I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on Second Stage of this important legislation, the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016. The publication of this legislation is delivering on a commitment in the programme for a partnership Government.
Ireland has designated 75 natural heritage areas, NHAs, under national law for the protection of raised bog habitats. These sites complement the 53 areas of protected raised bog in Ireland which have been nominated for designation as special areas of conservation, SACs, in accordance with the EU habitats directive. Additional raised bog habitat within the natural heritage area network makes a contribution to the overall objectives of the habitats directive to maintain or restore these habitats to favourable conservation status.
Since 2011, over €18 million in taxpayers' money has been spent on protecting and conserving the SAC raised bog network. The SAC network remains the bedrock of Ireland's response to the conservation of raised bog under the habitats directive. Indeed, the previous Fine Gael-led Government was the first Government to tackle the issue of turf cutting and EU obligations. Our approach has been based on working with the turf cutters affected in a practical and pragmatic fashion, while also working to ensure we are protecting this rare natural environment and fulfilling our EU obligations. In recognition of the fact that the same legal regime did not apply to NHAs as to SACs, in April 2011 the then Government decided to carry out a scientific review of the natural heritage area raised bogs. This decision was taken in tandem with the work which was ongoing to ensure that SAC raised bogs were being treated in accordance with the habitats directive. The main objective of the review was to look at how the NHA network could contribute to our conservation objectives, while avoiding unintended impacts on the traditional rights of landowners and turf cutters and, therefore, minimising the cost to the taxpayer arising from compensation.
Independent experts, working closely with departmental officials, carried out the review of the raised bog resource in Ireland. They examined over 270 individual raised bogs, including SACs, NHAs and undesignated sites. New scientific survey methods were employed and improved mathematical modelling methods used to identify the restoration potential of sites. A number of factors were taken into account when assessing the importance of individual bogs in terms of their economic, social and cultural contribution to individual communities. This included available ownership information, the number of active turf plots and restoration-associated costs. This has been the most comprehensive analysis to date of Ireland's raised bog habitats.
The selection process for the analysis of sites adopted a sustainable approach. The selection criteria, while including the primary environmental and technical factors essential for a raised bog's existence now and into the future, also included economic and social criteria. At the same time each site was examined by Department staff from a nature conservation and management perspective to ensure that the final outcomes of the selection process were practical and achievable. The review concluded that a reconfiguration of the NHA network was required in order to meet nature conservation objectives more effectively while having regarding to economic, social and cultural needs.
The review of the raised bog natural heritage area network was published in January 2014. It sets out a series of measures to ensure that Ireland meets its obligations under the EU habitats directive, as well as its obligations under the EU environmental impact assessment directive relating to the regulation of turf cutting on NHAs, while at the same time avoiding unintended impacts on the traditional rights of landowners and users and minimising the cost to the State of compensation payments. The review concluded that Ireland could more effectively achieve conservation of threatened raised bog habitat through focused protection and restoration of a reconfigured network. The review concluded that this would entail the phasing out of turf cutting on 36 existing NHAs, which will remain designated, including seven sites to be divided, with part to be conserved and part de-designated; the complete de-designation of 46 NHAs, including the relevant areas of the seven sites to be divided where it has been judged that their conservation potential is expected to be marginal and-or that restoration would be prohibitively expensive for the conservation benefits achieved - domestic turf cutting may continue on these sites, while larger scale or commercial turf cutting will continue to be regulated through other consent systems; and the designation as NHAs of 25 currently undesignated raised bogs which are in public ownership or where there is reduced turf cutting pressure. These NHAs are being designated to make up for the loss of habitat within the sites where it is proposed that turf cutting can be allowed to continue.
The review clearly set out that the proposed newly configured network would have considerable advantages over the current natural heritage area network: a greater area of both active and degraded raised bog still capable of regeneration compared to the current network; in the short to medium term, losses of active bog will be reduced due to the lower intensity of recent turf cutting in the new network; costs to the taxpayer will be greatly reduced due to the smaller number of turf cutters required to stop turf cutting and requiring compensation - it is envisaged that there will be approximately 2,500 fewer actively cut turf plots in the new network; and increased potential for more rapid restoration of raised bog due to the inclusion of State-owned lands into the new network.
In short, the new network will have more environmental benefits, it will have less negative impact on turf cutters and it will cost less to the taxpayer. The total area of active and degraded raised bog under the proposed new network is 765 hectares, in comparison with an area of 694 hectares in the current network. The area of the new network will also contribute to the national conservation objective target area for raised bog within the SAC and NHA networks.
The Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016 provides for a review of raised bog habitats, the making, amendment and revocation of natural heritage area orders, and for those purposes to amend the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000. The purpose of the Bill is to provide for the implementation of a reconfiguration of the raised bog natural heritage area network arising from the proposals from the review published in January 2014, an assessment of the effects on the environment of the proposals arising from the review and, if required, any other screening for an assessment or, as the case may be, assessment undertaken and observations or submissions received during the course of public consultation.
The Bill contains five sections. Section 1 is a standard provision providing a definition of the Act of 2000, which is the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000. The legislative provisions relating to natural heritage areas are contained within Part III, Chapter II of that Act.
Section 16(1) of the Act of 2000 provides for the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to publish a notice of the intention to make a natural heritage area order. Section 2 of the Bill amends this subsection to provide for the Minister to publish a notice of the intention to make a natural heritage area order arising from the completion of the natural heritage area review.
Section 18(4) of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 provides that where the Minister proposes to amend or revoke a natural heritage area order, the Minister will publish a notice of the intention to do so. The provisions of subsections (2), (4) and (5) of section 16 relating to seeking the observations of certain Ministers and public authorities and serving notice of the intention to make a natural heritage area order also apply where the Minister proposes to amend or revoke a natural heritage area order. Section 3 of the Bill provides that the provisions of section 18(4) of the Act of 2000 only apply to that section of the Act, as section 4 of the Bill contains publication and notification provisions where the Minister makes an order to amend or revoke a natural heritage area order.
Section 4 of the Bill amends the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 by the insertion of a new section 18A after section 18 as follows. Section 18A(1) provides for the Minister to continue to conduct and complete the review of raised bog habitats.
Section 18A(2) refers to the purposes of the review, including contributing to the achievement of nature conservation objectives of maintaining or restoring raised bog habitats, and selecting the most suitable raised bog habitats to be designated as natural heritage areas or to cease to be designated as natural heritage areas.
Section 18A(3) provides that the Minister shall, in respect of the effects on the environment of the proposals arising from the review, carry out a strategic environmental assessment, including public consultation, and if required, carry out any other screening for an assessment or, as the case may be, assessment, including public consultation. This provision arises from a commitment to carry out an environmental assessment in the 2014 review of the raised bog natural heritage area network.
Section 18A(4) sets out that on the completion of the review, having considered the proposals arising from it and having had regard to the strategic environmental assessment, any other screening for assessment or assessment undertaken and observations or submissions received during the public consultation, the Minister shall, where he or she is satisfied that a natural heritage area order should be made, publish under section 16 of the Act of 2000 a notice of his or her intention to make the natural heritage area order, and where he or she is satisfied that land should cease to be designated as a natural heritage area, make an order to amend or revoke the natural heritage area order which so designated the land. This provision allows the Minister to have regard to economic, social and cultural needs when deciding that land should cease to be designated as a natural heritage area.
Section 18A(5) states that where the Minister makes an order to amend or revoke a natural heritage area order which designated land as a natural heritage area, the Minister will place an advertisement in at least one local newspaper to inform the public of the making of the order and cause a copy of the order to be sent to defined owners or occupiers of land, defined holders of valid prospecting or exploration licences and various Ministers of the Government and various public authorities.
Section 19(2) of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 provides that no person shall carry out or cause to be carried out works which are liable to destroy or to alter, damage or interfere significantly with the features of a site without giving the Minister at least three months' prior notice. This obligation applies to land on which the Minister has served notice of the intention to make a natural heritage area order. Section 18A(6) clarifies that an amendment or revocation of a natural heritage area order means that the land or the part of it in question ceases to be designated as a natural heritage area and that the obligation arising from section 19(2) of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 is fully removed. Section 18A(7) sets out definitions for "environmental criteria", "habitat", and "restoration potential".
Section 5 of the Bill sets out the Short Title and commencement.
I view this Bill as an important piece of the jigsaw as we continue to deal with the need to protect the environment, live up to our EU obligations and work with landowners and turf cutters on whose lives these obligations can have a very real impact. As I stated at the outset, the publication of this legislation is an important commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government. This legislation will allow for our raised bog network to be managed more effectively and in a more environmentally friendly manner.
It is important to remember that this Bill arises from the review of the raised bog natural heritage area network, published in 2014. The reconfiguration of the raised bog network, which this legislation will facilitate, is based on sound scientific evidence and will have a positive impact on the raised bog network.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to outline the provisions of the Bill, which I commend to the House, and I look forward to hearing Deputies' views on its contents. I recommend the Bill to the House.