Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. Before the debate adjourned yesterday evening, I spoke on councillors' declarations and conflicts of interests. The Minister said firm directives are in place with which local authority members must comply. It will be interesting if there is any shortfall in the upcoming High Court case of De Búrcav. Whittle on planning matters in County Wicklow. I read a report in this morning’s newspapers regarding my hometown. However, I am too close to it to get involved in a debate on it.

All Members know of councillors who took part in debates on planning issues when they had some interests, obvious or not. I will take the Minister's word that good guidelines are in place. Senator Norris referred to practices of the past. I believe 99.9% of councillors are good and law-abiding citizens with the best interests of their communities at heart. It will happen in any walk of life that there is the odd black sheep.

Ongoing staffing problems exist in local authorities. In various areas, councillors have informed me of large turnovers in people. That is not conducive to good planning decisions. It leads to the last minute invitations for new information for which the clock must start running again. I am glad that spending of €43 billion is planned for infrastructure projects over the next five years, another reason why the Fine Gael Party supports the Bill.

The proposed board will decide what is of strategic importance within the criteria laid down in the Bill. All the right infrastructural projects are included, namely, railways, both heavy and light, major electricity transmission lines, gas pipelines, airports, harbours and ports, waste management facilities and water and wastewater facilities. Incinerators are also included but I read that one specific incinerator is to be excluded. The Bill will rightly not cover shopping centres or office block developments. The main idea behind the provision is that it is seen to be a fair, open and transparent process. The Fine Gael Party agrees with the need for more certainty and better timeframes.

The Minister referred to badly prepared applications and environmental impact statements. The Bill provides for discussions in advance with the strategic infrastructure division of An Bord Pleanála to ensure applications are put together properly. The board must be careful that it simply gives guidance and nothing improper.

I welcome the Minister's comments on judicial reviews, the commercial court and the allocation of specialist judges. I also welcome the recent appointment of Kevin Feeney to the High Court. The Minister spoke about the initiatives being taken in the High Court. The President of the High Court has said that new initiatives will be put in place and there will be significant timesavings between the work of the High Court and what the Minister has in mind.

The need to avoid excessive and vexatious delays to major infrastructure developments is important. Members are aware of people who have objected to projects and delays for the sake of it. I recall one important planning appeal where An Bord Pleanála described it as without foundation or substance. The process will be speeded up and the board will not have to go to so much trouble in dealing with appeals.

On major road projects, two of the worst roads are in the Minister of State's county. The Cork-Killarney road between Macroom and Ballymakeera is the worst national primary road in the State. I vote the Mallow-Mitchelstown road, the worst national secondary road. Hopefully, these roads will be improved.

There is a strong intake in planning appeals. I welcome the provision for ten additional staff members in the appeals process but back-up staff will be necessary. However, I am sure the Minister will keep that aspect under review.

I also welcome section 9, which deals with rogue developers. Unfortunately I do not have enough time to go into the section in detail.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Keeffe, to the House and I welcome the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill. Such a Bill on planning is welcome at any time. There will be some controversy surrounding the different sections but we must welcome the Bill because it represents forward planning. Environmental impact statements are highlighted in the Bill and if we want to move in the right direction, that area is very important.

Problems over planning have arisen in the past in local authorities, and a number of speakers mentioned landfill sites. Other speakers talked about incinerators. Whether we like it or not, this country will have to have a certain number of incinerators if we want to address the problem of the illegal dumping that is taking place. Something must be done in that regard. There are many old landfill sites littered throughout the country and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government or the environment section of local authorities should engage in better monitoring of those sites.

We must emphasise the importance of forward planning, particularly when we consider the difficulties the Government has faced regarding the provision of road infrastructure, which is so important. Objectors climbed trees or dug themselves in as a form of protest. They are entitled to take certain action and express their point of view but if these projects are properly planned, all those problems can be eliminated.

People have objected to the fine motorways that have been constructed and some refuse to use them but if they considered the cost of having to drive around the old roads, particularly having regard to the cost of diesel, they would realise they are making a major mistake.

Under the Bill there will be better involvement of An Bord Pleanála, which is important. We welcome also the small number of staff being provided but the Minister should consider leaving open the option to provide additional staff. As An Bord Pleanála takes on more important planning work it will need more expertise and staff. That option might be available to the Minister.

There is mention of railways and electricity transmission lines in the Bill. It is important that planning permission will have to be sought for those projects because in the past the ESB had a system where it laid lines through or close to built up areas or through scenic areas when, with little extra cost, it could have avoided some of those important locations.

There is no doubt that planning is never perfect. Regardless of what development takes place, people will be affected by planning decisions. There have been major road and gas developments throughout our counties that have been hugely beneficial to housing and industry but at the same time such developments affect certain people. As mentioned earlier, however, many of those problems can be avoided.

I wish to respond to a point made yesterday by Senator Norris about a development in my county of Offaly, Standish Sawmills. As a former member of a local authority, I want to record that this company sought and was granted planning permission. That decision was appealed to An Bord Pleanála, which granted planning permission. The company also has an EPA licence. What more can that company do in a rural area of County Offaly? It employs approximately 100 people and it has complied with what is required of it under law.

A group of people who do not want any development in the area objected but three years ago that same group wrote to me, as concerned residents. I wrote back to them asking for the names, addresses and contact numbers of the concerned residents but that was the last I heard from them. We must be fair to people who want to provide industry and also to those who are entitled to object but I wish to record my view on that development.

Section 33 provides that land lying ten metres or more below the surface of that land shall be taken to be of nil value. We must be careful about putting something like that in a Bill because developments can take place on one's land where there might be an esker or quarries in excess of ten metres below the surface. That land can be very valuable. I hope we will not decide on Committee Stage that after a certain depth, a farmer's land is of no value. It can be of immense value to a farmer and I would like to ensure we examine that section more carefully.

On the question of making application for major developments directly to the board, I would like that aspect to be teased out on Committee Stage. I realise such applications will be notified to the local planning authority, which is appropriate, but will public notices be erected on the site for local residents to view? In many cases, the only way local people know about proposed developments is because they read the notices on the roadside or street. They may not buy the daily papers in which many planning notices are published.

Regarding objections by An Taisce, it is difficult to know who is making them or from where they are coming. It is my experience that objections can be made in the name of An Taisce at the eleventh hour. Lists of the names of the members of any organisation, whether it be the GAA, a county council, a rugby club, An Taisce or whatever, should be made available to the public. I am disappointed with the performance of An Taisce, although I appreciate it has a job to do.

A number of speakers referred to planning and the rezoning of land. Politicians come in for some flack because of rezoning but I was involved in changing the development plan on a number of occasions in a county and the owner of the land or the person who benefited from the rezoning never concerned me. I always believed that by looking at the bigger picture when developing towns, one ensured that housing was available therein and therefore people did not have to move to rural areas where there were serious objections.

County managers and directors of services are very important in the planning process. There is a perception that many planners are from the one school and that they have a tunnel view of development. It often occurs to me and others that planners make the final decision and sometimes make very significant comments on the architectural value of buildings being constructed. There is a case for local authorities to have expertise in respect of developments.

Hear, hear.

Social and affordable housing has been mentioned and highlighted. We need to address the circumstances in which a developer can give money to a local authority instead of providing the social and affordable mix in the scheme under development. When the legislation dealing with this matter was being considered in the House, I wanted to ensure developments included affordable and social housing so we would not have groups of well-heeled people ensuring nobody of other social classes could enter their estates. This issue must be examined. When one gives a large amount of money to a local authority, it will not always be spent in the area in question and may not be of benefit.

I welcome the Bill and hope we will discuss it in more detail on Committee Stage. I wish the Minister, Deputy Roche, the Ministers of State, Deputies Batt O'Keeffe and Noel Ahern, and their officials well in dealing with this Bill.

The Labour Party is far from happy with this Bill. It is not at all clear to us what problem is being solved in respect of a number of issues. A variety of issues arose at various times in respect of planning. All sorts of lobby groups, IBEC in particular, chambers of commerce and Engineers Ireland, the professional body of which I am a member, have suggested at various stages that the legal process was too long-winded and complicated and that infrastructural development was being held back by the complications of planning.

I keep a close watch on the National Roads Authority and An Bord Pleanála and am aware of what occurs when a proposal for a major road infrastructure project is made public. This involves a CPO and environmental impact statement and usually an oral hearing by an official of An Bord Pleanála. An Bord Pleanála is currently doing an extremely efficient job regarding such issues and there is not a scrap of evidence that our road infrastructure development is being delayed by planning complications.

There are two reasons for the delay in road infrastructure development, the first of which is the inadequacy of the Government's plan of 2002, whereby it was to have us supplied with motorways or high-quality dual carriageways by this year. The truth is that it was not a plan but a series of lines drawn on a series of maps. Furthermore, a sum of money was plucked out of thin air, which turned out to be hopelessly inadequate. This was not a question of planning in the An Bord Pleanála sense but of the ineptitude of Government planning.

My long-stated view is that the fundamental problem with large-scale infrastructural developments, be they associated with roads or telecommunications, which represents the other major infrastructural deficit in this country, is that there is a difference of opinion between those of us who believe one uses infrastructural development to shape the market and those who do not. If one builds good road, rail, telecommunications and energy infrastructure throughout the country, particularly in the BMW region, it moves the market in the direction of that region and away from areas of excess demand, particularly the eastern region.

The alternative view, which dominates the thinking of the major funding Department in this State, is that infrastructure must follow the market. In other words, one must prove in advance that the demand exists. If one adopts this model, as the Department of Finance has done historically, one will always have an infrastructural deficit and one region will always be overloaded and swamped with excess demand.

If there was an extremely good road infrastructure between Dublin and the towns of Galway, Tralee, Letterkenny and Sligo, it would be of no great significance to multinationals where they were based. If our infrastructure is such that one can get to one of the major international airports in a couple of hours, provided the airports are able to survive, one's location does not matter.

The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, is as aware as I am of the potential disaster facing Cork Airport if it is forced to take on a burden of debt it has had no hand in accumulating. If we manage to run good airports, our infrastructure will decide where development happens. This morning's newspapers quote tourism industry representatives as saying the number of visitors to Dublin has continued to increase while the number of visitors to the rest of the country has dropped dramatically because of our poor transport infrastructure. This is not caused by An Bord Pleanála or the planning process. Saying so is a smokescreen to divert people's attention from the inadequacy of Government policy, funding and managerial systems. It is nothing more than this and that is one reason this Bill is unacceptable.

The second reason is because one is extremely sceptical of the willingness of the Government to use what already exists. The toleration of unauthorised developments, which are ultimately given retention approval, is so high that some cite figures of 80%. It is difficult to ascertain the exact figures but those which are available suggest we do not take the planning laws too seriously anyway. I am not only referring to someone who happens to build an unauthorised back porch. An Bord Pleanála made an unfortunate decision to grant retention permission for a major industrial development in the midlands in recent months. We will not change that by changing the law, but by changing the will. If we do not want to enforce existing law, there is no point in pretending that the introduction of new law will help to solve the problem.

I would like to speak about the problem of the capacity of individuals to play games with the spirit of legislation, while observing the letter of the law. I refer in particular to a widely reported decision that was made by a local authority in Killarney recently. A member of the local authority who was potentially a major beneficiary, at least through business, of the authority's decision declared his interest and abstained from the vote. However, he stayed in the council chamber actively lobbying the rest of the members of the local authority to take a decision that would benefit the business he was running. That was not a breach of the law, but it was a profound affront to the spirit of the legislation. If the spirit of the law had been properly observed, the individual would have stayed away from the chamber, rather than abstaining from the decision and lobbying his local authority colleagues during an adjournment of the meeting. The Bill will not change that attitude and set of values, which is a problem in this country that should be dealt with by the political party that helps people like the man in question to get involved in politics.

This legislation will not alter the extraordinary inadequacy of this country's attempts to plan in a holistic way. The Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, knows as well as I do, if not better, that the southern part of Cork city, which is spreading out into County Cork, was developed in an extraordinary way, particularly in the Douglas area. Thousands of houses which have been built feed onto what is essentially a country lane. It does not appear to be within our capacity to recognise that if we are to allow a vast number of houses to be built, we have to ensure that those who live in them can get to where they work, shop and do everything else. We will not bring about change in that regard simply by changing the law until we get a proper sense of holistic planning.

If we are to allow thousands of houses to be built, we need to ensure that schools, shops, roads and public transport infrastructure are put in place. Unlike the Department of Finance, we should not wait until we see what happens. If we do not recognise, on the basis of past experience, that the construction of hundreds and thousands of houses will lead to hundreds and thousands of children living in an area, thereby necessitating the development of new schools, etc., all the legislation in the world will not make a scrap of difference.

I would like to speak about the issue of delays. I have already referred to delays in the construction of roads, but I would like to consider whether similar problems are encountered in the development of our railway infrastructure. Although I have not seen any evidence that the local communities which have objected to road developments have objected to improvements in railway services, there are significant delays in the expansion of our railway system, which should be the focus of our development of transport infrastructure. Why will it take years to reopen the railway line between Navan and Dublin? Why was it announced last October that the completion of the railway lines from Midleton and Blarney to Cork will take place a year later than was originally intended? Such delays do not relate to An Bord Pleanála, but to ineptitude, bad management and underresourcing.

I have often made the point that the Department of Finance is continuing to insist that projects like railway improvements need to be viable. Ireland is probably the only country in the world that is attempting, in accordance with the limited criteria of the Department of Finance, to develop a railway infrastructure that is commercially profitable. Most other countries recognise that the huge advantage of railways is that they bring about spectacular reductions in environmental impact. The consequent decrease in the use of private cars also has the benefit of freeing up traffic. One cannot quantify such benefits in a simple profit and loss account under a regime which deems that every ticket needs to be profitable.

If one approaches the development of infrastructure in such a manner, one will end up with a ridiculous situation like that in Britain following the privatisation of the railways there. The state subsidy in Britain is now bigger than ever, but there is less state control and less organisation and the railway service is fragmented. If we want to develop our railway infrastructure, we should not think it will be hindered by delays in planning.

This country's telecommunications infrastructure is probably its biggest mess. The last time I checked, we were in danger of having four parallel telecommunications infrastructure developments, one of which is owned by Eircom. The privatisation of Eircom has made a great deal of money for a few people while costing the country's citizens a few bob. It has resulted in the transfer of money from the hands of the Irish people and into the hands of people who can best be described as speculative capitalists. The company has suffered from under-investment and delays since it was privatised.

Eircom is touted by international investment analysts as one of the most spectacularly successful companies at dealing with regulators because it has frustrated the intentions of the communications regulators many times. We do not have a proper telecommunications infrastructure because of the inept policy decision to privatise Eircom that was made in the first place and the even more inept follow-up to that, rather than as a result of problems with the planning process.

Such mistakes are found in many areas. I have not even mentioned incineration. It is possible to envisage circumstances in which incineration is the right solution to a problem. One can deal with incineration only in the context of a properly joined-up waste management policy. There is an incinerator in Cork because An Bord Pleanála capitulated to the Government and agreed to its policy, against the advice of its own inspector. The level of ineptitude in the area of waste management defies description. We do not know from where the incinerator in Cork will get its waste. It will not get it locally because all the generators of hazardous waste in the Cork region are already dealing with that waste. I could mention a succession of issues of this nature. There is no need to change the law to deal with them because the problems lie outside the planning process — they lie in funding, in the Government's inability to manage and develop projects efficiently and on time and in the unwillingness to enforce existing legislation.

I will conclude by reiterating the need to retain general responsibility for planning at local level. I agree with Senator Moylan that it would be useful to establish a bank of centralised expertise to advise local planners. Such experts would not take over from the planners, but give them the intellectual, scientific and archaeological skills to match the expertise of developers. This problem is also found in Denmark, where the planning process is enormously decentralised. Some local authorities in that country feel inadequate in dealing with certain issues because not enough expertise is available to them. Much more money is spent on such matters in Denmark. We could do worse than to examine the Danish approach, understand the Danish problems and consider the Danish solutions, which do not involve bypassing democratic participation in decisions on development.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, and his officials. I warmly welcome the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006, which is important and necessary. There was no need for this legislation 20 or 30 years ago because not enough money was available to pay for infrastructural development. It could be argued that it did not make much difference at that time if the planning and judicial appeal processes were drawn out. We are in a totally different situation today, however, because a great deal of funding is available but it is not always spent, as we see when the outturns are published at the end of each year. The underspend is often due to technical, planning or judicial review related delays.

This Government and other Fianna Fáil Governments stretching back 25 years deserve much credit for their emphasis on infrastructure.

The Senator should dream on.

Enormous sums are being spent on infrastructure and it was an emphasis that was singularly lacking from Fine Gael and Labour Party coalitions during the same time.

That was years ago.

What about the Civil War?

Why can the Senators not listen?

The Senator is living in cloud cuckoo land.

I did not interrupt Senator Ryan when he was speaking so he might do me the same courtesy.

Senator Mansergh, without interruption.

In the mid-1970s, there was no emphasis on modernising the telephone system. In the mid-1980s, the cutbacks occurred mostly in the capital investment area.

They were led by the Senator's own Minister.

The Senator might be right there.

The election literature of the rainbow coalition of the mid-1990s contain no emphasis on infrastructural deficiencies. Therefore, I get a little impatient when I hear Senators talking about incompetence and the lack of resources. You did not attach any priority to this area.

The Senator should speak through the Chair.

Will the Senator stop pointing his finger at us? It is intimidating.

Senator Mansergh, without interruption.

There has been a tremendous investment programme in the past ten years. I always know I am on the right track when people try to interrupt me. They do not want to hear the truth and they do not want to hear any objective analysis of the situation. Members of the Opposition sometimes laugh and smile, as do some Members on this side, when the Taoiseach describes himself as a socialist. One of the criteria of socialism is the heavy emphasis on public investment and on that criterion, this Government is certainly socialist and more socialist than the Labour Party has ever been.

That is ridiculous.

The old Workers Party had a different economic emphasis to the Labour Party in the 1980s, based as it was on economic investment. Its members used to accuse the Labour Party of being a welfarist party. There is probably still some truth in that criticism. If resources and wealth are to be created, public investment is needed and this Government is providing that investment in spades. That is not just coming from Europe——

That is nonsense. The Senator should come to Westmeath and see the state in which the Government has left the hospital there for 11 years.

——but from its own resources, because of the excellent management of the economy, which the Senator is not prepared to recognise.

There is a notion out there that this Bill is not needed. Many important projects have been seriously delayed. Given that some of them have now gone ahead, one might ask why they were held up. There were protests in the Glen of the Downs and in Carrickmines. I have never heard of a case where the NRA decided to bulldoze through a 30-foot standing castle and run a road through it. Standing structures are always avoided, but all that was left of Carrickmines Castle was underground.

Another example of these delays was the Kildare bypass, as is the prolonged controversy over the gas terminal in Mayo. The long delays in these decisions are not in the national interest and a more streamlined approach to infrastructure is needed. The governments of states with good infrastructure, such as France, do not hang around for years with appeals, judicial hearings and so on. We should think of the inconvenience that causes to the public. I am in favour of proper, thorough debate about important infrastructure decisions. Such a debate occurred over the proposed M3 and the Hill of Tara. The overwhelming conclusion was that the right route had been chosen and should proceed.

This legislation needs to be handled with sensitivity. If it was used in an attempt to push through bad decisions, difficulties might arise in obtaining public consent for the planning process. It must be used sensibly in well-considered decisions. For issues such as social housing, it is up to the leaders of local authorities to see that the spirit of the legislation is implemented. Like Senator Moylan, I regret that some developers are simply buying out their obligations. However, to behave in that manner, managers of local authorities need a clear signal from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I know of more than one local authority that consists of officials with plenty of drive, who insist that this be carried through and who do not let people off the hook.

Reference was made earlier to incineration. Listening to the argument, one would think that landfill was an extremely environmentally-friendly method of disposing of waste, but of course it is a filthy method. The argument against incineration is very unbalanced in that respect.

Senator Ryan made the point that public investment should lead development and not just follow it. I believe that lesson is being learned. In the Adamstown development, provision is being made for a station. The Cork to Midleton railway line is meant to focus development along the route and is not just following development.

I do not think the legislation will treat the substrata of a piece of land as of no value if fabulous mineral wealth is located under that land. However, compensation should not be paid for something that has little to do with what is overground. For at least 150 years, this country has been bedevilled by the amount of compensation that must be paid to acquire land and to proceed with development. This area needs critical examination. Small strips of land that are no bigger than this Chamber can cost between €1 million and €3 million and that is not a good use of taxpayers' money.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am not in good form because I have just had a blazing row with a senior planner in Limerick County Council over a planning application. That is symptomatic of the frustration felt by many public representatives with the whole planning process.

The importance of this critical infrastructure Bill for large-scale projects has been expressed but I will digress and discuss planning in general and the frustrations being experienced at present. Some time ago the Taoiseach announced in Sligo that there would be a new charter for rural areas under which the planning process would be simplified. He empathised with the difficulties being experienced by people in rural areas with regard to planning. This was followed up by statements by the then Minister, Deputy Cullen, and recently by the Minister, Deputy Roche, about planning guidelines.

Those guidelines have been posted to the local authorities throughout the country. Due to the number of applications, the process has become more frustrating and it is more difficult to get planning permission. I wish to nail the lie that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government or the Taoiseach have helped the planning process. If anything, it has become more difficult.

There are difficulties in local authorities and a lack of uniformity between councils regarding design guidelines for houses. The guidelines are constantly changing. The architects who prepare plans suddenly discover that certain features are no longer fashionable, for example, bow windows. They might be told to opt for a stone finish and not to include Dutch gables but if they point out to the authorities that planning approval was given recently for a house which incorporates Dutch gables, external chimneys and, possibly, bow windows, one will be told that the guidelines have been changed.

The guidelines are not statutory. It is down to the independent thinking of the planners in the council. Professional architects are getting frustrated because they are being told by the planners that their architectural designs for properties are unsatisfactory. I would have thought that the planners' concerns should relate to the specific site, the structure and whether the site is suitable. There is a lack of uniformity. The guidelines given to the local authorities are not statutory guidelines so they are not enforceable.

Many local authorities have appointed independent assessors. These assessors will carry out percolation tests on the site. In many cases, people are paying from €800 to €1,000 to have these tests conducted. If one is paying that amount of money, there is an expectation that the test might be successful but, obviously, in many cases the assessors deem the site unsuitable. However, they must be paid €1,000. There should be pre-assessment whereby the person concerned can be told, for example, that there are rushes on the site making it unsatisfactory for building a house. This initial inspection fee could be €100 rather than having the client pay a fee of €1,000 later only for the site to be rejected.

Percolation has become a big issue. The providers of biocycle systems compete with each other. Clients will be guaranteed that they can drink the water produced by their system yet that system can be deemed unsatisfactory by the local authorities. With percolation tests and biocycle systems, not only is there an independent assessor to assess the site but the environmental section of the local authority is also involved. The health board looks at these issues as well, perhaps second guessing the original estimate made by the assessor. There is a plethora of people involved.

Recently, the Minister made an announcement about local authority funding for the future. A report was produced by Indecon Consultants at a cost of €292,000. The report covered 2004 to 2006. What were its findings? One could write down on a sheet of notepaper what the findings will be if one contracts consultants to compile a report for that amount of money. They advocated the reintroduction of water rates and the introduction of local charges. It was not necessary to pay €292,000 to discover that. The report was dead in the water from the time it was printed given that no Government or Opposition party will advocate such changes in advance of an election.

What was the Minister's reaction? He said more efficiencies would be sought in the local authorities. The extra funding that will be required in the future will be found in extra efficiencies. Furthermore, he said the planning charges would be increased. I will remind the Minister of what is happening in rural areas. He should read what Jim Connolly of the rural resettlement organisation is saying. The cost for young people of building in rural areas is extremely prohibitive and the system is making it even more uneconomical for them. That is the reality.

The Government should not say one thing in Sligo and something else through the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It should not carry on this hypocrisy of pretending something is happening to simplify the system when it is getting more complex, more expensive and more frustrating for the applicant. The Fianna Fáil Party should forget its constant double speak because people are no longer conned by it.

A proper planning policy must be adopted on a national basis. There must be uniformity of design so the person who is preparing a planning application knows what is acceptable and a person in Limerick can produce what Cork County Council says is an acceptable design. Any public representative will say that the most frustrating aspect of the job nowadays is when a young couple comes to him or her about a planning application. I empathise with these couples and am aware of the difficulties they are experiencing and their frustration with the system.

No planning application goes through within the statutory period of eight weeks, certainly not in my county although perhaps it happens in other counties. If one watches the process closely and is making representations on somebody's behalf, one will notice that if the planning application is due to be decided tomorrow and one rings today to find out what is happening with it, one will be told that further information is being sought. That extends the process even further because the planning process only starts with the receipt of satisfactory information.

It is time to define the parameters. It is time that acceptable design is defined so architects and the people who design the plans are aware of it. It is also time to talk to the people who produce biocyle systems. I am sure they are reputable organisations. They are telling their clients that if they use their systems, they will be able to drink the water produced. However, the local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government do not appear to be convinced. The Department must give recognition to producers of biocycle systems and say whether their systems are acceptable. That will at least lift the fog of uncertainty on this issue and ease the difficulties people are experiencing.

Another development in recent years which was hailed as a new dawn was the introduction of planning and development contributions. Those contributions have provided much extra financial largesse for the councils. The argument used to convince councillors to introduce such contributions was that proper sewerage schemes would be provided because the resource would be channelled in that direction. However, the reality is quite different. The planning and development contributions escalate every year but communities have not yet seen the sewerage schemes.

I regularly raise sewerage and water schemes in County Limerick on the Adjournment. I am usually told that the particular scheme is part of the 2005 to 2007 programme on which €150 million will be spent. This has been going on for years. An attempt was made by the Minister to improve matters by providing that if the project was less than €5 million it would not be necessary to go through the routine procedures which actually prolong the application. The Minister said he would simplify the process. However, the process has not been simplified because the local authorities bundled different sewerage schemes together for economic reasons and this pushed most of them over the €5 million threshold, therefore prolonging the saga. When I raise these matters on the Adjournment the Minister reads a thesis on what the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is doing for water and sewerage schemes. The reality is quite different.

It is time the Minister tackled the planning situation. People in rural areas are waiting for a coherent planning structure which the Department, the local authorities and they can understand. It is time the Minister got his act together. The critical infrastructure Bill relates to projects which I am unlikely to encounter often in my lifetime but the Government must get its act together on the bread and butter issues in planning. On the ground it is the pure butter of planning and the Government would want to get its act together.

The official in Limerick County Council should be in the motivation business.

I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. While I wish to speak on the Bill, I will deviate to reply to Senator Finucane. When I was a member of South Dublin County Council, I did not have any of those difficulties and I still have no such difficulties with equality of service or a pre-consultation process whenever I need to raise an issue with the council. That council also covers a rural area and the guidelines are working very well.

The Senator should come off it.

The Senator is not comparing like with like.

Senator Ormonde should be allowed to speak without interruption.

Some weeks ago the Minister was in this House for statements on the planning process, which represented a golden opportunity for the Senator. I do not know why he did not raise the matter then.

Today is the day to raise it.

No, it is not. We are dealing with a different Bill today.

It relates to infrastructure planning.

The Senator had his opportunity and he can reflect on——

Am I to be muzzled for speaking on a planning issue with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government present?

Senator Ormonde should be allowed to speak without interruption.

That does not show respect for the Minister of State.

I have great respect for the Minister of State.

I am disappointed in Senator Ormonde, who has no respect for councillors.

Senator Ormonde should be allowed to speak without interruption.

The Senator should not seek any votes in rural areas at the next Seanad election.

I have great respect for councillors and I have great respect for my local authority.

Senator Ormonde has stated there are no problems in rural areas.

The problem with the Senator is that he is talking about a parochial issue in his area.

I will send a copy of the Senator's script to every councillor in the country.

The Senator does not need to do so. The Minister was here three weeks ago for statements on planning.

Is Deputy Roche the Minister or not? He is the Minister. What is the Senator talking about?

Senator Finucane——

On a point of clarification, I may have grey hair, but I am not the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche.

Deputy Batt O'Keeffe is a Minister of State and I respect him for being so. He has his feet on the ground and knows exactly what I am saying.


Senator Finucane should allow Senator Ormonde to speak without interruption.

I did not interrupt the Senator: I listened very carefully.

The Senator is confrontational.

A new division is to be established in An Bord Pleanála because major projects were not allowed to get off the ground. Examples include the route of the M3 close to the Hill of Tara and the M50 at Carrickmines. Time and opportunities were lost because of opposition to those projects. The purpose of the Bill is to fast-track the process with a division in An Bord Pleanála to handle major infrastructural projects, which I welcome, as it will allow the quality of life to be improved. We all know of bottlenecks caused by a small number of people. I have no difficulty with people expressing their views and their democratic right to object.

It has been abandoned.

However, the Bill will establish a division that will allow for pre-consultation and public notice. The local authorities will be able to reflect the views.

I have no major difficulty with the Bill. However, I would like the Minister of State to listen to my only objection. The stakeholders are the local authority, the councillors and the public and they may object. I wonder about the composition of the board. It is to reflect planning and environmental expertise, and voluntary input. Handling objections is an enormous task. I have often wondered how An Bord Pleanála works. Will the new division help to improve matters? When serious objections are made, how will it make its decisions? It is a mammoth task to reflect all the objections that might be made.

I welcome the section of the Bill that deals with rogue developers. As councillors, we have all experienced developers who completed developments and failed to honour the conditions of the planning permission. The onus is now placed on the developer to go to the High Court if he or she wants a planning decision overturned, which is a positive development.

Social and affordable housing works well in my local authority area, as we have a county manager who will not tolerate failure to honour the percentage requirements in any estate. I understand that it does not work so well in some local authority areas and the Minister should reflect on the matter again. The guidelines should be administered nationally.

The Bill will fast-track major projects affecting the environment such as incinerators and landfill sites, transport projects such airports and harbours, and energy projects such as gas pipe installation and windfarms. However, the democratic process will still be allowed to work. It is important that the process still involves the local authority to reflect the local development plan and the views of the public, after which the division of An Bord Pleanála takes the final decision.

Judicial review remains a possibility if people are still not satisfied. An Bord Pleanála will have the power to refuse planning permission on the basis of the points and objections made. The timeline allows six weeks initially, ten weeks for debate by the council and then 18 weeks for final decision. This will be a good move, provided it works. Today we have some scenarios that can take years to reach conclusion. Provided we have a balance reflecting regional development and the spatial strategy, that the democratic process is retained, and that the timeframe is right, the Bill is welcome and I hope it works.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, to the House. I also welcome the debate on this important Bill. While we are clear what it seeks to do, I am not convinced the legislation will ensure that any major infrastructural projects will be fast-tracked as a result. In particular, I welcome section 9, which provides that developers who are notorious for unfinished estates, can now be refused permission by a local authority. We have all been lobbied by housing and residents' associations and people living in estates that are not properly finished. It is not good enough for a developer, who gets planning permission and subsequently sells the units at considerable profit, to fail to fulfil the obligation to complete the estate. It has been frustrating to see those developers move on to another estate and then leave the same trail of misery behind, with the local authority virtually helpless to take action. This week I phoned my local authority regarding an unfinished estate.

I commend the work on this issue done by our spokesperson in the Lower House, Deputy Gilmore, who has put considerable time and effort into the issue. He has led the debate on the issue and introduced a Private Members' Bill on the matter last year. I understand the Minister has not attended the select committee and has delayed the legislative process since.

However, it is a very welcome development, and I look forward to that section of the Bill being used against developers who need to be taught a lesson. Manners must be put on them, and section 9 is an excellent means of doing so. It ensures that permission can at least be refused to developers who do not finish estates.

We are all aware of delays, for a variety of reasons, in furnishing the country with critical infrastructure. It is unacceptable that such delays occur. Can we blame the planning process for all the delays? I am not sure we can. The planning process is clearly not at fault with our not having a second terminal at Dublin Airport. There have been debates and arguments in Cabinet regarding the respective positions of the Progressive Democrats and the former Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan. Such indecision has led to delay in building a second terminal at the airport. It clearly has nothing to do with the planning process, and I wonder how the implementation of this legislation will speed up that project.

Why has more broadband not come on stream? Why has Ethiopia got more of it than we? Why are we falling behind regarding its provision? It is critical infrastructure, but I do not believe the planning process is to blame. This legislation will not accelerate the provision, implementation or improvement of broadband around the country.

Much has been said regarding High Court actions and judicial reviews instigated by people regarding critical infrastructure. I am not convinced that this legislation resolves the problem. My party has on several occasions proposed the establishment of a special division in the High Court to deal with it. It would enormously speed up projects delayed as a result of High Court challenges. If one examines that proposal, one will see its merit.

A major feature of the legislation is that local communities will have no real say on massive projects. It cuts out the local, democratic element of the process. That is not good, since a variety of things can happen. If it now bypasses the local authority and the normal planning process, more people will be aggrieved at not having had the same opportunity to submit observations or make their views known regarding the project in its initial stages. We will have greater recourse to the High Court once the project has been advanced by virtue of the new system proposed in this Bill. That is a key point.

More than likely, more High Court decisions will be taken as a result of eliminating that local involvement and cutting out the real say that local communities have had. That could take a great deal more time to address. Under this legislation, all projects will now go to An Bord Pleanála, which will decide what is strategic infrastructure. The plans then go back to the local authority and to the board for a decision. I would be very interested to know how long it will take the board to make its initial decision on whether a project is of strategic importance. After consideration has been given and time has elapsed, it goes to the local authority for a further ten weeks of consideration.

I am well used to dealing with local authorities regarding routine planning matters, and we are all very much aware of the number of occasions that the planning authority has sought an extension or withdrawal of the application in order to secure more time to consider it. That happens for several reasons, not least that it may not have adequate resources to deal with the massive increase in applications seen recently. One therefore adds to an already congested planning system. Will resources be put in place to allow local authorities to deal with the extra work generated? One must also bear in mind the public representative's role. His or her workload will be greatly increased. How long will it take from when the project goes to An Bord Pleanála until it returns to the local authority?

Despite all the difficulties in the planning process, there is general and genuine belief in the independence of An Bord Pleanála. Every reasonable individual involved in planning takes that view, and people are very mindful of it. It is good to ensure a level of public confidence in State institutions, and An Bord Pleanála comes out on top, despite what is a very difficult process administered by local authorities, not least for those who submit applications for one-off rural housing. These legislative proposals will fundamentally change An Bord Pleanála's role from providing an independent planning appeals process to being a facilitator for major Government projects. That conflict will add to a sense of confusion. There may not be the requisite level of public confidence that the board's independence is absolute.

I have made this point regarding section 9, and I will repeat it for the Minister's benefit. That very welcome part of the legislation provides a rap on the knuckles for developers, making real provision to teach them manners. If they have not completed the work as required, they will no longer be able to make people's lives miserable as they look out from their doorways at estates that have not been finished and which have become jungles of weeds.

Senator Finucane raised several issues. Regarding the planning process, I am becoming ever more frustrated at the way that local authorities require external reports to assist decision-making on one-off rural housing. For example, regarding a house 4 miles outside Dunmanway in west Cork, the planning process was gone through. When the decision was being made, the engineer sought further information, but generally speaking the application had passed through the system reasonably favourably. In this case, the planning agent did not reply to that request for additional information within the prescribed time limit. Therefore, the application lapsed.

A similar reapplication was made to demolish the house and build just behind it. Lo and behold, the planning authority sought an archaeological report, which costs approximately €1,500, plus VAT and expenses. In conjunction with increased development charges and the abolition of the first-time buyer's grant, that creates a great financial burden for the hard-pressed young person. This case was inherently contradictory, since no report was sought in the first instance, six or eight months before the second, when the information was requested.

I look forward to debating this legislation with the Minister in forensic detail on the various Stages. I welcome section 9 but have reservations regarding the remainder.

I welcome the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, to the House to deal with this important legislation, in support of which my colleagues and I are pleased to speak. The purposed of the Bill is to amend the Planning and Development Act 2000 and it will provide for the introduction of a streamlined planning consent procedure for the development of strategic infrastructure. When the Minister first published it a few weeks ago, I saw the usual suspects knocking each other over trying to get in front of TV cameras or onto radio shows to condemn it. I am fairly sure that the same crowd of permanent whingers had not had the time to read through the measures contained in the Bill before coming out against it. However, I doubt that the Minister had expected much support from them anyway.

I was happy to read that the new strategic infrastructure division to be established in An Bord Pleanála will determine strategic infrastructure projects. That is important, and I hope it is given the necessary resources to do its job. While a member of Laois County Council from 1991 until stepping down, I always found myself frustrated by the lack of speed regarding important infrastructure projects in my area.

I will address some points to critics of this important legislation. This country needs new and improved infrastructure. We cannot have infrastructure built for the 20th century serving a national economy of the 21st century. Our quality of life is not raised by delays in construction or court injunctions against motorways, for example. I am unhappy to see that such delays are adding to the costs of the various infrastructure projects. That wasted money might have been better spent elsewhere on other projects. There are people who think that those of us outside Dublin should be satisfied with second-rate infrastructure. They are wrong, and I know that the Minister thinks that too. All Members should welcome the fact that this legislation will help to tackle bottlenecks throughout the country.

Last November, I spoke in this House with regard to the issue of housing and specifically with regard to local government. The former Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputies Noel Dempsey and Cullen, as well as the current Minister, Deputy Roche, deserve great credit for their success in securing record funding for local authorities since 1997. They fought hard at national level to provide funding to councils and the country is better off because of this investment. However, many other critical projects have been delayed or often stopped in their tracks by a legal system which facilitates protesters who are hell-bent on causing maximum disruption.

A number of weeks ago in the Seanad, a Progressive Democrats motion referred to the water services investment programme. Members heard how the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, has greatly reduced the level of red tape involved in getting water and sewerage schemes through their design and construction stages. This is crucial for local communities and for rural communities in particular, and the proposed legislation is a similar step in the right direction.

I was happy to learn that this legislation proposes to establish protections so that everyone has the right to participate in the planning process. As I do not want elected county and city councillors to be ignored in this process, I am satisfied there will be a strategic consent process, whereby An Bord Pleanála will be required to consult with the relevant local authorities and to have due regard for their comments, as well as the views of the elected members of the councils.

I make this point for a simple reason, namely, that public representatives, and specifically members of local authorities, must be accountable to their electorate. Public representatives cannot hide from their responsibilities to the people in their localities. Hence, democratically-elected local representatives must take part in this process. Unaccountable and unelected people can often make decisions without a care in the world. Members' colleagues on city and county councils bear the blame for decisions made by unknown and faceless officials. I urge the Minister to ensure that measures are included in this necessary legislation to prevent the further erosion of local democracy.

I again thank the Minister for introducing this legislation and I appreciate that it took much effort to bring it this far. I look forward to supporting this Bill and hope it will pass through the Dáil as soon as possible, because the country is being strangled by objectors and cranks with nothing better to do than waste taxpayers' money.

I am proud of the record and achievements of Laois County Council in respect of major projects. However, in many cases, had this legislation been in place, much time and money could have been saved and many projects could have been expedited. Nevertheless, I am glad the legislation is before the House and I thank the Minister once again for pressing ahead with it, despite cries from the usual suspects.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It is probably one of the most crucial Bills to come before the House in this, or in any other term. In respect of some of the Bill's aspects, Senator McCarthy put his finger on it when he noted that it will not affect quite a number of issues. He cited the second terminal at Dublin Airport, which is not delayed by planning issues. Similarly, planning issues have not held up the roll-out of broadband, which has been an absolute disgrace, as we are light years behind some of our eastern counterparts.

Moreover, this Bill would not have affected a critical piece of infrastructure for the development of County Mayo and the towns of Castlebar and Westport, namely, the Castlebar-Westport road. Hence, the Bill will have no part to play with regard to many infrastructural projects throughout the country, the progress of which has not been held up by its absence.

I want the Minister to spell out to the House in detail how the legislation will work. As someone who has served for 25 years on a local authority, I am puzzled as to how it will work from the initial lodging of a planning application to the final deadline when planning is granted. I am uncertain of the merits of the Minister's proposal to give power to An Bord Pleanála. He intends to increase the number of its board members from seven to nine and has outlined the various bodies which can nominate people. In addition, the Minister can add a number of people and in the final analysis, eight or nine people will serve on the board.

As legislators, Members will vest these nine people with considerable power. In future, they will make the decisions pertaining to critical pieces of infrastructure. When I first heard of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill, I assumed that local or regional authorities would play a significant part in fast-tracking planning applications. However, that does not appear to be the case. From my reading of this Bill, a planning application will go directly to An Bord Pleanála.

In my experience as a local authority member, in some cases when new roads were being designed, the local authority identified three to five potential routes. Subsequently, the local authority members decided on a particular route on the advice of officials. What will happen in future? Will An Bord Pleanála decide the route for a road from Castlebar to Westport, Athlone to Galway or Naas to Cork? Who will pick the route? Will the application go to An Bord Pleanála after the route is picked? When will the project be fast-forwarded to An Bord Pleanála? It strikes me, from reading parts of this Bill, that local authority members will have little say in the matter.

I noticed that Senator Norris has welcomed the Bill because of what happened in the 1990s, mainly in Dublin, in respect of taking money for planning applications and so forth. This happened in Dublin because of a lack of forward planning. Officials did not bring development plans and area action plans before council members. Subsequently, material changes to development plans were introduced and councillors were obliged to make decisions in that respect.

However, had proper forward planning taken place, this would not have arisen. While many planners are employed in local authorities, most of them are tied up with matters such as sewerage scheme applications, how they might affect the housing plan, and whether their access to roads is on national routes, county roads or whatever. Too many planners are engaged in such activities and not enough staff work in forward planning.

The majority of local authorities have few planners working in this field. More people are needed in this respect and had this been the case in the 1980s, it would have cut out much of the nonsense that happened in the Dublin area. The events of the 1990s would never have happened. Hence, I want the Minister to provide a detailed outline to the House of the progress which a planning application coming under the auspices of this Bill will make from the first to the final stage. How will local people be able to make their input into that process?

I have encountered people who have been aggrieved by planning decisions. All Members know of such cases. I can cite a case which took place in my home town of Castlebar in respect of a bridge improvement on the national secondary route from Castlebar to Ballinrobe, which aggrieved people. In the case of one particular household, if it snowed or if the ground was slippy, they would neither be able to drive out nor walk out of their driveway. When we went back to redress this with the local authority, we were told in no uncertain terms that the household concerned had people working for them, they went to arbitration and at that stage there was nothing the local authority could do.

Debate adjourned.