Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Questions (25)

Thomas P. Broughan


25. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the measures she is taking to protect the Dublin Bay biosphere in the coastline of Fingal County Council, Dublin City Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. [45358/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Culture)

It is nearly 40 years since the North Bull Island was designated as a UNESCO biosphere and, in the past five years, the whole of Dublin Bay from Dalkey through Booterstown Marsh and to Howth and Baldoyle Bay has been designated as a UNESCO biosphere. I previously asked the Minister about the resources that our National Parks and Wildlife Service has to protect the bay and coastline of Dublin through the three local authorities. The area is more threatened than ever, so what is she going to do to protect it?

The Dublin Bay biosphere encompasses over 300 sq. km of marine and terrestrial habitat and is managed by the Dublin Bay Biosphere Partnership, which is led by the three relevant local authorities, Dublin City Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and Fingal County Council. The partnership also involves other key stakeholders such as the Dublin Port Company and representatives from Fáilte Ireland and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The partnership works with community groups, non-governmental organisations, NGOs, businesses, universities and schools. Over 300,000 people live within the newly enlarged biosphere area.

Biospheres are internationally recognised for their natural resources and biodiversity, where nature and human activities connect. They are actively managed to promote a balanced relationship between people and nature through conservation on the one hand and sustainable economic development and human activity on the other hand.

Another important goal of biospheres is promoting research and learning. Biosphere status is a designation granted by UNESCO, as part of its man and biosphere programme, launched in 1971, where it has been established that there is a co-ordinated approach to the conservation of habitats, species and landscapes through monitoring change and supporting research which fosters the potential for human activity and development.

Areas are awarded biosphere reserve status by UNESCO and are managed in partnership by communities, NGOs and local and national governments. It should be noted, however, that there are no specific additional planning burdens or conservation requirements associated with biosphere status. In most cases, as with Ireland's two biospheres, in Kerry and Dublin Bay, the areas are designated as special areas of conservation, SACs, or special protection areas, SPAs, and, accordingly, are already afforded statutory protections. Development within biospheres is subject to the existing comprehensive legislative and policy planning framework implemented by all levels of government.

The management of the Dublin Bay biosphere is led by the three local authorities. While my Department is not the anchor component of the biosphere, it has nevertheless provided significant additional and expert support through the auspices of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and it also provides small amounts of project funding from time to time. Approximately €30,000 has been provided in the past two years.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The biosphere is part of the European Union's Natura 2000 network of protected sites in accordance with the birds and habitats directives. As such, Dublin Bay biosphere is protected under the national legislation implementing these directives - the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 and the wildlife Acts. The NPWS investigates on an ongoing basis breaches of the regulations and the wildlife Acts and undertakes visits to Natura 2000 sites, as required.

The EuroMAB 2019 conference was hosted by Dublin Bay Biosphere Partnership, with assistance from my Department, between Tuesday, 2 April and Friday, 5 April. This four-day biennial conference for stakeholders from 302 UNESCO biospheres in 36 countries across Europe and North America welcomed practitioners, managers, policymakers, researchers, educators, ecologists, scientists, social entrepreneurs, creatives and community leaders. Ireland sits on the steering group of the man and the biosphere programme and is represented by Dublin Bay Biosphere Partnership.

Through its ten-year capital plan for investment, Investing in Our Culture, Language and Heritage 2018-2027, my Department has committed to safeguarding our unique natural heritage and biodiversity and ensuring a sustainable future. We intend to celebrate and highlight Ireland's remarkable heritage on the international stage through investment in the management of our UNESCO biosphere reserves.

The Minister identified the weaknesses of the biosphere structure in that she said there is no protective legislation in place. There is almost no funding. She said on the previous occasion I questioned her about this that something like €30,000 was available to protect the Dublin Bay biosphere. We have only two biospheres, in Kerry and Dublin, but there is a tiny amount of money. As the Minister admitted, her Department is not an anchor organisation for the management of the biosphere, which is extraordinary.

Dublin Bay biosphere was never more threatened. There have been overspills from the Ringsend plant time and again. Wastewater has been released into the biosphere. There have been cases of raw sewage being released into the biosphere up and down the coast. In a few days, we expect a decision from An Bord Pleanála on a second major wastewater treatment plant in the Dublin region. Incredibly, Irish Water proposes that the wastewater should go out through Baldoyle Bay, affecting Velvet Strand in Portmarnock. There is intense opposition to this in my constituency. Surely the Department has to get more involved. It is not acceptable to have funding of only €30,000 and no legislation.

As I said, the biospheres already have statutory protection but I understand the Deputy's concerns, particularly regarding the Ringsend waste treatment facility. The latter is operated by Irish Water, as the Deputy knows. The discharge into Dublin Bay is regulated by licence from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. Any matters related to the regulated discharge, therefore, should be directed to the agency.

The NPWS does, and will continue to, investigate breaches of EU regulations and the wildlife Acts and, therefore, there is statutory protection. The NPWS undertakes to visit Natura 2000 sites as required and within the resources available to it. It is important to note, however, that biosphere is not an environmental designation. The environmental protections afforded to biospheres are determined by their status as Natura sites. I mentioned that many of them are designated as SACs or SPAs in the first instance. They are internationally recognised for their natural resources and biodiversity and are therefore important but no specific additional planning burdens or conservation requirements are associated with biosphere status.

The biosphere partnerships have the biosphere conservation research strategy, which I believe was headed by UCD. A project called Acclimatize was funded by INTERREG to assess the environmental pressures on the bay. When will the report be available? There was to be a meeting just last month between Irish Water, the EPA, the HSE and the three local authorities to discuss the pressures on the bay. Is the Minister aware of the outcome of that?

Other major pressures will be exerted in the near future. There is a constant campaign by wind turbine manufacturers to promote the Dublin Array. We have heard about a project costing €1.5 billion whereby developers of wind energy facilities want to site more than 100 large turbines on the Kish and Bray banks. Those concerned have been pressurising the Government, including the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, to bring forward the foreshore licensing so they may do this. The bay is, therefore, under enormous pressure. Surely, the Department should have a core role in protecting it.

We have a core role in terms of the protections in existence but Dublin Bay Biosphere Partnership is the management group responsible for the Dublin Bay biosphere. Areas are rewarded biosphere reserve status by UNESCO and are managed in partnership by communities, NGOs and local and national governments. The partnership is led by the three relevant local authorities, namely, Dublin City Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and Fingal County Council. It also involves other key stakeholders, such as the Dublin Port Company.

Ireland has two biospheres. The one in Dublin Bay is managed by Dublin Bay Biosphere Partnership, which comprises the three local authorities. The NPWS does not own any part of the area making up the Dublin Bay biosphere. The Kerry biosphere is managed by Kerry County Council. In this case, the NPWS has an input because Killarney National Park forms a significant part of the core area. It is more than 300 sq. km. The main areas of the Dublin Bay biosphere are North Bull Island, Howth Head, Killiney Hill, the Tolka and Baldoyle estuaries, Booterstown Marsh and Dalkey Island.