disappointing...The expectation that the private sector would deliver a significant percentage of the required infrastructure has not materialised, the cost of landfill is nearly three times the UK and EU average.
What has gone wrong? The Minister, Deputy Roche, and his nine year old Government would have us believe it is all the fault of objectors and that we only need to change our planning laws to speed up the building of roads, railways, metros and airports. In his introduction to the Bill, the Minister said: "Simply put, this Bill is the key to delivering the infrastructure we will need to sustain and improve our quality of life." If this Bill is the key to delivering our infrastructure, why did it take the Government ten years to discover that fact and why have three years passed since the Bill was originally announced by the Taoiseach in autumn 2003?
The IEI appears to have identified a different cause for the delays in infrastructure. Professional bodies like the IEI sometimes use wonderfully understated language to make the most devastating political points. Its 2005 NDP submission states "The Institution is concerned that the vision and enthusiasm that gave rise to the NDP, the NSS and the National Development Finance Agency has waned". In translation, that means the Government has taken its foot off the pedal and is not driving the national development plan. Ministers are not doing their jobs in terms of pushing forward the projects for which their Departments have responsibility.
Let us look more closely at the delays in delivering and upgrading the country's infrastructure. Why, for example, is Ireland so far behind with regard to broadband? That has nothing to do with planning or protestors climbing up trees in the Glen of the Downs but has a great deal to do with the way in which this Government privatised Eircom while failing to establish an effective alternative for the provision of broadband. The delay on the second terminal at Dublin Airport and the ensuing overcrowding came about because the Government delayed too long in making a decision on who should develop the project. The delay at Dublin Airport has nothing to do with the planning process. The Dublin metro and the rail link to the airport have not been delayed on planning stage because the projects have not yet reached that stage. Much of the delay in terms of progressing road projects occurs during the design and land acquisition stages. Most road projects spend more time with design consultants than with planners. With regard to waste infrastructure, the differences that have emerged within the Cabinet over incineration probably caused longer delays than any number of objections on the formal planning stage.
The biggest problem this country faces with accelerating infrastructure provision does not arise from delays in the planning process but from the lethargy and incompetence of this Government. It did not produce the national spatial strategy until three years after the publication of the national development plan, whereas the reverse should have been the case. The national spatial strategy was then abandoned for the politically motivated decentralisation plan announced by the former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, in December 2003. Now, the Government is about to announce a new national development plan in chunks that are tailor made to be released as the Fianna Fáil general election manifesto before the national spatial strategy has been reviewed or renewed. After nine years in Government during the best of economic times, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats now tell us that the delays in providing essential infrastructure are not their fault but are due to objectors and delays in the planning process. There is nothing as pathetic as a Government in power for too long that looks for scapegoats for its own failures.
To be fair to the Government, it did not take a full nine years before the penny dropped with regard to infrastructure. It came to that conclusion after only six years. In October 2003, the Taoiseach told a Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis that legislation would be urgently prepared to speed up the planning process for critical infrastructure projects. Speed must be a relative concept for this Government because this legislation required nearly three years to be produced.
Fianna Fáil was founded by a mathematician, so I have a mathematical conundrum for the Minister. If the Victorians could build a railway line from Dublin to Cork and from concept to completion in only four years, why in the 21st century did it take Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats nearly three years to write a Bill about speeding up the construction of railways and roads?
This Government needs to catch up on infrastructure. The IEI stated: "the country's infrastructure deficit is contributing to the decline in Ireland's international competitiveness, quality of life and regional balance". However, if Ireland is to speed up the provision of infrastructure, it needs to change the Government instead of the planning laws. A club which finds itself in the relegation zone does not seek to rewrite the rules of the game but changes the management. I do not deny that delays arise in bringing infrastructure projects to construction or that changes in the process are necessary. However, the Bill before us does not address the real sources of these delays nor does it propose effective remedies.
Some projects are held up because of court challenges and delays in the courts. That can and should be resolved through the establishment of a dedicated division of the High Court that could deal with planning cases. The Labour Party has been recommending this solution for several years and I am pleased the Minister stated that arrangements are now being made to facilitate it. Such a move would not require the amendment of planning legislation because we can reduce delays in court challenges to the planning process by speeding up the process in which the courts deal with those challenges.
This Bill, we are told, is intended to reduce the time spent by major projects in the formal planning process but I fail to see how that will be achieved. According to the procedure for planning applications under the current Planning and Development Acts, an application is first made to the local authority, which is required to come to a decision within eight weeks. A period of four weeks is allowed for an appeal to be lodged to An Bord Pleanála, which in turn is required to make its decision within 18 weeks. The total is approximately seven and a half months.
Under the new procedure proposed in this Bill the following will be the position. The proposer of the project will be required to consult An Bord Pleanála on the project and there is an unspecified period of time for that. After that consultation period the proposer will be required to apply to the board to be considered to be in one of the three categories that would qualify to be processed under this legislation. Again, the period of time for that application is unspecified in the Bill. An Bord Pleanála then gives notice to the proposer of the project as to whether he or she qualifies under the so-called fast-tracking procedure under this legislation. The applicant then makes an application for planning permission to the board and there are six weeks for the environmental impact study to be examined and ten weeks for the application to be referred to the local authority for consultation, including the consultation of elected members of the council. It is not clear from the Bill whether these two periods are additive, but I will assume they are not. There are 18 weeks for the board to make its decision.
No matter how one tots that up, and allowing for the most minimal amount of time for the earlier consultation process with the board and the application under section 3 to see whether one qualifies for the provisions of this Act, it amounts to seven months. In both cases there is provision for the submission of additional information and for time extensions. I have been trying to do this tot to find out whether this Bill, which is supposed to fast-track the planning process, does so. I find there is no time gain in the formal planning process under the new mechanism proposed by the Minister. The system is being changed. The application to the local authority is being cut out and it is only consulted. The involvement of the public is cut out at local level and, critically, the right to appeal is abolished so a member of the public will have only one opportunity to express an opinion on a project under this system. There will be no right of appeal once a decision is made. One would have to go to court after that.
The Bill contains a number of provisions to which we will have to give detailed consideration on Committee Stage. The first issue is the type of development that will qualify for this so-called fast-tracking. It is not fast-tracking but short-cutting to planning permission by direct application to the board.
The Minister said this is about projects of strategic importance. Three categories of project will qualify for this Bill. Projects of strategic importance will qualify. According to section 3(2)(b) development would qualify if it “would contribute significantly to the fulfilment of any of the objectives in the national spatial strategy or in any regional planning guidelines”. That could be anything. The third category is a development that would have a significant effect on the area of more than one planning authority. That could be any kind of development, not necessarily infrastructure but any kind of private development that straddles the boundaries of two local authorities. The definition of what constitutes strategic infrastructure is wide. Any development relating to roads and railways, or gas, oil and electricity distribution is covered.
The provision on environmental impact studies, which appears in section 37D, is interesting. Under this section an applicant can request the board to give a written opinion on what information will be required to be contained in the environmental impact statement. With this idea of consulting the board in advance to tell developers what to put in the planning application they might as well have hired the board to prepare the planning application. The board would be steering the applicant and prejudging the process. Section 37G lists the questions An Bord Pleanála will have to consider when making a decision, one of which is the national interest. I searched the Bill for a definition of the national interest. The national interest is a wide and disputed term. We spend most of our time in this House deciding what it should be and we have many different opinions on it. The board will have to take the national interest into account, whatever it is supposed to be, and I would be interested to see the definition of the national interest the Minister intends to come up with on Committee Stage.
A number of changes are being made to the role of An Bord Pleanála. it was established in the 1970s by a Labour Minister as a planning appeals board. There was controversy and a need for an independent appeals board to hear appeals on planning issues. Applicants for planning permission and third parties who have a difficulty with a planning decision can go to an independent body to appeal it. This Bill changes the function of the board. We have seen many changes in the role of the board in recent years, for example, the new functions it has been given on the approval of road schemes. However, this legislation changes the essential role of the board from a planning appeals board to a planning authority of first instance. It is a dramatic change in the architecture of our planning process and requires more debate.
In addition to changing the role of An Bord Pleanála, the Minister wants the right to tell the board what to do. According to section 37J(6) the Minister will be able to contact the board to deal with a particular planning application immediately. It states: "Where the Minister considers it to be necessary or expedient that a certain class or classes of application ... are of special strategic, economic or social importance to the State be determined as expeditiously as is consistent with proper planning and sustainable development, he or she may give a direction to the Board that priority be given to the determination of applications of the class or classes concerned, and the Board shall comply with such a direction". The Bill provides that the board is to decide the planning application on these strategic projects and, in case it does not, it is required to have regard to the policy of the Government or individual Ministers and to the national interest. Lest the board fail to get the message in that subtle way, the Minister retains the right to send a message telling it to bring a particular application to the front of the queue. Given that the Minister would have such hands-on involvement in the functioning of An Bord Pleanála, it would be better to be up-front about it and say that Ministers will decide on strategic projects. This would dispel the idea that an independent body is making these decisions when that may not be the case.
The Bill provides for An Bord Pleanála to amend planning permission after it has been issued. If a problem arises with planning permission, An Bord Pleanála can retrieve and rewrite the planning permission. This measure, which is contained in chapter 4 of section 25, must be addressed on Committee Stage.
In section 15 the Minister proposes to change the composition of An Bord Pleanála. At present various categories nominate one candidate each for membership of An Bord Pleanála. The Minister will group these categories and will nominate two members from the group. This retains the nomination system but widens the Minister's discretion on membership of An Bord Pleanála. This marks a step towards membership being decided on a political basis.
I am interested in hearing the Minister's views on Committee Stage on the manner in which he will proscribe organisations for the purposes of making appeals to the court. The Minister will check its membership, how long it has been in existence and compliance with rules and objectives. Is that provision constitutional, given the constitutional right to freedom of organisation?
I welcome section 9 of the Bill, which the Minister introduced in response to the Labour Party Private Members' Bill that passed Second Stage in the Dáil. Its aim was to require rogue developers to complete housing estates, allowing local authorities to refuse them future planning permission if they did not do so. The onus of going to the court, currently on the local authority, will be reversed.
I am disappointed the Minister has not taken the opportunity to address the problem associated with management companies. I intend to return to this on Committee Stage. I will table amendments on the need to abolish the planning fee. In any event, we will be forced to do so when the European Court of Justice decides on the case before it. I will also table amendments to address noise pollution and the need to amend legislation to require developers of telecommunications masts to apply for planing permission. The development, extension or replacement of telecommunications masts causes many problems, including one such case in my constituency. I intend to table an amendment so that such masts are subject to the full planning control system.