Saturday 29 November 2014

I wouldn't like to live near pylons, EirGrid chief admits

Published 04/12/2013 | 02:30

John O'Connor, Chairman designate of EirGrid

THE incoming head of the company that plans to build 1,300 pylons across the country has admitted he would not like one within 50 metres of his home.

John O'Connor, who spent 11 years as head of An Bord Pleanala, also fuelled the pylon controversy by saying the masts impacted on people's properties, and he fully understood why communities were objecting.

He also said that landowners were entitled to compensation, and he would consider asking experts to look at placing high-voltage power lines underground.

His comments came during an appearance at a Dail committee yesterday where his fitness as incoming chair of national grid operator EirGrid was questioned by TDs and senators.

Admitting that communities would not welcome the enormous masts in their areas, he was asked if he would like to live near one.

"I wouldn't, to be honest. I wouldn't like to live close to a pylon, but who would?" he said.

"If it was very close to my house, I would feel . . . it would affect the residential amenities of the house. It would be visually intrusive if very close to you, it would cause shadows. A pylon very close to my house, I would prefer it not to be there."

An acceptable distance could be "50 metres" he added – the same minimum distance EirGrid plans to employ when locating pylons during the grid upgrade.

EirGrid plans a €3.2bn upgrade of the national grid up to 2025. The Grid 25 project will involve building 1,300 pylons across the country to allow more renewables to be used across the network.

Among the counties potentially affected by three major projects are: Cork, Waterford, Tipperary, Wexford, Carlow, Kilkenny, Laois, Kildare, Wicklow, Mayo, Roscommon, Monaghan, Meath and Cavan.

The plans have caused massive public controversy, with communities seeking to have the lines placed underground – a move ruled out by EirGrid on cost and maintenance grounds.

Mr O'Connor is the former chairman of An Bord Pleanala, which will decide if the towers – some up to 45 metres high – will be approved.

He has insisted there is no conflict of interest, saying he would not be involved in the planning process and there would be no "underhand arrangements".

He was nominated as chair of EirGrid by Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte, and is expected to be confirmed in the coming weeks.

During a two-hour grilling by the committee, Mr O'Connor said if appointed as chair, he would not "rule out" engaging independent experts to investigate if particular projects – including the Grid Link scheme, from Cork to Kildare – represented value for money and if power lines could be placed underground.

He was "determined" to ensure there was proper public consultation for major projects, and would look at EirGrid's "attitudes and training" in relation to how communities were consulted.

He was "disappointed" that the company was perceived as not listening, and he would ensure that all issues raised by the public would be properly addressed.

Crucially, he did not disagree with a statement that pylons devalued properties.

"I think the valuation of property is something that will have relevance to EirGrid when they're making their application," he said. "I think community consultation is important and if there are impacts, communities should be compensated."

Independent TD Mattie McGrath said communities had "no faith" in the company because it engaged in a "sham" public consultation, while Fianna Fail said it could not support his appointment as chair due to his previous role as the country's chief planner.

Communities would feel they were working against a professional with a "unique knowledge" of how decisions were taken, Timmy Dooley said, adding he had "no questions" about his suitability for the role.

But Mr O'Connor refused to accept he was in any way compromised or had a conflict of interest, saying he had no involvement in the board since 2011 when he retired.

"I would like to take this opportunity to refute emphatically the reported suggestions that I would have a conflict of interest in taking up the position," he said.

PLANNING

"I will not involve myself in individual planning applications, attend oral hearings or anything of that nature. An Bord Pleanala is one body that is beyond reproach.

"The board is the totally independent arbiter of these applications and it would be an offence in law for anybody to seek to influence its decision improperly. There will not be any underhand arrangements. I wouldn't have taken the job if there was any suggestion of that. There is no conflict between my personal interests and those of EirGrid."

Mr O'Connor also said he did not know what his salary as chairman would be, and that he accepted the role because he believed in public service. The last chair, Bernie Gray, received €21,600 a year.

 

Paul Melia

Irish Independent

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