The powers of the Electricity Supply Board to place any electric line above or below ground, across any land and to attach to any wall, house, or other building any bracket or other fixture required for the carrying or support of an electric line or any electrical apparatus are set out in section 53 of the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1927.
In exercising these powers the ESB make every effort to ensure that they will cause as little inconvenience as possible, or disturbance to property and, indeed, it is an integral part of the board's procedures to visit landowners concerned to discuss with them the route of the electric line and the planned positions of masts. All suggestions for changes made by the landowners are then carefully and fully considered by the board in an effort to meet the wishes of the landowners and changes are made where this can be done within technical and economic limitations and without unreasonably affecting other landowners. Finally, the board issue a wayleave notice in writing to the owner or occupier of the lands in accordance with section 53, subsection (3), of the 1927 Act and if within seven days the owner or occupier of the lands gives consent, or fails to give consent, the ESB may place the electric line across the lands in question. The ESB do, however, pay compensation, but on an ex gratia basis, for the disturbance to farming or for the sterilisation of lands arising from the placing of the electric line over the lands. The amount of compensation paid is based on guidelines agreed with the Irish Farmers' Association.
A problem has arisen for the ESB with regard specifically to subsection (5) of section 53 of the 1927 Act. The ESB are erecting a 220 Kv transmission line from the generating station at Great Island, Campile, County Wexford, to a transformer station at Arklow, County Wicklow. The route of the line passed over particular lands in County Wexford where the owner objected to the erection of the line and locked out the ESB workers when they attempted to erect the line across the property in accordance with a statutory notice served on the landowner under section 53 of the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1927.
The ESB sought and obtained an injunction against the landowner in the High Court in June 1983 when all the various grounds of the owner's case were rejected by the trial judge. The landowner then appealed to the Supreme Court and that court, having heard the case in early February 1985, issued its judgment on Thursday, 21 March 1985.
The court acknowledged clearly the social benefits of electricity and its contribution to the economic welfare of the State and pointed out that the uncontradicted evidence adduced in the case of the necessity for and the value of the transmission line to the national supply system leads to an inescapable conclusion that the power to lay it compulsorily is a requirement of the common good. The court did not, however, accept a contention that the payment of compensation ex gratia in an amount determined by the ESB is to be equated with a right to compensation, lacking as it does the essential ingredient of the ultimate right to have the amount assessed by an independent arbitrator or tribunal. The court was, therefore, satisfied that the compulsory powers contained in section 53 (5) of the Act of 1927 are invalid having regard to the provisions of the Constitution.
Legal advice is that the Supreme Court judgment means that, while the erection of all electricity lines can continue where there are consents or negotiated agreements, the use of the power to enter under section 53 (5), where there is not consent, requires to be supported by a provision at law for compensation and for the determination of that, in the absence of agreement, by independent arbitration. I do not have to underline for the House the disastrous effect which delays or inability to carry forward their work would have on the ESB's every day operations in the extension of supply to all consumers whether industrial, commercial or domestic. I am confident that the consent and negotiation procedures which the ESB have carried on with landowners and their representatives will continue to be successful in the vast majority of cases, but the court ruling requires an express statutory provision for compensation and on arbitration.
The first 300 MW unit of the Moneypoint generating station is scheduled to come on stream on 1 October 1985. The ESB have scheduled their weekly work programmes, including the erection of the transmission lines to Dublin, to meet this deadline. The board have calculated that every week's delay in meeting the 1 October 1985 deadline will cost the board £1 million in lost benefit through having to meet electricity demand from other higher cost generating capacity rather than from the Money point station. Any delay, therefore, in completing the erection of the 400 K V transmission lines will cost the ESB £1 million for each week's delay.
The House will appreciate the paramount need that the ESB be not held up in proceeding with their work even in cases where consent is not forthcoming. Having regard to the implications for the ESB arising from the Supreme Court judgment, it is imperative that the board's wayleave powers be made constitutional as a matter of extreme urgency. The Bill before the House is designed to achieve that purpose by providing for the entitlement of landowners to compensation in respect of the exercise by the ESB of the powers conferred under section 53 of the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1927, such compensation to be assessed, in default of agreement between the ESB and any landowner, under the provisions of the Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act, 1919.
When this Bill was in the Dáil last week a number of Deputies expressed the hope that the seven day notice in the Act could be increased to, say, 14 days or, at least, to give some better notice. I sympathise with this point of view but I am assured that the ESB have never refused any objection made outside the seven day deadline. On this deadline, I would like to remind the House that the period was 14 days in the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1927 but this was reduced to seven days in an amending Act of 1945 solely to benefit consumers waiting for connection of electricity supply and, particularly in emergency cases, including, for example, local events such as fairs or fetes where supply was required within a very short time scale. Nevertheless, I have undertaken to impress upon the ESB the need to give ample notice and to exercise the greatest care and sensitivity in dealing with landowners' rights.
I would add two further brief comments. The common good in any democracy depends on reasonable people acting, all round, in a reasonable way. Electricity has brought immense benefits to all communities in this country and elsewhere. It has brought immense relief to the darkness, hardship and low levels of comfort in rural life up to the mid fifties. It is perfectly right that landowners' rights should indeed be sensitively dealt with, as I am assured they are, but it is equally right that everybody has a duty not to press his or her private rights to the ultimate, to the obstruction or detriment of the common good.
However, I would emphasise that this Bill will increase and secure further the rights of landowners. It will, of course, enable the ESB to continue with the essential work of expanding the social benefits of electricity to the economic welfare of the State which, as I mentioned earlier, has been acknowledged by the Supreme Court in its judgment, but its primary purpose is to provide for landowners a statutory right to compensation — in place of the ex gratia basis on which the ESB paid compensation heretofore — and to have the amount of the compensation settled by independent arbitration where this cannot be achieved by negotiation and agreement.
I strongly recommend the Bill to the House.