Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
In recent years, our dairy processors, with the support of Enterprise Ireland, have made investments to diversify into new cheese categories such as continental cheese from Glanbia, mozzarella from Glanbia and Carbery and Jarlsberg from Dairygold. I read with concern in recent weeks references to such investments being made by such processors facing, and continuing to face, significant planning hurdles, which impacts on when they can make a tangible contribution to diversifying the Irish cheese product mix. We have spoken at length in this House about the challenges which we face with Brexit. Here we have our processors meeting that challenge head on, but serious hurdles are being put in front of them. In recent days and weeks, I have received representations from dairy farmers in my constituency of Tipperary, and also from the south-east region more generally.
Those people are concerned that this key Brexit diversification cheese investment plan by Glanbia Ireland, which was announced nearly two years ago, has yet to have a sod turned due to planning objections by the environmental activist group, An Taisce. This €200 million investment in south Kilkenny has the potential to generate 400 construction jobs, 100 full-time jobs and deliver a new market for milk for 4,500 families across 16 counties. This plant will be able to process 40,000 tonnes of cheese for the continental market and reduce our utter dependency on the cheese market in the UK. This is a major and significant investment.
A potential lengthy court delay to the project will be a blow to these farm families and will impact on the company's ability to diversify its products. It has been more than 12 months since this project was granted planning permission by Kilkenny County Council on 14 November 2019. My understanding is that An Taisce appealed this decision to An Bord Pleanála in December 2019. According to the website of An Bord Pleanála, this project was granted permission on 30 June this year. I understand, however, that An Taisce lodged papers in the High Court in August seeking a judicial review of this decision. This matter is expected to come before the High Court next week, which will be 21 weeks after the An Bord Pleanála verdict. My understanding is that the window for seeking judicial review is meant to be eight weeks after An Bord Pleanála's decision.
I respect the rights of citizens and properly-constituted groups to take their objections to An Bord Pleanála. We must, however, be careful that we do not allow the planning and subsequent processes to make Ireland a country where it becomes impossible to do business. Based on the information from the Charities Regulator, An Taisce secured two thirds of its income in 2019 from central Government and local authorities. Can we tolerate a situation with delays such as these? We know what happened in Athenry with Apple. This is a hugely important project for the country, not only for farmers and Glanbia, but for the economy of rural Ireland. Can we allow this legal process to continue to undermine it?
An Bord Pleanála has made a decision. My understanding is that An Taisce is basing its objections on the fact that there will be extra production in the south east for this plant. The planning process should deal with the plant in question to ensure that it meets the highest possible environmental standards. I am quite certain that when this plan stood up to an inquiry in An Bord Pleanála that it is meeting these highest possible standards. It is absolutely essential that permission is granted quickly and that the legal process is not used to thwart a vital investment for our economy and for the farmers and people of rural Ireland.
I thank Deputy Cahill for raising this important issue. He will understand, however, that due to it being sub judiceand before a judicial review that I do not want to get into the specifics of the matter. I do not want to prejudice any matter before the courts. In general, however, I understand the concern which the Deputy raises. It is an issue of which I was aware. The importance which the Deputy placed on developing alternative markets for Irish dairy produce is absolutely key. I refer to the title of this Topical Issue matter. The planning system has dealt with this issue, the courts will deal with the judicial review next week, hopefully, and the system will take care of this situation in that regard. We have a clear separation, and it is the right of those who wish to make submissions to do so along the way in respect of such planning matters.
In the broader view, though, I assure the Deputy and the House, as the Minister of State with special responsibility for new market development, of my ambition to develop new markets. That is even more important considering the challenges Brexit is bringing forward for us. We know that Ireland is probably accepted as the most exposed EU member state in respect of Brexit and negative outcomes. No sector is more vulnerable than the agrifood and fishery sector, which comes in under my Department. My responsibility for the area of new market development, therefore, is critically important for the dairy sector, as it is for so many others. That is why the continuance of the policy of market diversification within my Department, in conjunction with Bord Bia, is one on which we have put a big focus. The onset of Covid-19 has created challenges in that regard for us, but it has not stopped us from continuing to push on with virtual trade missions. I refer to the trade mission schedule.
The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and I are leading dairy-focused virtual trade missions to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam over five dates in November and December. The objective of these trade missions is to advance market opportunities for Irish exporters by showcasing our industry to 250 buyers from markets with combined import demand of more than 2.6 million tonnes of dairy ingredients per annum. These markets serve a total population of 553 million people, many of whom are increasingly urbanised and middle class. This dairy-focused trade mission will see 13 of Ireland's processors and exporters engage in business-to-business meetings with local buyers and distributors, allowing them to market their products and capabilities to a commercial dairy audience.
These markets all feature in Bord Bia's marketing strategy 2019-2021 as a priority. It is forecast that the event will deliver up to 500 new leads for Irish client companies participating. High potential leads will be targeted for follow-up engagement as part of the 2021 Gathering Moments Bord Bia inward buyer event. Even though it is an online event, the ambition of the mission will serve as classical trade missions have in the past. I refer to building understanding, reputation and business. There will also be follow-up from my Department and Bord Bia. The ability of my Department and Bord Bia to do that detailed follow-up, from these new leads, is enhanced by the additional resources allocated for this activity in recent years, including the creation of new agricultural attaché posts in our embassy network and a new division in headquarters dedicated to international trade. Additional funding of €4 million was also secured in the recent budget for Bord Bia to help it in the important work being done to develop our dairy industry.
I take on board the concerns raised by the Deputy on that specific point, which is before the courts. The Deputy can be assured of my determination and that of my Department to continue to drive new market development for the dairy sector.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Glanbia and other dairy processors are facing this significant difficulty at the moment. Feasibility studies have been done on routes to market and on acquiring suitable partners on the Continent for developing this product. A huge amount of money is invested. As I said in my original statement, eight weeks is usually the timeframe within which a judicial review should be heard after An Bord Pleanála's decision. We are now at 21 weeks. We cannot allow the legal process to delay a decision on this project. It has been cleared by An Bord Pleanála. It is absolutely urgent that a strict timeframe is adhered to for a decision to be reached. I fully respect the rights of citizens to make objections, but I object when the apparatus of the system is used to delay a decision unnecessarily and I believe that is what is happening here. We see clearly that it is nearly three times the permitted timeframe. This is causing huge concern for people in my constituency and in the south east. This opportunity is knocking on the doors now for these processors. I accept the Minister of State's bona fides, and those of Bord Bia, in what he is doing to establish markets and for the huge ongoing efforts to establish markets and to diversify from the British market, upon which we have depended for centuries. When we have an opportunity, we have to seize it.
Obviously, the proper environmental standards must be adhered to. I am absolutely sure that is the case with An Bord Pleanála's decision. At farm level, farmers recognise fully that sustainable food production is the way forward and that we have to meet the climate change challenges that are in front of us. Farmers will meet that, and our processing industry is also meeting that head on. This will be a modern plant, just diversifying product, which is exactly what the doctor ordered for the challenges we face with Brexit. Some 40,000 tonnes of cheese production is hugely significant. I urge the Government to make sure that the tightest possible timeframe is employed to ensure a decision is reached and that this investment can proceed.
I thank the Deputy for that point, which I take on board. I share the seriousness the Deputy places on this particular development and its overall impact in that part of the State and for the dairy sector in general. Given its importance I will not be drawn into speaking about it specifically because I do not want to prejudice any matter before the courts. Suffice to say, I believe that steps were taken - I say this wearing my hat of responsibility for research and development - and that funding was allocated in that regard to better place growth for the dairy sector and to meet the sustainability and climate challenges. I am very confident that agriculture and the dairy sector has a very positive story to tell in that regard and will stand up to any scrutiny, whether through a planning process or a judicial system. I am very confident it can do that and I would like that to be dealt with as quickly as possible. I understand the matter is before the courts next week.
I believe the dairy sector will meet head on any questions asked of it about its sustainability. Consider, for example, the increased innovation across the dairy sector. New market development is not so much about new market development in dairying, it is actually about growing existing potential within existing markets. Our dairy sector is in most markets already. We are in 140 countries on the dairy side. The beef and meat sector would be jealous of the access the dairy sector has. It is about growing the markets we have there. The sustainability piece that will be relevant to the case the Deputy has referred to is just as important for all of those new markets and for growing the markets we already have. Our dairy sector is telling a very robust story and we are continuously working with the sector to improve our output with regard to sustainability and to develop new technologies and innovation. Companies such as Glanbia and others are leading the way in that. I am very proud to be associated with that. I have no doubt that they and the dairy sector will stand up to any scrutiny put to it.