Thursday, 29 April 2021
National Marine Planning Framework: Motion
That Dáil Éireann approves the draft National Marine Planning Framework, a copy of which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 24th March, 2021.
With the introduction of the national marine planning framework, followed closely by the maritime area planning Bill and the maritime jurisdiction Bill and, in the near future, the expansion of our network of marine protected areas, we will experience a seismic change in how we manage and protect our maritime area. This is an historic development, providing a new way of looking at our relationship with the seas that surround us. As Minister of State with responsibility for planning and local government, I am proud to be leading this programme of modernisation.
Our maritime area is seven times the landmass of Ireland, more than 490,000 sq. km of some of the most productive and diverse resources in the world. When we take our seabed into account, Ireland is one of the largest countries in the EU and our coastline of 7,500 km is longer than that of many our European counterparts.
Ireland’s coast and seas possess environmental and social treasures which include a diverse ecosystem, a range of recreational opportunities such as fishing, sailing and surfing and culturally unique coastal communities and historic sites.The maritime area and coast play a significant part in defining Ireland, attracting tourists from around the world.
Our national maritime area also holds great economic value. In 2019, Ireland’s ocean economy provided employment for more than 34,000 full-time equivalents, a 13% rise on the previous year. It had a turnover of €6.2 billion through activities such as seafood and tourism. Huge economic opportunities in areas such as renewable energy, which is critical to Ireland’s clean, decarbonised future, remain untapped in our waters.
Government recognises how fragile our marine environment is. It is determined to strike the right balance between the three, sometimes competing, pillars of sustainable development, protecting the health of the ocean, enhancing our social engagement with the sea and developing a thriving maritime economy. These pillars can coexist through proper, conscientious long-term planning, working in tandem with a robust, fair and transparent licensing regime.
I am seeking a resolution from this House approving the final text which will allow me to establish the national marine planning framework.
The European Maritime Spatial Planning Directive requires all member states to publish and implement marine spatial plans by the first quarter of 2021. The State’s maritime spatial plan, which we call the national marine planning framework, represents the outcome of a cross-Government approach over the past four years to develop Ireland’s first marine spatial plan.
The national marine planning framework is intended as a marine equivalent to the national planning framework. As such, it provides a long-term spatial planning framework up to 2040, providing a clear decision-making framework for marine regulatory bodies over a long term and structured around the three pillars of sustainable development, the environmental, economic and social pillars.
The national marine planning framework outlines our approach to managing Ireland’s maritime activities to ensure the sustainable use of marine resources up to 2040. This single framework, which brings together all marine-based human activities, presents our vision, objectives and planning policies for each activity. Those activities include: aquaculture; fisheries; offshore renewable energy; ports; harbours and shipping; safety at sea; sport and recreation; tourism; and waste water treatment and disposal, all of which are important and deserving of protection, support and development.
To support this new management approach, the national marine planning framework sets out extensive context information, including more than 70 maps that indicate areas of importance to particular activities.
Planning and licensing of these activities will now occur within a bigger picture that balances the development of these activities with the health of the ocean. The national marine planning framework, NMPF, will be the key decision-making tool for Departments, State agencies, regulatory authorities and policymakers. All planning applications, policies, projects and strategies will now be obliged to meet the objectives of the NMPF.
I mentioned that this framework is part of a series of major reforms in the maritime area. Following recent Government approval of the text, my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, will shortly be publishing the maritime jurisdiction Bill. This Bill will consolidate and update the State’s maritime jurisdiction legislation and describe the State’s territorial seas and its maritime area.
In coming weeks, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and I will bring the maritime area planning Bill to Government for approval to publish. This Bill is a priority identified in the programme for Government and will be a key enabler for our overall decarbonisation programme targets. Broadly, it will introduce a new marine planning system, which seeks to protect the maritime area in the first instance, but also allow for development where robust environmental assessments have taken place. The Bill will establish a new agency, the maritime area regulatory authority, MARA, which will license activities under the strictest of environmental protection conditions and serve as the gatekeeper for full planning permission applications. An Bord Pleanála will consider planning applications for larger infrastructural projects, such as interconnectors and offshore wind farms, and will consider the full suite of environmental impact assessments for each project while being guided by the NMPF. This Bill has undergone pre-legislative scrutiny and is currently being finalised.
The Government has set a target of expanding Ireland’s network of marine protected areas, MPAs, to cover 30% of our maritime area by 2030. Having a clean, healthy, diverse and productive marine environment will help protect biodiversity, our well-being and our economy. It will also provide greater resilience against the effects of climate change and support a wide range of sustainable human activities and practices. Ireland’s network of MPAs will be an important tool for ensuring that we continue to have a thriving marine environment, whether in our coastal bays, shallow bays or deeper in the Atlantic. To that end, the report of an independent, Government-appointed expert advisory group on expanding Ireland’s network of marine protected areas was published by my Department in January 2021 and is currently the subject of public consultation. My Department will be developing legislation based on this report and consultation, further contributing to the reform of marine governance.
My Department has ensured that the NMPF has been developed using an ecosystem-based approach. Following introductory material, an overarching "Environmental – Ocean Health" section is the first part of the plan readers get to. This section comprises nine chapters setting out 21 of the NMPF’s 92 policies. The ocean health chapters have been developed to integrate with the contribution of the Government’s work on the marine strategy framework directive, MSFD, seeking to achieve good environmental status, GES, across a range of descriptors supported by targets. The relationship between the MSFD and the ocean health chapters act as descriptors and targets and is made explicit in terms of structure and content.
In relation to standing environmental measures, it is explicitly set out that the NMPF reinforces the need for rigorous environmental assessments. The NMPF also includes policies, supporting information and maps aimed at enhancing consideration of existing marine protected sites – those already designated – as well as articulating the need for decision makers to make efforts to account for ongoing and future designation processes.
The NMPF is the culmination of very extensive public and stakeholder engagement during its development. It is our belief that the plan needed to be strategic as well as instructional and informed by effective public and stakeholder participation. Therefore, a core principle in developing the plan has been to ensure that, as well as the wider public, all relevant stakeholders are consulted and encouraged to contribute. The consultation on the NMPF was the longest running and most extensive of its type.
Dialogue has been, and will continue to be, facilitated in a number of ways. An interdepartmental group was established to aid the development of the plan. This is chaired by my Department and is made up of senior representatives from relevant Departments and Government agencies. Many bilateral meetings were held with the broad public sector bodies where the marine functional responsibilities lie. An advisory group, which I chair, was established in 2018 to guide the development of the NMPF. This group was invaluable in imparting collective knowledge and offering guidance. The group features representatives of the environmental, economic, and social pillars as well as relevant public sector organisations.
The environmental pillar features representatives from bodies such as An Taisce, Coastwatch, Sustainable Water Network, SWAN, and the Irish Environmental Network. The social pillar features representatives such as the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, and academia. The economic pillar has representatives from IBEC, the Irish Farmers Association, IFA Aquaculture, various Irish fish producers and the tourism sector. The group has met 11 times and I intend to request members of this group to now guide implementation and monitoring of the NMPF, next steps that members have expressed a keen interest in being involved with.
Following the launch of the NMPF baseline report in 2018, five regional public events were held as part of a statutory public consultation. When we launched the draft NMPF, a further eight events were held throughout the country, seven of them in coastal locations, during 2019 and 2020. Elected representatives from those areas were invited to attend each meeting. When public health restrictions meant we could no longer hold town hall meetings, my Department extended the period of consultation and moved the consultation online, a first for the Civil Service.
In addition to these public events, my Department engaged with, and participated in, more than 150 conferences, seminars and marine stakeholder events during this time, promoting awareness and understanding of both the NMPF and the public’s role in the wider marine planning process. Public participation was an integral element of the NMPF consultation process. My Department strongly believes in the importance of engagement and education about Ireland’s marine resources, the NMPF and the proposed marine planning system. Through Government initiatives such as SeaFest, Ireland’s national marine festival, and other outreach activities, my Department has worked in partnership with other stakeholders, such as the Marine Institute, to promote marine education opportunities and strengthen our maritime identity.
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.
It is deeply regrettable that this item of business is getting off to such a poor start. The requests at the Business Committee last week, in the Dáil yesterday and again today, and in the contribution of Deputy Ó Broin and subsequent contributions to follow, including mine, were and are perfectly reasonable. The Minister of State stated that this has been the longest consultation in the history of the State. What would another week have cost in that context?
We have committees that are dying to do proper work and to scrutinise legislation. This proposed plan deserves a great deal of scrutiny because it is a huge piece of work. Our sea area is seven times the size of our land mass and we are developing a spatial strategy for that entire area. It has never been done like this before. It is vitally important. Last week, this week and next week we will be discussing the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021. To achieve our climate action goals, we will have to lean heavily on renewable energy, and offshore wind energy is going to play a big part in that overall context. We have some offshore energy now, but comparing that to what we need means that a great deal more is yet to come. That is going to have a big impact on communities.
We must have strong and robust spatial planning legislation for offshore projects in place before such proposals come before us. We are deeply concerned that we do not have that in place. Nothing which has been discussed in the last week has allayed those concerns among the Opposition. We cannot go through this process and come out with several marine Bills that are strong and robust if the elements on which those Bills must impact, especially in respect of offshore energy, have already been delivered. I refer to such aspects as the laying of cables having already been delivered. The horse should not have bolted from this stable, but our worry is that it already has.
These are all things that must happen and which we must support. We need offshore energy and energy security, but we must also protect the delicate ecology of our seas. In the draft consultation document, several appendices are dedicated just to the spawning and nursery grounds of our fish. There is so much to this area. We must also deal with coastal erosion effectively. It is literally eating away at communities and washing homes into the sea. There is a piecemeal approach to this aspect, which means that some local authorities are able to stop coastal erosion, and stop it effectively, while other local authorities are powerless because of special area of conservation, SAC, designations or National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, rules and regulations.
That must stop and these regulations should do that. They need to do that, but we must have confidence that they have been scrutinised effectively by Oireachtas committees. We do not have that now. A debate of 55 minutes, as this is today, with five minutes for each group, is absolutely shameful considering the amount of ground this plan covers and the impact it is going to have, not just for one generation, but for generations to come. It is totally unsuitable in respect of what we are discussing today.
Turning to a broader point, we have been operating for months on a reduced schedule. We have had reduced time in the Dáil, in committees and in the Seanad due to the Covid-19 crisis. That is now having an impact on how we are able to scrutinise important legislation. We are at a crucial point as parliamentarians regarding how we organise our business and how we scrutinise what needs to come through the Oireachtas. This Bill is one of those moments which has highlighted how restricted, I do not want to say poor, our Parliament is in its operations now. We must redouble our efforts to ensure we have enough time to debate something as serious as this issue. We could have an hour each on this topic and still not have covered a fraction of the impacts of this Bill. Therefore, 55 minutes for this debate is derisory and deeply regrettable.
I support comments from previous Deputies regarding the amount of time for this debate and the lack of scrutiny in committee being completely unacceptable. The Government has had great co-operation from Opposition parties during the last year concerning restricted timings. When, across the board, we have raised concerns about this aspect, the Government was not willing to listen and engage.
The lack of scrutiny in committee is particularly disappointing. Regarding the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, when officials from the Department appeared before it, they did not flag with the committee that it potentially had a role in respect of scrutinising this plan and in drawing up a report, as per section 73(2) of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018. That subsection makes it very clear that an Oireachtas committee can, by way of a report, address any concerns it might have concerning these marine spatial plans and that the Minister is required by law to give regard to any findings arrived at by the committee. In that sense, this is highly regrettable.
I believe this is an erosion of the democratic process and of our role as an Oireachtas in this process. The lessons from the Derrybrien wind farm case clearly have not been learned by the Government. The State in that instance has been paying out about €15 million in fines for rushing through planning legislation in the past and having made mistakes from doing so. As was said, not trying to rectify these mistakes through scrutiny leads to delays, objections, judicial reviews and additional costs. The objective we all share in respect of wanting to support and facilitate renewable energy, and wind energy especially, gets delayed through not doing this properly. Scrutiny of the plan could have been done over the Easter recess, as I and other Deputies requested, but the Government voted us down.
The European Union's maritime spatial planning directive is clear that we must have an ecosystems-based sustainable approach in respect of our marine planning framework.
In that regard, it is very important that account is taken of areas that need restoration and conservation. Article 8.1 of the directive requires the framework to identify spatial and temporal distribution of activities and uses in the marine area. There is no discretion in this regard. These are flaws which I and my party wished to scrutinise and highlight and I have to ask why the Government would not allow time for that to be done. Why is it trying to avoid that scrutiny?
This issue has significant implications for the marine environment, protecting sensitive marine ecosystems and ensuring that livelihoods from sustainable fishing can continue uninterrupted. I have met people working in the fishing industry and those whose families have been working in fishing for generations. The disruption already being caused to their livelihoods and the fact that they have to hire lawyers and take legal action just to try to protect their livelihoods are completely unacceptable. We should be able to facilitate renewable energy and protect the marine environment and sustainable fishing.
Significant concerns have been expressed by the environmental sector and NGOs on this issue, particularly with regard to the incredibly slow progress by the Government in the context of marine protected areas. It has been delayed for years. We have not seen any action in terms of robust interim measures on marine protected areas as recommended by the Oireachtas housing committee. We need the Government to step up with regard to marine protected areas and put resources into protecting areas that need it. The Irish Wildlife Trust stated:
The Oireachtas must be allowed to fully debate and scrutinise the Marine Planning Framework in a democratic manner. Decisions made on foot of this plan will have far reaching implications for our seas and, as it stands, threatens to seriously exacerbate our biodiversity crisis. We simply can’t afford to further imperil threatened marine life in the rush to develop the marine environment.
It seems the Government is not willing to listen to those voices and concerns or to engage, find solutions and make sure the national marine planning framework can be as good as it ought to be as it and needs to be to comply with our European Union objectives.
In conclusion, there is no reason we cannot facilitate renewable energy, protect the marine environment and protect livelihoods in fishing. We have enough marine space to do all of those things, but we need to do them properly.
I am sharing time with Deputy Bríd Smith. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan and I objected at the Business Committee to the original plan of the Government to attempt to push through this motion on the marine planning framework without debate. I am glad we did so. It is clear the Government wants to ram this through in order to silence legitimate concerns and questions by people concerned with our precious marine environment, including groups such as fishermen.
Only a few weeks ago, I raised the issue of private developers who have got hold of the Codling Bank riding roughshod over fishermen and refusing to properly consult them as they do their surveys. They are trying to short-change the fishers in terms of compensation for lost income. They are moving the goalposts and generally refusing to engage. This is a worrying echo of the sort of behaviour seen during the madness of onshore private development that led to the Celtic tiger and the property and financial crash that hit this country. Now it seems there are efforts to replicate that in terms of the offshore by using the critical issue of developing renewable energy essentially as an excuse to hand over large stretches of the marine environment to private companies interested in profiting from that.
Since the Foreshore Act was essentially struck down in 2013 because it did not have a proper level of consultation, the Minister has been, in effect, issuing private companies with the right to grab whatever sites they want offshore, including environmentally sensitive sites such as the Kish Bank and the Codling Bank. This is impacting on fishermen and has the potential to impact very badly on the marine environment and biodiversity in the marine environment. It is worth noting that, according to the official EU body for wind turbines, the average distance for offshore wind in the EU is 43 km. However, huge marine sites 6 km and 7 km off the east coast of Ireland are being given to private companies that will have no obligation to in any way benefit this country and in a way that could be devastating for fishermen, marine biology and biodiversity. It is the wild west once again. Private developers who wrecked onshore development and brought about an economic crash and housing crisis are now being given the licence through this process to rubber stamp the privatisation of the marine environment.
Like many other Members, I find it extraordinary that the House is being given a few minutes to discuss a document comprising more than 600 pages which has the potential to be of vast importance to the State and its people. I came to the House today from the ESB picket lines and was thinking about the foundation of the ESB as a company run, led and funded by the State and the wonderful job it has done through the decades. It is now being pulled apart by outsourcing and forms of privatisation. These planning guidelines, like those applying to land, are really a dream for developers. The developers will decide what is built and how, why and where it is built.
I wish to spend a few minutes dealing with the chapter relating to energy because it is alarming. The chapter trumpets the use of carbon capture and storage. This is a system that does not exist at scale anywhere on the planet, yet it is being continually used in the climate emergency Bill and in this report. What it is really saying is that the potential to drill for gas and oil remains and this infrastructure that will be developed will not interfere with it. It is clear from the chapter on energy that there is an intention to protect and ring-fence the potential for drilling for and using fossil fuels into the future. That must alarm anybody who is concerned about climate change and how we will deal with it because existing licences for decades to come will not be banned by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and are good to go until 2035. That means that fossil fuels and their future in this country are part of the report. We have to reject that and not just limit, but end the use of all existing licences. Petroleum-related activity and gas activity have no place in our future but this 600-page document which we are barely given time to discuss has given them pride of place. It is a shame.
There has been no shortage of shoddy, poorly thought-out legislation passed through this House in the past 14 months. In many cases, it resulted from the lack of debate and scrutiny. It is a big frustration in the context of the way business is being conducted that, often, debate only happens after a bad proposal has been passed. The Government is attempting to do the same thing with this motion. The motto seems to be to rush it through, ignore concerns and curtail debate. Only 55 minutes has been allocated for the House to discuss the motion. That is not adequate time to carefully assess and debate the pros and cons of any motion.
I completely discount the remarks of the Taoiseach to me yesterday on the floor of the House to the effect that this is not legislation but, rather, a framework. What the Taoiseach did not say is that this framework will be underpinned by legislation. That is when we see the problems. Such problems can currently be seen in the national planning framework, which is underpinned by section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, allowing for guidelines to be issued at any time by the Minister. However, these planning guidelines are developed by zealots and are being imposed across county councils and county councillors by the planning regulator in the most Stalinist fashion. That is the reason we must have more debate on this so-called plan. A college debating society would spend longer on a trivial topic for debate than 45 minutes the 160-odd Members of this country's main law-making chamber are getting to discuss important issues.
Yesterday, I raised briefly with An Taoiseach the issue of a lack of joined-up thinking when it comes to issuing licences for marine activities. Cable-laying conglomerates are currently being issued with licences to lay underwater cable in coastal waters by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.
At the same time, there are numerous fishermen and women who have licences issued to them by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to fish in the same areas. No consultation has taken place with the Departments as to how the cable-laying licence may impinge on the fishermen who have been there for their lifetime. Now the cable-laying conglomerates are issuing legal measures telling the fishermen to cease and desist from fishing over their cables in the areas where the cables are laid.
These massively rich corporations know their wealth places them in a strong position to bully the fishermen. Many fishermen do not have the financial resources to fight a complex court case to defend their rights to fish. In this situation, we have two licences granted by two separate Departments for two separate activities in the same waters which are ultimately in conflict with each other. This is what I mean by a lack of joined-up thinking. When it comes to the arms of the State, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.
I would like to hear from the Taoiseach as to how this has happened. We cannot allow anyone or anything to ride roughshod over fishermen and their rights to fish in our waters. This year there has already been a 15% loss to quotas due to Brexit. On top of that, the Government did not see fit to recognise the charter skippers when it came to providing Covid business supports. They have been treated as if they do not exist or do not register as having any importance at Government level.
The fishermen of Wexford, Duncannon and Kilmore want to be able to head out, earn their living and not arrive home to a threatening cease-and-desist letter waiting in their postbox from some billion-dollar conglomerate which sees them as being in the way. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine must take responsibility and take this in hand. I am all in favour of wind energy but we cannot allow its roll-out to destroy our fishing industry further. There have to be protections for the primary rights of fishermen, ferry operators and leisure craft operators who have serviced the islands of this country for decades and centuries. Any licences awarded for an alternative marine activity must give due regard and higher priority to the activities of those who have fished our waters for decades and centuries.
A token 45-minute debate does absolutely nothing for the confidence of the fishing communities, which are already of the belief that Government does not want them there or to continue in the sector. A decommissioning scheme has been suggested but fishermen want to be able to earn their livelihood with mechanisms in place that allow them to do that.
I call upon the Secretary General, Brendan Gleeson, to hold up his hand immediately in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and take ownership of the mistakes that have been made, to defend the fishermen currently having to go to the High Court to assert their rights over the multi-billion cable conglomerates and to take responsibility for the Department's failings.
The Government appears to be pushing this motion through in a rushed matter and is only allocating 45 minutes for debate, five minutes for each group, which is a scandal. I note that no Member from Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael is speaking on this today. They have spent the last six months turning their backs on the larger fishermen; now it is the inshore fishermen they are turning their backs on.
The opening line in the National Marine Planning Framework Baseline Report states:
As an island nation with sovereign rights over one of the largest marine areas in Europe, Ireland’s economy, culture and society is inextricably linked to the sea.
Yet when it comes to debate and teasing these pertinent matters out, the Dáil is not being given sufficient time to do so. The motion received no debate whatsoever when it passed the Seanad last week, yet this is a very significant framework for the future of Ireland's marine environment.
Ireland has a long maritime culture and tradition and Irish people have a strong affinity with the sea. Some 75% of our population live in coastal counties and for as long as people have lived on this island, our seas have held sway over our imagination, sense of adventure and achievements. Our ocean is one of our greatest treasures. It supports a diverse range of economic activities such as seafood, tourism and renewable ocean energy and has abundant potential to open up new applications for health, medicine and technology. Our maritime area is seven times the land mass of Ireland at over 490,000 km² of some of the most productive and diverse resources in the world. When we take our seabed into account, Ireland is one of the largest EU states and our coastline of 750,000 km is longer than that of many European countries.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage has not ended its deliberation on the framework, yet it is being rammed through the Dáil. As I asked the Taoiseach yesterday, what has this Government got against our fishing community? This time it is the inshore fishermen that are being affected. The Taoiseach was the acting Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine last year, a short time ago. He signed a statutory instrument to impose penalty points on our fishermen. While Brexit was happening, the Government was asleep at the wheel and now here we are with 45 minutes to debate this. There is something very fishy happening yet again. What is the rush? Why are we not being given the appropriate time to debate this important framework? This framework comprises a very detailed report of over 200 pages and encompasses human activity on the ocean, renewable energy, fishing ports, hobbies and water sports, shipping, recreation, tourism, wastewater treatment and disposal. We need more than 45 minutes to debate that.
This is shameful. It is interesting that this went through the Seanad without debate yet we had a Business Committee meeting this morning and they want more sitting time and to sit the days we are sitting. They are sitting in our Chamber and they are kicking up míle murder. There is a meeting this evening to try to sort it out. Yet none of them saw fit to discuss this vital issue.
Some 75% of our population live adjacent to the sea and it is so important to us. This comes after what happened with the Brexit talks, when we and the whole fishing industry found out and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, was badly caught out. He did not even open his mouth during the fishing debate when our fishermen were being wiped away. That was our sea fishing but this is coastal fishing, and they will be wiped out too.
What kind of fear or euthanasia has the Government got for big business? It is all about multiples. We are having the climate change Bill again. Data centres do not have to pay anything for carbon tax but screw Johnny, Mary and everybody else sitting in their houses and do not allow them to burn turf or eke a living from the land. The Government is infatuated with big business. Has it not found out from the housing crisis, the mess of the developers and what went on with big banks and is still going on? Now we see the exodus of banks from our country. The Government is grovelling to them. It might as well close down the Dáil and hand it over to big developers to plunder again. To hell or to Connacht. The fishermen now can be pushed aside and discarded as well as much of our rich heritage, marine culture and marine life in the middle of a climate change Bill. The Government wants to slip it through in a peep o' day job in the middle of the night with no debate. Then it gave us five minutes and we got a lecture yesterday morning from the Taoiseach. I got a double lecture. He had the audacity to say this has been going on so long, it has to be done and get it over with. He is some man to talk. He talks about protestors and he was shouting last year for protests to go ahead in Belarus during the pandemic and then he made sure that taxi drivers cannot even get out of their cars to breathe.
This is a totalitarian state now and nothing else. It looks like one, walks like one and is one. The Government should be ashamed. I cannot get over the Green Party's involvement in this. I understand Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They have given up any sense of respect for our 1916 leaders and our War of Independence people. Why do we not close it up, hand it over to big business altogether and forget about our people? The Government has no interest in the people and does not care or respect them.
It is the other way around. The disgraceful way in which this motion is being rushed through brings the whole Oireachtas process into disrepute. Legal advice was sought by the housing committee on section 73(2) of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018. It states the Minister shall "have regard to any resolution, report or recommendation of any committee of [the] Houses of the Oireachtas". The Oireachtas was not alerted to the fact that the Minister “shall” have regard to recommendations from any committee of both Houses. I believe that the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action was also trying to do something in relation to this plan. The motion was rushed through the Seanad last week in a clandestine manner. The way in which the Government is attempting to rush the motion through without proper process, scrutiny or recommendations is completely reckless and will lead to legal challenges down the line.
Why can this Government never have foresight? I have said before that it is disheartening to work within such a reactive system. That is the problem.
Earlier this week, the "Echo Chamber" podcast brought us voices we needed to hear on this matter when it hosted a panel with representatives from NGOs. How did it come about that marine protected areas, MPAs, are not even included in the plan? We had set a target that 10% of our seas would be MPAs by 2020, increasing to 30% by 2030. Guess what? It is 2021 and just 2.3% of our seas are MPAs. The Department's advisory group's report, Expanding Ireland's Marine Protected Area Network, is open for public consultation until Friday, 30 July 2021. The website states: "Informed by these steps and the resulting information, the Department intends to begin developing legislation on the identification, designation and management of MPAs later in 2021." How can these matters be worked on separately? It makes absolutely no sense.
I thank the Irish Wildlife Trust for hosting the first town hall meeting on MPAs yesterday and for choosing to kick off the series in Donegal. We have a lot of dedicated activists and groups who want the best and to highlight our beautiful country. It is also telling that fishermen were not consulted on the matter. The people who work at sea and use it to earn a living were not even consulted on what is being proposed.
The excuse that we are late for transposition of the EU directive does not hold water - pun intended. EU Directive 2014/89/EU was adopted in 2014 by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. This regulation was originally transposed in 2016 and then repealed and replaced in October 2018. The marine spatial plan was supposed to be in place by March 2021. This has been in the pipeline for years. We are asking for a few weeks to undertake proper scrutiny and make recommendations. A few weeks will not make a difference to the EU but will make a significant difference to the future of our marine estate. The matter is far too important to ignore.
It is significant that we do not have a copy of the Minister of State's speech. He appears to have a detailed speech and he made a robust defence of what he is doing but we do not have a copy of it. I have less than two minutes. I looked at the facts and I prepared a speech, but I do not have time to deliver it. I am really tired of what the Taoiseach told us yesterday, which is typical of him, that we must get the country moving, as if we do not want the country to move. He also told us that we are leading to a paralysis. It sounds like the good old days are back and the Government is behind the good old days. We have learned absolutely nothing from the pandemic nor the declaration of the climate emergency and biodiversity plan. I object in the strongest possible terms to being put into a box and told that we are negative and for paralysis. We struggle every single day to use the few minutes and seconds given to us in opposition. This motion was going through without debate until we objected and then we got a miserly 55 minutes. Significantly, none of the backbenchers from the three major parties, in particular the Green Party, is to be seen here today.
There is one backbencher. That is very good.
There is no opportunity to speak. Let me look at what is happening here. I went to the consultation the Minister of State lauded in his speech. I thought it was appalling. It was an excuse for consultation. I attended it in a certain hotel on the Renmore Road in Galway. The imbalance of power was palpable. The Minister of State is asking us to rush through a framework that will set the entire agenda for the Bill that will come before us with the marine protected areas excluded, the fishermen excluded, and many other areas also excluded. We have learned nothing from Derrybrien and the landslide in Donegal. We have learned nothing from Shell to Sea, which fought every step of the way to make the system safer. As a result of the blood, sweat and tears of those campaigners, it was made safer.
I do not know why I am appealing to the Minister of State but I do not do so on a personal basis. We are trying to give courage to people outside this room and tell them their voice matters and power matters. Let us stop the Government doing this and let us have a transformative change not only in the way we do politics but, in particular, in the way we deal with nature and the natural environment. Otherwise, we are finished.
I thank all Members for their contributions to the debate. I wish to strongly respond to what has been said and point to the consultation that has taken place on the Bill. The Government has prioritised this area. We can see that by the action it took in setting up the stakeholder advisory group composed of almost 50 different actors from various sectors, including fisheries. There was robust engagement with them. The engagement was carried out on a regional basis over several years.
I cannot be held to account for a process that went on for three years but that was not prioritised by the Oireachtas joint committee in its work. My job is to try to ensure that we get the best possible plan together, one that has gone through the most robust scrutiny through the Department and its engagement with the various actors. I am confident that has been done. People attended more than 150 conferences. The facts speak for themselves.
It is important that we get a joined-up plan. Many speakers articulated the gaps that exist in the foreshore area. The framework does everything to join all the dots and come up with a plan that we can be proud of. It speaks volumes that both An Taisce and IBEC say this is an exciting plan, in a good way.
The NMPF is a national document that sets out the State's approach to managing Ireland's marine activities and ensuring sustainable use of marine resources to 2040. The framework, bringing together all marine-based human activities, articulates the Government's vision, objectives and planning policies for each activity. It outlines how they will interact with each other in an ocean space that is under increasing spatial pressure.
As I indicated, the Government has consulted broadly in preparing this framework, including running two public consultations, and is moving to establish it now, in line with the requirements of the EU maritime spatial directive. The finalised NMPF will be the key decision-making tool for Departments, State agencies and regulatory authorities in making decisions on marine activities. Decisions will include planning applications as well as policies, projects and strategies.
The framework will be a parallel document to the national planning framework, which provides a high-level guide to terrestrial planning and development over the next 20 years. The NMPF applies to the work of public bodies, including functions related to the formulation of any policy, programme or plan in relation to development or activity, or proposed development or activity, in the maritime area; the giving of any consent or approval, or the grant or issue of licences, certificates or other like documents, under any enactment for the purposes of any such development or activity, or any such proposed development or activity; and the regulation of any such development or activity.
I will outline the benefits of the NMPF. It will contribute significantly to the effective management of marine resources. Long-term forward planning for Ireland's maritime area will enhance the effective management of marine activities and more sustainable use of our marine resources. The NMPF will provide a clear direction for managing our seas, clarifying objectives and establishing priorities. It will direct decision makers, marine users and stakeholders towards more strategic and efficient use of marine resources. It will inform decisions about the current and future development of the maritime area, aiming to integrate needs.
The NMPF will ensure co-ordinated planning decisions, consistent with the Government's vision and objectives. Marine users, including regulators, applicants for consent and interested persons, should find that the reformed marine planning system will reduce the regulatory burden on them by giving them more certainty regarding what can happen and where, thereby speeding up the licensing process.
The NMPF will support Ireland in taking climate action and meeting the Government's ambitious renewable energy targets. Specifically, the NMPF contains a number of overarching marine planning policies aimed at requiring marine regulators and decision makers to take account of climate action when considering any proposal for marine use or activity, including, for example, ports development, aquaculture, shipping, etc.
The NMPF reiterates the Government's climate action plan's commitment to a major shift away from oil combustion within the heat and transport sectors towards renewable energy in the coming decade. The NMPF has been prepared with an ecosystem-based approach, comprehensively outlining an integrated management of human activities in the maritime space, based on the best available scientific knowledge. This approach will achieve the sustainable use of ecosystem goods and services and the maintenance of ecosystem integrity.
I will now turn to the environmental assessments of the NMPF. As part of the preparation of the NMPF, a strategic environmental assessment, SEA, and an appropriate assessment, AA, have been carried out.
These assessments have been undertaken to evaluate the high-level impacts of the NMPF on the environment and to inform the direction of the NMPF. This is to ensure that the national objectives and outcomes respond to the sensitivities and requirements of the wider natural environment, the likely environmental consequences of decisions regarding the future accommodation of development and how negative effects can be reduced, offset or avoided. The NMPF is in full compliance with relevant legal environmental requirements.
As I previously mentioned, the MSP advisory group was established to facilitate participation in the marine spatial planning process by all relevant stakeholders from the economic, environmental and social pillars. The intended purpose of the advisory group was to harness the potential and capacity of a broad range of sectors, including representation from the public sector, business, environmental, social and knowledge based sectors to guide strategic thinking and decision-making in the preparation of marine spatial plans. I am pleased to say that the work of the advisory group throughout this process was of an exceptional standard, having provided expert reports, recommendations or updates when required, thus informing the work of the interdepartmental group and strongly influencing the final NMPF.
The NMPF contains a commitment to regional or sub-national plans in future planning cycles. These will be more localised and will potentially be more empowering for coastal communities throughout Ireland. At least three regional plans will be developed, specifically based on the locations of Ireland’s regional assemblies, which have an existing range of powers in regard to spatial planning and economic development.
All public bodies that have a role in making policies, plans or programmes relevant to the maritime area, or have a role in regulating activity or development in the maritime area, are statutorily obliged to support and implement the objectives and policies of the NMPF when it is adopted. This means, in practice, that in assessing and deciding on an application for a lease, license or consent, a public body must ensure consistency with the NMPF’s objectives. It also means that where a public body is introducing a new policy proposal or plan, such as, for example, a sectoral marine action plan, that policy document must also contribute to the achievement of the NMPF’s objectives and policies.
Chapter 2 of the framework sets out how the NMPF will interact with terrestrial forward plans at national, regional and county level. The chapters on overarching marine planning policies and sectoral marine planning policies contain extensive referencing and signposting on how the NMPF can be implemented, who will implement it and how it interacts with other strategic plans, policies and development management processes.
I will now outline some of the further implementation initiatives of the NMPF that will be rolled out over the coming months. The programme for Government committed to the establishment of Project Ireland Marine 2040 and this marine governance group, working under the broader Project Ireland delivery board, will provide leadership and oversight during the implementation of the NMPF. A central and successful underpinning of Project Ireland 2040 and the national development plan, NDP, has been the alignment of spatial and investment plans and we intend to align the NMPF with the NDP. Together, the NPF and NMPF will form the statutorily based spatial planning framework. The NDP is the key investment plan, covering all sectors, irrespective of whether the investment is on land or sea.
As part of the roll out of the NMPF, my Department proposes to examine options for maximising stakeholder engagement and buy-in to the concept of marine planning at a local level through coastal partnership arrangements. This will serve as an important part of the implementation and monitoring arrangements for the first cycle of marine planning from 2021 onwards and a learning opportunity for future cycles of marine planning and the extent to which specific forward marine planning functions should be devolved to regional, local or national level. Coastal partnerships will bring together an area's coastal community to address issues of concern, share best practice and resources and facilitate communication, and I expect that the selected pilot partnerships for coastal areas will be rolled out by my Department over the next 12 months.
I thank all Members for taking the time to make their contributions. I have heard the issues causing frustration, but I wish to put on the record the robust process this went through over a number of years. Everyone had an opportunity to engage, including those who did so successfully, with the Department and our expert advisory group.