Wednesday 16 February 2011

Planning reform one of several major achievements

Reckless rezoning and badly insulated houses should be things of the past after the Greens’ stint in office, but other issues remain unresolved, writes FRANK McDONALD, Environment Editor.

THE RECKLESS planning and rezoning of land that inflated the property bubble should become a thing of the past as a result of the 2010 Planning Act – one of the Green Party’s major achievements in Government.

Its principal aim was to make “evidence-based planning” and responsible zoning a legal requirement for local authorities.

Party leader John Gormley, as minister for the environment, also issued new guidelines curtailing development on floodplains and intervened to ensure that “inappropriate zonings” in Co Monaghan were overturned.

Gormley amended building regulations to ensure that all new housing and commercial buildings would be at least 40 per cent more energy-efficient and have at least 40 per cent lower emissions. Former minister for energy Eamon Ryan introduced the national insulation programme, with the aim of retrofitting 100,000 homes.

Over 15 per cent of Ireland’s electricity is now coming from renewable sources – 10 times more than a few years ago. Earlier last month, the amount of electricity coming from wind hit a new record of 1,250MW – enough to provide power for more than 800,000 homes.

The ESB has committed itself to becoming carbon neutral by 2030. The Greens also claim that wind energy is keeping the cost of electricity lower, as its value is nearly double the €43 million in subsidies paid to producers.

The long-delayed introduction of a carbon tax in last year’s budget put a price on emissions, providing an incentive for the transition to a low-carbon economy. Motor taxes were also reformed to be based on carbon emissions, encouraging motorists to switch to cleaner cars.

More controversially, the Greens persuaded their coalition partners to impose a €200 annual charge on second homes, which yielded €80 million in its first year – providing a new funding stream for local authorities that seems likely to increase in future years.

Gormley ran into opposition from rural interests over a number of measures, including his ban on stag hunting, turf-cutting in special areas of conservation and legislation to curtail puppy farming. The Greens also managed to sustain record investment in water services, averaging €500 million a year since 2007. Ultimately, this will be funded by consumers, with water meters to be extended to all households by 2014.

Curbing water pollution was one of the factors that helped reduce by a third the number of cases against Ireland for failure to comply with EU environment legislation. Others included measures to protect wildlife habitats and reform environmental impact assessments.

Hotels and restaurants are now required to compost their food waste, instead of bagging it for landfill. Recycling rates in general are also higher, driven by increases in the landfill levy, which doubled from €15 to €30 per tonne during Gormley’s term.

However, the Green Party’s leader did not succeed in stopping plans for the Poolbeg incinerator in his own constituency.

A Bill dealing with noise nuisance is almost complete.

Other measures that were well advanced include the Climate Change Response Bill, a White Paper on local government reform and the Bill to provide for a directly elected mayor of Dublin. Whether these measures will be resuscitated by the next government remains to be seen.

A review of archaeological policy led to the publication of a new National Monuments Bill, but savage cuts in heritage funding in the budget took many by surprise. In response, Gormley agreed to reinstate the Heritage Council’s capital allocation.

It is largely due to the Greens that Metro North remains a live project, but a decision to proceed with it could jeopardise Dart Underground, identified by an independent review of Transport 21 as more strategically important and better value for money.

Other measures for which the party claims credit include the Cycle to Work scheme, promotion of organic farming, inclusion of an “environmental pillar” in the social partnership process and legal protection for same-sex couples.

The introduction of genetically modified (GM) organisms at European level was not supported by Ireland while the Greens were in government. Last week, however, Fianna Fáil said it would now vote in favour of GM proposals.

Irish Times

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