Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Local Authorities

With apologies to the ushers, it seems we finally have an all-female Dáil.

I believe we do.

We can make all the decisions now.

Absolutely. Well done.

We have a crisis in Galway county with all five municipal districts rejecting their proposed budgets due to the severe lack of funding of Galway County Council. This should come as a surprise to nobody as Galway elected representatives have been highlighting this year after year. In 2020 we had the second-lowest spend per capita of all counties, with only €714 being spent per person in our county, compared with more than €1,000 in Clare, more than €1,200 in Leitrim and almost €1,200 in Longford. In a ten-year period from 2008 to 2018, the funding fell from €160 million to €112 million. This has since been increased, although not in the past year, and it is still €25 million less than it had been.

Galway County Council has consistently had a budget per capita that was not only millions of euro less than the closest comparator but also millions of euro below the average of comparators. We need urgent action from the Government on this and it must immediately engage with Galway County Council and councillors in this regard.

Táimid i ngéarchéim i gContae na Gaillimhe, faoi láthair, insím don Aire Stáit. Tá an cúig cheantar bardais tar éis a mbuiséad a dhiúltú de bharr easpa maoinithe. Ní féidir leis seo iontas a chur ar aon duine. Tá ionadaithe tofa á ardú é seo le blianta. In 2020, bhí an dara caiteachas is lú in aghaidh an duine ag Contae na Gaillimhe i gcomparáid leis na contaetha eile. Is é sin le rá ach nach raibh ach €714 á chaitheamh in aghaidh an duine, cé go raibh os cionn €1,000 á chaitheamh i gContae an Chláir agus €1,200 á chaitheamh i gContae Liatroma agus beagnach €1,200 i gContae an Longfoirt. Tá an chomhairle ag rá go soiléir nach bhfuil a dhóthain airgid aici leis na seirbhísí a dteastaíonn ar fad uaithi a chur ar fáil don phobal. Caithfidh an Rialtas déileáil leis seo agus labhairt leis an gcomhairle contae agus labhairt leis na comhairleoirí contae freisin.

Galway is the second largest county in Ireland. Looking at Ireland's top five counties in terms of size, the funding appropriated to Galway is astonishing. I have raised this question with the Minister a number of times but it still has not been explained to me why when we consider the top five counties in Ireland in terms of size, there are such major funding discrepancies.

Last year Oireachtas Members from Galway were given a presentation on funding at Galway County Council and it is important to put some of the comparisons laid out to us on the record. In 2018, Kerry, Donegal and Tipperary - all smaller than County Galway - received funding of more than €900 per capita, with Mayo receiving more than €1,000 per capita. Galway received €670 per capita. Increases were seen at that time across the board of between €82 and €121 but Galway's increase was €22.

There are also a number of serious discrepancies when it comes to staffing numbers. In 2018, Galway County Council had 757.61 whole-time equivalent staff. Kerry, Mayo and Tipperary - again all smaller than Galway - had well over 1,000 whole-time equivalent staff. This is not news to the Minister, who advised me in reply to a recent parliamentary question that he met a delegation from Galway County Council in April, and at that time he agreed that his Department would work with the delegation to explore the options available in order to put those finances on a more sustainable footing. I hope the Minister of State will be able to tell us what has happened since.

The Minister of State knows the impact of these funding discrepancies affects every person living in County Galway. It means roads cannot be maintained and less money for amenities. It also means local authority housing cannot be maintained, and this affects every town, village and community.

I thank the Deputies for raising the matter and I am sure the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will be very interested in the response as well.

The system of municipal districts as a sub-county level of governance and decision making was introduced as part of the reforms brought about by the Local Government Reform Act 2014. These reforms provided for the dissolution of 80 town councils and the establishment of 95 municipal districts in their place. Within the local authority budget process, municipal districts consider draft budgetary plans before the plenary budget for the wider council, although different arrangements apply in city councils, where there are local area committees rather than municipal districts.

Following consideration, municipal district members may adopt the draft budget with or without amendment. The input from the municipal district members is important to the overall budgetary process and the chief executive of the local authority must have regard to any plan adopted. However, if a municipal district does not adopt a budgetary plan, it does not prevent the continuation of the plenary budget process at county level.

The plenary budget process for local authorities across the country is now under way and I understand Galway County Council will hold its initial meeting on 29 November. The council has 14 days available after that date to adopt a budget for the year ahead and this is among the most important decisions the elected members of local authorities are required to make. The adoption of a sufficient budget that balances local resources with local needs is a key statutory obligation of elected members.

Critical to an effective and self-reliant system of local government is the management of local government finances to support the functions provided. Local authorities have been notified of allocations from various funding Departments and agencies and it now falls to members to consider their overall resources, including how their income from commercial rates, goods and services and the local property tax can be allocated within the authority.

While it is unfortunate that the municipal district members have seemingly not adopted budgetary plans, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has not been advised of that. I advise all members to focus constructively on the forthcoming plenary budget to ensure that a budget is put in place for next year. The elected members have legal responsibility for adopting the annual budget and are democratically accountable for all expenditure by the local authority. They must make informed and necessary choices as part of this process. Failure to adopt a plenary budget and determine an annual rate and valuation would be a clear contravention of a council's statutory functions. The Minister notes that Galway County Council has not applied an increase in local property tax for a number of years, nor has it increased commercial rates since 2009. Had Galway County Council availed of the opportunity to raise local property tax by 15% for 2022, it would have benefited from an additional €2.2 million. While such decisions are the democratic rights of the elected members, they must be prepared to take the necessary decisions on the other side of the equation. Comparable counties along the western seaboard have raised the local property tax rate for next year. Clare, Limerick, Donegal and Sligo have raised the rate by 15%, Mayo by 10% and Kerry by 7.5%. Leitrim and Roscommon also raised the local property tax by 15% for next year. Galway County Council is among the exceptions, yet seeks extra funding from the centre.

As stated, it would not be appropriate to increase the funding for Galway County Council only, particularly if the members are reluctant to use local revenue-raising powers. Such an approach could undermine the very principle of local decision-making and would effectively seek to transfer the responsibility for difficult decisions elsewhere.

The Minister of State's answer is outrageous. She said it would not be appropriate to increase the funding for Galway County Council only, but we have just outlined the fact that spending per capita for Galway County Council is significantly lower than in other counties. It is not something that only Sinn Féin is arguing, but it is something that councillors from all parties are saying very clearly. That is why they have rejected the budgets in the municipal districts. They have been clear that there has been underfunding year after year.

The Minister of State also said that had Galway County Council availed of the opportunity to raise local property tax by 15%, it would have an additional €2.2 million. The point is that if the same revenue budget per capita was available to the council as is available to its closest comparator, there would be an additional budget of €43 million. If the same revenue budget per capita was available to the council as is available to its average comparators, there would be an additional budget of €52 million. That is an enormous amount of money that Galway County Council and the people of Galway county are losing out on.

As my colleague said, something does not add up here. It is clear when one looks at counties by size and population that Galway is not getting its fair share. As I said, it is the second largest county in Ireland. We have reached crisis point in Galway and we need the Government to act. It is not good enough to say the council could have increased local property tax or raised revenue through increased commercial rates. We are looking at the amount of money given across all local authorities and there is a clear discrepancy in the funding available to Galway County Council. It is not good enough to say it can raise money elsewhere. We are looking at the exact figure the council is getting from central Government and there is a problem.

There is a problem in the area of staff, particularly outdoor staff. That has a considerable impact across County Galway. I see it in Ballinasloe when it comes to the maintenance of roads or houses. There is a big issue in that regard. The Minister of State did not mention staff. The council also has an acting chief executive. It is interesting that chief executives are replaced almost immediately in neighbouring counties while Galway is left with an acting chief executive. It is not good enough and we need action.

I will conclude by examining the supports that have been provided to Galway County Council in recent years. Across all schemes and funding sources, the Department provided €51.1 million in 2019 and €82.9 million in 2020 to Galway County Council. The increase in 2020 was due to an increase in capital funding for housing as well as funding in respect of the unprecedented Covid-19 commercial rates waiver, additional expenses and lost income linked to the pandemic. Galway County Council also uniquely received a once-off allocation of €1 million for 2021. This funding was linked to the operation of municipal districts and was subject to a small number of requirements, including that the funding be divided equally among the municipal districts. The Department is currently reviewing correspondence from the council in respect of this funding to determine if each of the conditions have been complied with.

The Department has recently confirmed an allocation towards the additional costs that will arise for local authorities in 2022 as a consequence of the national pay agreements and the unwinding of the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation. The allocation for Galway County Council will be €4.44 million, the objective of which is to reduce the cost of pay and pensions next year. In addition, local property tax allocations to local authorities for 2022 have been recently confirmed in the amount of €524 million, a figure which includes the impact of local variation decisions. The allocation to Galway County Council for local property tax is €14.5 million. This includes €2.7 million of equalisation funding as the 80% of the local property tax retained locally in Galway's case is lower than the baseline or minimum funding level. All local authorities have the opportunity to vary their local property tax rates by plus or minus 15%. Galway County Council has opted not to avail of this opportunity since 2017. Had it availed of the opportunity to raise the tax, the council would have benefited from an additional €2.2 million.

The adoption of a budget is probably the single most important duty that elected members are called on to carry out each year and I will take this opportunity to remind them of their responsibilities.

Water Quality

I thank the Minister of State for dealing with this issue. According to Irish Water, in the four-year period from 2017 to 2020, a total of 8.875 million cubic metres of untreated sewage and storm waters have been discharged into Dublin Bay from overflow tanks located at the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant. That figure does not include other significant discharges from the 410 storm water overflows in the Dublin region, which are not measured but are thought to exceed the discharges in the Ringsend plant. This equates to 3,550 full-size Olympic 50-metre pools over the four-year period and averages out at 74 Olympic pools full of untreated wastewater each month. These discharges of untreated sewer wastewater usually occur during storm periods when the current Dublin wastewater treatment facility reaches maximum capacity and cannot cope with loads being received.

As a representative for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, I am aware, as are all representatives along the Dublin Bay coast, of the beauty of Dublin Bay. We want to protect it. Every time it rains, there is a seawater quality issue. People swim in the sea all year round but it has become a part of the lifestyle of many more people since the pandemic. It is a serious health issue that they do not know whether the water they are going into is clean. They have an indication that if it has been raining, they should not go in for a couple of days, but the lack of transparency is a problem. My constituents want to be able to pick up their phone and check an application to see whether the water is good right now, not whether the water was good two days ago or whether the water will be good two days from now. There should be ongoing testing and live updates.

Councils have made some improvements and one can see the water quality on Killiney beach and so on, but people want to be able to check so they do not pick up serious illnesses, as we know has happened. People are interested in this. Approximately 21,500 people have signed a Dublin Bay petition organised by an excellent expert and advocacy group, SOS Dublin Bay. It is a live issue and features all of the constituencies along Dublin Bay.

There is also a serious concern that Ireland, by failing to deal with this in the appropriate way, is in breach of the 2006 bathing water directive. I would be interested to hear the Minister of State's points on that issue.

I and other Deputies have raised this matter consistently. Some 35 Deputies from the Dublin Bay area have signed a letter calling for year-round sea testing so our constituents have knowledge about whether or not the water is clean. That would provide additional data as to where the difficulties are, and that can be quite nuanced. There was a situation recently where the water on one beach was fine while the water on a neighbouring beach was seriously bad. It was later discovered that was to do with migratory birds or something random like that and was not to do with the water system. The key is having data for people to allow them to decide whether or not to get into the sea in the first instance. We need year-round water testing. We also need the ultraviolet technology in Ringsend to be used on a year-round basis so bathers can be protected.

Its usage has been extended somewhat, but I do not know to what extent. Perhaps the Minister has provided clarity on that in his script for the Minister of State to respond to me.

The Deputy is quite right; I am taking this question on behalf of the Minister, Deputy O'Brien. I thank her for raising the ongoing issues with water quality in Dublin Bay. I point out that primary responsibility for the monitoring, management, protection and improvement of water quality is assigned to local authorities under the Local Government Acts and related legislation.

As the Deputy will be aware, since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels, including investment in wastewater treatment plants and returning wastewater safely to the environment in an efficient and sustainable manner. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is the key statutory body for investigating complaints of pollution and for the enforcement, both directly and through oversight of Irish Water and local authorities, of environmental legislation in Ireland, including compliance relating to licensed urban wastewater discharges.

As part of budget 2022, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage secured funding of more than €1.57 billion to support water services. This includes €1.459 billion, comprising current expenditure of €629 million and capital expenditure of €830 million, in respect of domestic water services provided by Irish Water. The overall investment will deliver significant improvements in public water and wastewater services, support improved water supplies across Ireland, including rural Ireland, and support a range of programmes delivering improved water quality in rivers, lakes and marine areas. It is key to addressing Ireland's shortcomings in water and wastewater infrastructure, including compliance with the urban wastewater treatment directive.

As regards Dublin Bay, the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant was originally designed and built to treat wastewater for a population of 1.64 million people and is now overloaded. In response, Irish Water is currently undertaking a major upgrade of the plant. This upgrade will increase the capacity of the plant to cater for the growing population of the greater Dublin area and will address compliance with EU law. Planning permission was granted for the project in April 2019 and the project is current under way. In addition, officials are currently examining the most suitable options to provide for safe bathing water during the winter months and improve the dissemination of information in respect of bathing water quality, particularly in the Dublin Bay area.

Both the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, have met several local interest groups regarding the Dublin Bay area, including the SOS Dublin Bay group, and are committed to developing a solution that will allow flexibility in respect of the bathing season and the protection of those who swim throughout the year. Ongoing work by the Dublin Bay task group chaired by Dublin City Council is aimed at improving bathing water quality all year round. The work of this group and the welcome commitment from Irish Water to operate its ultraviolet filter at Ringsend for a period outside of the bathing season are already providing improved protections for bathers while also improving our knowledge of the quality of bathing waters outside the defined season.

I thank the Minister of State. Obviously, my question is in respect of the fact that Irish Water is going to operate the ultraviolet filter at Ringsend for a period outside the bathing season. As the Minister of State is aware, the bathing season lasts for three months in summer. My question to the Department is about how long Irish Water will operate the filter. Will that be publicised and constituents informed of it?

As regards the Irish Water upgrade, the Minister of State is absolutely right. I met representatives of the body a very long time ago in respect of this problem and they told me the ongoing works in the Shanganagh catchment drainage area plan programme and the west pier and Ringsend catchment drainage area plan will not be completed until 2023 and 2024, respectively. I believe that completion just relates to analysis and planning, never mind actually getting down to doing the work. Dr. Eimear Cotter, the director of the EPA, has said that it is calling for additional water quality monitoring at beaches where there are a large number of year-round swimmers and for that information to be made available to the public. That statement by Dr. Cotter validates and endorses the position I am taking and that of the 35 other Deputies who have signed up to this body of work.

On 2 November, I received a response from the Department to a parliamentary question I tabled on this issue and the response of the Minister of State mirrors it very closely. However, a section of that response has been left out of her script today, and I query it. It states that departmental officials will examine options with the bathing water expert group at the next meeting of the group, which is in December. The part of the response that I do not understand states that the group will undertake a robust analysis of the positive and negative consequences of each of the options and, in particular, the Minister is aware that the group will wish to ensure existing summer time bathing water designations are not jeopardised in the short term as a consequence of weather-affected winter sampling results, while also providing protection to those bathing in Dublin Bay all the way through the year. I do not even understand that in English, never mind in policy or political terms. I assume it is not some class of threat or a case of being one or the other. I encourage the departmental officials, who I hope are watching these proceedings, to embrace a philosophy of being able to do both.

I thank the Deputy for her ongoing comments on and interest in Dublin Bay. It is interesting that all 35 Deputies across the Dublin area have signed the letter in question and are very concerned. She is right in what she said. Many people now swim all year around. They do not swim only during the summer season, as we call it. Today is a mild day and I am sure there are plenty of people in swimming today in their bathing suits.

As regards the Deputy's remarks, officials are currently examining the most suitable options to provide for safe bathing water during the winter months and improve the dissemination of information in respect of bathing water quality, particularly in the Dublin Bay area. Officials will examine options with the bathing water expert group at its next meeting. The group will undertake a robust analysis of the positive and negative consequences of each of the options. I am not particularly sure what that means. The next meeting of the group is expected to take place in early December, after which the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will give consideration to the most appropriate option for amending the regulations. I have no doubt this issue will come to the floor of the Dáil again.

Wastewater Treatment

Beidh mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama leis an Teachta Colm Burke. Having listened to the previous speaker, the Minister of State is probably going to become an expert in water and water quality. Deputy Burke and I wish to speak about the issues relating to Carrignavar wastewater treatment plant, which is just 10 km north of Cork city. We could probably name a dozen villages in the greater Cork area affected by this issue, but the specific issue at Carrignavar deserves scrutiny, given that its potential for development in the coming years is limited as a result of the difficulties with its wastewater treatment plant. Knockraha, Cloheen and Kerry Pike are just a few villages that are experiencing wastewater treatment issues, not to mention bigger towns such as Midleton, or Ballyvolane on the north side of Cork city, where the issue has been resolved recently.

As I stated, Carrignavar is 10 km from Cork city centre. It is a village of approximately 600 or 700 people, with probably another 1,000 people in its wider hinterland, and it has significant potential for growth in the coming years as it is so close to the city and is on the new BusConnects route. It is well set up for development into the future. The difficulty in respect of Carrignavar, as Deputy Burke will also summarise, is that the wastewater treatment plant has been at capacity and overloaded since I became a councillor in 2014. I refer to various reports by Irish Water through the years. An environmental report published in 2019 states the plant is non-compliant, which is no surprise to us. It has failed every aspect of its effluent monitoring report each year because it is overloaded. The current organic loading is more than double the organic capacity of the plant.

An Bord Pleanála recently decided on the application for a replacement school for Scoil an Athar Tadhg in the village. Unfortunately, one of the conditions on the planning permission for the school is that it cannot increase its student population. The school is indefinitely restricted to a student population of 338 pupils, along with 62 staff. The student intake is restricted. Not only that, the difficulty for the school is that it has a significant population of students with special needs. There are difficulties there. We are trying to encourage the school to grow and take on more students with special educational needs but it is restricted from doing so because of the indefinite plans relating to the wastewater treatment plant. Does Irish Water have plans to upgrade the plant in the short term?

I join my colleague, Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan, in raising this matter. It is so serious that the Inland Fisheries Board objected to planning permission for the school and took the matter all the way to An Bord Pleanála. As a result, there is now a condition that means the school cannot increase its numbers. I understand that the new county development plan will allow for only ten additional houses to be built in the area over the next five years. A large number of people want to live and rear a family in the area but now we have the problem with the school. There are more than 350 students in the school. As my colleague outlined, the school is dealing with students with special needs. It was so important to build a new school because 70% of the buildings in the existing school are prefabs. Despite this, the matter went all the way to An Bord Pleanála because the Inland Fisheries Board was so concerned about the treatment plant not having the capacity to deal with any increase in numbers in the school, let alone an increase in housing.

I thank Deputies Pádraig O'Sullivan and Colm Burke for raising this important issue concerning plans to upgrade the Carrignavar wastewater treatment facility.

Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services, planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels. Irish Water takes a strategic, nationwide approach to asset planning, investment and meeting customer requirements. The prioritisation and progression of individual projects and programmes is a matter for determination by Irish Water.

Irish Water delivers its services in accordance with its statutory water services strategic plan for the period 2015 to 2040, which sets out a high-level strategy over 25 years to ensure the provision of clean, safe drinking water, the effective management of wastewater, environmental protection and support for economic and social development.

The Minister's primary responsibility and focus are to ensure Irish Water has a policy direction, through the water services policy statement, that is properly structured to deliver effective and efficient public water services and to ensure it is funded sufficiently in respect of domestic water services. The programme for Government commits to funding Irish Water's capital investment plan for water infrastructure on a multi-annual basis. The national development plan for the period 2021 to 2030 commits to a capital investment of almost €6 billion in Irish Water, which everyone welcomes. Of the investment, more than €4.5 billion will be voted Exchequer funding in respect of domestic water services.

As part of budget 2022, the Minister secured more than €1.57 billion to support water services. This includes €1.459 billion for domestic services provision by Irish Water. This investment will deliver significant improvements in our public water and wastewater services, support improved water supplies right across urban and rural Ireland and support a range of programmes delivering improved water quality in our rivers, lakes and marine areas.

To get to the nub of the question that both Deputies asked on the facility at Carrignavar, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, understands from Irish Water that the Carrignavar wastewater treatment facility has not been listed as a high priority by Cork County Council in the small towns and villages growth programme. Irish Water will consider the position in the context of future investment planning, having regard, in turn, to Cork County Council's priorities for its land-use planning responsibilities.

Both Deputies mentioned that 70% of the school is prefabricated. They stated there was an objection to the planning permission by the Inland Fisheries Board. Considering what both of them said, Cork County Council will have to revisit the fact that this has not been listed as a high priority.

I should have acknowledged initially that there was a great investment in water infrastructure right across the country as part of the last budget. However, the Minister of State said Cork County Council and Irish Water have not prioritised the matter. I have seen the council's wastewater treatment plant priority list. Carrignavar comes somewhere in the middle. Ultimately, however, it is the call of Irish Water, which said there is no funding for the project. This is unfortunate. The Minister of State is saying a strategic, nationwide approach is taken to these matters but the problem in Carrignavar is symptomatic of a wider problem. It is one village but we could name 20 or 30 across Cork county. There are probably hundreds of villages across the country whose development is on permanent pause. It is unfair on people in Carrignavar, the school-going community and the principal, who will try to get more staff and attract more pupils to the benefit of his school. I hope that on foot of this morning's question, Irish Water will revisit the issue and carry out whatever assessment is appropriate to improve the chances of Carrignavar getting what it needs. As Deputy Burke and I both said, to restrict a village ten minutes from the city centre to ten units over the next six years is somewhat incredible.

There is a large number of towns and villages across Cork county but I understand that only six have been prioritised in total. That is a very small number for the county overall. Maybe it is time that the Department started considering public–private partnerships in respect of the development of necessary infrastructure because we cannot afford to wait. The populations of Cork county and city are growing dramatically. Nine of the world's top ten pharmaceutical companies are based in Cork. The employment number is increasing the whole time. Therefore, the number of people who reside in the area is increasing.

Once again, I thank the Deputies for raising the matter of the Carrignavar wastewater treatment facility, County Cork. Irish Water, the public water utility, has developed a long-term investment perspective to address strategically the many deficiencies in the public wastewater system. It is optimising investment decisions to ensure it utilises scarce capital by making investments that deliver the best possible service improvements for communities. Irish Water will have to consider its investment plans in line with the significant funding being made available to it now and in the years ahead over multiple investment cycles. Maybe it would be a good idea to raise again with Irish Water the fact that sufficient ring-fenced funding has been provided under the national development plan for the next five years. There was a matter in my constituency that I have since raised because of the extra funding that has been provided.

The Minister is ensuring that Irish Water is on a sustainable funding path and has the significant sustained investment required to ensure the continued operation, upgrade and repair of the county's water and wastewater infrastructure to support housing delivery and economic growth in the years to come, including in areas such as Carrignavar. I have no doubt but that this matter will be raised on the floor of the House again and that we will hear more about Carrignavar and the expansion of the school.

Planning Issues

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, and thank him for taking the time to be with us. I appreciate that his colleague, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, is abroad at COP26 but I wanted to take the opportunity to raise this matter. My colleagues, Deputy Harkin, Deputy Kenny, and the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, and I all agree that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, seems to be on the verge of granting prospecting licences for gold-mining in north County Leitrim. As the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, will be aware, in 2019 we declared a climate and biodiversity emergency in Ireland. In recent weeks we issued our carbon budgets. The Minister of State's party leader is at COP26 this week to advance Ireland's co-operation on the global climate action strategy that will be required to stop prohibitive temperature rises here in Ireland.

Significantly, County Leitrim, in the north west of the country, is the only county where planning permission cannot be got at the moment because of soil quality.

Many efforts are under way to try to devise a sustainable solution that would allow rural farming families and their children to secure planning permission in the area.

The Minister of State will appreciate that it beggars belief that any party in Leinster House, much less the Green Party and its leader, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, would give prospecting licences to gold-mining companies. The company concerned, Flintridge Resources Limited, is connected to another company called Omagh Minerals Limited, which had a licence in this area previously. That company breached the guidelines it was to follow regarding informing landowners of prospecting and liaising with them in that regard. That was not done.

In addition, as I am sure the Minister of State is well aware, gold mining is the most disruptive form of mining. It can lead to contamination of the water table and it has led to cyanide, zinc and other chemicals entering the water table. In a parallel to what is proposed in north county Leitrim, our neighbours in county Tyrone have experienced a terrible situation with a company called Dalradian Resources. It was the subject of a BBC "Spotlight" programme that showed how the community there has been destroyed by the proposal to carry out mining. The key point is that Flintridge Resources Limited has the same executives as Omagh Minerals Limited. That company did not contact any landowners in the area in the past.

The people of north Leitrim have a vision for their county in line with the global vision for a circular economy. It is a vision of sustainability, one that nurtures and supports the rural economy with sustainable farming methods and secures a future for their families in the local area. It is not consistent with our actions, in advance of total agreement, debate and implementation of a directive on the circular economy from Europe, for us to proceed in this way with what is the most disruptive form of mining, namely, gold mining.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. This issue was the subject of discussion last week during a Topical Issue debate and I welcome the opportunity to debate it again. The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications published a notice of intention to grant two mineral prospecting licences in north Leitrim in local newspapers on 7 October 2021. Submissions on these applications were invited until 7 November, which was last Sunday, and no final decision has yet been taken on whether to grant the two prospecting licences. All valid submissions will be considered before a final decision is made.

Mineral exploration, prospecting and mining are often confused with each other. Mineral exploration is not mining. They are two very different activities, given their potential environmental impacts and scale. Different regulatory rules apply to each undertaking. A prospecting licence relates to the activity of exploring for minerals only and it does not give the licence holder permission to mine. Most prospecting activities are temporary and involve minimal disturbance. All proposed exploration activities are the subject of environmental screening by the Department. This ensures that they will not give rise to any significant adverse effects on the environment. Furthermore, no intrusive prospecting activities, such as drilling or trenching, can be undertaken without the express consent of the landowner or tenant. It is also worth noting that few prospecting licences ever lead to mining.

I stress again that a prospecting licence does confer the licensee with any rights which would allow it to undertake mining. Mining requires three additional and separate consents. Planning permission must first be obtained from the local authority. This involves a full environmental impact assessment, EIA, and public consultation. The activity of mining then also requires an integrated pollution control, IPC, licence from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and that process also involves a full environmental impact assessment and public consultation. In addition, a mining lease or licence is also required, and this is sought from the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. A mining lease or licence, if granted, is not granted until after planning permission and an IPC licence are in place.

The Department is finalising a draft policy statement on mineral exploration and mining and submissions received as part of a public consultation that concluded on 15 October are being considered. The Government will consider the draft policy statement early next year. It highlights the role of minerals in our everyday lives and the critical role they will play in our transition to net-zero emissions and carbon neutrality by 2050. The draft policy recognises that we need to reuse and recycle more minerals and metals, but the document also accepts that this alone will not supply the quantity of minerals required to decarbonise our energy system through solar power, renewable wind energy and batteries. Relying on imported minerals risks these activities being developed in parts of the world where less stringent environmental and human rights standards apply. It also risks our ability to secure the supply of minerals needed to make the green and digital transitions.

A key priority in the draft policy statement is to build public understanding of, and trust in, the mineral exploration and mining sector. During the public consultation on the draft policy statement, the acceptance by communities of exploration and mining operations and the provision of information that is easily understood emerged as key issues. These issues will be taken forward by the Department with the help of an advisory group on mineral exploration and mining which will be established shortly and will draw on as broad a range of views as possible.

Regarding the specific prospecting licence applications advertised recently in north Leitrim, a final decision will be made following consideration of the submissions received.

I thank the Minister of State for that reply. I appreciate that the decision has not yet been made. That is why we are here. The people of north Leitrim are not in any way stupid and they fully understand the difference between prospecting and mining. However, we are getting in early this time. We want to ensure that this process does not proceed and that companies will not be misled into feeling they will be able to undertake mining in the area.

Gold has nothing to do with the just transition. There is no shortage of gold in the world. I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, casually in the corridors last week about this. I am sure he will not mind me sharing the information here. During our conversation, he asked me if I had a phone. I said I did, and the Minister pointed out that there was gold in my phone. I am aware of that too. There is no shortage of gold in the world, although there is a shortage of energy and that does not stop us, collectively, trying to move to use renewable energy. We are importing peat, yet we have closed our bogs. If we have a debate on gold being needed because there is gold in our phones, I will win. Someone may say that gold is a necessary part of a just transition to a more sustainable economy but it is not.

The key point here is that another manifestation of Flintridge Resources Limited, that is Omagh Minerals Limited, had licences previously. It did not follow the guidelines and did not consult people in the area. The main submission among the 4,000 submissions I have been told were made is one from the community group, Treasure Leitrim. Its submission contains statements from 12 of the main landowners in the area stating they were never consulted. Omagh Minerals Limited, the sister company of Flintridge Resources Limited, has stated it prospected in the area and did all the necessary things but there was no liaison with the landowners.

We do not need this activity. We must listen to the will of the people of the area. Dare I say it, if this was happening in Ranelagh or Irishtown, I am sure the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, would not be interested in it going ahead. Equally, if this was occurring in Galway, I am sure the Leas-Cheann Comhairle would not be supporting it, nor indeed would any of us support it. It is not a case of NIMBYism. If this was something we genuinely needed, I could understand it to an extent. As I said, the people of north Leitrim have a vision for their area and it is far removed from the cold profitability of a Canadian company.

We should be aware that there are 432 active prospecting licences which cover about 21% of the country's land area. It means that 432 teams are actively prospecting, in many cases for gold, in different places all over the country. Some of those sites are within the Deputy's constituency in Sligo. It is this particular instance in Leitrim that has drawn considerable attention, not just from the Deputy but also from his constituency colleagues, Deputies Harkin and Martin Kenny.

That may perhaps be because Leitrim, especially north Leitrim, is a place that is particularly environmentally sensitive. Local activist groups there have successfully managed to block fracking in the past and helped to change the national policy on that activity.

There are also concerns about forestry, with evergreen trees putting people's homes in the shade, wind farm development and so on. There has therefore been a lot of interest in what will happen. That may be the reason Leitrim is the place where there has been a sudden interest in and a large movement concerned with gold prospecting.

The process of getting a gold prospecting consent is similar to the planning permission process, to which Deputy MacSharry referred. Anybody can apply for planning permission to build anything anywhere. It is just an application. Someone fills in the form and submits it with the fee. That is what has happened in this case. Any company can apply to prospect anywhere if it wants to do so. It pays, I think, a €190 fee and applies. That does not mean it will get a consent. We should bear in mind as well that there are two mines in the whole of Ireland that are active, namely, the Tara lead and zinc mines and the gypsum mines in Monaghan. Of the 242 active teams and many thousands of groups that have obtained consents and drilled hundreds of thousands of boreholes, only two mines ever came out of any of that activity. The chances of anything being mined are therefore extremely remote.

I do, however, take the Deputy's concerns on board and I will relay them to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. A decision has not yet been made.