Dáil Éireann - Volume 610 - 24 November, 2005

Adjournment Debate. - Planning Issues.

  Mr. Eamon Ryan: I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this important issue, which relates to the perceived independence of a State body, An Bord Pleanála. It is vital, in the interests of proper planning and political support for the [1928] planning process, that An Bord Pleanála should be independent.

The Minister, Deputy Roche, is aware that when An Bord Pleanála made its decision on the first planning application for a gas terminal building in Bellanaboy, the inspector came to the conclusion that the application was for the wrong site from a strategic planning perspective. The inspector said in his report that the site chosen by the company in question was the wrong one when considered in the context of the Government’s policy of fostering balanced regional development, from the perspective of minimising environmental impact and in the interests of sustainable development. More alarmingly, the inspector said he was under the impression that the granting of planning permission in this instance was a fait accompli. He concluded that the proposed site was unequivocally an incorrect choice.

It is remarkable that, according to briefing documents from a meeting five months later between the Taoiseach and Shell, the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources acted as a bag carrier or messenger for the development company in question. The briefing document contains expressions of concern about An Bord Pleanála’s lack of understanding of many aspects of the projects and the petroleum sector. It refers to the fact that the company in question had lost money as a consequence of the delays caused by An Bord Pleanála’s decision. It highlights the serious reservations of the company, Enterprise Energy Ireland, about An Bord Pleanála’s decision and states that there were are no alternatives to the Corrib gas field.

I would like to know what role, if any, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government played in asking An Bord Pleanála to give assurances that any further appeal decision would be considered with absolute urgency. The Department was able to present a memo at the meeting between the Taoiseach and representatives of Shell, stating that An Bord Pleanála had given a commitment to treat the appeal with utmost priority and to deliver a decision within 18 weeks, as statutorily required. I want the full details in this regard because it is vital that the planning process should be conducted in an open and fair manner. Anyone who examines from the outside the process that led to a decision being made on the appeal in this instance would agree that it was not conducted in an open and fair manner. The appellants, including those who represented the Green Party in the appeals process, did not have the same level of access to An Bord Pleanála as the developer, which was able to make a presentation on the wonderful work it was doing.

I have serious concerns that the Government constantly took Shell’s side, in effect, throughout this process. The Taoiseach downgraded the role [1929] of An Bord Pleanála by proposing to introduce a critical infrastructure Bill. He continually expressed his support for the project in this forum and elsewhere. While such evidence is circumstantial — the Taoiseach is entitled to act on behalf of Shell — I contend that he put remarkable and untold pressure on An Bord Pleanála to accept the Government’s will and to do the right thing in this case. It is to be deeply regretted that such actions have been bad for the long-term position of An Bord Pleanála as a credible and independent body. I am keen for the Minister to provide as many details as possible about this sorry process.

  Mr. Roche: I am grateful to Deputy Eamon Ryan for raising this matter and allowing me to put the facts on the record of the House. As Members are aware, An Bord Pleanála plays a key role in ensuring that major developments in Ireland are delivered in accordance with proper planning and sustainable development and in line with best land use practice. Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, the board is subject to a statutory objective to determine all matters before it within 18 weeks. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has been assigned legislative responsibilities by the House relating to the timely delivery of planning decisions on strategically important infrastructure. Members of this House have encouraged the Taoiseach and me to speed up the preparation of the proposed strategic infrastructure Bill because they recognise the urgent need for a responsive planning process that does not take years to deliver critical decisions. Deputy Ryan’s comments about the Bill represent a rather perverse movement away from the generality of the views held by Deputies.

An Bord Pleanála has made major efforts over the last four years to clear its existing backlog of cases. Even though its intake of new cases increased by 11% in 2004, compared to 2003, the board met its statutory objective of deciding cases within 18 weeks in 85% of cases, compared to 74% of cases in 2003. The board has demonstrated that it is robust and more than capable of doing its job. An Bord Pleanála quite rightly gives special priority to major infrastructure projects — there is nothing new about that in legislative terms. The chairman of An Bord Pleanála and his staff are to be congratulated on their exemplary record. The chairman attended today’s meeting of the Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government to discuss the board’s 2004 annual report and to brief the committee on the issues being faced by the board.

In April 2003, An Bord Pleanála refused planning permission for the terminal for the Corrib gas project on certain specific grounds, primarily relating to the issue of peat transfer and storage [1930] within the proposed site. Following that refusal, the company wrote to the Taoiseach indicating that it was considering the future status of the project. It indicated that the costs of the delays to the project had impacted seriously on its viability and that if it was to proceed it needed to be confident that future planning decisions would be taken in a timely manner.

My Department wrote to the chairman of An Bord Pleanála and the Mayo county manager enclosing that letter and seeking their views on the issues regarding timely processing of the planning application which had been raised by the company. Both the chairman and the manager responded that any application would be treated expeditiously, as one would expect. The chairman stated that should an appeal be made to the board against a planning authority decision relating to a development of the Corrib gas field it would be afforded top priority by the board as an item of national infrastructure. However, the chairman also noted that his assurances on the timing of such an appeal were “totally without prejudice to the consideration of any merits of any appeal by the Board”. In other words, his reference was to the time limits and the manner in which an appeal would be handled. Copies of the letters exchanged on this matter between the Department and the board, and Mayo County Council, are available in the Oireachtas Library and I have passed copies to the Deputy.

As the Deputy is aware, under section 30 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, there is a bar on the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government exercising any power or control in relation to any individual planning application or appeal with which a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála is or may be concerned, with the exception that the Minister may comment on planning applications or appeals or give expert advice to planning authorities or An Bord Pleanála on the protection of the built and natural heritage.

I make the point to the Deputy, in order that he can be assured on this matter, that it has been the practice of Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to respond even to their own constituents when they raise a query about planning in the terms of the paragraph I have just read. It is certainly my practice. It should be evident from what I have described, and from the content of the correspondence I am making available to the Oireachtas, that neither the Minister nor the Department has sought at any time to influence the decision taken by the local authority or the board on the planning application or appeal in question. I assure the House that, knowing as I do the members of the board and particularly the chairman of the board who is a fine public servant, any attempt to do so would be rejected.

[1931] It should be noted, however, that the Minister has a specific role under the 2000 Act of directing, if necessary, that the board should give priority to determining appeals relating to classes of development of special strategic, economic or social importance to the State. While no such [1932] direction has been issued to date, the Department’s approach in the present case was in the context of this general statutory responsibility.

  The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 29 November 2005.