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.