Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Ceisteanna (26, 31, 48, 68, 89, 224)

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

26. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment when he expects to receive the two reports that he commissioned on the proposed North-South interconnector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7405/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Timmy Dooley

Ceist:

31. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his Department's review of the costs of undergrounding the North-South interconnector relative to the cost of overgrounding same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7467/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Niamh Smyth

Ceist:

48. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if his attention has been drawn to the concerns of communities in counties Cavan and Monaghan in regard to the North-South interconnector, in particular as regards health, land and property devaluation, tourism and heritage; his plans to underground the project; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7465/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

68. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he will publish the two reports he commissioned in regard to the proposed North-South interconnector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7406/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Shane Cassells

Ceist:

89. Deputy Shane Cassells asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if no impacted landowners along the route of the North-South interconnector will have their lands accessed by EirGrid without the prior written consent of the landowner; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7339/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Niamh Smyth

Ceist:

224. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the status of the North-South interconnector project. [7269/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (18 contributions) (Ceist ar Communications)

The Minister commissioned two international studies on foot of Fianna Fáil Private Members' motions in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann which were overwhelmingly endorsed by both Houses. Unfortunately, the two studies do not encompass all issues raised in those motions. At a recent meeting with representatives of Monaghan County Council attended by me and other Oireachtas Members, the Minister stated that he hoped to have the reports in February. When will they be completed, finalised and brought to him? Will he assure Members that there will be no delay in their publication once they have been delivered?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 26, 31, 48, 68, 89 and 224 together.

The North-South interconnector now has full planning permission in Ireland and Northern Ireland as proposed as an overhead line. On 21 December 2016, An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission for the North-South interconnector in Ireland, which concluded a lengthy planning process, including an oral hearing completed over 11 weeks from March to May of 2016. On 23 January 2018, full planning permission was granted for the section of the line in Northern Ireland.

The interconnector is a key project in delivering the objectives of national energy policy, specifically addressing security of supply, competitiveness and sustainability. It will also ensure a safe and sustainable source of energy for both jurisdictions.

I fully respect that the project gives rise to concerns for a number of people, particularly those living in close proximity to the project. In February and March last year, two motions calling for an updated independent study into the North-South interconnector were passed by Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. To understand better the concerns of those opposed to the proposed overhead line, I met their representatives, the Monaghan Anti-Pylon Committee and the North East Pylon Pressure Campaign, and Oireachtas Members from Cavan, Monaghan and Meath in February 2017. I subsequently met Oireachtas Members in May 2017 and January of this year. In addition, my officials held separate meetings with the Monaghan Anti-Pylon Committee and the North East Pylon Pressure Campaign in March and April of last year.

Those engagements, together with the motions, were important in my decision to commission two independent studies into the project. The studies are designed to address the main points of the motions as well as key concerns expressed by parties opposed to the development of the overhead line. The first is an independent study to examine the technical feasibility and cost of running the interconnector underground. The three independent experts appointed commenced their work last August, held a series of meetings in Ireland in the middle of November and are now finalising their work. The second study is focused, in a European context, on the levels of compensation provided to land and property owners in proximity to high-voltage transmission lines. Its aim is to provide a significant body of independently collated information on comparative practices in several jurisdictions. It is my intention that the two ongoing studies will provide some clarity to the concerned residents of the affected areas. The results of both studies are expected this quarter and I will publish the reports and ensure they are made available to all interested parties.

Following the planning consents and the conclusion of several judicial review proceedings relating to the planning decision in Ireland, the project is an operational matter for EirGrid and ESB Networks and I have no function in it. The delivery of critical infrastructure by public bodies is provided for in legislation enacted by the Oireachtas. However, the long-standing practice of infrastructure providers, including in the roll-out of electricity infrastructure in Ireland, has been to seek to engage with relevant stakeholders and work for the largest possible level of engagement on projects. Although this consultative approach has developed over the decades through consultation and agreement, it is underpinned by the 1985 ESB-IFA code of practice for survey, construction and maintenance of overhead lines in regard to the rights of landowners.

I brought the proposals for the two reports to the Government and will have to bring the reports back to the Government. It is my intention to publish them without delay once that is done.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He referred to the planning processes. Unfortunately, there is currently no Executive in Northern Ireland. A decision on the planning should have been made by the Minister of the Environment in Northern Ireland but, unfortunately, it was left to civil servants to make the decision to grant permission.

There was complete abuse of the planning system in Ireland in regard to this project. All Members and many councillors from counties Cavan, Monaghan and Meath made presentations at the hearing but An Bord Pleanála did not even refer to our participation in the process, which is a disgrace. An Bord Pleanála allowed EirGrid to bring forward additional material during the course of the hearing, which was utterly wrong.

The Minister very clearly heard at our most recent meeting on the issue that the project will not gain public acceptance if the transmission cables are not underground. He stated that the interconnector is needed for the all-Ireland energy market. If it is needed for our island, EirGrid and the Government should now decide that the transmission cables will be placed underground because the project will not otherwise be able to proceed.

I wish to read into the record the words of the inspector in the very infamous An Bord Pleanála report on this matter.

[I]t is difficult to accept any argument that the significant visual effect of the proposed development, where it arises, does not affect, to some degree, residential property values and/or ability to sell. With regard to agricultural land, I would consider that the same issues apply ... I would consider therefore, that if approved, the proposed development would result in a significant impact on the amenity and enjoyment of c.600 properties falling within 500m of the development, with consequential long term, adverse effects for the individuals and families affected.

Those are the inspector's words, not mine. The Minister knows that the anger over how people in counties Cavan, Meath and Monaghan have been treated is palpable. It is incumbent on him to ensure the reports are delivered to the Oireachtas as quickly as possible.

I have a very specific question on access and am seeking a specific answer. The Minister mentioned the ruling of An Bord Pleanála of 21 December 2016. As he is aware, that ruling only gave permission for construction, not access. As outlined in recent High Court cases, EirGrid did not seek access and, consequently, does not have it.

The Minister also mentioned the oral hearing of 11 weeks, during which it changed over 500 access routes. EirGrid has no right to enter the land. It did not seek it; it has not been given it and does not have landowner consent. It does not have a statutory right; that right rests with the ESB. Crucially, the Minister has said he has no function in the process. Will he promise that he will not introduce emergency powers to give EirGrid the power to access the land which landowners have said it will not be given?

I hope I answer all of the questions, but Deputies can come back to me if I do not.

It is my intention to publish the reports without delay. I have to bring them to the Cabinet. Once that has been done, it is my intention to publish them and I have already instructed my officials in that regard. I am anxious to have them placed in the public domain as quickly as possible to let people go through them and have all of the information available to them.

The oral hearing at An Bord Pleanála started before I was appointed. I know of the frustration which has been expressed by colleagues, not just on the floor of the House but also by others, at the manner in which information has been disclosed. I have made my views known on that issue.

On the Northern Ireland process, Deputy Brendan Smith is correct. There was no political or ministerial input into the process. The decision was taken on 23 January by the planning appeals commission in Belfast. It stated that owing to the urgent and compelling need for the proposed development it was in the public interest to take the decision without further delay given the strategic importance of the project for the region.

I will come back to Deputy Shane Cassells' question on access.

The Minister mentioned the Northern Ireland planning appeals commission's reference to urgent and compelling needs. There is also an urgent and compelling need to respect the rights of citizens in this country. At a recent meeting with the Minister I said 97% of the 400 landowners affected had signed official forms of authority requesting that the North East Pylon Pressure Campaign and the County Monaghan Anti-Pylon Committee alone represent their interests and that no access to land be granted to EirGrid. I again want to repeat that the project will not meet with any community acceptance in counties Cavan, Monaghan and Meath. If the project is needed for the all-Ireland energy market, it will not be developed unless the Government and EirGrid make a decision very shortly to put the transmission cables underground. Quite a number of years ago EirGrid accepted at a meeting of a transport committee, following questioning by me and other members, that it was possible from a technical and engineering point of view to put the transmission cables underground and that the price differential had changed dramatically.

It is a travesty that Sinn Féin did not flex its muscles on this issue when it had the opportunity to do so. As my colleague said, planning permission has been granted by civil servants in the North. It is a travesty that we will live to see it come to pass. EirGrid has flip-flopped repeatedly on whether it is economically or technically feasible to put cables underground. The inconsistency and overall unwillingness to engage of those involved in the Grid Link project are central to why the people of counties Cavan, Meath and Monaghan feel so let down and that they have been unfairly treated. They are asking why the cables should not be put underground and the cabling proposal will not be considered when it is in the case of Grid West. While the Minister or his Department may consider land valuation, the heritage and history of the area and people's health not to be priorities to be dealt with in reports, I implore him to ensure they will be and that access will not be granted at a later stage in order to allow EirGrid to plough through people's land.

My question is about access. EirGrid arrogantly claimed on LMFM that the clearing of all obstacles had been achieved. That is not correct. It does not have access rights or landowner consent. As I stated, the ESB has the statutory right to enter a property, but this right has been not granted to EirGrid, something which was repeated in the High Court proceedings. The Minister has stated he will not intervene and that he has no function in the process. I ask him to honour that by ensuring EirGrid will not in any way be granted emergency powers to access land. As has been stated, during the proceedings and in An Bord Pleanála's ruling, it did not seek and was not granted consent to enter land. There is permission to construct certain things, but no permission has been granted to enter land to put them there in the first place. Will the Minister make sure that is honoured?

In response to Deputy Brendan Smith on inspectors' reports, we have commissioned a report on levels of compensation. I look forward to seeing the detail of it. As I said, it will be published with the other report.

All of the Deputies have asked about access. I will be quite clear on the issue. The long-standing practice of infrastructure providers, including in the roll-out of electricity infrastructure in Ireland, has been to seek to engage with relevant stakeholders and work with the highest possible level of agreement on projects. While this approach has been developed over decades through consultation and agreement, the consultative approach is underpinned by the 1985 ESB-IFA code of practice for the survey, construction and maintenance of overhead lines in regard to the rights of landowners.

The Minister did not answer the question. He has dodged a bullet, but he will not dodge it for long. There are people watching who know that he has not answered the question. Will he grant EirGrid-----

I was more than fair to the Deputy and the other Members.

The Minister was not fair to the people of counties Meath, Monaghan and Cavan who are listening to this debate. It will be remembered.

I know and accept that it is a very contentious issue. The Deputy should take it up with the Minister or table a question.

He will not answer the question.

Every other Member has co-operated.

I will take it up with the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty.