I thank the Cathaoirleach for this opportunity to speak to the House today on peat harvesting.
As someone from a large rural constituency, I absolutely understand the critical importance of the horticultural industry and its value to the wider economy. I have and will continue to work side by side with the industry to facilitate peat extraction. I have done this as a back bench Deputy and now as Minister of State.
However, I want to put firmly on the record that most of the required decisions are beyond my powers and remit as Minister of State. I also want to be crystal clear; the Government has not placed a prohibition on peat harvesting. At the outset, it is important that I clarify exactly what my role, and that of my Department, is in relation to peat harvesting. As Minister of State with responsibility for local government and planning, I do not set policy for peat harvesting. My specific role, as Minister of State, is to provide the right policy and legislative framework for Ireland's planning system to function properly and in the interests of the wider good. This system includes the independent assessment of planning applications by planning authorities or An Bord Pleanála in respect of peat harvesting. I am prohibited by statute from getting involved in any individual cases. In my broader Department, my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage, has responsibility for peatlands in special areas of conservation, SACs, Deputy Noonan. He has published a report on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticulture industry and has established a working group on foot of its recommendations to examine issues identified in the review. I will provide a brief update on this work, which is not yet complete, later.
In terms of the planning system, all development, unless specifically exempted under the Planning and Development Act 2000 or its associated regulations, requires planning permission. Exempted developments, or developments that do not require planning permission, as regards peat extraction are set out in the Planning and Development Regulations 2001. Peat extraction involving a new or extended area of 30 ha or more requires an environmental impact assessment, EIA, and therefore requires planning permission. Peat extraction below that threshold may require an EIA if it is considered that it would be likely to have significant effects on the environment. Any peat extraction that would be likely to have significant effects on a European site, that is, an SAC, a special protected area, SPA, or a candidate area designated under the habitats directive, requires an appropriate assessment and, therefore, planning permission. However, Senators should be aware that permission can be sought by those in peat extraction and the system does continues to operate. For example, in 2018 Galway County Council granted permission for two bogs to be used for domestic peat fuel supply, namely, Kilcolumb and Annaghmore East bogs. It is important to note that I, as Minister of State with responsibility for the planning system, have no responsibility for policy on peat extraction. The planning system, by its nature, is a policy-neutral process. The EIA directive is a European Union law which requires that development consents for certain public-private projects likely to have significant environmental effects should be granted only after an assessment of those effects has been carried out by a competent authority. The first iteration of the EIA directive was adopted in 1985.
The planning system includes the availability of the substitute consent process set out in Part X of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, under which regularisation of any unauthorised development requiring retrospective environmental impact assessment or appropriate assessment under the planning side of the dual consent regime may be sought in exceptional circumstances. I want to be clear on one very important and critical point. I have no issue with supporting the exemption of peat extraction from the planning process. However, clear policy is needed to provide an alternative regime to be put forward to ensure that EU environmental standards are met.
Separate to this, I am pleased to inform the Seanad that my Department is working on bringing forward new streamlining amendments to the substitute consent regime in the planning Act by way of the general scheme of the planning and development (amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2021. The purpose of the amendments is to streamline substitute consent procedures by providing for a single-stage substitute consent application process for the planning system; to allow for simultaneous planning applications for any future development to An Bord Pleanála for all types of development, alongside an application for substitute consent, which is currently only available to certain types of quarry development; and other related amendments.
It is important to note that the proposals to streamline the substitute consent process in the planning system will, unfortunately, not have an immediate impact on the peat horticulture question in the short to medium term or on the work of the working group on horticultural peat use established by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. This will not be a silver bullet for those involved in the industry. Even if it is streamlined and peat extraction substitute consents are obtained following proposed amendments to the planning system, there would still be the further obligation to obtain an integrated pollution control, IPC, licence from the EPA for large scale peat extraction of 50 ha or more, that being the other half of the dual regime of planning and EPA licensing. All the time that it would take for a peat producer to apply for an IPC licence and for the EPA to assess the application would also need to be taken into account as part of the process to seek permissions and licensing for peat extraction.
As Senators may be aware, as part of the broader work of my Department in relation to peat harvesting my colleague the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform, Malcolm Noonan published a special report on a review of the use of peat moss in the horticulture industry on 7 September 2020. The report concluded that there are significant positives and negatives arising from ending the use of peat moss in the horticulture industry. There are complexities in terms of the environmental benefits of ending horticultural peat extraction set against the economic consequences for the industry, food security, the lack of an effective alternative to peat and the economic and cultural impact on the local communities that would be affected. On foot of a recommendation of the review, the Minister of State has established a working group of key stakeholders to examine key issues identified during the review. The working group was established by the Minister of State under the chairmanship of Dr. Munoo Prasad and is composed of industry groups, environmental organisations and relevant Departments, including representatives of the heritage division from my Department, as well as from the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Environment, Climate and Communications. A draft interim report has been prepared and sent to the Minister of State. The final report of the group was due to be presented to the Minister by the end of September 2021. The chair has in recent days requested a brief extension to 20 October, to allow the final report to be finalised. The Minister has agreed to this request.
I note the importance of the horticulture industry to our rural and regional economies. It was worth €477 million farm gate value in 2019. This is the fourth highest sector in terms of gross agricultural commodity output value. It has a higher output value than sheep or cereals and is an important part of our agriculture industry. I also note the carbon footprint being incurred to date due to the current situation whereby we are importing peat to keep our industries afloat. I understand that importation routes can mean up to 200 truckloads travelling 100 km carrying peat from Latvian bogs to Riga, then being shipped to Drogheda and finally driven to the midlands, where it can then be dropped off mere metres away from a bog that could have provided the same quantity without the associated carbon footprint. These facts must be considered by the Government and must form part of the debate on this issue. On this basis, I look forward to the publication of the work of the independent working group on horticultural peat and the recommendations that will seek to address the current crisis in the horticulture industry. I remind Senators of my earlier comments outlining that, in principle, I have no issue with exempting peat extraction from the planning process. I am playing my part to facilitate vulnerable sectors of our economy but it is also up to other Ministers to play their part and offer an alternative regime to planning. I look forward to assisting in whatever way I can to resolve this significant problem, including considering any proposals for new legislation from the working group, together with colleagues from other relevant Departments. That legislation would need to be in compliance with both Irish and EU legislation.
I thank Senators for their time and for allowing me to make this presentation on a very important matter. I took a long time to discuss it with the representatives of the horticulture sector in front of the Dáil this afternoon and to hear their valid concerns. I am working closely with them, as I have done from the very first day I was elected to the Thirty-second Dáil. I have had a series of meetings with them and I will continue to support them in whatever way the powers of my office allow me to.