This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 103, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and has been placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question, "That the Bill be received for final consideration", the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil. This is looked upon as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. For the convenience of Senators, I have arranged for the printing and circulation of those amendments. The Minister will deal separately with the subject group of each related group of amendments. I have also circulated the proposed grouping in the House. A Senator may contribute once on each grouping but I remind Senators that the only matter that may be discussed is the amendments made by the Dáil.
Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil]: Report and Final Stages.
I call on the Minister to speak on the first group of amendments.
I am pleased to report back to the House on a number of amendments made by the Dáil to the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006. The Bill was debated at great length in both Houses, with the debate starting in this House. Planning legislation seems to stimulate vigorous debate. Almost 70 Deputies contributed to the Second Stage debate in the Dáil, which was held over the course of four consecutive weeks. This level of engagement was continued in the highly detailed and constructive deliberation and debate on Committee and Report Stages.
A total of 138 amendments to the Bill were made in the Dáil and I was happy, in a number of instances, to accept Opposition amendments or to make amendments on Report Stage in response to points made during Committee Stage discussions. In light of the significant number of amendments made to the Bill, it would not be possible to deal with each individually so, as the Cathaoirleach has said, we have grouped them in terms of their significance.
Amendment No. 1 deals with section 3. We had a very long discussion on Committee Stage on the criteria on which the board will base its decision as to whether a particular project is strategic. Senators will remember that if a proposed project is of a type listed in the Seventh Schedule of the principal Act, the infrastructure provider must enter into consultations with the board. The first decision the board will take is whether the project is in fact strategic in nature. It will base its decision on the criteria set out in section 37A(2), which we discussed at length here.
While I was happy that the criteria were clearly set out in that section, on foot of the debate I have agreed to amend slightly the reference to the national spatial strategy and the regional planning guidelines. I amended 37A(2)(b)to require that the project would contribute “substantially” to the meeting of an objective in the national spatial strategy or the regional planning guidelines, rather than “significantly”, as the paragraph read initially. This shows our intent that only the most important projects should qualify for the new consent process. The clarification on this point also makes it more evident that the Bill, when enacted, cannot be abused by private speculators who have something other than the wider public interest at heart.
I welcome the Minister to the House and note he has taken on board many amendments which were first tabled in the Seanad. He did not see fit to accept them at the time but I am glad that when the Bill was debated on Committee Stage in the Dáil and adequate time was provided to discuss those amendments further, the Minister took many of them on board. Those important amendments will strengthen the Bill and make it better, which was the aim of this House when the Bill was discussed here previously.
I ask the Senator to focus on amendment No. 1.
Certainly. The Minister referred to the regional planning guidelines and I ask him to review those guidelines over the summer because they are not working. He must contact all of the local authorities in the State to determine how they are implementing the guidelines because there is an enormous variation between one local authority and another. When one is in a constituency that crosses two counties, one gets a flavour of what is happening in two different authorities. Many unfair decisions are being made in one county. It is easier to get planning permission in one county than in the other. This should be rectified.
We should have a uniform system of planning throughout the country. That is not the case at present and it must be addressed, particularly with regard to once-off dwellings and farmhouse developments such as slatted houses. I have seen situations where people are trying to comply with planning legislation passed in these Houses but they are not being facilitated by local planners. This issue that needs to be addressed.
On the issue of major infrastructural projects, many farmers are now developing quarries. Quarries are valuable assets for farmers to have on their lands. Farmers may apply to their local authority for planning permission to develop the quarry and extract the quarry stone and if the decision on the application is appealed to An Bord Pleanála, it may refuse planning permission for such development. This has been the experience of constituents of mine in counties Longford and Westmeath. It has also been the experience of farmers in other parts of the country. Therefore, this matter needs to be seriously examined and addressed. I hope I will have an opportunity to speak on other amendments. However, the issues I outlined need to be addressed urgently.
We have been criticised for our inability to deliver projects on time and within budget. The Minister's portfolio does not extend to the area of transport.
I ask the Senator to stick to the grouping of amendments under discussion.
This matter is related. A 12 km stretch of the M4 motorway has to be repaired and replaced. That work will necessitate the closing of lanes during the summer months.
We are dealing with amendments made to the Bill in the Dáil.
I am dealing with those amendments. In the interests of accommodating members of the public, whom we all represent, it would only be fair if the barriers could be lifted when the repair work is being carried out as otherwise the work will give rise to bottlenecks.
That is a different matter. I call Senator Ó Murchú.
It is a major infrastructural project that was delivered and the issue I outlined needs to be addressed.
This is excellent legislation. The Minister and his officials should be complimented on the consultative process that was put in place and the opportunities and time given to people to make an input, which is as it should be. The area of planning is currently possibly one of the most contentious issues. We know that in this House because at every opportunity a planning issue is raised.
One issue that is gaining prominence is that of wind farms. There will be few places where this issue will not come centre stage. As with all relatively new developments, the positive and the negative aspects of them are put forward. I recall when we discussed the issue of asbestos and it was proposed to locate an asbestos dump in Ovens in County Cork. Some of the people present are too young to remember that debate but I remember it well. The experts at that time made it clear there was no inherent health danger from asbestos. We all know that is not true because asbestos is cancer inducing. One dare not even remove asbestos except under the strictest conditions, which also apply to its disposal. That illustrates that it is right at times to listen to what people say on such issues and to listen to people who express a common sense view. We also need to carry out sufficient research to obtain all professional information available on such developments.
I am informed that an issue related to wind farms is a cause of concern to medical people. As the sun sets and sunlight reflects on the blade of the windmill, there is as a flicker effect which can trigger various ailments, including epilepsy. If a person suffers from epilepsy, such an effect can severely aggravate it. That is a major concern because that is only one medical condition that is triggered by that flicker effect, but I am sure it may impact on many more.
There is also the issue of the flicker effect on animals. I am informed that it can have a major impact on animals, particularly bloodstock and horses. The Minister will understand the point I am about to make. I am not putting the concern of the impact on animals above that of its impact on human beings, but the former is an issue that should be considered. We have a thriving bloodstock industry in Tipperary. People in Kildare and other parts of the country would say likewise about their counties. This industry is world famous and it means a great deal to us. If there is an inherent danger associated with wind farms, about which there is a growing concern, and the flicker effect can have a bearing on animals, this issue needs to be considered.
If provision to deal with this issue is not included in this legislation, guidelines or other measures might be prepared. The two issues I outlined, namely, the human and the animal aspects, are serious. I would like to hear a response from the Minister on this matter.
I support what the Senator said. I will not cover the ground he covered on windmills. I wish to raise the issue of the national spatial strategy which is covered in this group of amendments. Senator Bannon referred to one-off houses. I also have a concern about that and I may deal with it when we reach a later amendment.
We should examine the settlement centres and development areas, particularly in our towns. The Minister recently visited Galway and we were delighted to spend a few hours with him discussing various issues regarding the way our villages and towns will be developed and such settlement centres. We had a useful meeting with different communities on improving water supplies, particularly the provision of small sewerage schemes in our towns, which is very much in line with the national spatial strategy.
We are lucky in the town of Tuam that it has been designated as a hub town. There are gateway and hub towns right along the west coast, and it is important that we build on that development. The development of towns and village settlement centres should be promoted. That issue is as important as one-off housing. I would like the Minister to take that issue on board.
I was involved in the work that went into the Adamstown planning scheme, which is probably the best planning example we have at this stage. The Minister might think I am exaggerating, but I urge him to ensure the Government designates more strategic development zones.
The Adamstown plan took time to complete but it was worth it. However, the work involved did not take an excessive amount of time and relations were less fraught than if every planning application was objected to along the way. The plan was prepared as a whole unit. Any future planning permissions in the area must fit in with the Adamstown planning scheme.
The scheme was council and community-driven rather than developer-driven, although the developers were very much brought on board. It has mandatory requirements in terms of infrastructure and provides for the phasing in of infrastructure. It builds a community as a whole. An overview of all requirements was taken before the plan was drawn up as opposed to what would have happened otherwise. All the houses would have been built in any event in Adamstown but the development would have taken place in anad hoc, piecemeal way without the safeguards that are in place in regard to infrastructure.
I urge the Minister to designate other areas as strategic development zones because the exercise in which I was involved was worthwhile. The Minister will not find a better example of planning in Ireland. While such a model is slightly removed from the point of what we are discussing, it could be related to the national spatial strategy.
I fully appreciate that the Senators want to make a brief contribution in the broadest sense. I agree with Senator Tuffy. The Taoiseach regularly points out to me that this is a good approach for precisely the reasons the Senator outlined. This plan was holistic, it involved the community and the local authority. It dealt with infrastructure and the social supports that were required to be put in place.
I also agree with the Senator that it does not arise directly under the Bill, but she will be aware that I have tried to move a little bit further in that direction. I have asked local authorities to be conscious of social infrastructure needs. We cannot simply build houses, we must build communities and in that context provide recreational facilities. While that would not be directly covered in this legislation, the Senator is right in the general sense that if we are to have a spatial strategy, strategic development zones are very much a part of it.
The rural housing guidelines are not strictly covered by the legislation. Senators Kitt and Bannon expressed concern about the rural housing guidelines and differentiation. My spatial strategy division is in regular contact with local authorities. There is evidence that the guidelines are being applied consistently but we will keep an eye on this matter. The Bill does not cover quarrying.
Senator Ó Murchú raised a very interesting point about the emerging debate on wind farms. The Bill places the threshold at 50 turbines, which is a very large amount with a certain output in terms of megawatts. Fine Gael tabled a number of amendments suggesting that we reduce this threshold towards 20 turbines. I did not agree with this proposition, although I fully understood the logic behind it and the concerns held by Fine Gael about wind farms. Fine Gael believes that the new progressive piece of energy system should be rolled out. I did not reduce the threshold from 50 to 20 because I wanted to keep a strategic size in mind.
The Senator also raised a very interesting point about the issue of shadow flicker, of which I am aware. As the light falls, particularly during evenings when one looks towards the west and perceives very strong sunlight, an intervening wind farm could produce a variety of optical or visual effects. I am concerned about shadow flicker and Senator Ó Murchú will be pleased to learn that I have already addressed this matter.
I circulated the new guidelines on wind farms to the Senator last week. These guidelines deal with smaller wind farms and arise, in part, from the debate we had on the merits of farms with a strategic size of 50 turbines compared with 20 turbines. I put a condition into these guidelines requiring the non-operation of wind farms at times when predicted shadow flicker might adversely affect on an inhabited dwelling within 500 metres of a turbine, where such a provision may be appropriate. I was worried about the issue of epilepsy and effects on humans. Clearly, local authorities can, and should, use their powers in that regard. We will keep a close eye on how these guidelines are operated.
Senator Kitt kindly referred to a recent meeting I held in Galway with him, some of his colleagues and the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cúiv. During the meeting, they made a point which has been repeated in this debate. They made a very cogent argument about the meaning of the term "strategic" in different parts of the country. They specifically related it to the size of power lines. I had stated previously that a strategic power line would be a very substantial line of 220 kV. For a range of reasons, I did not originally intend to include 110 kV lines. I wish to put on the record of this House that the cogency of the arguments put forward by Senator Kitt and arguments put forward during the debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas, where reference was made to the specific needs of Galway, Mayo, Sligo, the general western seaboard and the border midland and western region, persuaded me to amend the Bill to change the amount from 220 kV to 110 kV. This will be very helpful, particularly in medium-sized towns and growing villages in the west.
A renaissance is taking place in the west of Ireland. I recently visited Ballyhaunis, Claremorris, Castlebar and Westport and was staggered by the degree of development taking place. This state of affairs is very positive. It is clear that the arguments made by Deputies and Senators, particularly those made by my colleague, Senator Kitt, were good and compelling. It is for that reason that I amended the Bill.
To return to the point made by Senator Ó Murchú, the issue of shadow flicker does not directly arise out of the Bill but I have already anticipated it in the guidelines. If he is concerned about the guidelines, we can discuss them further.
Group 2 consists of amendments Nos. 2, 16 and 51, which deal with the effects of development on proper planning, sustainable development and the environment.
During my remarks on Second Stage I stated my belief that the expertise of the board should be fully employed in the planning process as early as possible. I have introduced a number of specific amendments to this end. Amendments Nos. 2 and 51 extend the powers of the board to give advice on what considerations in respect of environmental effects of a proposed development will be taken into account. This provision is very important. A number of Deputies and Senators, particularly Deputies from a variety of parties, made the point that on many occasions, environmental impact statements are presented in a sloppy fashion and that issues arise out of this. I introduced these amendments to extend the powers of the board to give advice. The advice will be given during the initial pre-application discussions with applications for consent for strategic infrastructure for electricity transmission lines or gas pipelines. In essence, the board will have the power to advise on environmental aspects in general, as well as to respond to a specific technical scoping document. This is a significant improvement which has come out of the debate.
Amendment No. 16 will ensure that the planning authority, including the councillors, will include its views on the effect on the local environment of a proposed development in its report. Senators felt it was particularly important that matters be clarified for councillors regarding what will be included. This amendment strengthens matters and clarifies the role of councillors and will be welcomed by Senators because Senators from all sides of the House referred to the significance of bringing councillors into the picture. Members in the other House were less taken with the importance of this measure than Senators or myself. I have been pleased by the support the Seanad has given this measure. The amendments reflect some of the concerns and issues discussed here.
The Minister is wise to accept the amendment even though it only concerns one word. It is our environment, which we must protect and look after. I understand that a heritage and monuments Bill will come before the House. We have been waiting for such a Bill for a long time. It would protect much of our national monuments. We have heard that it is due but we have not received an update as to when it will come before the Houses. It should be brought forward because we possess monuments which we appreciate very much and wish to see. They are part of our heritage and what we are as a nation and should be protected. I understand that the Bill will come under the area of environment. Perhaps the Minister could update us as to when he will bring forward legislation in this area which relates to the environment and must be addressed by him.
We are dealing with the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill.
I also welcome the inclusion of the environment in the overall picture. The crucial phrase in this particular section relates to the sustainability of these developments. A number of major infrastructural and housing developments are being built around Dublin city, particularly in the docklands area, where the ongoing sustainability of developments are crucial. The sooner all these issues are addressed, whether it is at the environmental impact assessment stage or later when the environmental impact study is produced, the better. It is crucial that the provision of schools and adequate leisure and shopping facilities is included in this system at the earliest possible stage. It is too late to row back when the developments are built. It is very difficult to do so from the perspective of cost and other factors. The emphasis on sustainability, as well as the overall environment, is crucial.
I very much welcome the inclusion of the environment in this group of amendments. As well as sustainable development, about which Senator Brady spoke, the phrase about proper planning is very important. Senator Bannon referred earlier to the issue of one-off houses. I am sure all of us, including the Minister, are aware of a point made by Senator Bannon regarding different interpretations of proper planning and sustainable development in different counties and local authorities. In respect of interpretation, the question arises as to what is local. Does it mean a parish, school catchment area or certain mileage from one's home? I was never satisfied on this issue when I was a member of Galway County Council or when I dealt with the council as a Member of the Oireachtas.
There seems to be a ban on people from outside a county entering it, which is wrong and unfair. For example, people could rent a house for 15 years or 20 years, but they would still not be regarded as local. Trying to find an intrinsic link, which is the great phrase of planners, can be difficult if one is not regarded as local after renting a house for that period and being involved in the community. This matter should be examined and I hope that the local authorities reach agreement on the definition of "local". I welcome the amendments and thank the Minister for accepting my point.
Many of the Senators' comments do not directly arise from the Bill. We are striving for the interpretation of planning law, to which Senators Bannon and Kitt referred. I am conscious of the changes in the interpretation of the guidelines for one-off rural housing. Like Senator Bannon, I am rightly anxious that planning law is reflected in the same way everywhere. There is clarity of language in the guidelines, but less than clarity in their interpretation. This misinterpretation frustrates LAMA, the councillors' association, AMAI and me. I have requested the relevant section of my Department to keep the matter under review.
An Bord Pleanála has taken the guidelines on board and since their introduction, there have been significant changes therein in the incidence of success of one-off appeals, suggesting the degree of the board's anxiety about making local authorities aware that not only will the letter of the rules be applied, but also their spirit. Nothing enriches a countryside as much as people. Senator Bannon shares my view that a countryside without people is effectively a desert.
A skewed debate is taking place. While that matter does not directly arise under this section, I assure the Senators that I will keep it under review. I will examine best practice in councils. If the Seanad wishes to discuss the guidelines and councillors' frustration in the autumn, I will happily attend the Chamber and listen to and take on board the views of Senators.
Notice to planning authorities is the subject matter of group 3, amendments Nos. 3 to 5, inclusive.
When the Seanad discussed the Bill, it provided that a relevant planning authority would be informed of the board's decision only where it decided that a proposed development does not constitute strategic infrastructure and would, therefore, be subject to the normal planning process.
Amendment No. 3 ensures that the board shall serve a copy of its decision concerning whether the development was classed as strategic infrastructure to the relevant planning authority. Members were concerned about whether this would focus on negative rather than positive aspects. As they made their case well, I tabled this amendment because it would be more practical for the planning authority to be informed of the fact that consultations between the board and an applicant in respect of an application on strategic infrastructure had taken place and that an application to the board is likely to be forthcoming in the planning authority's functional area. This is fair notice to the authority and, more important, the councillors, who are the voice of the people, that this is a rising issue on which they should clarify their views.
Amendment No. 4 clarifies that the projects listed in the Seventh Schedule must enter the new strategic consent procedure and the initial screening. Project promoters cannot decide to apply for a normal planning application, which was an ambiguity highlighted by Members during the debate. We do not want to give a private developer a choice of A or B. If one argues that one has a strategic infrastructure development, one must engage in the process of going straight to the board instead of being able to make a choice. In effect, the amendment is that no normal planning application can be made for a Seventh Schedule project, which makes sense.
Amendment No. 5 is a textual amendment to correct an error. Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 will put into law the spirit of the debates held in both Houses.
These amendments tidy up and clarify the planning situation. The Minister referred to local authority and county development plans, but there are also regional plans for the eight regions, plans for Objective One and Objective Two regions and plans for areas and towns. I understand that they will all be consulted and their views will be taken on board. Perhaps the Minister could clarify this matter.
I welcome the subject matter of these amendments. Irrespective of whether applications are for major developments, they should be published in provincial newspapers. Too many applications have instead been published in national newspapers. Will the Minister comment in this regard, as it was my understanding that applications were advertised in local newspapers? Recently, applications for developments such as telephone masts have not appeared in provincial papers. This matter should be examined.
The regional plans will be factored into the board's consideration. On regional authorities and so on, the best approach is to ensure that where applications hit universally, as it were, the local authorities should get the information, as they feed into the regional bodies.
On advertising and notices, we had a lengthy discussion on site notices and I will differentiate the colours. We considered whether the colour should be red, green or both. These details are a matter for regulation and I take on board Senators' views.
Could the county colours be used?
No. We will have the same colour across the country. If the colours were red and green, they would only refer to Mayo or Rathnew.
Further consultation with bodies and persons is the subject matter of group 4, amendments Nos. 6, 7, 52, and 53.
These amendments give the board the power to seek the opinions of any person or body with relevant views on information in respect of the consultation on a proposed development, particularly the scoping of an environmental impact statement. It is important that the board has the power to look for expertise in areas beyond what is immediately available to it, for example, that of a Department, relevant local authority, designated environmental authority or member of the public. It is intended to be used where the infrastructure provider has entered consultations on whether a proposed development is of strategic importance and where the board feels that other bodies or persons may have views that should be taken into account in determining whether such is the case.
This is the right way to give the board a general power to take the above approach. If we are giving the board the power to make the ultimate decision, it is logical that we give it the power to decide on whom it wishes to consult on the process. The power may also be useful in other cases where the board may wish to elicit views from relevant organisations on whether considerations relating to proper planning, sustainable development or environmental issues have a bearing. The overall objective is to give the board the flexibility it will require in respect of the procedures it must apply.
Amendments Nos. 52 and 53 make the same changes in respect of the consultation processes on electricity transmission lines and gas pipelines. Amendments Nos. 6, 7, 52 and 53 widen the board's discretion to discuss with as broad a range of people as it considers relevant.
I am sure everyone in this House and every right-minded citizen of this State will agree that we cannot erode the democratic participation of our citizens in any decision-making process, particularly when those decisions affect their future and that of their children.
Can the Minister elaborate on the role of the Environmental Protection Agency? Will there be consultation with the EPA? Senator Brady and I had reason to visit the agency at Easter and saw the very valuable work it does for the environment. There is no mention of it in the Bill but it is an important, independent body and its role should be outlined. Has the Minister given the agency any special status?
Our citizens are very important. I have travelled extensively over the years but my heart is where I was born and reared and where I have lived all my life. There should be consultation with people locally and their views should be paramount in any decision making, because they might have local knowledge that can be taken on board.
These sections are particularly balanced. We must, as the previous speaker said, accommodate all views but we must also maintain a balance. The thrust of this legislation is to provide infrastructure for the greater good. There have been many examples over the years of major projects being delayed, sometimes for very spurious reasons, but the balance is right in this Bill.
I agree with Senator Bannon that the expertise and knowledge the EPA has gathered should be tapped into at every possible opportunity. When the board looks for information, the EPA will be the first body it will call on for the benefit of its expertise.
The EPA is mentioned in section 37F(5) which states:
Before making a decision under section 37G in respect of proposed development comprising or for the purposes of an activity for which an integrated pollution control licence or a waste licence is required, the Board may request the Environmental Protection Agency to make observations.
This set of amendments empowers the strategic infrastructure board to make reference to any agency. By definition that must include the EPA.
Group 5 comprises textual amendments providing clarification and is the subject matter of amendments Nos. 8, 15, 36, 47, 54, 76, 91, 92, 102, 105, 122, 136 and 137.
As is typical with complex legislation, it is necessary to make minor clarifications of a drafting nature and that is what these amendments do. I was seduced by Senator Bannon's mellifluous tones during the Bill's passage through this House and kindly accepted one textual amendment which, as it turned out, would have had a disastrous effect that neither of us foresaw, and which we had to reverse in the Dáil. The amendments do not reflect any policy changes but are purely textual, of a drafting nature and designed to produce clarity. They pick up on minor points made during the Dáil debate which were not picked up on during deliberations in the Seanad, thorough though the Seanad debate was.
I agree the amendments bring greater clarity to the Bill. On the day in question the Minister agreed with me on a point and accepted my amendment. However, I think it was amendment No. 133, which is not included in this group.
Its subject matter is included.
I agree the amendments improve the Bill for the purposes of interpretation and clarity. The people who draft Bills know better.
I would never suggest that a specialist in the arcane and dark art of parliamentary drafting necessarily knows better than parliamentarians themselves, but we must accept their advice when it is offered. The amendment the Senator tabled was firmly offered so I stand chastised, though I am still firmly on his side.
Group 6 concerns transboundary impacts and is the subject matter of amendments Nos. 9 to 14, inclusive, 32 to 35, inclusive, 37, 42 to 46, inclusive, and 123 to 128, inclusive.
These are interesting amendments because they expand public participation and take into account the transboundary elements of the EIA directive. The amendments require applicants for strategic infrastructure to include in the newspaper notice, where relevant, that a proposed development is likely to have a significant impact on the environment of another EU member state signatory to the transboundary convention. They cover what kind of decisions the board may make on such applications and also require that an application and its environmental impact statement be copied to the relevant other member state so that it be given a chance to comment.
We made the point that we were very concerned about planning procedures and policy decisions in a neighbouring state, particularly on the nuclear side. I included a very interesting reference to make sure there was no ambiguity on the issue. If we demand transboundary access and the right to comment on projects in other jurisdictions, we should abide by that for our own operations, as I am sure Members will agree.
Group 7 deals with the reporting of views of local authorities and is the subject matter of amendments Nos. 17 to 20, inclusive.
We had lengthy discussions in this House and in the Dáil about the need for the full range of views of councillors to be referred to the board for information. This is important to me because I want to capture the views of councils. The Bill incorporates a major innovation in providing for councillors to send their recommendations to the board. As I said in the Seanad, to general agreement, this is the first time in planning law since the 1960s that we have specifically set out to empower local councils in a planning context.
During the course of the Dáil debate, Deputies were concerned that even substantial minority views could be excluded. It appeared that the best and fairest way to ensure the full range of views be considered was to record all views, rather than require a substantial minority to vote on an alternative. Amendment No. 17 is intended to achieve this. The other Government amendments in this group are consequential on it.
Our view is that all cogent views of local authority members, often varied in nature, should be brought forward to the board. It is important to ensure that the relevant record is prepared and agreed at the same time as the meeting is held. There are deadlines in the Bill — Senator Bannon and I discussed deadlines at some length during the debate in this House — and we would not expect the board to delay its consideration until minutes were approved at the following month's council meeting. Accordingly, the solution allows for the record of the meetings administrator, as provided for in the Local Government Act 2001, to be acceptable for its purpose.
This is an obscure point. The provision of an administrator to record minutes at a meeting is provided for in the Local Government Act 2001 and we are using that device to ensure the views of councillors be recorded and transmitted immediately to the board, rather than forcing it to wait for a month for councillors to agree minutes, during which time amendments may be submitted, thus negating the whole purpose of the time horizons. I am sure Senators will understand this is an improvement arising from the debate in this House and the Dáil.
On Committee Stage I spoke at length, as did other Members, on the issue of the involvement of local authority members. Many Members entered the House through the local authority system and served their apprenticeship on local authorities for many years. That is where one learns the nuts and bolts of how local government, and national and international government, works.
I served as secretary of the Local Authority Members Association for five years and got a great insight into local government in practically every local authority in the country because during that period I organised a series of conferences relevant to issues discussed at local authority level. Ministers often participated in these conferences, on one occasion five Ministers participated in a conference. There was always a major input by local authority members. If one serves on any committee which serves local authority members, north or south of the Border, one gets a great insight into their thinking.
It is important that local authority members be given a role because they are the foot soldiers of the democratic system. All around us, we can see facilities that were put in place as a result of the work of locally-elected representatives, although they do not get the credit for it. Public lighting, footpaths, water and sewerage facilities are all provided by elected members. Local representatives have an ear to the ground. As I have said on many occasions, they are the voice of the people at local level, and long may that continue. It is true democracy, in which the views of local people are considered.
I am glad the Bill gives a role to local authority members and glad that the Minister will take their views on board. Most local authority members have sensible views. Two types of local authority meeting are the most important. One type is the meeting which concerns the preparation of a county development plan. Facilities should be put in place whereby local authority members can employ or be empowered to employ expertise when preparing submissions on a county development plan. This should be considered by the Minister.
The second important type of meeting within the local authority system is the budget meeting. If one is not tuned in when a budget is being prepared for a local authority, one can be sidelined. These meetings prepare budgets for, say, five-year plans for roads or three-year plans for housing. If one is not involved in the funding decision at the budget meeting, one can talk all one likes afterwards. If a member wants a scheme in operation or a new development in a particular area, it is important to tune in to what is happening at the budget meetings, which are the most important and relevant meetings of a local authority. While I am not dismissing the other monthly meetings or strategic meetings, I see the two types of meeting to which I referred as the most important.
I would appreciate if the Minister would consider accepting that local authority members could bring in——
That might be an issue for another day. We are discussing the amendments.
It is relevant to local authority members. Perhaps the Minister would consider putting in place a facility so that local authority members could bring in outside expertise and advice when preparing county development plans. It is a matter that needs to be addressed. As one who served on a local authority for nearly 19 years, I feel this is a major deficit faced by members of local authorities.
I strongly support Senator Bannon's position on the views of local authority members. The Minister has been very forthcoming in meeting local authority members and obtaining their views. Senator Bannon is correct with regard to county development plans, budgets and annual reports in that every assistance should be given to councillors. It is also important to state that Oireachtas Members should keep in touch with local authority members. With Oireachtas colleagues, I met local authority members in Galway two weeks ago and will meet them again this Saturday. It is important that every assistance is provided.
To give an example, there are times when local authority members must get independent legal advice. An issue arises in that regard because they cannot simply go along with the county council advice from the legal adviser on all occasions.
I welcome the fact Senators endorse what I have done in the Bill. On the other issues, which, strictly speaking, are not dealt with by the Bill, I agree with the Senators. In particular, I agree with the last point on legal advice, which is a thorny issue on which I have engaged in debate. Local authority members have more powers than they sometimes realise in this regard. Unfortunately, local authority members lost a recent court case, perhaps because they were unwise in the direction they took during the case. However, that is a different day's work.
I agree with the point made by Senators Bannon and Kitt with regard to finance. My Department's website contains an increasing amount of comparative financial data for every local authority because councillors and Oireachtas Members need information if they are to react within the local government process. I am considering ways of increasing the information flow.
Senator Bannon will welcome the fact I have been giving consideration to a pet hobby horse of mine, namely, the issue of internal audit, which will ensure that we have efficiency. Local authority members, for all their talents, will need support in this regard. I am committed to this process. It will be an improvement that will give greater control in the direction of local government finance and will give taxpayers better value for money. I am seized of the importance of this issue and am working in that direction.
Group eight, which deals with amendments Nos. 21, 40, 49 and 93, concerns consideration being brought to bear in making decisions on strategic infrastructure developments.
We discussed this issue at length in the House and on Committee Stage in the Dáil. I introduced a number of amendments to amend the list of issues to ensure consistency throughout the Bill, and consistency between the Bill and the 2000 Act. Section 143 of the Act, which is being amended by this Bill, contains a broad list of issues to be considered when making decisions. These include ministerial and Government policy, the national interest, any effect that the performance the board's functions may have on issues of strategic or social importance to the State, the national spatial strategy and regional guidelines.
Instead of referring in a number of places to the national interest and other considerations, the wording of the Bill has been amended in the relevant section to refer to the considerations which were already set out and are law in section 143. This should help to avoid unnecessary confusion or problems for the board. The change also has the advantage of ensuring the board will consider any effect the performance of the board's functions may have on issues of strategic economic and social importance, as required in section 143. That is appropriate and necessary in the case of strategically important infrastructural decisions taken by the board, which can have an impact for generations. This is to ensure consistency between the primary Act and the new Bill.
These amendments are important. They are important in terms of what they contribute to the development of our economic life. It has been rightly emphasised that we have a very modern economy but it is generally recognised that we have Third World infrastructure. Some recent statistical information from Europe showed that Ireland was in 11th place out of 12 in terms of infrastructural development within the EU. This must be addressed because there are major deficits in infrastructure in some parts of the country, particularly in the BMW region.
I want to pay tribute to the Members of the Seanad who put a very big effort into this Bill. I mention Senator Bannon, in particular, in that regard. I also wish to put on record my admiration for the manner in which Fine Gael has been very positive in this and has sought, throughout, to improve the Bill. One can never get a situation where everybody approves of everything, but we have made significant improvements in the Bill by listening to the Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas. I have done that and have been very flexible in so far as I possibly could.
I wish to mention one area which we did not get a chance to discuss here. We have done something unique in this Bill. On the issue of nuclear power, which was a concern in both Houses, I have uniquely made a cross-reference between this Bill and section 18(6) of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 to emphasise that Members from all parties in this and the other House have a clear view on this matter. We want to ensure that the existing prohibition is retained. Somebody said that this was simply making a political statement. It is true that it is a political statement. However, the appropriate place to make political statements that reflect the views of the elected representatives of the people is in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I have listened to the contributions both here and in the other House on an issue of great importance. This is a very significant Bill and it will have major impact in the years ahead. It has been greatly improved by the fact that so many Senators and Deputies put so much of their time and effort into it. I am grateful for that.
I thank the Minister and his officials for coming to the House.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House this evening. As I said on Committee Stage, Fine Gael supports this Bill. At that time I wished it a speedy passage through the Oireachtas. I am glad, now, that we have signed off on it. Hopefully the infrastructural developments that are badly needed throughout the country will be delivered on in the shortest possible term.