Planning U-turn


The decision by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Mr Roche, to withdraw the Critical Infrastructure Bill from Cabinet may have more to do with the coming general election than with effective planning procedures. The Bill would have established a National Infrastructure Board with a remit to speed up delivery of major construction initiatives. It would have facilitated the prompt delivery of a modern infrastructure for this State.

It is now 14 months since the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, trumpeted the Government's intentions to follow the lead of our EU partners and introduce mechanisms designed to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and other delays. The long-delayed Dublin Port Tunnel in his own constituency is a monument to such old-style planning. Moreover, Mr Ahern compared the huge cost and likely delay in building a Dublin Metro system with a cost-effective, underground project in Madrid which took three years to complete.

The Institution of Engineers of Ireland has expressed dismay at the action by the Minister and insists that the legislation is absolutely necessary in order to reduce delays on major projects. At the same time, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce identified serious planning delays as the biggest threat to the city's ability to compete for direct foreign investment. We have an inadequate infrastructure in this State, particularly in relation to roads. It needs to be upgraded as a matter of urgency. Individuals must retain the right to object to developments that affect their property interests and quality of life. But a balance must also be struck between the wider interests of society and the selfish, "not-in-my-backyard" response of particular citizens.

The Minister pointed to recent decisions by An Bord Pleanála and the Environmental Protection Agency in favour of road projects and waste incinerators as a reason to rethink the Critical Infrastructure Bill. But those decisions, while favourable, followed interminable delays at earlier stages in the planning process.

This Bill has been in trouble from the start. When the former minister, Mr Cullen, brought it to Cabinet, it was opposed by some of his colleagues because incinerators and other waste-disposal facilities were included. Now, with an election on the horizon, the legislation has been quietly withdrawn. It is no way for a Government to behave. The State is in desperate need of a modern infrastructure and yet spending on capital projects stood still last year. Instead of gaining on our competitors, we are losing ground. Mr Roche should think again.