I am not entering a debate but I would have made my clarification by now if the Leas-Cheann Comhairle had allowed me the same latitude she gave the Minister. That is all I am asking for. On 24 June last year, the Minister said that the "shared equity scheme is focused on those who need it most. It will work. It has been passed by the Central Bank, has received approval...". That was what the Minister told the House last June. We knew that was not the case because we wrote to the Central Bank, which stated it was not. He said the same thing again on "Prime Time" last week. I presume the Minister is trying to say he misspoke rather than misled both the Dáil and the good viewers of RTÉ. I accept his clarification.
With respect to the Bill, this is incredibly important legislation. It is also, as Deputy Boyd Barrett pointed out, incredibly complex. It runs to 245 pages and has 181 sections. Significantly, there are 22 pages of detailed amendments to the planning and development Acts, which Deputies who have been in the House longer than I have already know is very complex, unwieldy and at times contradictory legislation. I say all that because while the officials have done an incredible piece of work in bringing the legislation to this stage, this House now has the onerous task of ensuring we give this legislation due and detailed consideration. The Minister is right. This is once-in-a-generation legislation. It will define all planning applications for an area seven times the size of the State's landmass for 30, 40 or 50 years and, therefore, if we get it right we will have what everybody in this House wants - a marine planning regime fit for purpose to suit the varied interests of people using it.
If, as has too often been the case in the past, we do not get it right, we will come back again and again, either through legislation, the courts or the European courts, to correct things that elected Members have a duty to get right at this stage. It is, therefore, very important that the Government and the Oireachtas housing committee give sufficient time to this. I cannot see that being a problem.
I would also ask the Minister to make his officials available for any level of technical briefings that the committee or individual members of it may want in advance of Committee Stage to ensure we fully understand this complex legislation.
The Minister said the majority of the 29 very detailed recommendations made by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage in its prelegislative scrutiny report are reflected in the Bill. I submitted a parliamentary question today requesting the Minister to set out in table form exactly where in the Bill they are dealt with and to what extent. That would be really helpful. That has been asked as a genuine question. I would be grateful if the Minister would respond to it.
I have a concern, based on my first and second reading of the Bill, that some key aspects of what we asked for are not fully reflected. I will tease through some of them more as questions than as comments because they are important. One of the biggest areas of concern at the prelegislative scrutiny stage was the lag between the planning regime, which is in front of us, and the marine protected areas legislation, which we have been told will be brought forward later in the year. I find it hard to imagine we will get that, get through it and have it enacted by the end of the year, although we would be facilitative of it if that could be the case. Even if it is passed early next year, it might be up to two or three years before the designation of marine protected areas takes place after that. That is a very long and slow process. That then creates obvious problems with the immediate applications, whether it be for marine area consent or subsequent planning applications and the transitional projects that will follow the passing of this Bill. I am still of the view, as the committee was, that these two measures should have been done in parallel but, given that they are not, I do not see in this Bill what interim protections will be put in place for areas that are likely to be designated as marine protected areas. What additional protections can be put in place to address all of that? Also, what additional level of public participation, particularly for experts and environmental NGOs which have much expertise in this area, will be given? Notwithstanding the long timelag between the passing of the planning regime and the planning applications that will follow, and the designation of the marine protected areas, what can be done to ensure they are, notwithstanding the lack of former protection, protected nonetheless?
Section 6 deals with the marine planning policy statement about which I have a significant concern. It seems this will be developed without any public participation from sectoral organisations, academic experts or the wider public. If my reading of that section is the case, that is very considerable flaw. It may well be in conflict with the Article 15.2 of the Constitution and with our international obligations under the Aarhus Convention. I would have thought a policy statement of that nature would be developed not only by the Minister and the Department but in partnership with all those other agencies, namely, the public, academic and specialised environmental NGOs, which would bring their expertise to bear. Perhaps I am missing something in that section but that is how it reads to me.
Are the ministerial guidelines in section 7, which sets out the procedure for issuing ministerial planning guidelines, mandatory? Do they have the same force, for example, as the highly controversial mandatory ministerial guidelines that apply to building heights and design standards in terrestrial planning? If they are mandatory, why bother calling them guidelines? What not just say exactly what they are, namely, directives? That would make it much easier for everybody to live with. Again, there seems to be virtually no public or, importantly, Oireachtas participation or consultation in the issuing of those. That gives me some cause for concern. I would be interested to hear the Minister's views on that.
The marine planning framework review will take place after six years, as I understand from section 17, but best practice internationally would provide for an interim review after a year. That is an insertion the Minister should make on Committee or Report Stage. Certainly, it is an amendment I intend to introduce. Given the controversial way the marine planning framework was introduced without a vote of the Oireachtas or having been properly scrutinised by the Dáil, I would have thought an interim review would provide an opportunity to tease out some of those matters and for the Opposition and the Government to reach a level of agreement on them, which we did not have when the marine planning framework was originally approved.
With respect to the designated maritime area plans which come under section 20, I am unclear as to who can become a competent authority, designated by a capital "D" and against what criteria that competent authority would be determined. It would be helpful to have some clarity on that.
Protected sites are referred to in section 21(2)(c). These are the already designated sites. That is only a tiny fraction of what we should have reached by 2020, let alone what we have to reach by 2030. Could proposed protected areas also be included in this section? That goes back to the an earlier point I made. Could some form of interim protections be included in advance of any designation for a maritime area plan for example? My big worry is that if we do not do that, we could unintentionally see significant further deterioration of our biodiversity or, even if there is not further deterioration of it, we could not necessarily see a restoration of the biodiversity loss we have experienced to date.
The marine area regulatory authority has been very nicely given the acronym, MARA, and whoever thought that up should get a badge or star. Part 3 deals with the establishment of the new agency. If that is done right it will be a major addition to the regulatory infrastructure, not only of the marine but of the State. However, that means it needs to be fully independent and it needs to have the appropriate level of staff and board expertise, skills and experience. I am not saying there is anything in the Bill that suggests it would not have that, but that is something about which I would keen to hear more from the officials in a briefing and more from the Minister in his reply to this debate or on Committee Stage. This Part is very detailed. I have many questions on it but I do not have time to go through them now. I would be pleased if we could deal with them at future engagements.
Part 4 deals with maritime area consent. Deputy Boyd Barrett will note I am trying to do my best to talk him through as many of the sections as possible. The Part deals with the granting of the marine area consents as well as changes to consents, interim consents and surrender of consents. It is important people understand all of those provisions that are included. This Part also deals with the rehabilitation of security requirements. This is really important particularly in the context of the ongoing disaster that is Derrybrien, which is costing not only the people of that part of Ireland enormous stress and strain but the State very considerable sums of taxpayers’ money on a daily basis. The big omission in it is the absence of any public participation. Again, if I am wrong, I ask the Minister to correct me and detail that in his reply to the debate. Why have prescribed bodies not being included in this process? It would have seemed to me, even if there is not a wider public participation process, that including prescribed bodies that would ordinarily be included and their expert opinion sought in the terrestrial planning process would be very good here. It would strengthen the decision-making process and if it were to do that, it would strengthen the quality of the decision at the end, which would have a knock-on positive effect for the overall planning grant. That is something we all want to see. I have some concerns about whether this particular gap is in line with our requirements under the Aarhus Convention. I am particularly concerned with how it will deal with the transitionary projects - the key first round of applications for those projects that are already in the pipeline and will be key for us to meet our renewable energy targets for 2030.
The last area I want to mention is the sections that deal with judicial review. I have a very strong view that the courts are the last place to be making complex planning decisions on land or in the maritime, but restricting people’s access to justice is not the right way to deal with that. It is not the best way to reduce the volume of planning-related judicial reviews in our courts. There is a narrative that is growing ever louder, namely, that somehow a portion, if not a large volume, of the judicial reviews working their way through our courts are vexatious. Some 68% of applications for judicial review are rejected. The suggestion that any of those that are not rejected and get leave to be heard are somehow vexatious seems not only to cast aspersions on our Judiciary but to challenge the independence of the Judiciary to make those kinds of decisions. There is a very significant bar that justices have to adhere to. If restricting access to justice is not the right approach, what is the right approach to reduce the level of judicial reviews, a matter on which we are agreed? In my view it is the best possible transposition of EU environmental directives, full compliance with the Aarhus Convention and involving the greatest possible participation of the public and sectoral interests at the earliest moment in the planning process so that people feel they have adequate buy-in.
It also involves ensuring that, when planning decisions are made, particularly in respect of large offshore wind projects, they are made in a way that protects our marine biodiversity as well as the economic and social well-being of our coastal communities and inshore fishermen and fisherwomen.
I therefore have concerns, especially regarding sections 103 and 104, which deal with judicial reviews and maritime area consents. I believe these provisions seek to restrict access to justice, particularly for environmental non-governmental organisations. If that is the case, that is a mistake. I am also convinced these sections are not compliant with the Aarhus Convention. Likewise, section 128(1) appears to be an attempt to restrict access to justice. This could also be in strong conflict with section 50B(1) of the Planning and Development Act 2000. I am on the same page as the Government in wanting to get stuff out of the courts but I have a very different set of propositions as to how to do that. I would like the Minister to consider that matter.
Before I hand over to my colleague, I will make some general concluding remarks. My strong view and that of our party is we need to ensure the competing demands regarding the use of the maritime area are addressed in a way that preserves and protects marine biodiversity, respects the interests of coastal communities and inshore fishermen and fisherwomen and provides the greatest possible level of public participation in all aspects of marine planning. If we strike the right balance, the desire we all have to see significant progress in the development of large-scale offshore renewable wind energy projects can be achieved. We are all on the same page with regard to that objective. However, if we do not strike that balance correctly, and there are areas of this Bill where that may be the case, not only will there be further losses in environment and biodiversity, but there will also be a real risk of additional legal challenges. We do not want additional legal challenges resulting in much-needed renewable wind energy projects being held up in either the Irish or European courts.
I made exactly the same point back when Deputy Coveney was introducing the strategic housing development legislation. Many of us on the Opposition benches, including the Minister's colleague, Deputy Cowen, who was on the committee at the time, warned that, if we were to go down the strategic housing development route, planning would not be sped up and, in fact, many projects would end up in judicial review. That has proven correct. The Minister is now doing the right thing and ending that process. We are engaging with him on the legislation. I am urging us not to make the same mistake in this legislation if we are at all able. If the Minister takes that approach and works with those of us in the Opposition to improve aspects of the Bill that could be improved, we will be able to pass this Bill. It will involve much work over the coming period but will result in the greatest degree of unanimity possible. It is possible to do this. It is being done in the Netherlands, in Denmark and in Scotland. I know the Minister's officials have paid very close attention to these models of good practice.
Again, I am coming to this not in any sort of adversarial spirit. I wish to work collaboratively to understand this very complex legislation. I appeal to the Minister and his officials to work with Members on the Opposition benches, or indeed on the Minister's own backbenches, who raise any legitimate concerns so that this does not end up the same way as the marine planning framework, which got bogged down in a battle which was never political but which was based on the genuine concerns from the Opposition, and so that we get the best possible marine planning regime, one which is in the interests of all sections of our community.