An Bord Pleanála will decide if the infrastructure in question is of strategic importance, having regard to criteria which are listed in the Bill. The remit of the board is being expanded to include approvals of railway orders, including those relating to the Luas and metro systems. A specialised consent procedure for major electricity transmission lines is also being provided for. The twin initiatives of the enactment of this legislation and the reform of the judicial procedures, about which I will speak shortly, should achieve significant time and cost savings in delivering major transport projects under Transport 21.
That An Bord Pleanála's decisions are subject to judicial review is as it should be in any democracy. The judicial review of planning decisions is already based on narrow grounds. Such proceedings cannot advance unless substantial grounds have been demonstrated. No appeal can be made from the High Court to the Supreme Court unless the High Court certifies that its decision involves a point of law of exceptional public importance and that it is desirable, in the public interest, that an appeal should be allowed. The time taken by the courts to issue their decisions on judicial reviews has caused frustration for our State agencies as they seek to deliver major transport infrastructure projects. In an effort to tackle this issue, the President of the High Court will introduce new arrangements to improve procedures for such cases, including the designation of specific judges to manage the process. This will build on the precedent set in the commercial court and should have a similar impact on improving case management.
This legislation is necessary to ensure the continued economic development of our country in a sustainable manner. The gaps in Ireland's critical infrastructure pose a real threat to its growth, its environment and the standard of living that its people have quite rightly come to expect. We need 21st century infrastructure now that we are in the 21st century. The Government plans to invest over €43 billion in this country's infrastructure over the next five years. It has committed itself to such expenditure in programmes it has already launched. It is vital that investors and consumers are aware of the timeframe within which projects will be planned and delivered. Every well-publicised delay and risk of delay causes increases in costs for private investors and, ultimately, for taxpayers.
At present, it is normal for major applications for infrastructural projects to be subject to an appeal, even after lengthy consideration at local level. One of the key changes being made to the existing planning regime is that projects will not have to be approved by local authorities in the first instance. Dialogue between developers and An Bord Pleanála will be facilitated. The board will first be asked to decide whether a project qualifies for the new strategic consent process. Such developments must be of strategic economic or social importance to the State or the region in which it is planned that they will be located. They must contribute significantly to the fulfilment of the objectives of the national spatial strategy or the regional planning guidelines, and they must have a significant effect on the area of more than one planning authority.
The Bill protects the right of everyone to participate in the planning process. Under the strategic consent process, An Bord Pleanála will be required to consult the relevant local authorities and have due regard to their comments and those of the elected members of the authorities. There is no point in changing the planning system without amending the judicial process. One of the major challenges faced by major infrastructure projects in the past has been the time delays associated with judicial review challenges. An Bord Pleanála's decisions are subject to judicial review, as they should be in any democracy. It is hoped that, by getting rid of the local authority planning stage and ensuring that a specialised, properly resourced and experienced division within An Bord Pleanála handles applications for strategic projects, the length of time it takes to get development consent, or planning permission, will be reduced. This will not interfere in any way with the obligation to produce an environmental impact statement.
The types of projects stipulated in the legislation include incinerators, landfills, gas terminals, hazardous waste facilities, gas and oil pipelines, large pylon projects, power stations, oil refineries, wind farms, air terminals, sea ports and sewerage plants. It is clear that this legislation will have far-reaching consequences. Contrary to what members of the Green Party would have one believe, public interest groups will be facilitated by being allowed to challenge decisions, even if no direct interest can be shown. This legislation provides for a ten-week period within which local authorities and, more important, local councillors can prepare their views on a proposed development. As it stands, local councillors normally have no direct role in taking decisions on planning applications, other than in setting the policies for their areas in development plans. This Bill will give them a new and specific role, as managers will be required to obtain and forward the views of the elected members of local authorities to the board. I suggest that this is a welcome change from the perspective of local democracy.
This legislation allows An Bord Pleanála to consider additional information, including revised environmental impact statements. An innovative feature of the Bill is that it gives the board the power to hold meetings with relevant stakeholders if it appears to the board that such meetings are necessary. This increase in the board's flexibility in handling disputes should make it possible to achieve better outcomes for everyone.
The board may also choose to grant permission for a project. For example, it is hoped that projects which are unacceptable because of their location or environmental impact will be identified at the informal preplanning stage. If a promoter wishes to pursue a case to the decision stage, the board will be obliged to deal with it. Matters raised during the board's consideration of the final proposal, as well as submissions made on the proposal, will be considered as part of the decision-making process. Before making its decision, the board must also have regard to a wide range of issues, including submissions and objections made by local people and the local authority, as well as the local development plan, the national spatial strategy and the national interest. The board will be able to balance local and national concerns and to make the correct decision for the country.
This Bill will facilitate a more streamlined approach to decision making in respect of strategic infrastructure. It will provide a better service for all stakeholders, namely, infrastructure providers, State bodies and the public alike. This legislation will deliver the correct balance between individual rights and the broader public and national interest. I commend the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, on introducing this legislation to the House.
In the main, the Planning and Development Act will be amended to facilitate the introduction of a strategic consent process for strategic infrastructure of national importance to be provided by other statutory bodies and private promoters. An Bord Pleanála will be restructured to allow for the establishment of a strategic infrastructure division to handle all major infrastructural projects. The types of infrastructure which can be processed by the new division include major environmental, transport and energy related projects. The decision whether a certain project is to be taken under the strategic consent process is a matter in each case for An Bord Pleanála.
The strategic consent process is a key feature which includes the introduction of a one-step strategic consent procedure for certain types of major infrastructure. Moreover, responsibility for deciding on approvals for railway orders, including light rail and metros will be transferred from the Minister for Transport to An Bord Pleanála. The new division will also handle decisions on all major infrastructure projects which are already the responsibility of the board, including major local authority projects and motorways. It will also handle strategic gas infrastructure consents and major electricity transmission lines.
I compliment the manager, chief planning officer and director of services at Longford County Council on the responsible manner in which they have handled the development and planning of the county until the present.
As for planning, people are entitled to live in a good home. I appeal to Members to look sympathetically on planning applications for once-off houses from those who wish to settle down and live with their families. People should be Members' main priority and one should leave one's home in the morning in good form. Members have a duty and an obligation to provide housing for people. People who are prepared to provide it for themselves should be encouraged in every way.
As for the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill, there are times when the minority may be obliged to make some sacrifices. It should do so in the interests of the majority. In a democracy, the majority should receive full consideration. I commend the Bill to the House and I again commend the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, as well as the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, who is present in the Chamber.