The issue of a potential conflict of interest has been considered by the Office of the Attorney General. There are no legal grounds for it. The fact that Fingal County Council raises some of its revenue income from commercial rates, and the fact that some of its rates income comes from the DAA, does not represent a conflict of interest in the context of the council being responsible for the regulation of aircraft noise at the airport.
On the matter of resourcing and expertise, the council will establish a new, well-resourced, and dedicated aircraft noise regulation office within the executive branch, which will include the appropriate noise expertise. The office will be headed at a senior level by a director of services, with all of the appropriate arrangements to ensure decisions are taken fully in accordance with the law. By all reasonable, verifiable measures, there is a compelling case in favour of Fingal County Council. I stand over the decision of the Government and the advice which underpins it. It has been subject to extensive policy deliberation and legal scrutiny. It is a robust and sound proposal.
Any decision to be made by the council, in this role as noise regulator, will be evidence-based and will be fully in adherence with the requirements of national law and the EU regulation. If it is anything other than this, then it will clearly be susceptible to challenge under the appeals process and-or judicial review. That said, I have responded to concerns by agreeing to new provisions, passed in the Dáil, for a regular periodic review of the performance of the noise regulator with regard to its functions under this Bill. This review will take place within seven years of enactment, once a full cycle of the entire regulatory process, including any appeal, has been completed. Furthermore, the noise regulator will be required to produce an annual report, detailing the work it has undertaken throughout the year and setting out its work programme for the following year. This will be separate from, and in addition to, the annual report produced by Fingal County Council. These new provisions were specifically included to address concerns raised by opposition Deputies in the Dáil.
I would like to take Senators through some of the finer detail of the Bill. At least once every five years, the noise regulator will undertake an assessment of the noise situation at the airport. This will include taking into account future developments planned at the airport. Where the noise regulator identifies a noise problem on foot of that assessment, it will adopt the so-called balanced approach. The balanced approach is set out in the EU regulation and allows the regulator to decide what steps need to be taken by the airport authority to offset the impact of the noise. It might mean more home insulation or adjustments to flight paths or it might require physical works to act as sound barriers. That will be a matter for the regulator following its detailed assessment. The balanced approach entails undertaking an analysis of the various measures available to reduce the level of identified noise through the exploration of four principle elements: noise reduction at source; land-use planning and management; noise abatement operational procedures; and operating restrictions as a last resort. This process will be open and transparent. There will be public consultation, and at each stage, the regulator will be required to publish information and evidence and keep all stakeholders abreast of developments. Open consultation is an important aspect of the EU regulation which has been carried through to the Bill. The draft decision will be accompanied by a report detailing how the decision was reached, which will include a non-technical summary. This will ensure any individual will be in a position to input into the process and that the consultation will not be limited to those with technical expertise.
This comprehensive assessment of noise by the regulator will involve consideration of the health impact of noise levels on local residents. There was extensive debate on this issue during the Dáil debates on Committee and Report Stages. Some Deputies took the view that the Bill did not sufficiently reflect the importance of human health in the overall assessment of noise at the airport. A number of amendments were put forward which they believed would address the perceived gap. However, as I tried to explain during the debate, much of the commentary on the lack of reference to health in the Bill was based on a misreading of the Bill and of the underlying EU regulations and directives. The Bill must be read in tandem with EU Regulation 598 and EU Directive 2002/49/EC, the environmental noise directive, because the noise regulator must have regard to all three of these in carrying out its regulatory assessment of noise.
In doing so, the regulator will have regard to the impact of aircraft noise on human health. I tabled two amendments on Report Stage in the Dáil to highlight and make it more explicit that health aspects are to be considered by the noise regulator. Two further amendments, however, which were passed in the Dáil and which relate to the evaluation of health impacts on local residents, will need to be undone because they make the Bill legally unsound. I will explain my rationale in greater detail on Committee Stage for seeking to remove these provisions.
The Bill also provides that where the airport authority applies to the planning authority to review and amend any current planning permissions, any such application will also require the input of the noise regulator before the planning authority makes a final decision. This includes the current planning permission for the new runway, which has operating restrictions attached to it that reduce the number of allowable night-time flights. It is well documented that the DAA views these operating restrictions as overly restrictive. The Bill does not pre-empt any decisions that may be made by the noise regulator on the appropriateness of those restrictions if it has cause to review them. It simply allows the noise regulator to examine all noise mitigation measures available, in line with the balanced approach, in order to mitigate any noise problem that may arise from the operation of the second runway. Once it examines any application to review the operating restrictions attached to the second runway project if such an application is made, the noise regulator may determine that no change to the operating restrictions is needed, or decide on more onerous restrictions, or decide on an entirely new set of noise abatement measures. That will be a matter for the new regulator.
Another aspect of Regulation 598/2014 is the requirement to designate an appeals body to provide for an appeals mechanism against decisions of the noise regulator. To provide for alignment with the Planning and Development Act, the Bill designates An Bord Pleanála as the independent appeals body. Where an appeal against a regulatory noise decision is made to the board, it will have 18 weeks to make a decision. There is also provision for the board to undertake a 14-week public consultation process where it is of the view that there are alternative noise mitigation measures or operating restrictions other than those proposed by the noise regulator. An appeal against a planning decision can also be made to An Bord Pleanála. In the circumstances where a planning decision into which the noise regulator has input is appealed to the board, once again the board will have the power to decide on the most appropriate noise mitigation measures and operating restrictions, if any, that are to be introduced at Dublin Airport. The Bill, therefore, sets out a process for a noise regulation regime that will allow for full stakeholder engagement, along with an independent appeals process which will provide certainty to stakeholders. In essence, it sets out a structured approach to assessing and addressing aircraft noise at Dublin Airport with the objective of facilitating airport development and expansion in a way that minimises, as far as practicable, the noise impact of that expansion.
The Bill outlines monitoring and enforcement powers, another area in which important changes were made in the Dáil to address concerns raised by Deputies. Provision has been made to allow any person to request the noise regulator to review the effectiveness of noise mitigation measures, which will allow for a system where local residents, businesses and schools with genuine complaints have somewhere to go. On foot of a commitment I made in the Dáil, I will table a further amendment on Committee Stage to make it clear that the noise regulator must respond in writing to any request made to it to review the effectiveness of measures. There will also be an onus on the airport authority to ensure it adheres to any decision of the noise regulator and that any measures are implemented effectively. The airport authority will be required to produce an annual compliance report, to include a non-technical summary, which will be published by the regulator. The regulator will monitor compliance and has the power to direct the airport authority and airport users, as necessary, to comply with any noise mitigation measures and operating restrictions, with recourse to the High Court for non-compliance. This is the most effective method to ensure compliance.
The Bill also provides for other consequential amendments to the Planning and Development Act, one of which is the declassification of development at Dublin Airport as strategic infrastructure development for the purposes of planning applications. This measure will mean that an application for planning permission for development at Dublin Airport will revert to being processed in the same way as most planning applications, that is, any application will be made to Fingal County Council in the first instance, with provision for appeal to the board against its decision. This arrangement will facilitate the involvement of the noise regulator in the processing of a planning application that has a noise dimension, with a direct appeal to any such decision to be made to An Bord Pleanála.
I will table a small number of further amendments on Committee Stage which will include commitments that I made during the Bill's passage through the Dáil. Ultimately, Regulation 598/2014 is intended to ensure that major European airports are developed in a sustainable manner and are subject to oversight and scrutiny in respect of planning, environmental laws and noise levels. The Bill will ensure that Ireland has an airport noise regulatory regime that is compliant with EU law and which meets international best practice. I commend the Bill to the House.