Wednesday, 13 November 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I wish to raise a very important and emotive local issue concerning applications to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for foreshore oyster bed licences in Ballyness Bay, County Donegal, which is adjacent to where I live. The area covered by the applications is very extensive. The overall footprint of the combined applications covers an area in the region of 46 ha. For anyone not from a farming background, 46 ha equates to 45 to 46 GAA pitches. We are talking about a small and confined bay in County Donegal. Ballyness Bay is a special area of conservation, SAC. It is one of the most beautiful areas in the country, with lovely golden beaches running along the coast, and is promoted as a tourist hotspot. A lot of work has been done in recent years to augment the tourism sector in that area to provide opportunities for local businesses.
It has come to light that in March and April of this year the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine advertised that a number of applications for oyster farms had been submitted. Notice was placed in The Donegal Democratfor one week only. The Donegal Democrat is not in extensive circulation in the area in question. A local community organisation, Save Ballyness Bay, tells me that only 15 copies of The Donegal Democratare sold in Falcarragh, the primary town near Ballyness Bay, each week. Other newspapers, such as the Tirconaill Tribune or the Donegal Newsare widely circulated in the area but the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine chose to advertise this in a newspaper that is not.There were 72 hours of public consultation afforded through being able to view the documentation in the local Garda station. However, the Garda station only opens from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and if gardaí are called out, it may not be open. Therefore, the public consultation was completely inadequate. The vast majority of people, including me, as a local public representative, did not become aware of the applications until June, so after the public consultation period had elapsed. The only reason I became aware of them was that a local concerned resident raised them with me.
There was a lack of consultation. It is very important to have consultations about these applications because it affords the Department an opportunity to garner a better understanding of how people in a local community feel about large-scale applications. Consultation also allows experts to make an input into the system. Therefore, the decisions that would be arrived at, following meaningful consultation, would clearly be better in public policy terms. This is a public policy decision. If these proposals in their entirety were to be granted, according to members of the local community, thousands of whom have signed petitions, it could devastate tourism potential of the area, not to mention the ecological damage it could cause to the SAC.
The Minister of State has a background in farming. This area is part of a special protected area or special area of conservation. If local farmers want to dig a drain, they must first get the permission of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and they can only cut silage or hay at certain times of the year. However, in this case, there has been no consultation whatsoever, or at least there is no paper trail, between the Department and the NPWS in respect of these applications. There is something not right here and I call on the Department to set aside these applications and initiate further public consultation to afford everyone in the local community, including experts and applicants, an opportunity to have their say before a decision is arrived at. Otherwise, a decision will have been taken in the dark.
I am not satisfied with the appropriate assessment that was carried out for these applications. It was carried out by the Marine Institute, which is funded by the Department. There is a conflict of interest. The appropriate assessment should have been carried out by an independent organisation at arm's length from the Department to facilitate an objective analysis. I expected an environmental impact statement would have been required because every planning application for a one-off house in proximity to an SAC requires one. I have major questions about these applications.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his latitude.