Maritime Area Planning Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)

The Bill forms part of a considerable overhaul of the governance and regulation of the maritime area. I welcome this focus on the sea and how we can better manage this incredible resource in a sustainable way for the benefit of coastal and island communities.

Clearer structures and more cohesive governance are to be welcomed, but I want to emphasise the need for stronger assurances around public involvement, justice, and sustainability.

The Maritime Area Planning Bill will bring in an entirely new legislative framework for development consent and management of Ireland's offshore marine area. It will have considerable impact on how offshore developments are planned into the future. The significance of the legislation for all stakeholders cannot be underestimated. We have very limited opportunities for public involvement in our decision-making. While the Bill has sections on public participation, it is only in very specific and limited ways. Public involvement should be something the State fosters and encourages as part of a functioning republic. The Aarhus Convention formally outlines everyone's rights to participate in environmental decision-making, and these rights are further articulated in the European Parliament and Council directives.

Unfortunately, where marine issues are concerned, the Government's record on public engagement falls well short. Back in April, I and other Opposition Deputies objected to the pushing through of the national marine planning framework without proper scrutiny by fishing communities, other maritime sectors and coastal and island communities. This situation was exemplified by the mess-up in the 2019 fishing directive, which excluded trawling by vessels over 18 m in waters inside the six-nautical mile zone. Last year the High Court overturned the ban due to problems with the consultation process. The law banning trawling by large boats in coastal waters was designed to ensure sustainable fishing practices and to protect the livelihoods of small-scale and island fishing communities who rely on inshore fishing. Although the Minister has appealed the decision, and that is welcome, it is taking time and there is still considerable confusion and fear it will be overturned again. While this example concerns inshore issues, it demonstrates the very obvious problems with our public consultation process.

Too often, an online submission and a public meeting is considered sufficient by Departments, which can too easily override the views and experiences of locals. The Bill makes extensive reference to public participation, but this comes with caveats and a poor track record. This principle will need to be strengthened in the Bill to ensure coastal and island communities have a strong voice in determining what happens to them.

Second, the Bill must include explicit references to balanced approaches based on natural justice in the running of the new agency, the maritime area regulatory authority. Maritime area planning facilitates the type of sustainable investment we need in infrastructure such as offshore renewable energy production. However, this cannot be done at the cost of local communities. Fishers, marine tourism and other stakeholders can all be negatively impacted by the developments this Bill will enable. For example, inshore fishers on the east coast are already experiencing disruption caused by surveys for potential offshore wind farms. Even at the survey and site investigation stage, they are being limited in the areas they can fish, without sufficient compensation - it does not even come close - and engagement. That is just at the site investigation stage. Imagine what the impact will be when we get to the construction stage.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is working on a liaison process, but this belated initiative should have been in place before. Fishers are eager to engage and seek solutions but are rightly sceptical of new systems that only seem to have their interests as an afterthought. There is significant detail in the Bill on the board of the maritime area regulatory authority. While this is only correct, it is showing that the same level of attention has not been included to protect the interests of coastal and island communities. I urge the Minister to add new sections enshrining processes based on natural justice and valuing existing marine sectors.

Third, the Bill makes reference to sustainable maritime usages and sustainable development. However, at the same time we know that the national marine planning framework allows for exploration and production of petroleum. In a climate crisis, when we need to be keeping fossil fuels in the ground, the Government's policy is planning for oil drilling. We have little opportunity to change the national marine planning framework, which was rushed through a few months ago, but the Minister has an opportunity to ban this type of activity through the Bill. It is essential the maritime area regulatory authority's commitment to sustainability is real and impactful rather than being in name only. The Bill has to reflect our climate obligations and the immediacy of climate action. Any energy projects need to be entirely renewable and should be State-led rather than permitting corporations to make massive profits in exchange for a handful of local jobs. The Government should be spearheading public bodies to develop renewable energy projects that will guarantee our energy sovereignty and provide decent jobs for coastal communities.

This Bill forms part of major changes concerning maritime governance and planning. It is interconnected with the national marine planning framework, which outlines the Government’s objectives and marine planning policies, the Maritime Jurisdiction Bill 2021, which establishes boundaries and zones in the territorial sea, and the policy statement on the framework for Ireland's offshore electricity transmission system. The Minister needs to work with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to develop a broad public information campaign to show how this patchwork of laws and regulations will work and how communities will be affected and can take action, if required.

As a Deputy representing a coastal constituency, I always welcome a focus on the sea and its considerable potential. However, this needs to be done in a fair, transparent and sustainable way for the benefit of coastal and island communities. This Bill has a way to go to achieve this.

This Bill, in principle, is welcome as an important step to provide a legislative basis for marine-based activities and development. However, it needs to be done sustainably in tandem with our international climate action and biodiversity obligations.

Looking out over the sea from my constituency in County Wicklow, you can see the changes on the horizon. From small developments to large-scale offshore renewable energy proposals, our relationship with the sea is changing, and rapidly, as we enter a more intense phase of combating climate change. Managing this development requires a generational shift from our historic approach to planning and development. I listened earlier on as some of our colleagues talked about how, to date, we in Ireland have been what is called sea blind and we have not focused our attention enough as our attention and focus tends to be on the land. I must respectfully disagree. I too am from very close to Trinity Wharf. I grew up a minute's walk away from it. My family, including my brother, dad and grandad, and I worked on the boats. I know I can speak for every person who lives in a coastal community or works in a fishing community when I say that the sea and fishing is intrinsic to who we are. Culturally, we are very connected with our sea and maritime areas. That goes for every community, whether it is Wexford town, Arklow, Wicklow or the west coast. What we have not done to date is protect it properly. That is where our focus has not been. We have not focused on ensuring that we manage it sustainably and look after it for future generations. That is where this Bill should be coming in.

Ireland has the largest maritime area in the whole of the EU. That is of huge benefit to us, but it is also a huge responsibility. How we manage our marine areas will be key to the success of our response to climate change and the biodiversity crisis. It will also be the key to the success of development. We know we have to meet our climate obligations. A large part of that will be wind farms and offshore developments, but we do need to get the balance right. In my speech today, I will talk primarily about biodiversity and the environment, because that is where the focus should have been when we were developing this Bill. It should have been the priority and the development should happen afterwards.

Under the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030, member states should collectively legally protect at least 30% of EU land and marine areas, with at least 10% of such land and marine areas being subject to particularly strict protection. Yet, at present only 2.4% of Irish waters are designated as such. It is the second lowest in the EU, despite Ireland agreeing to designate 10% by 2020 and 30% by 2030 under the EU biodiversity strategy. The Minister will know that I have repeatedly called this out because it is something that I am particularly interested in.

We talk about the size of our maritime area and how 90% of Ireland is under water. I think probably all of the speeches today have referenced that. I know that because I spent weeks and months surveying those sites, whether on the Marine Institute survey boats or on fishing boats. I have been out and I know how vast and fantastic it is and what an amazing resource it is. I also understand why we need to protect it.

To address the gap in protecting our biodiversity, since becoming a legislator, I have sought to protect our basking shark populations through a Private Member's Bill. I am thankful I received good support from the Minister on that. While it is an important step, it is only a small step. That is the reality. It would be fantastic to protect the species but there are many species out there that need that level of protection. That includes our shark species. What we need to be doing, in conjunction with protecting particular species, is protecting the areas where they are. We are looking at areas and nursery spots like Tralee Bay and Dingle Bay with a view to ensuring those areas are protected and those vulnerable species are safe there.

That really needs to be where we are going. When talking about marine protected areas, MPAs, it is key that they be ecologically coherent. There is no point in just selecting a spot offshore and saying it is now protected; it needs to be ecologically important.

Owing to the urgency of addressing our biodiversity crisis and the warming of our seas, establishing the MPAs must be, and should have been, the first port of call. The timing of this Bill seems off. The introduction of this Bill to the Dáil does not resolve the current disparity between the designation of MPAs and the licensing of offshore renewables. It is really cart-before-the-horse territory.

The Government has prioritised the advancement of development- and consent-focused legislation. Meanwhile, it has left legislation on MPAs paddy-last. They are to be dealt with in another Bill, the heads of which have not been drafted. Pre-legislative scrutiny has not been scheduled, and we have no timeframe for the publication, passage and enactment of the legislation. These must all occur before we can put into place the designation process for MPAs.

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, supported by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, has determined that all the essential protections will follow after the decisions and the consents granted in the marine environment context. This clear hierarchy of priorities of Departments and business interests really does not bode well for our marine biodiversity.

It is important that the Government ensures adequate time is afforded to the Oireachtas so it can really get to grips with this complex and lengthy legislation, which amounts to more than 200 pages. It is a very complex piece of work. The effects need to be considered very carefully, along with whether the changes to the planning Act, together with the relevant provisions in this Bill, ensure that the additional requirements under the EU's marine legislation have been sufficiently addressed. This is particularly important given the legacy of issues concerning the process associated with the starting blocks and outputs and outcomes of this legislation. I hope to work with the Minister to close any gaps in this regard.

I have further concerns in respect of gaps in provision for public participation in respect of the key elements of this Bill. For example, on the fundamental marine policy statement, there is no provision for public participation. Extraordinary discretion is given to the Minister to develop on his own without any stakeholder input. The approach proposed regarding public participation statements, as in sections 18 and 22, could be clarified and made more accessible. We need to ensure the standard of access to information for consultations befits the technological age in which we live. In this regard, I refer also to the issues experienced by some in accessing technology. The burden needs to be fairly balanced between authorities and the public in the processes in question.

The failure to provide for public consultation regarding maritime area consents, the granting of consents, changes to consents, and interim maritime area consents, particularly regarding rehabilitation and security requirements, is a serious concern given the significance of a maritime area consent and the benefits derived from the input of prescribed bodies and the public and their scrutiny of this process. There are limitations in the specification of prescribed bodies for applications to the development consent board.

Earlier, the Minister for Housing, Heritage and Local Government stated this Bill reflected the majority of the recommendations made on foot of pre-legislative scrutiny by the committee. Unfortunately, some gaps have been raised. One recommendation that has not been reflected in the Bill is, "The completion of designation, and specification of regulation and management of Marine Protected Areas based on ecosystem requirements, required under Article 13(4) of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive as the basis for any spatial plan and consents, be provided for in the proposed bill as a precondition to the making of any plan or the granting of any consent under the legislation". Alternatively, it was suggested that "the Department prioritise the introduction of separate and complementary legislation to complete the designation, regulation and management of Marine Protected Areas and subsequently that Marine Protected Areas are included in the National Marine Planning Framework and Marine Spatial Plan." It is clear the environmental NGOs and people raising concerns about the MPAs understand the necessity of wind farms and meeting our climate targets. What they wanted was to get the balance right. That has not happened.

The Government has confirmed that we will have to wait for yet another while after the recent public consultation on the MPAs as the legislation on the identification, designation and management of MPAs is expected to be developed later in 2021 and into 2022. One can see the speed of the work on this Bill by comparison with the speed of the MPA work and that there is a risk that sites of ecological importance will not be protected.

What the Government could commit to in the meantime, until all the legislation is lined up and enforceable, is the implementation of interim measures to protect areas of the marine environment given the disparity between the introduction of the proposed legislation and the absence of legislation regulating MPAs. I have spoken to the Minister about this already. The scientific evidence exists. Incredible work has been done over the years by universities, the Marine Institute and many environmental NGOs. People know where the important sites and species are to a great degree. The protections could be put in place using their data, information and expertise. It is important that this happen.

Delays by current and past Governments in legislating effectively for marine health and our urgent need to develop clean energy have resulted in a legislative quagmire. Who is going to come first? Will it be marine habitats or wind farm developers? We are now in a position in which we must do our best to align both MPA targets and the renewable energy target of 70% by 2030 and have them work in tandem. Taking into consideration the recommendation that marine habitat concerns be considered in applications for maritime area consents and licensing, we can make this legislation work both for the environment and for the economy. In doing so, we can facilitate the sustainable development of offshore wind energy to meet our renewables goals.

It is clear, however, that there is a need for certainty in the sector, including the developers and those building the wind farms. We expect significant investments to be made. The lack of certainty for the investors is also an impediment. It is important that we ensure that any bodies established be resourced fully and properly and that they can actually perform their functions, and do so quickly. At each stage of the planning process, there should be officials with the relevant expertise in marine science, ecology and marine planning so that the needs of marine habitats will be represented during the process. The public and civil society will need to know the point at which they can participate. There were concerns over the participatory aspect. At what stage, and to what extent, can communities have a say during the planning process?

It is important that there be clarity in the Bill regarding how prioritisation for phase-1 projects will be given effect so they can progress with some certainty. Interim measures have been proposed in that regard but they need to work with the interim measures proposed in respect of the biodiversity aspects.

In summary, the Bill does little to help to advance the protection of the marine environment. This is a missed opportunity. The explanatory memorandum states a "Designated Maritime Area Plan or DMAP will be a management plan for a specific area and can be used to develop multi-activity area plans; to promote use of specific activities; and/or for the purposes of the sustainable use and protection of particular marine environments." The question, however, is whether it will be too late for protection if there is no mechanism in place to design and designate MPAs or provide the interim protections that are required before permission is granted for the developments in question.

Debate adjourned.