Thursday, 29 April 2021
National Marine Planning Framework: Motion
The national marine planning framework is a document of enormous importance. It is a statutory plan that will shape the future of our marine, and all the people who use it, for a generation. The idea that something of this importance, equivalent to law in its impact, would only receive a two-hour committee presentation from officials from the Department and a 45-minute debate on this floor with five minutes per party and grouping is, I have to say, a real disgrace. The Oireachtas has a very specific purpose under the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018, to properly scrutinise these kinds of plans to ensure they are the most robust, compliant and effective plans possible. I simply do not understand why the Government has denied both committee members and the Oireachtas from doing the job required by the enabling legislation.
There is much of merit in this plan. In fact, we did not want a controversy over its passage. However, there are three key areas where this plan falls down and requires urgent attention. It is not the case, as the Minister of State stated, that the marine protected areas are coming shortly. That legislation has not even been drafted. It is unlikely to be passed before the end of the year at the earliest. We know from other jurisdictions it will take two to three years before marine protected areas are designated. Meanwhile, applications for very large, industrial-sized, offshore wind farms will be processed under this plan and the consequent planning legislation. They will be blind to the impact of that, much-needed, wind energy on the marine environment. Therefore, the Government should try to accelerate the marine protected areas legislation and designation. When that legislation is passed, the east coast should be prioritised for designation, where appropriate, because that is where the first wind farm operations will be progressed.
The second weakness in this plan is its impact on inshore fishermen. If one talks to members of the National Inshore Fisherman's Association, NIFA, they will flatly contradict what the Minister of State has told the House today. They have not been adequately engaged with or listened to and are genuinely concerned that just as they are being pushed around by industry today as they prepare for their planning applications, they and the communities they sustain will be the big losers.
Environmental NGOs such as the Irish Wildlife Trust, IWT, the Sustainable Water Network, SWAN, an Taisce and others and the inshore fishermen have repeatedly told Deputies that the consultation has not been adequate, has not been deep and their views have not been adhered to. All we wanted in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage was to give those two groups a hearing, alongside the officials from the Department specialising in marine protected areas, whom we had not heard from, concerning questions other officials who had presented to us were unable to answer.
Why a Government would want to silence and prevent Deputies in this House hearing from well-established and reputable environmental NGOs, representatives of inshore fishermen and departmental officials I do not know. We even proposed that a hearing could have been held during the recess and that would have meant we could then have made our views known to the Minister. We could be here today, then, with a two- or three-hour debate progressing this motion in the full knowledge of the concerns which many people have.
There is also a genuine concern that significant portions of this plan and the consequent legislation for a marine planning regime will not be compliant with the necessary EU directives. I refer to the requirement in the first instance to take an ecosystems approach to the protection of the marine environment and for the plan to not only be spatial but also temporal, something which is completely absent from the text detail.
I have a suspicion the reason debate and scrutiny have been shut down by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party is because there was a provision in the 2018 enabling Act stating that if an Oireachtas committee scrutinised this plan and if it made its views known to the Minister regarding changes, improvement or parallel additions being required, such a recommendation would have had legal effect. The Minister would have been obliged to act. The reason we have this charade today is because the Government does not want Deputies to highlight the failings and weaknesses of this plan and consequent legislation and does not want to be democratically obliged, by way of a report from an Oireachtas committee, to make the required improvements.
What is the consequence? Bad and rushed planning legislation leads to bad planning decisions, judicial reviews and to delays. That is what has happened with previous bad planning legislation and that is what will happen with these plans. It could have been otherwise if the Government had just worked with the Opposition to make this the most effective marine planning framework possible. That it did not is deeply unfortunate and many people will be much the worst off because of it.