Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016: Committee Stage

I call on the Minister to make her opening statement.

The Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016 is important legislation. The bringing forward of this Bill is a commitment in the programme for a partnership Government. Ireland has designated 75 natural heritage areas, NHAs, under national law for the protection of raised bog habitats. These sites complement the 53 areas of protected raised bog in Ireland which have been nominated for designation as special areas of conservation, SACs, in accordance with the EU habitats directive. Additional raised bog habitat within the natural heritage area network makes a contribution to maintaining or restoring these habitats to favourable conservation status.

Following an extensive process involving the examination of over 270 individual raised bogs, the review of the raised bog natural heritage area network was published in January 2014. It set out a series of measures to ensure Ireland meets its obligations under the habitats directive and the environmental impact assessment directive, while at the same time avoiding unintended impacts on the traditional rights of landowners and users, as well as minimising the cost to the State of compensation payments.

The review concluded that Ireland could more effectively achieve conservation of threatened raised bog habitat through focused protection and restoration of a reconfigured network. This would entail the phasing out of turf cutting on 36 existing NHAs which will remain designated. This includes seven sites to be divided with part to be conserved and part to be de-designated, and the complete de-designation of 46 NHAs, including the relevant areas of the seven sites to be divided where it has been judged that the conservation potential is expected to be marginal or the restoration or both will be prohibitively expensive for the conservation benefits achieved. Domestic turf cutting may continue on the sites, while larger scale or commercial turf cutting will continue to be regulated through other consent systems. The designation as NHA of 25 currently undesignated raised bogs, which are in public ownership or where there is reduced turf cutting pressure, is to make up for the loss of habitat within the sites where it is proposed that turf cutting can be allowed to continue.

The Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016 provides for a review of raised bog habitats, making amendment and revocation of natural heritage area orders and, for those purposes, to amend the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000. The Bill will provide for the implementation of a reconfiguration of the raised bog natural heritage area network, arising from the proposals from the review published in January 2014, an assessment of the effects on the environment of the proposals arising from the review and, if required, any other screening or an assessment, or, as the case may be, assessment undertaking, and observations or submissions received during the course of public consultation.

This Bill is an important part of our peatland strategy as we continue to deal with the need to protect the environment, live up to our EU obligations and work with landowners and turf cutters on whose lives these obligations can have a real impact. This legislation will allow for the raised bog natural heritage area network to be managed more effectively and in a more environmentally friendly manner. The reconfiguration of the network, which this legislation will facilitate, is based on sound scientific evidence and will have a positive impact. The Government’s approach is to work with the turf cutters affected in a practical and pragmatic fashion, while also working to ensure we are protecting the raised bog network and fulfilling our EU obligations. I will continue to play my part in the process.

Sections 1 to 3, inclusive, agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 3 to 9, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, line 23, after “habitats” to insert the following:

“and the Minister may carry out further reviews of other National Heritage areas (in this section referred to as ‘other reviews’) as she or he sees fit”.

I welcome this Bill but it is too narrow. The Bill basically allows the Minister to de-designate some NHA raised bogs on the basis that she has alternatives to put in their place. The problem that has arisen on the raised bogs, however, could arise anywhere. There are issues, for example, with NHAs which are blocking the provision of major infrastructure. Maybe a similar process could be followed where not only is an individual good involved but the national good is too.

For many years, for example, we have been trying to build a road through the heart of Connemara and designation has been a problem. I accept the SACs and the SPAs are virtually immutable. However, what is proved here is that where there is a will, there is a way. A NHA is not immutable as long as the Minister compensates - the basis of this Bill - for a NHA to be taken out with another NHA of equal standing or, maybe even in many cases, of better standing.

Therefore, what I sought to do in this case is to give general application to a specific instance approach taken by the Department. I do not understand why it took the approach to have raised bogs only and it did not put in a procedure that could be applied in any case where one needs to de-designate an NHA, as happened in this case, and re-designate it with another piece of land as an NHA.

I will press my amendment unless I get a satisfactory answer as to why it is literally limited as a process. If a process is in place and there are enough safeguards in it, which the Minister will tell me is the case with raised bogs, why could the same safeguards not be put in if the Department subsequently decided to de-designate some other NHA and put something else in its place? That is what I am trying to replicate in my amendment. Given that it has been shown that an NHA designation should not be immutable and permanent, why was a general process not put in place to allow for de-designation and re-designation of other lands as NHAs, as a generality where the case may arise and where an overriding local or national interest would warrant it?

I ask the Deputy to speak on the related amendments.

Each of the amendments is related and to change one means to change them all. The purpose of the amendments is to say that in every section where raised bog is mentioned in the Bill one would say, "and other" to allow for the inclusion of other habitats. One has to do it right throughout the Bill in order to be consistent. The amendments are all basically the same and the effect is composite in that anything one can do for a raised bog, one could do for any other NHA by the exact same process.

It is important to remember that this Bill arises from the Review of Raised Bog Natural Heritage Area Network, which was published in 2014. The reconfiguration of the raised bog natural heritage area network, which this legislation will facilitate, is based on sound, scientific evidence and will have a positive impact on the network. The focus of the Bill is to provide for the implementation of a reconfiguration of the raised bog natural heritage area network arising from the proposals from the review published in 2014, a strategic environmental assessment of the proposals arising from the review, and if required, any other screening for an assessment or, as the case may be, assessment undertaken and observations or submissions received during the course of public consultation.

There was a fairly lengthy process to go through before we could get to this stage. What I wanted to do was to focus on the raised bogs for now, get the de-designation done, complete the process, give certainty and come back to the blanket bogs at a later date by which time the scientific work will have been done and I will be in a position to make an informed and balanced decision after consultation with the stakeholders. There is a process we must go through before we could look at the blanket bogs. We do not know what restrictions will be put on them, if any, and it would be best if we could allow the proposals on the raised bogs to proceed and to deal with the blanket bogs after a due process has been completed.

The process the Minister has followed to date has been an administrative one. It was not set down in law.

Yes, it was a process that involved consultation. Much work and scientific investigation underpin it.

I am not saying that was not the case, but it was an administrative process. Presumably, if the Minister were going to change a blanket bog or any other NHA - they are not all blanket bogs and raised bogs - as she has done in this case, before she would use the law to change it, she would follow the exact same process. Therefore, the argument put up by the Minister does not hold water.

When I was a Minister on many occasions when I went home and thought about the argument I put to the Opposition it sounded a bit hollow even to myself, not to mind the person on the other side of the argument. When the Minister comes to do some other NHA, she might do it in a big review or in a specific review, if a specific problem arises she might follow the exact same process but the next time when she gets to the point of having a legal power to do it, she will be able to say that she has followed the process as she did with the blanket bogs and she has the legal power to do it without going back to the Oireachtas and publishing a new Bill. In other words, the point I make is that the Minister should make the ability to do what she is trying to do in one specific instance, general, but that would not stop her continuing with the very good practice in terms of how she gets to the point of where she invokes the law. All I am saying is that I do not see why the Minister would have to bring in a special Bill the next time she wants to make a similar change. What we will end up with is the introduction of a County Meath NHA amendment Bill and county Connemara amendment Bill in each instance rather than saying we need to have a mechanism in place that deals with the issue, tells us the process to follow and then states that having followed all the processes, one then uses the law and makes the thing happen. I will press the amendments.

I understand the Deputy's point but my concern is that any Minister would have power to de-designate an NHA without having carried out the preparatory scientific analysis. Much scientific evidence allowed us to make the decision. We did not just make a decision, much work was put into it and the process has been going on since 2014. I would be concerned that it would be a potentially unlimited ministerial power without having first consulted with stakeholders, of which there are a number, for example, domestic turf cutters, the local communities and the environmental pillar. The EU habitats requirements regard the NHA network as part of the overall picture in terms of our bogs. I am happy to discuss the issue further with the Deputy but I question the wisdom of giving any Minister such powers. It would not send out a good signal in terms of how we protect bogs and heritage areas.

Something very important has arisen in what the Minister said. It states in the Bill that the Minister shall continue to conduct and complete the review known for the time being as the 2014 Review of Raised Bog Natural Heritage Area Network. The section refers to the review of raised bog habitats. It lays down quite clearly in law that one cannot willy-nilly, even with a raised bog, de-designate it without going through a rather convoluted process. The purpose of all my amendments is that the exact same legal safeguards would apply in relation to anything else the Minister would decide to take out of the NHA. The process is robust and within the law the Minister is introducing because one cannot do it willy-nilly. I would not have thought the officials would have drafted the Bill in such a way, and they did not. They have set out a very comprehensive process in terms of the amendment of the 2000 Act and the insertion of 18A. The Bill is very comprehensive as to what exactly one must do before taking action and, therefore, a Minister could not do what the Minister just said he or she could do because, fortunately, the new Bill even in the case of raised bog will make one jump through quite a few hoops before one can jump the ditch. All the steps are contained in the Bill.

This Bill is to provide specifically for a review of the raised bogs habitat. If I were to include blanket bogs then it would fundamentally change the ambit of the legislation. Much work was done over a long period and it would be premature to extend the provisions to blanket bogs without the required scientific work and it is legislatively outside what was approved by the Government.

The proposed new section to the principal Act states: "The Minister shall continue to conduct and complete the review" and in my amendment I propose that the Minister can carry out other reviews. The proposed new section states the first thing the Minister must do is carry out a review and it outlines the purposes of the review that would be carried out if it extended not only to blanket bogs but to any other natural heritage area. It further states: "The Minister shall, in relation to the effects on the environment of the proposals arising from the review...". Therefore, it states the Minister must carry out a review, that he or she must take all these matters into account in terms of the environment and it also sets out whom he or she must notify. Exactly the same process would apply to other natural heritage areas, NHAs, as the Minister is proposing for raised bog NHAs. Therefore, she could not willy-nilly remove areas because huge safeguards are enshrined in the law to ensure this cannot be done overnight and that if it were to be done good process would have to be followed. I cannot understand why what is good for the goose is not good for the gander in this respect. Therefore, I am pressing the amendment.

I will consider this further. Perhaps the Deputy could meet my officials to consider this and we could address it on Report Stage.

I will go through the process of pressing my amendment but I will also take up the Minister's offer.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 3, between lines 23 and 24, to insert the following:

“(2) That the Minister uses his or her powers to initiate a review, the aim of which is to make substitutions for the designations of Special Areas of Conservation, where turf cutters cannot be re-located within the 15 kilometre radius, and where compensatory habitat is available.”.

The purpose of the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill is to provide for a review of raised bog habitats, making amendment and revocation of natural heritage area orders, and for those purposes to amend the Wildlife (Amendment) Act. Natural heritage areas are proposed for designation and de-designation under the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000.

A similar procedure in relation to the designation of special areas of conservation is set out in European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011, which provide for the transposition of the EU Habitats Directive into national law. Therefore, it would not be appropriate to provide for a review of raised bogs special areas of conversation in the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016.

In addition, the final national raised bog SAC management plan will set out the approach to how each of the raised bogs special areas of conversation is to be conserved and managed into the future and how the needs of turf cutters are to be addressed. I expect that this plan will be published early in 2017 subject to the approval of the Government. Therefore, unfortunately, I cannot accept the amendment.

I would like to press the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 3, line 24, after “review” to insert “and other reviews”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 3, line 26, after “bog” to insert “and other”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 3, line 27, after “bog” to insert “and other”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 6

In page 5, line 16, after “bog” to insert “or other habitats”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 7

In page 5, line 20, after “bog” to insert “or other”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 8:

In page 5, line 29, after “bog” to insert “or other habitats”.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 4 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 9:

In page 3, line 5, after “bog” to insert “and other”.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment.

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