I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Deputy James Browne, back after his address to the United Nations. He is most welcome.
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I raise the issue of the strike taking place today by the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association, MLSA. It is their second week of industrial action. These workers are essential to the health service. Unfortunately, last week, as a result of just one day of strike action, 14,000 outpatient appointments were cancelled. Now these workers have had to embark on a second week of industrial action.
To be frank, I am at a complete loss as to how the Government has let this situation arise. The Minister of State knows full well that this dispute goes back 20 years. The HSE concedes that the dispute is just and that the expert report of 2001 made it clear there should be pay parity for these workers. There is a 20% drop-off rate in this area and 20% of positions for these specialist essential workers are unfilled. They cannot fill the vacancies.
A ballot for strike action was carried out last November, with 98% support. It is unbelievable that, knowing all of this, nothing worthwhile has been done by the Government. Instead of dealing with this dispute and the real issues involved, that is, justice for pay, career progression and the worrying shortfall in these expert workers because so many of them are leaving the industry or simply will not join it, the Government has done nothing. The Minister for Health has seen this coming down the tracks for months and instead of doing something about it, we are now into a second week of industrial disputes, with a further three days next week pending.
I have met these workers and their representatives and it is very clear that they did not want to go on strike. They made that absolutely clear to me. This is the last thing they wanted to do. They spent two and a half years in fruitless negotiations with this Government. Unfortunately, it is characteristic of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governments that they do not understand industrial relations. How can it make sense to allow this dispute to continue, rather than resolve it? Terry Casey, the general secretary of the MLSA said, "Since last week’s action neither the HSE nor the Department of Health have come to us with a meaningful proposal, or invitation to talks, that could address the issues involved".
That is an absolutely shocking statement. The Minister of State can see the chaos that has ensued. I had a number of calls this morning from people in Limerick asking me why their outpatient appointments have been cancelled. Let me be clear: they are not criticising the workers on strike - the outpatients get it. They are criticising the Government for allowing this to happen, for not dealing with the issues, for not listening to the workers and for not having the conversation that, clearly, still has not happened between the Department of Health and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I want to be very clear about where the blockage is. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is blocking moves to ensure pay parity for these workers. It is very clear that these disputes will cost us, through the HSE, an absolute fortune. It makes no financial sense and, in terms of justice for the workers, it makes no sense either. The Government has been derelict in its duty - those are the only words I can use - in allowing this dispute to drag on for more than 20 years. The workers have been waiting for pay parity and nothing has happened for them. There have been two and a half years of completely fruitless talks. The Minister of State has an opportunity to say something meaningful in his response. If he does that, the dispute could be called off tomorrow and we could get the workers back to work, which is where they want to be.
My colleagues were at the picket line in Limerick this morning and they spoke at first hand to the workers there. They are exasperated with the Government for not listening and not responding. The Minister of State has an opportunity now to please say something worthwhile and give us a clear indication that meaningful talks that will lead to a resolution of the dispute are available and should happen straight away.
I acknowledge and pay tribute to the dedication, professionalism, and commitment of all medical scientists throughout the country. Medical scientists perform a valued and vital role within our health service. Their drive and determination have been key components in our management of the Covid-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, they were at the front line of the response providing a crucial role in testing. This role has not gone unnoticed.
The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is acutely aware of the ongoing and long-standing claim for pay parity between medical scientists and clinical biochemists. Health management has been engaging with the Medical Laboratory Scientist Association, MLSA, on these issues at the Workplace Relations Commission, under the terms of the current public service agreement, Building Momentum. As the MLSA is part of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, it is bound by the terms of the agreement for the remainder of its lifetime. Building Momentum includes the process of sectoral bargaining to deal with all outstanding claims across the public sector. The bargaining fund equates to 1% of basic pensionable pay for each bargaining unit set up under the agreement. Under Building Momentum, sectoral bargaining is the sole mechanism through which the MLSA can advance its claim. The MLSA requested and was facilitated with its own bargaining unit in the sectoral bargaining process in order to progress its claim for pay parity. As such, the MLSA has at its disposal a fund equivalent to 1% of basic pay of all medical scientists.
While this fund is insufficient to fully resolve its long-standing claims, it can partially resolve the claim and the remainder could be addressed in a future public service agreement, as per the terms of Building Momentum. As previously stated, the MLSA and health management, in consultation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, have been engaged in talks in recent months with the aim of finding a way to advance the claim through the sectoral bargaining process. Several options for moving medical scientists to the biochemist scale, within the fund available, were explored during these talks. These included options that would partially resolve the claim within this agreement but, to date, none has been accepted. Any options that were put on the table were taken seriously and respectfully by both sides, and were discussed, costed, and verified by the HSE, the Department of Health and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in good faith.
The Public Service Agreement Group, PSAG, comprising union and Civil Service representatives, with an independent chair, met on 11 May to consider the MLSA's claim and proposed strike action. It recommended that the matter be immediately referred to the WRC and that industrial peace be maintained in the meantime. Health management met with the MLSA under the auspices of the WRC on 17 May, but, unfortunately, no resolution was reached. While the MLSA agreed to engage at the WRC, it did not lift its industrial action, which is a breach of Building Momentum. The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, is very disappointed that the strike action has proceeded despite it being precluded under the agreement. The Minister recognises the significant disruption caused by the strike and the impact it is having on the health service. Health management is committed to continuing engagement with the MLSA, while acknowledging that all parties must adhere to the provisions allowed for under Building Momentum and to resolve any disputes within the framework of the current agreement.
I thank the Minister of State for his response, although I have to say it is just a standard textbook response which means nothing to the workers involved in this dispute. It is quite outrageous for the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to say he is disappointed that the strike action has proceeded. With all due respect the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is completely missing the point. These workers have had 20 years of trying to get pay justice and they have been ignored at every turn. They were clear last week when they said they did not want to undertake this action and that all they wanted were meaningful negotiations. I quoted Terry Casey to the Minister of State and he said they have not had any meaningful negotiations and yet we have this statement that the Minister for Health is disappointed. He is missing the point. The people of Ireland are disappointed in the Minister for Health and in this Government. This dispute should never have been let happen. It was clear and the Government had six months to fix this since the strike ballot, on top of the 20 years governments have already had, and it has come up with nothing. A creative solution is entirely within the grasp of this Government but it needs the active involvement of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It is clear from the Minister of State's response that the Minister for Health has failed to get that commitment. That is why this strike is proceeding. What hope will the Government offer the people of Ireland next week when it comes to further industrial action? There is nothing in the speech the Minister of State has given here to offer any hope of a resolution to these workers or to the people desperately waiting for health appointments. It is not good enough.
Again, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is disappointed the MLSA has initiated strike action. Its vital role and presence in clinical settings across the country was suspended last week, causing disruption across the health service. Its decision to strike was contrary to its commitment under Building Momentum, which states that parties to Building Momentum agree that the industrial peace will be maintained within the lifetime of the agreement. The Minister has outlined that the Department of Health is bound by the existing pay agreement, Building Momentum, which clearly states that sectoral bargaining is the only mechanism for addressing outstanding claims within the lifetime of the agreement. I assure the Senator that the health service management, in association with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, remain committed to engaging with the MLSA. I reiterate how significant its presence is across the health service and the Minister for Health will continue to engage with the MLSA and make every effort to ensure a resolution is found as soon as possible.
My Commencement matter is on when the Sacred Heart Hospital in Castlebar will see day services reopen and resume for citizens in County Mayo. This hospital holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Castlebar and Mayo and has been providing services, including inpatient stay, rehabilitation and day services, for decades in the county town. Almost all families in Mayo have had cause at some stage or other to use the facilities at this hospital. In 2019 we were delighted to officially open what was a new facility following €30 million of investment into the hospital. Day services were closed at the hospital during the pandemic, which was understandable at the time, but we are now post the emergency phase of the pandemic and most services across the country have reopened. However, we still do not have day services operational in the Sacred Heart Hospital and this beggars belief. We were told last year that the HSE expected to reopen day services midway through quarter 1 of 2022. That date has come and gone and we are no closer to the reopening of those services.
Why have day services remained closed? What is the short-term plan to get services reopened? What is the Minister of State expecting to do for families and elderly persons in the county who badly need these services and who have been left with no alternative, unless they can pay privately, which most people cannot afford to do? What is the plan to get this service reopened? Why, when have we built a brand-new facility, are we now being told that the facility cannot accommodate day services because of changes in regulation? It does not make sense or add up and the people of Castlebar and Mayo are wondering when they will get their day services reopened.
I thank Senator Chambers for raising the important issue of the Sacred Heart Hospital in Castlebar. I know she has consistently raised issues around the importance of the hospital in the Chamber, behind the scenes and directly with the Minister. It is a key priority for the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and the Government to allow more people to engage in services that allow them to remain independent and live in their homes with dignity and independence for as long as possible. The HSE has operational responsibility for planning, managing and delivering health and personal social services, including day centres. These services are fundamental to the health and well-being of our older population.
Just yesterday, my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for older people, Deputy Butler, had a high-level meeting with her officials requesting progress on this subject. Access to the centres can make an important contribution by providing invaluable support, advice and social interaction for older people who may, for any number of reasons, be experiencing isolation and loneliness. They play a key role in enabling older people to live independently within their own communities. It remains a priority for the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to ensure that day centres reopen as quickly and as safely as possible following their necessary closure in 2020 in response to Covid-19. The process for reopening day centres commenced in 2021, and the HSE continues to actively work on their reopening for older people as a priority, in line with current public health guidance. The HSE has allocated €6.5 million to community health organisations, CHOs, from within existing resources to facilitate the reopening of day care services for older people. In addition, €925,000 once-off funding was allocated to the Alzheimer Society of Ireland to assist with the operation of their dementia day-care services. This funding will support existing services to reopen and, in some, cases expand their services.
At the end of April, 264 centres for older people had reopened, which represents 80% of centres, and it is planned that a further 14 will reopen this month. There are two day services operating in Castlebar at present. Castlebar Social Services day service and the Alzheimer Society of Ireland are continuing to offer a service at home. However, day services at the Sacred Heart have not reopened. The HSE has advised the Department that it is making continuous efforts to source alternative accommodation. The social services space that was considered suitable for day services on the ground floor did not materialise because they rented the space to another day service. An alternative space located on the upper floor was reviewed by Community Healthcare West, but unfortunately it was deemed unsuitable. As infection prevention control, IPC, guidelines have now changed, an alternative space on the Sacred Heart Hospital campus is being pursued. The provision of a day service for the elderly on the Sacred Heart Hospital campus in Castlebar is preferable from an operational, governance and value for money perspective. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has advised me that the HSE is actively pursuing an interim arrangement for the summer and is exploring all options for a permanent space for Sacred Heart Hospital day services.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Some of what he said is very welcome. It is great that €6.5 million has been allocated to CHOs across the State to get these day services up and running and that €925,000 was provided to the Alzheimer Society of Ireland. However, it still begs the question as to why a new facility that was opened in 2019 is not being reopened. We have all of this money being put into getting day centres back up and running - some 80% have reopened and 40 more are due to reopen - so why is the Castlebar facility not reopening? What is the problem? It cannot simply just be a case of not being able to find the right building. There are other locations. We still cannot get an answer to that question. How will we have a new facility if it is not fit for purpose to reopen as a day centre? Nobody can seem to answer that question.
I take on board what the Minister of State said about the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, actively exploring interim solutions. We were told that last year, and it still has not materialised. I know of one family in particular where it actually accelerated their decision to put their loved one into full-time nursing home care because they could not cope at home. That was after two long years of the pandemic when there were literally no services for people caring for loved ones with dementia. What is happening is forcing people into that. It is a Government priority and a Government policy to facilitate people staying in their own homes for as long as possible because we believe in that option for people, and to provide that dignity for them to stay at home. This was not an option for the family to which I refer. The situation is the same for many other families.
I am looking for more concrete timelines. What are the interim arrangements being explored? When can we expect an update as to what they are, what they will look like and when they will be available? What is the long-term prospect of reopening day services at the hospital? Somebody needs to ask the question, and I am asking it here today. When a new facility was built and reopened, why was it not fit for purpose to provide day services? It seems as though the ball was dropped when that facility was constructed and that design was done, that it could not cater for updating of guidelines. Surely, when we opened a facility in 2019, it should have been a long-term facility that can cater for at least the next 50 to 60 years. That seems to not have happened. I would appreciate if the Minister of State had any more detail at all about the interim arrangements being explored and when we could see those services back up and running.
I thank Senator Chambers again for raising this very important issue regarding the Sacred Heart Hospital in Castlebar. The Senator has consistently pursued the importance of this facility.
On the more specific points, I will certainly raise those with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and I will ask her to engage with Senator Chambers on it. As the Senator rightly pointed out, it is a priority. It is a policy of this Government to help as many people as possible to stay at home, and to be able to do so with dignity and with the services they need to be able to stay at home.
The HSE has prioritised and will continue to prioritise the reopening of day-care centres for older people. This focus has been on both directly operated HSE day-care centres and day-care services provided under grant-aid funding by the HSE.
I reiterate the HSE has assured the Department it is exploring every option for a permanent space for Sacred Heart Hospital day services and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has asked her officials to monitor the position over the coming months. It is hoped interim arrangements will be put in place for the summer. I will certainly ask her to keep Senator Chambers up to date on all the steps and details relating to the issue.
This is about telecommunications masks in local communities. I thank Councillor Ted Leddy, who came across a telecommunications mast that is going up in Castleknock village. He found it by accident when searching for something else and is now supporting the local community.
There is major confusion among local communities about telecommunications masts. I am not absolutely clear on the parameters by which they are considered exempted development. There is conflicting information in the media when compared with my read of the regulations. There is confusion because there seems to be absolutely no public consultation even though these masts can be 15 m or 20 m high in prominent community locations. There is no site notice, advertisement in the newspaper or public submissions process. Even the local planning authorities do not seem to have a say anymore as An Bord Pleanála is overturning decisions. I will summarise some of the information I have and the Minister of State might clarify it for me.
Under the Planning and Development Act 2000 all development, unless specifically exempted under the Act or associated regulations, requires planning permission. When I look at the Act under section 4 it lists exempted development but I do not see a reference to telecommunications. Section 4(2)(a) states, "The Minister may by regulations provide for any class of development to be exempted development ..." and lays out certain conditions. Is telecommunications infrastructure covered by that? Under SI 600/2001 - Planning and Development Regulations, 2001, class 31 of Schedule 2 provides that certain classes of development carried out to provide a telecommunications service are subject to exempted development. Is this the relevant legislation? If so, I still do not understand what the conditions and size thresholds are. It refers to overhead equipment and states: "Poles carrying overhead lines shall not exceed 10 metres ...". A reply to a parliamentary question put by another Oireachtas Member stated, "The legislative provisions are supplemented by planning guidelines entitled the Telecommunications Antennae and Support Structure Guidelines, which originally issued to planning authorities in 1996". It further stated these were updated in 2012 with a circular letter.
The 1996 guidelines state, "The height of these structures, when the requirements of the backbone network are taken into account, can range from 12m to 60m though most typically they will be between 20m and 40m". Also under the guidelines, local authorities are required to have a policy where special conditions would apply or where, "... for various reasons, telecommunications installations would not be favoured ...". Such sites might include lands of high amenity value, protected structures or sites beside schools. However, the 2012 circular states:
While the policies above are reasonable, there has, however, been a growing trend for the insertion of development plan policies and objectives specifying minimum distances between telecommunications structures from houses and schools, e.g. up to 1km. Such distance requirements, without allowing for flexibility on a case-by-case basis, can make the identification of a site for new infrastructure very difficult. Planning authorities should therefore not include such separation distances as they can inadvertently have a major impact on the roll out of a viable and effective telecommunications network.
Is it therefore national policy the location of telecommunications masts are to be determined on a case-by-case basis under exempted development such that there is no public consultation for structures that can be up to 60 m high and that even when they are refused that can be overturned by An Bord Pleanála? Nobody could reasonably suggest telecommunications infrastructure is not of national and strategic importance but surely there must be some parameters on where it can go.
I thank the Senator for raising this important matter around the thresholds within which telecommunications masts are not considered exempted development and require public consultation.
On behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, who sends his apologies for being unable to be here today, I note the current exemptions from planning for telecommunications infrastructure and instances where planning permission is required is as follows. The Planning and Development Regulations 2001, as amended, provides an exemption from the requirement for planning permission for certain telecommunications infrastructure under class 31 of Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the regulations. This allows for the deployment of specified telecommunications infrastructure by a statutory undertaker authorised to provide a telecommunications service without having to go through the planning process.
Where the proposed telecommunications infrastructure is not being installed by a statutory undertaker authorised to do so or where the size of the proposed infrastructure exceeds the limits set out in class 31 of the regulations, such as greater than 12 m in height for a telecommunications pole, full planning permission will be required.
In this connection, it should be noted that the exemptions from planning do not apply in certain circumstances. First, if the proposed location for the telecommunications infrastructure is in an area that requires an environmental impact assessment or an appropriate assessment to be undertaken before any works can commence, such as on a European designated site, the exemption under class 31 of the regulations is disapplied under section 4(4) of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, and planning permission for the proposed works must be sought.
Second, if the proposed location for the telecommunications infrastructure would materially affect the character of a "protected structure", or any element of the structure which contributes to its special architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural, scientific, social or technical interest, then the planning exemption under class 31 of the regulations is disapplied under section 57(1) of the Act, again with the result that planning permission must be sought before any works can commence.
Where proposed telecommunications infrastructure does not meet the requirements of the class 31 exemption, or where the exemption is disapplied because of the provisions of the Act, an application for planning permission must, as I have outlined, be made to the relevant planning authority in accordance with section 34 of the Act. The planning process prescribes a five-week period from the date of application for the making of submissions or observations by any person to the planning authority.
Following the decision of a planning authority under section 34 of the Act, an applicant for permission and any person who made submissions or observations in writing in terms of the planning application to the planning authority in accordance with the permission regulations, and on payment of the appropriate fee, may, within four weeks of the planning authority decision, appeal the decision to An Bord Pleanála in accordance with section 37 of the Act. The appeals process in An Bord Pleanála includes a four-week period for the making of submissions or observations by any person under section 129 of the Act. In addition, the board may, in its absolute discretion under section 134 of the Act, hold an oral hearing of an appeal.
I will have to go through the reply in detail but I can tell the Minister of State that the telecommunications mast in Castleknock is 15 m and there is a mast in Glaslough which is 19 m, and featured in the latest edition of the Sunday Independent. These masts did not go through the planning process but were a section 254 application so the public did not know about them. The councils have said "No". The mast in Castleknock used a section 254 application, which was rejected by the local authority rejected and An Bord Pleanála overturned that so there is an issue. The telecommunications mast has been located in Castleknock in a prominent area with one of the highest footfall in the community. The local Tidy Towns committee has spent the last two years trying to reflect the beauty of this picturesque village, so the notion that a 15 m mast can be erected without public consultation or even an awareness by the public is very worrisome.
I thank Senator Currie for raising this important matter. Obviously I cannot speak about a specific case because it would be inappropriate for me to do so. What I can say is that where any person or body is unsure if planning is required for specific proposed telecommunications infrastructure they may, on payment of the prescribed fee, submit a request in writing to the relevant planning authority seeking a declaration under section 5 of the Act on whether the telecommunications infrastructure is or is not development, or is or is not exempted development within the meaning of the Act.
These provisions and arrangements as outlined in the Act and in supplementary regulations are considered to be reasonable, balanced and proportionate in terms of enabling specified forms of development to proceed without having to undergo the full rigours of the planning system, while simultaneously ensuring that certain development proposals that exceed the exemption thresholds or which may have impacts on the environment or on protected structures are subject to assessment under the planning process and involve public consultation with the right of appeal before any such development proposals are authorised to be progressed.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and agreeing to take this Commencement matter. The topic concerns solar panels on farm buildings and structures. I am conscious that the Minister of State is a rural Deputy for Wexford so he will be very familiar with the issues and challenges in respect of solar panels for agriculture. This is a wonderful time for strawberries in Wexford so I can see the synergies and the potential for solar panels for soft fruit crops, particularly in the sunny south east of Wexford.
I am asking that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage clarify the current status of the draft regulations and the timelines involved. That is important. It is an issue we have discussed at great length in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, of which I am a member. Deputy Cahill, a member of the Minister of State's party, is the Chairman. We have discussed it and teased out the issues and challenges. We have invited different representative groups and stakeholders in this area to make presentations to the committee. We see major challenges there, but we also see major opportunities. That is very important. I am also conscious of the need for strategic environmental assessment. That is a requirement, not a choice. In talking about planning law and environmental law, it is critical that we follow the processes. There is a requirement for a strategic environmental assessment, the publication of the proposals and a public consultation process, which is critical in all this.
I would appreciate if the Minister of State could give some type of guidance on where the Government intends to go now, the position with regard to the timelines and the position with the environmental impact assessment and statement.
I thank the Senator for raising the important issue of the current status of the draft regulations and planning exemptions for solar panels on farm buildings and other structures, including timelines.
To provide some background on the issue, under the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, all development, unless specifically exempted under the Act or associated regulations, requires planning permission. Various exemptions from the requirement to obtain planning permission are set out in the Act and regulations, and these exemptions are subject to compliance with general restrictions on exemptions set out in the Act and regulations. Included in the planning exemptions are those applying to the installation of solar infrastructure on a variety of building types, including houses, businesses and industrial and agricultural structures to which specific conditions are attached.
The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, in the context of the climate action plan and in consultation with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, has completed a review of the existing solar panel planning exemptions set out in the regulations, with a particular focus on facilitating increased self-generation of electricity and in recognition of the limitations of the current exemptions.
Further to this work, substantial changes to the current planning exemption thresholds for solar panels are proposed, as well as the introduction of new classes of solar panel planning exemptions for apartments and educational, community and religious buildings. Draft regulations have been prepared by the Department which have been screened for appropriate assessment, AA, under the requirements of the habitats directive and strategic environmental assessment, SEA, under the requirements of the SEA directive. While the need for AA was screened out by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage's ecological assessment unit in April, it has been determined that a full SEA on the draft proposals, which will include public consultation as part of the process, is required.
A four-week statutory consultation with the environmental authorities on the scope of the draft SEA environmental report commenced on 28 April 2022 and will run until 27 May 2022. Following this consultation process, the draft environmental report will be updated to take account of submissions received from the environmental authorities, and a four-week public consultation on the draft environmental report will subsequently be launched. This public consultation is expected to commence in the coming weeks.
As required under planning legislation, the proposed exempted development regulations must be laid in draft form before the Houses of the Oireachtas and receive a positive resolution from both Houses before they can be made and the SEA process concluded.
Therefore, it is envisaged that the process for finalising the solar panel planning exemptions will be completed in the coming months, following the conclusion of the public consultation process and the finalisation of the strategic environmental assessment report. The regulations will also be subject to Oireachtas approval.
I thank the Minister of State. He has given us a bit of clarity, which is great. I understand that the public consultation is nearly due for completion. I thank the Minister of State for the confirmation that the regulations will be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas for affirmation. That will give us an opportunity. Measures like these usually come in without debate but it is open to us to seek a debate. I put the House on notice that I will seek some sort of engagement in the House on this matter. As I said, I believe it is important. However, it is also important that we follow the environmental report. I thank the Minister of State for bringing some clarity to this matter today.
I again thank Senator Boyhan for raising the important issue of the current status of draft regulations on planning exemptions for solar panels on farm buildings and other structures. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, had hoped the new regulations would be in place much sooner but the timeline has been delayed by the necessity to comply with European environmental reporting requirements, particularly those relating to the strategic environmental assessment and habitats directives. However, as I said, the Department is now in the final stages of the process. I understand every effort is being made to bring this matter to a conclusion as speedily as possible. Once again, I thank the Senator for raising this important issue, which remains at the top of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke's agenda. The Minister of State looks forward to the imminent introduction of the revised exempted development regulations in the coming months and to the positive impact they will have on the roll-out of renewable solar infrastructure throughout the country, thereby helping to achieve our climate objectives and reduce our dependency on energy derived from fossil fuels.