Like the previous 54 or so speakers, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Planning has become a significant issue. As the economy continues to expand, it will become a greater challenge. The Minister will agree that there has been a major absence of real planning, especially in recent times. All parties in the House can take credit for our economic growth. The party that founded the State can take most credit for it.
The Fine Gael Party agrees with the general principles of the Bill. However, as outlined by our spokesperson, Deputy O'Dowd, some issues must be addressed on Committee Stage. There is a concern about local councillors' input into major decisions that will affect their areas. If the Bill's provisions are not amended, a deficit in accountability will arise.
The Bill's main provision is to create a strategic infrastructure division in An Bord Pleanála to deal exclusively with national infrastructure projects. This is an important departure and will facilitate the development of such projects. Some of the provisions will impact on the Kerry North constituency. The construction of a liquefied natural gas, LNG, receiving terminal in the Shannon Estuary was recently proposed. The Bill will impact on the planning process for this project and the final decision on whether it will receive planning permission.
The amending section to the Schedule to the principal Act outlines various infrastructure categories of national significance such as energy, environment and transport. It includes an installation for the onshore extraction of petroleum or natural gas. The provision also includes an onshore terminal, building or installation, whether above or below ground, associated with an LNG facility. This is precisely what is being proposed for the Shannon Estuary. One would believe the Bill was specially drafted to accommodate the Shannon project.
The environmental infrastructure provision includes incinerators and landfills, two vital infrastructure components that will be decided not by a local council but the new division in An Bord Pleanála. Major concerns are emerging over this provision among local communities and local authorities. It is a contentious issue because no one wants an incinerator or landfill in their back yard. If local people cannot have an input into the planning process, they will see their local councillors as being irrelevant. I accept that, under the Bill, local councillors can, within ten weeks of an application being launched, make a submission to the special division of An Bord Pleanála. However, that is just a submission. Apart from that, a local authority will have little input into the final decision whether approval is given for an incinerator or landfill. This will result in a deficit of accountability from which problems will arise.
I welcome the inclusion of coastal works to combat erosion and maritime works capable of altering the coast through the construction of dykes, moles, jetties and other sea defence works, where in each case the length of coastline on which the works would take place would exceed 1 km. Vital coastal works have been held up before because of frivolous objections. The community gain aspect provision must also be welcomed. Where developers carry out major infrastructural works such as roads, for example, a small provision of 1% is made for the arts. The community gain aspect is an extension of that provision. For example, where landfills are provided, the community in which it is based should be entitled to better roads. As most landfills are provided in scenic areas, the developer should provide walkways and picnic areas. Under this provision, the developer can also make contributions to community centres and local sports organisations.
The Bill will fast-track the planning process for major infrastructural projects, which is a positive aspect. Shannon LNG, an Irish subsidiary of Hess LNG Limited, has entered the initial stages of providing a major development which will help secure Ireland's long-term supply of natural gas. The company has entered into an option-to-purchase agreement with Shannon Development for 281 acres of the 600-acre agency-owned land bank between Tarbert and Ballylongford, County Kerry. Subject to feasibility studies, technical assessments and planning and other approvals, the project will become a €400 million LNG receiving terminal. I welcome the provisions contained in the Bill that will facilitate and fast-track this proposal, as there was concern locally that it could take five years from the announcement of the project to its completion. I hope the Bill will help to fast-track the process.
Liquid natural gas, LNG, is natural gas that has been cooled to a very low temperature, -160° centigrade, at which point it becomes a liquid. It is stored and transported in insulated tanks at normal atmospheric pressure like a cold drink in a Thermos flask. Liquifying natural gas reduces its volume by more than 600 times which makes it manageable for storage and transportation. LNG is produced primarily in places where large gas reserves have been discovered but where the location is often too distant from markets to economically transport the gas by pipeline. Natural gas is liquified at these locations and loaded on LNG tankers. LNG export sources include Algeria, Australia, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman and Trinidad. LNG exports are also planned from a number of other countries, including Norway, Russia and Venezuela.
As natural gas is the most environmentally friendly fossil fuel, over the past two decades it has become a global fuel of choice for electricity generation, other industrial energy consumption, home heating and cooking. For many years the Kinsale Head gas field was Ireland's only source of natural gas. However, this field is nearly exhausted. In recent years the UK North Sea was the primary supply source but its supply too is rapidly becoming depleted. Some industry forecasts predict the UK will be importing over half of its natural gas needs by 2011 from remote fields in Russia, Algeria, Norway and elsewhere. Because Ireland imports 85% of its natural gas requirements from the UK and given that the UK source is under pressure, I hope we will be able to provide our own source of natural gas in the Shannon Estuary and that the Bill will facilitate this process.
The promoters of the project were unaware of this proposed legislation and they anticipated it would take a number of years to go through the planning process in Kerry County Council. In his reply, I would appreciate if the Minister would refer to this development which is the most exciting for some time in this country. In one sense, it justifies the Bill.
Port development is another matter to which I wish to refer. A number of alarming conclusions emerged in the recent survey by Indecon International Economic Consultants of a number of Irish ports. Due to recent developments in shipping and the increase in the size of ships we need a bigger draught in our harbours to facilitate the new super liners. In the previous national development plan, a total of €80 million was spent on ports although the required amount was €330 million. That spend was totally inadequate. Not one Irish port can handle a ship requiring an 11 m draught.
I hope this Bill will expedite port development when proposals on strategic infrastructural development in our ports come before the special division of An Bord Pleanála. Exporters have expressed major concern at the lack of proper port facilities. It is important to be mindful of ports in terms of strategic infrastructure.
I am sure Deputy Ring will also refer to local planning. I have heard him express concern in the House on several occasions about this issue. While the Bill does not refer to structures for planning at local level it does touch on the role of local planners and councillors. Most politicians hold the view that the local planning system does not measure up to the expectations of applicants, local councillors and the community in general.
In rural areas especially there is major concern and disillusionment with the planning process. That has manifested itself in various ways. For example, next Monday an emergency motion will be considered by Kerry County Council which calls for an emergency meeting to discuss planning in the county. It was not unusual for in the region of 60 sections 140 to be discussed by Kerry County Council on Mondays. A moratorium was imposed on sections 140 and councillors tried to be as practical, reasonable and responsible as possible. However, councillors are now becoming frustrated and we could well be faced with a proliferation of sections 140 yet again.
The system appears to be breaking down due to a lack of proper pre-planning and consistency. Up to seven area planners can operate in the county and each gives planning permission for a different type and standard of house. In one area, two-storey houses will not be allowed while in another area, dormer houses are not allowed. In spite of that, one can see new two-storey houses built in scenic areas on elevated ground in parts of the county. There is total inconsistency among planners in County Kerry. When one drives to Dublin one can see houses on elevated sites on the N21, the main road from Abbeyfeale to Limerick. Examples of this approach to planning can also be seen elsewhere around the country.
I recall one planner who took the approach that if a house could be seen from any angle within a one or two mile radius, he would not give planning for it. He used the posts of the house as an indicator and if he could see them through his binoculars from any part of the landscape within two miles he did not grant planning permission. However, the opposite view could be taken in another county. The planning system is in a shambles.
When the Fianna Fáil Party had its summer get-together a few years ago at a time when this matter was topical, the Taoiseach announced that guidelines would be introduced to resolve rural planning. These guidelines have not had the desired impact. General standards should be set down for house planning that take different local landscapes and amenity areas into account. If that does not happen we will continue to have a problem with planning. It is becoming a major issue in counties Meath and Kildare that are on the periphery of Dublin and are taking the population overspill from the city. It is also an issue in scenic counties such as Kerry and Mayo.
Local people whose families have lived in a village or community for three or four generations are being forced to move elsewhere because they cannot get planning permission to build homes on their own land. This point has been made by various Members in the debate. This Bill is not concerned solely with local planning and some further legislation is required to address the number of planning application refusals in rural areas. This causes great frustration and puts enormous pressure on young families in particular. Some young couples with small children are obliged to live with their parents or in rented accommodation because they cannot get planning permission to build a house on their parents' land. There are many stresses involved in modern family life, with both parents often obliged to work to meet large mortgage payments and the costs of their children's education. The inability to secure planning permission is an added stress.
A new system should be established whereby local authorities would adopt a pre-planning function, with increased accessibility to planners and greater consultation between the applicant, planner and agent. There should be a central role for councillors, who are currently effectively excluded from the process because they cannot access information.
I welcome the general thrust of the Bill because its provisions will be of assistance to certain persons in my constituency and others in similar situations elsewhere. However, I am concerned that it may give rise to a democratic deficit given that local councillors will no longer have any significant role to play in regard to some major issues. They will be able to make comments and observations but will have no effective influence. The Bill serves to centralise planning of major projects at a time when we are concerned with decentralisation. In terms of the power of local councils, however, we are moving in the opposite direction. The legislation will have some positive effects but the question of a potential democratic deficit must be addressed by the Minister.