Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Vol. 1006 No. 7

Planning and Development, Heritage and Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages

Debate on this Bill is for 30 minutes and will then be guillotined. I warn the Deputies therefore that this is a 30-minute session. I will adjourn at that point. We are trying to contact the Business Committee to see if we can bring forward the voting block and we may know more on that topic in a few minutes.

Sections 1 to 5, inclusive, agreed to.
Amendment No. 1 not moved.
Section 6 agreed to.
Amendment No. 2 not moved.
Section 7 agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 3 to 6, inclusive, not moved.
Section 8 agreed to.
Sections 9 to 13, inclusive, agreed to.

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 12, between lines 27 and 28, to insert the following:

“(b) in Regulation 12, by the substitution of the following for paragraph (2):

“(2) The Minister shall notify every owner and occupier of any land proposed, but not yet included, as a candidate site of community importance, or in any modification thereof, of the proposal to potentially include the land in the candidate site of community importance and the said notification issued by the Minister under this paragraph shall include, in respect of each site—

(i) details of the procedures by which a person may object, which shall not be less than 90 working days from the date of registered posting of the notification,

(ii) details of at least one public meeting to be facilitated by the Minister in the local area,

(iii) details of the potential additional agricultural and environmental compensation schemes to compensate farmers to be introduced by the Minister,

(iv) details of any alternative solutions the Minister may be considering, and

(v) a copy of the information compiled, pursuant to Regulation 11, relating to that site.”.”.

It is important that there be consultation with farmers and landowners. The State even owns lots of parcels of land. Consultation is vital. Far too often, we have seen the designation of whole swathes of land as special areas of conservation, SACs, special protection areas, SPAs, or protected areas for hen harriers, etc. That is fine, because the farmers and people of the countryside are excellent custodians of the land. They love and respect nature, flora and fauna. Without those people, we would be much poorer in diversity. Therefore, there must be consultation in this regard and not just the designation of huge parcels of land without such consultation. We are seeking to ensure that farmers are consulted fully on the ground prior to the designation of such areas. This does not happen currently, but it should.

It will be more and more important that there is consultation because land is an emotive issue. We all remember The Field and other similar plays concerning our history. We must have respect, and that goes both ways. This amendment seeks the establishment of additional compensation - I hate the word "compensation", but that is what it is - schemes for farmers who often, especially under SPA designation, have their lands almost completely or 90% sterilised. I also draw attention to the requirement for a farmer to obtain full planning permission for fencing, draining or work involving a digger on selected farmlands. A key role should be introduced for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to act in the best interests of farmers, which is the Minister's duty under the Constitution. It should also be ensured that there is consultation, engagement and proper funding to compensate for loss of income and potential loss of income. We have withdrawn many of our amendments, but are trying to enact this amendment to address a very serious issue.

It is a serious subject because it is an aspect which can often determine whether a farm is viable. There must be time for consultation. Public meetings should also be held, and held in the district concerned. I do not know what would have happened in that regard in the last 12 or 13 months, and even to this day, under lockdown. We also had this debate with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, about public meetings not being held in the context of the Planning and Development Bill 2020. It is a good time for changes in designation and everything else and people were locked out of the process. I reiterate that this issue applies to family farms, and all farmers and landowners. They should have 90 days, at least, to be informed, to have time for consultation and to make a submission.

Regarding the designation of lands over the years, the easiest way to put it is that designation equalled compensation. By that, I mean that if a farmer was to find that his or her land was being designated for anything, compensation should follow.

The one thing I am most worried about in all of this is that what seems to be happening is that the farmer's rights to farm his or her land are being eroded all the time. It is as though we are heading towards the day when a farmer who wants to come out the door of his or her house in the morning to do a job - with their family members, with help or perhaps by themselves - will nearly have to fill in a form to do so. If they want to get into a digger or sit up on a tractor to do some work, they will almost have to get permission to do so. That seems to be the road we are going down. That is the concern that I and the other members of the Rural Independent Group have on this issue. That is the concern that we have.

We have always stated, and I have always stated going back many years, first in Kerry County Council and here in Dáil Éireann, that farming to a calendar does not work. We have often had an August that was much wetter than the January. When it comes to agitating a tank and spreading slurry, for instance, one might be in a much better position to do it in the depths of winter than at the height of summer. That has happened here over the years. Farming to a calendar does not work, and those who think it is possible to do so do not know what they are talking about. It may look good written down and sound fine and airy-fairy, but practically, it has no common sense.

The people of the countryside who are the custodians of it, and mind it or care for it, are the real environmentalists. They are the people who owned the countryside. They are the farmers and those who are the opposite to the "BBBs". In case Deputies are wondering who the "BBBs" are, they are those who think the countryside should be full of nothing but briars, badgers and bullocks. That is what they think we should have.

What I want us to have in the countryside are viable family farms and viable farm units in order that people can make a living or a part of a living out of the land they have inherited. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, should note that these farmers never look on their land as an asset. They never see themselves as anything other than custodians of the countryside. They do not own the land or possess it. It is not a possession. It is something that might thankfully have been handed down from their parents, grandparents or an uncle or aunt who gave them the farm land. All they are going to do with it is mind it, treasure it, try to improve it if they can and forward it on to the next generation of young people coming up after them. That is all people want to do.

When changes are being made, new legislation is coming in, Bills are being passed through the Dáil and regulations come from Europe, I am mindful that we must be most careful that we do not tie the hands of farmers behind their backs or put a millstone around them to hold them back and tie them down. This is the case, for instance, in respect of what is contained in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021. Many people try to deny that the Bill clearly states that by 2027, which is a very short period of time, the agitation and spreading of slurry must be done using renewable methods - in other words, using some type of renewable power like electricity. The tractor that can pull 1,000, 1,500, 2,000 or 2,500 gallons of slurry out of a yard operated by a battery has not been invented yet. That is a fact. It is not here yet.

These are the stupid, nonsensical regulations that are coming before farmers. The only hope they have is that people like us will stand up here in a forum like this one and stand up for them. I would be relying on the IFA. A few days ago, Deputy Danny Healy-Rae and I met with the leadership of the Kerry IFA for over an hour and a half to discuss climate issues. Whether it is the IFA, the ICMSA or rural Deputies, we are all most concerned and we are all singing off the same hymn sheet. We all want to stand shoulder to shoulder in support of small family farms, in particular.

It was only a short time ago that Ministers came out and made statements that they are completely contradicting today. I recall being in the Dáil Chamber when the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, was encouraging young farmers in particular to expand into the milk business, to buy and lease more land and to bring in more cows so that they could supply more milk. Now, it is the exact opposite. They are setting people up to pull them back down again. It is not right or fair. I have been dealing with farmers recently who are really worried about the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 and how what is going on now in the Dáil will affect them. It must be noted that while we talk about small family farms, I also represent bigger farmers who have borrowed a lot of money and big money to improve their milking parlours, to buy more land and to progress. They are also perfectly entitled to exist as well. We are here to speak up for them and for those who are not just part-time farmers but are busy, bigger farmers. I am here to represent all of them as the other members of the Rural Independent Group are.

It is most important that issues like this are tackled. We must be very careful with this whole designation issue and what I refer to as the tying up of farmers in paperwork. God knows there is enough paperwork involved in farming as it is. The one thing we do not want is for it to get more complicated in such a way that farmers will be tied up in knots, with more rules and regulations of which they already have plenty. In our dealings with the farming sector, we always hear certain questions. How, in the name of God, did that happen? Who, in the name of God, brought that in? Who voted for that? Who let that go through? That is why it is so important that we are very careful about what we are doing.

I have concerns. I am hopeful that the Government will accept the amendments in relation to the designation of land. I come from a constituency, and a parish as a matter of fact, where the designation of land is common. People can work with it as long as there is decent compensation to the landowner, because in most cases this designation can result in the land being deemed unused as such. That must be addressed.

The designation of land and areas should not mean that a young family who want to start out and build a home in that area are refused planning permission. Going back a number of years, we set up a committee to deal with the scenic landscape issue. Young people were being told that they could not get planning permission to build on their own family farms because the area was designated as a scenic landscape. They were genuine young people who were trying their best to make a start in life. They could not get off the ground because of these designations. Therefore, we must be very careful that we do not fall into that trap. Unfortunately, the country has slipped, with Fine Gael, in particular, and Fianna Fáil supporting Project Ireland 2040, which has put serious difficulties before the people in relation to planning. It is making it almost impossible. Hopefully, tonight we can change that with our amendment. I plead with the councillors out there and the members of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to get all of their Deputies to support our motion this evening, which would change that and make it somewhat, if only a little, easier for our young people to get planning permission.

The worry I have is that the green lobby in Brussels and Dublin - God knows, there are a few of them in west Cork - is claiming that over the next decade Ireland could see some of its farmland under stricter protection status than the world-famous wildlife plains of the national parks of Africa. That is why these amendments are so crucial and every Deputy in this House should be supporting them. They improve transparency, consultation, democracy and the input of farmers. That is the most important thing. The farmers' input into all of this is hugely important. They have to buy into it, and if they do not, it will be because they are dictated to. Most farmers are worried. They may not need to be worried, but they are worried because they were never consulted in the first place. The farmers were not consulted on the designations of land that I know of in beautiful places like Crookhaven in west Cork.

People were never consulted about those designations and that led to a lot of worry initially. If what was being done had been explained to people from the start, it might not have led to the worries it did.

We are going through a very difficult period in this country. The last thing we need is to see more designations being put on farmers' backs, making it more difficult for them to do their everyday work. The fishing industry is in difficulty with penalty points, Brexit and the issue with the weighing of fish. The sector is in crisis all over west Cork. I ask the Minister of State to be very careful of where he is travelling with these provisions and to make sure there is open consultation. I do not want to take up any more time because my colleagues are waiting to speak. Consultation is the way forward on these matters. Our amendments are not seeking to remove the relevant provisions. They are asking for consultation with landowners. That is the least respect they deserve.

I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute on behalf of farmers and landowners throughout County Kerry on this very important issue. We have been hurt by designations before and no proper compensation was given to farmers. I have said previously in Dáil Éireann that it is a terrible thing when a farmer's house is broken into, perhaps when he or she is at mass, and money and possessions taken. Elderly farmers have been beaten in their homes and had their goods and money stolen. Something similar happens when the Government or the EU decides to designate a whole farm and perhaps the adjoining farms. I have nothing against the hen harrier or anything like that, but when farms were designated to protect hen harriers, the farmers in question were robbed in broad daylight. I call it daylight robbery to do that without giving proper compensation. The farmers had to fight and agitate to get some small amount of compensation. To give the Minister of State an idea of what people in rural areas are dealing with, there are places around Brosna where Coillte and other forestry owners planted forestry but, when it came to the next-door neighbour applying to plant, he or she was refused because the land was designated for the hen harrier. It is daylight robbery and it is very unfair.

I spoke in the House some days ago about a farm of 365 acres in Kerry that was designated as an SAC. The son of the family wanted to build a house on the farm. Kerry County Council, in its wisdom, said that although the whole 365 acres were designated as an SAC, the young fellow deserved to build a house and it granted him planning permission. His father had died and he wanted to live alongside his mother because she was not able to drive. Lo and behold, An Taisce appealed the council's decision to An Bord Pleanála and the young fellow lost the permission that was granted by Kerry County Council. The council had gone through everything and decided there was no harm in the world, only good, in granting the permission. However, the appeal was approved and the woman finished up on her own, with people having to collect her to take her places and then take her home again. It was not fair or right that she lived out the last few years of her life on her own.

I am very worried about these designations. We have been told that more than 30% of the land in the country could be designated as SACs and that the land that was previously designated as SACs could never be touched, farmed in any fashion or have anything else done with it. What kind of robbery is that? It is pure robbery to contemplate doing such a thing. It is being done following agitation by the Green Party and its counterparts in Europe. They are at the back of this, trying to paralyse and finish farmers forever and return farming to what it was after the Ice Age. We have to think of people first. We must think of the small families that keep the light shining in the valley and keep the place alive. If we do not have people, there is no life. We all support wildlife and everything but-----

On a point of clarification, this debate has to conclude within the allocated time. The Deputy may continue speaking but I remind him that his colleague wants to get in. In fairness to the Minister of State as well, lots of things are being said and he deserves the right of reply. I cannot stop the Deputy from continuing but I am just pointing those issues out to him.

I will be very brief in concluding. I am asking the Minister of State not to ram designations down farmers' throats, nor do this behind their backs. I am asking that he give the people of Kerry and Ireland the chance to make submissions if maps are being produced and more land is going to be designated as SACs or whatever designation is being put on them. I am asking that people be advised of the implications this will have for planning permission and farming into the future. If the Minister of State does not do that, he is robbing people's livelihoods and their lives from them. He must be fair with them and give them a chance to make submissions. Whether they are single farmers, farming organisations or landowners, people must have a chance to make submissions and they must be informed of what is proposed to be done. These things should not be rammed down their throats without giving them a chance.

I advise the next speaker, Deputy O'Donoghue, that he should be mindful of leaving time for the Minister of State to reply.

It is crucial that we do not turn a blind eye to the situation of the thousands of farming families whose lands daily support our local businesses. We can see the mistakes Governments have made for years, including when it comes to the designation of land. We have seen through the pandemic the mistakes that were made and the good things that were done. The only way we can protect farmers under designation of land is by way of consultation. We can protect farmers only by giving a voice to them, because they are the people who know the land. I have said since I came into the Dáil that I do not think the balance is right within the Cabinet. The Government does not understand rural areas. It is grand to take out a pen and draw a diagram showing that land is to be designated here and there. However, it is very important to consider the impact on the land, the families who farm it and the surrounding rural areas.

The farming community has done everything it can, under the instructions of this and previous Governments, to work with the State from an environmental point of view. Farmers increased cattle numbers when they were told to expand the dairy herd. They have done everything they were told to do. Now the Government is coming back and designating land again. Farms are probably the only businesses in Ireland on which another barrier is placed every time members of the Government stand up to talk. These are family-run businesses and they are faced with a Government that wants to keep changing emissions requirements and setting new targets. The group to which the Government goes all the time is the farming community.

My rural colleagues and I need to make sure we protect the people we represent for the long term. I represent County Limerick and there are many farmers there to whom I am very grateful for putting food on my table. I am happy that so many farmers are supporting businesses in our communities. If the Government wants to designate land, it needs to consult every farmer and give them the opportunity to have a say. It is their culture and heritage we are talking about and it must not be destroyed by somebody in Europe deciding that land should be designated. Feedback must come from rural areas to the Government to follow through on. It cannot be done the other way around, where it is dictated from the top. We want to work with the Government and we want to work with farmers. However, the Government is not listening and we can see that the balance is wrong within the Cabinet and in the committees.

A total of 37% of the population of Ireland lives in rural areas. We see from the lack of infrastructure that we have been forgotten.

The Government is now targeting us again through the designation of land. I ask the Government to please consult the farmers because it is their heritage and livelihood. They always give back. The Government should stop targeting the one area the whole time. I will leave the remaining time for the Minister of State to reply.

I will not be accepting any of the proposed amendments. I reiterate this is a technical Bill with a very narrow focus to transfer the remaining delegated functions to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I am taking on board the points the Deputies have made about designations, notification of landowners and consultation with them. That is certainly something to which this Government and I, as a Minister of State, are firmly committed.

Like other Deputies here, I have met extensively with farm organisations, including the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association, the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, and other organisations, over recent months. I met most recently with commonage farmers in Brandon Hill, County Kilkenny, to discuss controlled burning and other issues. The one thing on which we are clear is there is a firm commitment among the farming community to do the right thing by nature. We have a fantastic opportunity, through collaboration and discussion, to bring about a transformation that will support farming and farm incomes while also supporting our biodiversity targets. Those are onerous and significant targets. The new biodiversity strategy proposes that member states would legally protect at least 30% of the EU's land and marine areas by 2030. One third of those protected areas would be strictly protected. That is an overall EU target, and discussions on how those targets will be achieved are still ongoing. There is a commitment there around fair and transparent burden-sharing among member states.

From our perspective, we are having discussions with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, strategic plan, around the opportunities to incorporate high nature value farming, to support that type of activity and reward farmers for good practices that support biodiversity. That is the way forward. We, in our discussions with the farming community and farm organisations, are aware they are custodians of our land. They are aware of their responsibilities to hand on their farms in a good condition for future generations. They are also aware of their responsibilities to improve water, soil and the objectives around biodiversity.

As I have said, this Bill will not address the issues the Deputies are raising. However, I absolutely take on board the concerns of the farming community and farm organisations. We want to work with the farm organisations to achieve this common set of objectives, which can be achieved over the next number of months and years.

The Minister will have seen that we submitted several amendments, most of which we withdraw. However, we are not withdrawing this amendment. I am surprised that the Minister of State would not accept it, considering we withdrew many other amendments. The Minister of State might consider some of those other amendments as frivolous but this amendment is vital. The designation of land without consultation is simply not fair. It is something like the security industry and what is happening with evictions. This is similar, just without the violence. Land is designated and the farmer or landowner concerned is not notified and has no chance to make an input. We have been reasonable in our amendment in looking for a 90-day window in which they can reply. We also want public meetings to be held in special areas of conservation. As the Minister of State said, the farmers are custodians of the land. They are good at that role and want to hand on the land. Not only that, they want to enhance and improve the flora, fauna and all the wildlife. They work with gun clubs. A gun club in my area does tremendous work in restocking the grouse and everything else, and in different projects, assisted by the farmers, including the mountain and upland farmers. We are now being seeing upland farmers being victimised.

The Minister of State said he has consulted the farm organisations. Many farm organisations, especially the IFA, do not represent the little people any more. It is fine for the IFA to make commitments to the Minister of State because it does not care about the upland farmers.

I am sorry to interrupt the Deputy but we are out of time.

The time permitted for the debate having expired, I am required to put the following question, in accordance with an order of the Dáil of 11 May: "That in respect of each of the sections-----

Gabh mo leithscéal, is the Leas-Cheann Comhairle taking the amendment that was just discussed?

We are out of time.

Even for that amendment?

Yes. The question is: "That in respect of each of the sections undisposed of, the section is hereby agreed to in committee, the Title is hereby agreed to in committee, the Bill is accordingly reported to the House without amendment, Report Stage is hereby completed, and the Bill is hereby passed."

Question put.

Will the Deputies claiming a division please rise?

Deputies Mattie McGrath, Carol Nolan, Danny Healy-Rae, Michael Healy-Rae, Michael Collins and Richard O'Donoghue rose.

As fewer than ten Members have risen, I deem that the question has been carried. In accordance with Standing Order 82, the names of the Deputies dissenting will be recorded in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Dáil.

Question declared carried.