Thursday, 15 July 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
16. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the status of the public consultation in process relating to an aquaculture licence application by a company (details supplied) in County Cork. [38152/21]
I touched on this issue earlier. A company applied for a mussel farm licence in Kinsale Harbour in January 2019 after which a public information process followed. A few weeks ago, another public notice appeared in local publications stating that there was an error in the previous notice, including ambiguous language around people or groups resubmitting objections. I ask the Minister to clarify the status of the public consultation process for this application. He has talked about the process being foolproof and well thought out but on the application we discussed earlier, the Department rejected the application which was appealed and a licence granted based on assessments done by the company, not the Department.
The Department considers all applications for aquaculture licences in accordance with the provisions of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 1997, the Foreshore Act 1933 and applicable national and EU legislation. The licensing process involves consultation with a wide range of scientific and technical advisers, as well as various statutory consultees. The legislation also provides for a period of public consultation.
In addition, the legislation governing aquaculture licensing provides for an appeals mechanism. Appeals against licence decisions are a matter for the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board, which is an independent statutory body.
In accordance with the applicable legislation, the statutory and public consultation phase in respect of the application referred to is now concluded. Every effort is being made to expedite a determination in respect of this application having regard to the complexities involved. As this licence application is under active consideration as part of a statutory process, it would not be appropriate to comment further on the matter.
We have two interconnected issues here. First, we have another aquaculture project in a heavily used and important bay, this time adjacent to one of Ireland's premier tourist destinations. There is considerable concern over the environmental impact and the lack of clarity on the safeguards that may be put in place. Second, there is confusion over the second public notice. In particular the language about resubmitting objections was unclear to members of the public, who are the intended audience. With this in mind, the objection period should be reopened both to allow public consultation in the fullest sense and to remove uncertainty, which would inevitably lead to appeals on any decision. Those in the community have genuine issues with the potential impacts on their local environment. Crucially they have a right to be properly heard in these public consultations.
As Minister, my role is a policy one, that is, putting in place the legislation for this procedure. The process of dealing with the applications is one on which the independent Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board is statutorily independent. I cannot get involved in particular cases one way or another. Obviously, the Deputy can make her views known on that but it is a matter that should be addressed to ALAB, as opposed to the Minister. It is not appropriate for me to get involved a case that is under consideration by the appeals board.
The application was first submitted in January 2019. A few weeks ago, they put in a new notice that was completely unclear. The language was ambiguous and nobody could understand what it meant. Therefore, I am asking the Minister to reconsider it. I have outlined the flawed process and echoed the concerns raised by constituents. I ask him to act in good faith and accept their request for another public consultation that is unambiguous in its call for any submissions. This also highlights my earlier comments about the dysfunctional licensing system, which needs significant reform.
We referenced the 2017 review of the aquaculture licensing system as identifying delays. It also identified the need for more stringent enforcement proceedings for non-compliance with licence conditions. What is the Minister doing to address this and to address the cases where licence conditions are being breached? The licensing system cannot be unclear and be allowed to change randomly to suit businesses. The one in Bantry was refused by the Department, appealed and granted based on assessments done by the company, not by the EPA or by the Department. There must be more consistency in the licensing process. I ask the Minister to act in good faith on these issues because there will be appeals, which is an expensive process. It is unfair on communities to have to take this up again.
The nature of an appeal process is that the appeals body can overturn as well as agree with the decision made initially. That is a matter for it to consider in accordance with the legislation. The legislation is comprehensive, taking into account all environmental considerations and the potential impacts of an application. The application the Deputy is referring to is under the consideration of the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board. It is a matter entirely for it. It would be unfair to assume that an appeals body can only make a decision in one direction. It must look at every decision in detail in a way that fully assesses all the legal requirements on it and then come to a decision consistent with those laws and regulations. That is the approach that the Department in its initial decision and the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board must follow.