Dáil Éireann - Volume 664 - 16 October, 2008

Adjournment Debate. - Planning Issues.

  Deputy Michael Creed: I thank the Ceann Comhairle’s office for the opportunity to raise this matter and to express my disappointment that I do not have the Minister or a Minister of State from the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to take the issue — no reflection on the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews. I would appreciate it if the issue was brought to the attention of the relevant Ministers responsible.

Having been a member of a local authority for more than 20 years, I believe in the integrity of the planning process. However, I believe, as the old maxim states, that justice delayed is justice denied. I equally believe that a planning application not adjudicated upon within a defined period leads the planning process into disrepute. I raise this issue because of a specific instance, but I am also aware anecdotally of extraordinary delays in An Bord Pleanála which, in fact, were confirmed to me in a parliamentary question which I raised on 1 July last. The reply confirmed that the average delay in An Bord Pleanála in 2008 has been almost six months.

I have a case in my town of Macroom. I will not name the individuals involved but I will give the reference number for the Minister of State to take back to his ministerial colleagues. It is PL69226787. This relates to a fairly significant development in Macroom town which is integral to the decentralisation programme that the Government, as of Tuesday last, has suspended. This process would have been signed, sealed and delivered if An Bord Pleanála had made the decision because the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was prepared [141] to sign contracts if planning was produced. There was a third party appeal, and while I defend third parties’ rights to appeal, the point I raise is that such an application, which was appealed on 4 December 2007 to An Bord Pleanála, would be undecided in mid-October 2008.

I will outline the sequence of events for the record. It was appealed originally by a third party on 4 December last and, as I stated, I uphold and defend third party’ right to do so. On 13 April last, a decision was due and it was deferred on that day. It was indicated that decisions would have been reached on 13 May, on 13 June and on 20 June, but it was not reached and was further deferred. On 20 June, the board refused to give a future date by which time a decision would be reached. In early July, An Bord Pleanála wrote seeking extra information, which was replied to on 20 July, and a new date was determined for 20 August by An Bord Pleanála. It was deferred on 20 August until 27 August. On 27 August, it was further deferred and no indicative date was set for a decision to be reached. In early September, An Bord Pleanála wrote again seeking further information. This was submitted on 28 September and a date has been indicated for 30 October.

The unfortunate reality is that this project was part of the planned decentralisation of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to Macroom, which has now gone by the wayside. It is indicative of the delays, and I am sure this is but one of many projects throughout the country that were delayed in An Bord Pleanála. The town of Macroom will pay a considerable price, even if that outcome were to be successful in An Bord Pleanála, because the Department has now pulled the plug on the decentralisation programme. It leads one to suspect, and to be suspicious of, the motivation for the delay. I say that having given much consideration to it. The entire sequence of delays is unjustifiable by any other analysis. Under section 126 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, An Bord Pleanála has a statutory objective to determine appeals within 18 weeks. That is a reasonable timeframe in which to make a decision. In this case, it has been going on over ten months. That is entirely unforgivable.

When one considers the state of the construction industry, this is a project, as I would imagine are many of the other projects before An Bord Pleanála, where construction would commence as soon as planning could be resolved, and yet there are unforgivable delays. I implore the Minister at this late stage to be cognisant of the specific and the general issues involved and to bring them to the attention of his Government colleagues.

  Deputy Barry Andrews: I will take this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. An Bord Pleanála has a key role as an independent planning appeals body in ensuring physical development and major infrastructure projects respect the principles of sustainable development and are planned in an efficient, fair and open manner. In recent years, the board has operated in a challenging environment that saw sustained record levels of appeals and the implementation of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006. Any examination of the performance of the board in the disposal of cases must be viewed in the context of the record levels of case intake over successive years, from 2004 to 2007, and the assumption of significant new functions under the 2006 Act.

During 2007, An Bord Pleanála received 6,664 new cases, an increase of 12% on 2006, and determined 6,163, which represented a 10% increase on the number determined in the previous year. The high intake of new appeal cases in 2007 coupled with the high level of strategic infrastructure cases received resulted in a significant rise in the workload in hand at the board by the end of 2007 and I am aware that there has been deterioration in appeal disposals within the normal 18-week statutory objective period in 2008.

[142] For its part, the Government has given the board practical support in these challenging times. In 2007, approval was given for a considerable increase in the board’s staffing resources and the total authorised staff complement increased by 35.5 to 172. At that time, the board membership also increased from ten to 11 on a temporary basis.

I am advised that with the predicted lower intake of cases in future, the increased resources made available, greater experience with the operation of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006 and other measures to improve throughput, progress will be made over the coming months towards reducing the turnaround time for cases so that a greater percentage are determined within the statutory objective period.

Let me say a bit more about the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006 as it is important in considering the employment issue raised by the Deputy. The key policy objective of the Act is to provide for a streamlined, single-stage consent process for certain classes of infrastructural development of national importance by statutory bodies and private promoters. In addition to motorways and local authority projects, which were already handled by An Bord Pleanála, this now includes heavy and light rail and metro, other infrastructure requiring environmental impact assessments such as significant airport or port developments, waste infrastructure, and major energy infrastructure such as electricity transmission lines, strategic upstream and downstream gas pipelines, liquefied natural gas facilities, oil refineries and large onshore wind farms.

Since January 2007, the board, which now has a strategic infrastructure division, has received 97 requests for pre-application consultations and arranged 144 meetings, with the promoters in these cases, and concluded 63 pre-application consultation cases and received 16 formal strategic infrastructure applications under the new process. To date, six formal applications have been decided by the board under the Act to which I referred and these have been decided within the statutory period of 26 weeks. All these were the subject of an oral hearing. In view of the size and complexity of projects determined such as the Citywest Luas extension, the natural gas Powergen plant at Toomes, the liquefied natural gas import storage terminal at Tarbert, or the railway line between Clonsilla and Pace, achieving decisions within 26 weeks while ensuring all environmental and public participation considerations are taken into account is a major step forward. It is also an important development from the perspective of employment provision as these types of major projects lead to major employment opportunities in their construction and operation.

  Deputy Michael Creed: Will the Minister of State take up the specific case?

  Deputy Barry Andrews: I have taken a note of it.