Friday, 30 April 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I seek clarity on the statutory timeframes pertaining to aquaculture licences. The Minister of State will be very much aware of the issues in the licensing regime. Unlike other regimes, there appear to be no timelines. Anyone seeking planning permission for a commercial or residential property tomorrow morning would have a timeline from the local authority and then there is an opportunity to take it to An Bord Pleanála. Those timelines are not applicable here which creates great frustration, particularly for communities. I mention Kinsale in particular this morning. A 25-acre mussel farm in Charlesfort, beside the dock in Kinsale, was proposed on 21 December 2018. Very little information has come forward on it. One of the submissions made by residents said to put a fish farm in Kinsale Harbour itself would be like letting a farmer grow turnips in a public park. There are issues with getting information out to the public. I have written to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine several times seeking clarity on the status of this application and seeking an update on the decision. We have seen nothing but a response from the Department to the effect that all queries regarding applications are under active consideration and it would be inappropriate to comment. We have no information on where the application is in the system, there is no transparency or understanding of when a decision will be made.
Our office has done research on this. It is a huge issue for the people in Kinsale. Under section 31(1) of the fishing Act of 1997, the Minister must determine an application within four weeks of the date of all the information being provided. That is really interesting.Section 32 of the Act states that if it is not possible for the Minister to determine the application within the set period, he or she must write to the applicants to give them an understanding of a timeframe for the making of a decision. I am looking for a process to be put in place to enable the public to be made aware of what stage an application is at and the issues involved.
The situation we have now relies on one thing, namely, seeking clarification regarding the point at which an application is considered to be complete. I say this because four weeks after that there is an obligation to have provided an answer, but nobody understands the point to which the word "complete" refers. As a result, there is nothing but misinformation circulating. I ask the Minister of State to use section 31(2) of the Act and notify the public of the progress of applications and to provide some understanding of where applications are in the system. It is nearly two and a half years since the application to which I refer was made, with no understanding of when it is going to be complete or the issues pertaining to it. Therefore, the whole system has failed the public. Some two and a half years later there has been no update and no understanding of the current position. It is not possible to understand where that application is in the system, despite the applicants continuously writing to the Department. This would not happen under any other planning process, so we need clarity on how the public can get the relevant information.
I take on board the comments made by Senator Lombard regarding transparency. It is important in any licensing process. I am usually talking about forestry licensing, so it is good to be here to substitute for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, to talk about aquaculture licensing. He sends his apologies that he cannot be here to respond to this matter in person.
My Department considers applications for aquaculture licences in accordance with the provisions of the Fisheries (Amendment Act 1997) and the Foreshore Act 1933, and other applicable national and EU legislation. It is a complex process. Several statutory frameworks and time frames are set out in the legislation regarding aquaculture licensing. The process also 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. The statutory time frames in respect of the public and statutory consultation processes are set out in SI 236/1998, and on the instruction of my Department, the applicant is required to publish a notice of the application in a newspaper circulating in the vicinity of the proposed aquaculture within two weeks of the instruction. The applicant is required to submit a copy of the newspaper in which the notice was published to my Department within one week of its publication.
In the case of shellfish or seaweed licensing, the legislation provides for a period of 30 days in which the public may make a written submission on the application and for a six-week period in which the statutory consultees may make written submissions. In the case of finfish, the time frame for public and statutory consultation is eight weeks. Following the closing date of the public and statutory consultations, all submissions are sent to the applicant and the applicant has the opportunity to submit written comments regarding the submissions within three weeks of the date of issue. The average time for processing a fully-complete aquaculture licence application varies, because it depends on several aspects such as location, species, the scale and intensity of production, the statutory status of sites, potential visual impact and a whole plethora of environmental impacts.
My Department takes full account of all scientific and technical advice, as well as issues identified during the public and statutory consultation phases. Further factors that can impact on the time taken to process an application can include the need for an appropriate assessment if the application is within Natura 2000 area, whether the application is required to be accompanied by an environmental impact statement, EIS, or an environmental impact assessment, EIA, report, and consideration of any submissions or observations raised during the public consultation period and the need for additional underwater or archaeological assessments, etc.. As a result, licence applications must go through several stages.
Once the Minister has made a determination in respect of an application, the legislation requires this decision be published within 28 days.My Department places the reasons for the determination on the Department's website and places a notice in the newspaper in which the applicant placed the application notice. Notice of the foreshore licensing determination is also placed in Iris Oifigiúil.
The legislation also provides for an appeals mechanism and, from the date of the publication of the decision, any interested parties can lodge an appeal within 28 days to the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board, ALAB, an independent statutory body. The timelines for appeals processes is a matter for the ALAB.
That gives an overview of the process of a licence being issued. I cannot comment specifically on the example the Senator provided but I encourage him to engage further with my Department and I will see if we can get any more information for him on that inquiry.
I thank the Minister of State for her response. It is about that section of the Minister of State's contribution which goes through all of the issues pertaining to the licence. The real issue is there is nobody going back to the community and telling the people who have made observations or submissions what is happening. We have no idea in Kinsale what has been looked for regarding this licence. We have no idea whether studies have been looked for or about the timeframes regarding such studies. No public information has been made available. The need for the Department to update and inform residents who have made submissions is very much apparent. That is the flaw in the system. Because of that we have a gap and that gap is information. I appeal to the Minister of State to inform the public of what is going on. At the moment we are in a black hole, unfortunately.
As I started my opening speech, I will start this one by agreeing that transparency is important in this process so that people in the communities in which these licences are sought are aware of what is happening, and indeed the applicant him or herself.
I can only speak to what has happened in the forestry sector in terms of licences. We have a forestry licence viewer, which is a new, more interactive facility for forestry licences that the public can access and see the information. It may not give every detail at this stage. Maybe it exists for the aquaculture licensing sector. I do not know. If it does not, maybe that is something they could look into to make it more transparent and provide that public participation piece that is often missing from licensing and planning applications.