Before discussing the amendment in detail it is necessary to outline the general framework provided for natural heritage areas in the Bill. I wish to underline that strong and permanent protection is being provided for NHAs. The Bill provides for the designation and conservation of natural heritage areas.
NHAs are sites that support elements of our natural heritage which are unique or of outstanding importance at national level. Such areas can never be adequately replaced and their conservation is required in the interests of the common good. A legal framework for their designation and conservation is long overdue and this Bill remedies that deficiency.
I take considerable satisfaction from the fact that the provisions I have put in place in respect of NHAs in the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill will ensure their permanent protection. Not only does the Bill provide for the protection of NHAs, it does so in a fair and open manner which rules out any need for anxiety or fear among farmers or other landowners regarding the ownership of their land.
I have indicated previously – and it is worth repeating – that I am revising fundamentally the protective regime that will apply to NHAs. Prior to my assuming office, NHAs in general could only be guaranteed what amounted to essentially temporary protection. If, after a period of six months, a person wished to proceed with damaging works in an NHA, there was no mechanism to prevent them doing so, with the exception of the possibility of a compulsory purchase.
Apart from the social, political and practical undesirability and the impossibility of guaranteeing protections for NHAs by compulsory purchase, it would be a wholly inappropriate approach to conserving biodiversity in the modern era. The idea that ecologically important sites should be protected through compulsory State purchase, thus essentially ring-fencing them and ruling out all other uses or activities in such areas, would be ill-advised. It would be a recipe to pit conservation and other interests in direct conflict with each other and to bring about and perpetuate a divisive and damaging relationship.
I have introduced a system which guarantees that the ecological interests of NHAs can be protected permanently. Works in NHAs will require the consent of the Minister and any activities which will cause significant damage can be prohibited permanently. By ensuring that the ecological interests of NHAs can be safeguarded through this mechanism, I have also been able to dispense with the need to compulsorily purchase land to conserve wildlife.
To balance the imposition of permanent restrictions, it was fair and proper to provide that compensation would be paid to landowners in cases where they suffered real losses as a result of NHA designation. Apart from many constitutional considerations, it is right to compensate farmers or to provide them with financial incentives for maintaining or delivering biodiversity services.
While some archaeological practices can damage wildlife, it must be underlined that many of the areas we now view as being of particular ecological importance were created by traditional agriculture. Appropriate agricultural practices must continue in order to maintain the biodivers ity importance of these areas. Consequently, it is not only fair but essential to provide supports for sustainable agriculture in such areas as we are doing via REPS in NHAs.
I have always recognised that sustainable agriculture delivers wildlife benefits. I am glad the EU now concurs with my thinking, as reflected in its embracing of the concept of multifunctionality of agriculture. This is the terminology coined to recognise and support the delivery by agriculture of biodiversity and environmental benefits. In short, providing permanent protection for a network of nationally important wildlife sites, NHAs, in a fair and equitable manner constitutes a change of fundamental importance in the approach adopted in this country to the conservation of natural heritage.
I am aware that on Committee Stage concern was expressed in relation to the fact that local authority development or development that is not exempted for the purposes of the Planning and Development Act, 2000, within an NHA might not be subject to a sufficient degree of regulation under section 15 of the Bill as drafted. I take this opportunity to allay any such fears on the part of Deputies and I wish to clarify the protection afforded to NHAs under legislation in the above instances.
The principal purpose of section 15 of the Bill is to define works for the purposes of Chapter ll of the Act and not to regulate the activities of local authorities of local authorities. That matter is dealt with comprehensively under section 24 of the Bill in conjunction with section 12 of the principal Act, as well as in relevant planning legislation and regulations. I should also point out that the planning system is a separate regulatory system from that outlined in wildlife legislation. Therefore, it is important that excessive duplication of legislation across streams should be avoided.
In the case of NHAs, I am pleased to confirm that their protection is specifically provided for in planning legislation and this protection serves to bolster yet complement the provisions of the Bill. I appreciate how the apparent exclusion of local authority development and exempted development might, at first glance, be interpreted as a carte blanche for local authorities to carry out works as they wish within NHAs. When this question is examined in further detail, however, it is clear that this is not the case.
I wish to explain the legislative provisions and mechanisms that are in place to ensure that local authority development and development which is not exempted development within NHAs is controlled. The Planning and Development Act, 2000, places NHAs on a statutory footing for the first time. Thus, literally, the Planning Act could not specifically refer to NHAs. Nonetheless, section 10(2)(c) of the Planning Act, 2000, provides that any county development plan prepared by a local authority shall include mandatory objectives for “the conservation and protection of the environment including, in particular, the archaeological and natural heritage and the con servation and protection of European sites and any other sites which may be prescribed”.
It has been agreed between my Department and the Department of the Environment and Local Government that the protection of NHAs should be a mandatory objective of local authorities in their development plans. NHAs will fall into the category of sites which may be prescribed. Section 178 of the Planning Act, 2000, states that no development may be undertaken that would materially contravene a development plan. Thus, section 178, when taken in tandem with section 10(2)(c) of the same Act, entails specific and mandatory protection for NHAs.
In addition, under section 10 of the Planning and Development Regulations, 1994, which remain in force, there is a specific requirement for local authorities to send a notice to my Department in respect of proposed developments affecting sites of geological, scientific or nature conservation interest. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government has assured me that any similar regulations to be introduced as a consequence of the Planning Act, 2000, will provide specifically for consultation with my Department in respect of developments within NHAs. To embrace even further the protection of NHAs, section 24 will place an obligation on local authorities to consult me in respect of anything which may interfere with either a proposed or designated NHA, nature reserve or refuge.
In the course of drafting the Bill and on heritage matters generally, there has been extensive consultation between my officials and their counterparts in the Department of the Environment and Local Government. It is very clear that the latter Department is fully aware of the responsibilities of local authorities in relation to NHAs and their protection and conservation, in consultation with my Department, will be a key factor in the future development of each county. I am sure Deputies will agree that, overall, this represents a comprehensive package of protection measures for NHAs.
I am anxious to avoid unnecessary and unwieldly duplication of protection measures between the separate planning and wildlife protection legislative streams. Section 24, when taken with existing planning safeguards, results in a well balanced complementary package which will ensure NHAs are well protected. Therefore, I cannot accept the amendment.