Wednesday, 13 July 2011
I thank the Minister, Deputy Hogan, for being here. I wish to raise the matter of land reclamation drainage works with reference to proposed new legislation requiring farmers to apply for planning permission for drainage of wetlands. Proposals under the Planning and Development (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2011 will require farmers to apply for planning permission for drainage of wetlands, while the reclamation of farmland will in some instances require the approval of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
I understand responsibility for this matter rests with both the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. To avoid EU fines of between €4,000 and €33,000 per day after 23 July, regulations are currently being prepared by the Departments. Farm bodies have expressed serious concerns over these reclamation rules, and I would like to highlight these concerns and ask that they be taken into serious consideration in advance of a final decision.
Farmer representatives were informed by officials on Friday that farmers with certain types of wetland will be required to seek full planning permission from their county councils for land drainage activities where the area exceeds 0.1 ha., or a quarter of an acre. A full-scale environmental impact assessment, EIA, will be required for drainage work on more than 2 ha. - around 5 acres - of wetland. The organisations were told the new restrictions would apply to the Shannon Callows, turloughs, swamps, marshlands and river flood plains. If the screening shows that the work will have an impact on the environment, then a full EIA will be required. The removal of field boundaries such as hedges, the recontouring of land by infill, the use of uncultivated land or semi-natural areas for intensive agriculture and drainage and irrigation will all require Department clearance above a given area or threshold. Farmer representatives were also told that the new regime would apply to all lands and not just to ground that is deemed eligible under the single farm payment, SFP, scheme. However, farmers found to be in breach of the new rules could be subject to SFP fines under cross-compliance requirements.
The proposed change to the planning regulations under the Planning and Development (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2011 is driven by a European Court of Justice ruling dating back to November 2008. This ruling found that Ireland's system of EIA screening for certain categories of agriculture and aquaculture-related projects was in breach of EU directives. I met representatives from the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association in my constituency office on Monday and they expressed serious concern that land improvement projects would be shelved if the legislation as proposed went through. They would like clarification from the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about the threshold levels and they wish to ensure the legislation will not prevent farmers from enlarging and developing their businesses. The issue should also be raised at the next EU Council of Ministers meeting so that a practical solution can be agreed between Ireland and the EU. Clarification is also needed on how much farmers will need to pay in order to apply for planning permission and to acquire EIAs.
While I recognise the importance of protecting the environment, we need to make sure there is not a bureaucracy overload that will result in farmers being unable to make improvements to their land. Worthwhile reclamation projects may be abandoned if the cost of an assessment is too high or if there is too much red tape to get through. We need land improvement measures to be made if the export targets of Food Harvest 2020 are to be reached. Any legislation introduced needs to take into account the significant contribution farming makes to the economy and the need to avoid unnecessary financial burdens on farmers.
I am progressing new planning regulations through both Houses which are required to deal with a judgment of the European Court of Justice in case C-66/06. The court found that in this case Ireland's system of environmental impact assessment for screening certain categories of agriculture and aquaculture related projects was over-reliant on size thresholds and did not take into account other relevant criteria such as the cumulative impacts of development and the location relative to sensitive sites. The environmental impact assessment directive requires member states to provide, in respect of projects or levels of development set out in annexe I of the directive, for an environmental impact assessment to be carried out before consent is given for a project to proceed. In respect of projects or levels of development set out in annexe II, the directive requires EU member states to determine through a case-by-case examination or the setting of national thresholds or criteria - which Ireland has done - whether the project needs to have an assessment carried out prior to a decision being made on whether consent should be given.
The activities affected by the judgment are the restructuring of rural land holdings, the use of uncultivated land or semi-natural areas for intensive agriculture and water management projects for agriculture, including irrigation and land drainage. The court decision necessitates a major reduction in the thresholds, both for the mandatory carrying out of assessments and screening of assessments of projects under the mandatory thresholds. In future certain activities, namely, the removal of field boundaries, converting semi-natural areas to engage in intensive agriculture and ordinary field drainage, will be regulated through a new consent process to be operated by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The drainage of wetlands will be retained to be dealt with in the planning system.
The principal purpose of the new planning and development regulations is to reduce the exempted development threshold for the drainage of wetlands from 20 ha to 0.1 ha and to reduce the threshold for a mandatory environmental impact assessment of the drainage of wetlands from 20 ha to 2 ha. The threshold of 0.1 ha in the case of planning permission will allow for minor access works and maintenance. Any more substantial development will require screening for an environmental impact assessment as part of a planning application.
The revised thresholds have not been arbitrarily chosen by the State. The European Commission has advised of numerous instances where significant damage to the environment has occurred on wetlands, even on a very small scale. For example, lands drained by a small ditch can severely impact on the local environment. The Commission concluded, following lengthy and detailed discussions with the two Departments, that the only way to fully provide for environmental impact assessment screening was to set the threshold at a level that would exempt only de minimis activities. Planning applications will be required in respect of drainage works below the planning threshold of 0.1 ha in cases where the drainage would have a significant effect on the environment. Similarly, an environmental impact statement will be required in the case of planning applications in respect of the drainage of wetlands below 2 ha in cases where it is determined that the drainage would have a significant effect on the environment. Specific guidance is being prepared by the two Departments to provide advice for planning authorities, farmers and other interested parties.
I understand the concerns of the farming community as articulated by the Deputy and the need to ensure an overly bureaucratic regime is not established. The State, however, must respond quickly and comprehensively to the judgment of the European Court of Justice. Otherwise, Ireland will be the subject of serious fines imposed by the Commission.