Senator Ned O'Sullivan has eight minutes.
Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016: Second Stage (Resumed)
I will not take up anything like that amount of time as this is not my area of expertise. I welcome the Minister of State. We in Fianna Fáil welcome the Bill. It brings a rational conclusion to what was a very difficult period in the term of the previous Government. The Minister of State's predecessor and my constituency colleague, the former Minister, Jimmy Deenihan, effectively lost his seat over it, which is something I did not take any pleasure in because he was a big loss to politics and a big loss to his constituency. However, the matter became a completely irrational argument and no one was prepared to compromise, so it is fitting enough that the same party in government has undone the damage to a certain extent at this stage, and we welcome that.
I would like to highlight just one or two points. The Minister of State was good enough to refer in his speech to the fact that Deputy Ó Cuív put forward the proposal in the Dáil that other reviews would be carried out in other natural heritage areas. The Minister of State has undertaken to consider this and possibly include it in the final Bill.
The Bill gives legislative effect to the review recommendation to de-designate 46 national heritage areas. It de-designates 39 natural heritage areas, with part de-designation of seven other areas. Reconfiguring the network will lead to the safeguarding of a greater area of protected bog habitat, with around 2,500 fewer actively cut turf plots than exist currently. To counteract the impact of de-designation, a further 25 raised bogs which are in public ownership or where there is reduced turf cutting pressure will be designated. This will compensate for the bogs where cutting is proposed to continue.
What has been left out of the debate thus far is that we are all conservationists, and the greatest conservationists of all are the practitioners of rural life, be they farmers or turf cutters. They know and respect nature. Sometimes an image is created in refined debating circles that anyone living outside of the Dublin area is some kind of environmental philistine and that we do not appreciate nature. Of course we do. What was lacking in the debate, however, or in the previous attempts to handle this issue, was recognition of the fact that we have other issues concerning turf cutting, especially the areas of fuel poverty and reduced rural incomes. Rural household incomes in the midlands, for instance, are 9.4% below the national average. The majority of affected bogs are located in counties with the lowest disposable incomes, and this must be a central factor when we make arrangements to stop cutting turf. Turf is a very inexpensive source of fuel, being up to 60% cheaper than oil. The cost of turf is basically in the labour. Turf cutting must be recognised as a valuable source of farm or off-farm income. A cessation policy without adequate compensation schemes would expose another significant number of households to fuel poverty. Any compensation scheme must enable turf cutters to have a choice between adequate compensation, relocation or turf delivered to the door.
Monetary compensation must be based on comprehensive analysis of land based on the income derived by families in recent years. We support the Minister of State on the Bill and welcome the fact that he is open to considering further reviews.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, to the Chamber. I acknowledge what Senator Ned O'Sullivan said. He made some really practical and pragmatic comments that are worth taking on board. I welcome the opportunity to speak on Second Stage of this important legislation, the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016. It was passed in the Dáil. The Minister of State said the Bill is part of the joint programme for Government, and that is clearly an important consideration for him. It is one of his commitments and I have no doubt he is committed to delivering on his commitments for Government because ultimately that is what his platform is. I accept and acknowledge that.
Ireland has 75 designated natural heritage areas, NHAs, under national law for the protection of raised bogs. These sites complement the 53 areas of protected raised bog in Ireland that have been nominated for designation as special areas of conservation, SACs, in accordance with the EU habitats directive. Since 2011, over €18 million in taxpayers' money has been spent on protecting and conserving the SAC raised bog network in Ireland. That is right and appropriate. The figure may even have increased since I last read about it. It is a very significant contribution and commitment and one we have to acknowledge. Let us be honest about the fact that the SAC network remains the bedrock of Ireland's primary response to the conservation of raised bog under the habitats directive. That has to be acknowledged. We have to be pragmatic and have a reasonable approach. In this Bill, the Minister of State is attempting to do so.
It is important that we work with the turf cutters, as Senator Ned O'Sullivan said. We have to acknowledge their role, contribution and legitimate claim to exercise their skill and craft in cutting turf, be it on a very small scale or slightly larger one. We must be practical about how we address the issue to ensure we protect our unique natural environment and, more important, fulfil our EU environmental obligations. The latter is critical. The Minister of State has made that point also.
I acknowledge those who have campaigned in this area for many years and the various environmentalists, environmental groups and prescribed bodies that have advocated. As time has moved on, there has been compromise on all sides, which is an important factor and consideration. I acknowledge, in particular, the work of Deputy Fitzmaurice because I am aware he was passionate about this issue and worked very closely with people in his constituency, where this was a real issue for him and his constituents.
I acknowledge the traditional rights of landowners and turf cutters and their expectation of an income. We have to be practical. We must assess this environmentally and socially. There are many aspects to an overall assessment of the impact. I accept and acknowledge, as the Minister of State said, that a review of the raised bog natural heritage area network was carried out, and its findings were published in January 2014. The review concluded that Ireland could more effectively achieve conservation of threatened raised bog habitats through focused protection and restoration of a reconfigured network. I understand that the purpose of this Bill is to provide for the implementation of a reconfiguration of the raised bog natural heritage areas. I accept it is important legislation needed to protect the environment and comply with our EU obligations in this regard. It will allow for our raised bog network to be managed more effectively and in a more environmentally friendly manner. Admittedly, there are compromises and sections that have been taken out, in addition to possibilities of including bogs, but overall this is a pragmatic response to a major issue that has featured for some time.
I am advised, and the Minister of State has advised us in this House today, that this legislation is based on sound scientific evidence that will have a positive impact on the raised bog network. The statement that the legislation is based on scientific work and research is one of the most important to be made today. It certainly gives us comfort here.
I thank the Minister of State, the Minister, Deputy Madigan, and her predecessor, Deputy Humphreys, in addition to the staff in the Department, for their meaningful engagement over a long period on what was a very heated debate. It presented many challenges but this legislation is basically decent. Having listened to the contributions of others in this debate, I reserve the right to propose amendments on later Stages of the Bill. I thank the Minister of State for attending. Giving a guarded welcome, I believe this is good legislation worthy of support.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, to the House. It has taken some considerable time for this Bill to make it to this House. I hope its passage will not be significantly delayed so we can see it implemented to address a very important issue for rural communities. This Bill, as the Minister of State said, will primarily grant more power to the Minister and will provide for a reconfigured raised bog natural heritage network. I am very aware of the impact the designation of bogs has had for landowners and turf cutters. This legislation is a vital piece of the process in ensuring we can find a long-term solution that ensures landowners and turf cutters are not unduly bearing the brunt of meeting our environmental goals, which are very important. It is important that concerns continue to be voiced at the highest levels when it comes to the report to be published by the Joint Committee on Climate Action later this week. It is also important that we do not forget that when this country was in the depths of recession, it was very much the agriculture sector, the backbone of our economy, that brought it back from the brink and allowed us to return to a position of economic growth.
This legislation will be very positive and will mean that 46 bogs will be totally de-designated and a further seven will be partially de-designated. I am familiar with quite a few of the bogs in my area, following many representations by those concerned. It thank the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, the Minister, Deputy Madigan, and the former Minister, Deputy Humphreys, for their co-operation and work on this issue. Bogs across Roscommon and Galway to be fully de-designated include Annaghbeg, Bella Bridge, Clooncullaun, Cloonlish, Cornaveagh, Crit Island West, Derrycanan, Derrynagran and Esker, Eskerboy, Funshin, Killaclogher, Killure, Kilmore, Kilnaborris, Leaha, Lisnanarraigh, Lough Namucka, Meeneen, Moorefield, Slieve, Suck River Callows and Tullaghan. Local bogs to be partially de-designated include Carrickynaghtan, Castle French, Keeloges and Lough Tee. These changes mean that the relocation process will be made much easier and will ensure that communities have access to bogs within a reasonable distance.
From an environmental perspective, this plan will create a network that can be managed in a more environmentally friendly manner and more effectively. The Minister of State pointed that out in his speech. It will focus on key sites and ensure they are appropriately invested in while returning many communities to their turf-cutting tradition. I have recently seen this work at first hand through a conservation project at Carrowbehy Bog, which is near Gorthaganny, County Roscommon. The committee involved is working hard to develop the tourism potential of the region. The boglands are very much key to that. The committee is working very closely with those concerned with the Living Bog project. Similarly, Cloonlarge Bog in Kilteevan, County Roscommon, has been successful in securing funding under the pilot peatlands community engagement scheme for 2018 and there are fabulous walks in the area. It is important in terms of valuing the unique biodiversity of our bog areas.
Alongside that is the tourism potential of Ireland's Hidden Heartlands brand. The boglands, which are unique, are predominantly in the west and the midlands and they should be promoted more as a tourist amenity. I give those two very practical examples of communities that are trying to value and promote the biodiversity within those regions.
I thank the Minister of State, the Minister, Deputy Madigan, and her predecessor, Deputy Humphreys, for their work on this Bill. It will have a direct positive impact on many communities across our region. It has been a long journey but I believe it will provide us with a solution which balances both the needs of communities along with our environmental obligations in a very appropriate manner.
Sinn Féin will be supporting this legislation. While most of those involved in the issue of raised bogs and turf cutting would be broadly supportive of what the Habitats Directive is trying to achieve in terms of environmental protection, the implementation by previous Governments resulted in the disputes that we saw in recent years.
The Habitats directive specified that considerations must be given to the social and cultural impact that a designation of special areas of conservation, SACs, may bring. When the Habitats Directive was transposed in 1998, it seemed there was little or no consultation with turf cutters and those who relied on that fuel.
Furthermore, the basis of designating raised bogs in this case was to protect natural boglands. However, commercial turf cutting in the previous decades has devastated those boglands. It was those who cut turf for personal use who were more diligent in their management of the bogs. At appropriate times, they have engaged in re-wetting to ensure the bogs are not damaged in a way comparable to that done by commercial milling.
I draw attention, as I believe the Minister has also done, to the recent regulations signed off by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, which have put in place a new regulatory regime for commercial peat operators to exempt them from the requirement to obtain planning permission for areas of more than 30 ha where previously it was 50 ha. The new regime will be subject to an Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, licensing scheme. However, the change can be interpreted to offer a free pass to unauthorised operators to continue extracting peat without planning permission or environmental controls until at least mid-2021.
While I welcome the Bill, it seems the Government is proposing one policy of sustainable turf cutting with today's legislation while endorsing an unsustainable model by the actions of the Ministers, Deputies Eoghan Murphy and Bruton, that has and will destroy far more bogs in a short period of time than traditional turf cutters have done over centuries.
Uncontrolled peat extraction can contaminate drinking water, kill fish and destroy the habitats of rare animals and plants. Every measure that will have a detrimental impact on the environment should not be conducted under the guise of statutory instruments. The Minister might inform us if she supports these regulations.
In the intervening years since the Habitats Directive and the SAC designation, the boglands have been left to emit carbon and damage the environment, which completely goes against the objectives of their designation as a SAC. The turf cutters warned of that at the time. In retrospect, if the Governments had taken policies of collaboration rather than imposition we would most likely have reduced the carbon emissions in that period.
Successive Governments' negligence has led to an unwarranted scepticism of SACs and the habitats directive. While there are many cases in which those views might be valid, it was not the objectives of the directive or the SACs that were at fault. It was the lack of engagement from successive Governments which hid behind excuses that they were being directed to do so by Europe, which was not the case, and their failure to engage with turf cutters.
I commend the Department on taking a different strategy that has culminated in this Bill. I, too, reserve the right to submit amendments but I will leave it at that.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, for coming to the House today. I am delighted we are talking about the bogs of Ireland - the raised and blanket bogs, the upland and lowland blanket bogs and the different types of bog habitat.
There has been a long consultation and review process with stakeholders on this Bill regarding a review of the raised bogs. The Peatlands Council was set up 12 years ago in response to the social crisis that developed when people could not cut turf traditionally on raised bogs. Based on the recommendations of the Quirke report, a plan for managing raised bogs was developed in 2017. That has necessitated the introduction of this Bill to facilitate the reconfiguration of a new raised bog natural heritage area, NHA, network.
The point of the review process was to ensure that new raised bogs would be designated as natural heritage areas so as to replace degraded existing natural heritage areas. There has been a long public consultation process on the powers given in this Bill based on the following documents: the Government's 2017 peatlands strategy; the raised bog SAC management plan; and the raised bog NHA network review by the RPS Group undertaken for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS.
All stakeholders and the public have had an opportunity to consult and make submissions to those documents. None of those documents mention the de-designation of blanket bogs.
At the 11th hour, a few days before the Christmas break, the Government introduced amendments to include blanket bogs within the scope of the de-designation review process. I remind the House that we were initially talking about raised bogs but this was brought in at the last minute to include blanket bogs, which is a different type of habitat. None of the stakeholders I have spoken to was informed that blanket bogs were to be included in the Government’s review. BirdWatch Ireland, the Irish Wildlife Trust and the Irish Peatland Conservation Council were not aware of blanket bogs being open for de-designation until I spoke to them last week.
On 6 February 2019, the Joint Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht discussed the preservation of the biodiversity and ecosystems of peatlands. In that committee, no mention was made of plans to de-designate blanket bogs.
I call on the Minister to withdraw her amendments that include blanket bogs as there has been no public consultation with the public on them.
Data have not been provided to show that there is a need for this review of blanket bogs. I want to know from the Minister the scientific basis she has for the creation of a power to de-designate blanket bogs in natural heritage areas. Is she planning to have a consultation process to open this to a large variety of stakeholders, including members of the public? Does she have some research she can share with Members with regard to the blanket bogs and the reason they have been inserted in this legislation at the last minute?
I support what other Senators said earlier. Without a doubt there has been a long process with regard to raised bogs but there has been nothing with regard to blanket bogs, which is a whole other area that supports a very large diversity of habitats and communities of plants and animals. Is there is an existing cut turf bank in a blanket bog NHA or SAC that turf cutters still have a right to cut? Those activities are not restricted. However, a new turf bank cannot be opened. We have not seen any progress towards setting conservation objectives for blanket bogs and promised management plans have not materialised. There has been serious delay by the Department and the NPWS in designating new natural heritage areas and SACs.
The Minister has interrupted a 12-year consultation process at the 11th hour to include blanket bogs without informing the stakeholders in that process. With regard to raised bogs, the proper time has been taken and consultation has happened in the right manner but I am concerned about the upland and lowland blanket bogs and the slipping in of an amendment at the last moment. I reserve the right to bring forward amendments on the next Stage of the Bill.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Táim ag ceapadh go bhfuil a fhios aige chomh maith is atá a fhios agam faoi phortaigh. Tá seans ann go raibh sé féin ag baint móna i bportach timpeall ar Mhaigh Cuilinn siar sa lá. They say that one can know somebody who spent a lot of time on the bog by looking at his or her hands. I know the Cathaoirleach and the Minister of State have done so.
They have gloves now.
Well they did not in our time. I also know that the Minister of State spent time up in the bog. He knows what it is like to cut turf, spread it, wait for it to dry, bring it out to the side of the road, and then get a tractor and bring it home. That was the staple diet for people like us, working-class people, in places like Connemara. We did not have oil or anything like that. I strongly welcome this Bill. Fair play to the Minister of State and his civil servant colleagues who worked on it. It arises from an evidence-based study. There has not been consultation in the past but there has been on this occasion. The lack of consultation in the past caused serious issues. I particularly welcome the key factors the Minister of State, his team and the study group considered, which included the economic, social and cultural impacts on communities, because these impacts are different for different communities. This is particularly so for poorer communities in the west that are totally dependent on the bog.
I want to put one particularly important fact on the record. People where I come from, and I am sure people from many other areas as well, who are dependent on the bog and turf cutting were the best environmentalists one could find because they believed in the land. The land was and still is so important to them. I suggest that we keep that in mind. Turf cutting is a way of life for these people and it is important that is not changed. It is still a way of life for them, even though they can now get oil and have electricity. People still want to go and cut their own turf up in the bog. This Bill recognises that and I support it for that reason.
There are one or two factors which I ask the Minister of State to consider. One is that, as I said earlier, people who cut turf have traditionally come from lower income areas. Whatever turf one cuts is taken into account in determining social welfare payments or the dole. That should be reconsidered. It is a broad issue which does not only come under the Minister of State's Department. I suggest he speak to the relevant Department and Minister in that regard because it is neither fair nor reasonable that this is taken into account.
I very much welcome section 4(5) which gives the Minister the flexibility to review the situation on an ongoing basis. That is really important. It is important that existing practices and uses be considered. For example, there are some uses, including the recreational use of bogland, in different areas close to Maigh Cuilinn and An Spidéal which need to be preserved and recognised. The status quo in that regard needs to be maintained. I may propose some amendments at a later stage.
The Senator brought a smile to my face as he reminded me of times when I would bring two donkeys down cosán an ghabhair. They would lie down about 300 yd from the house with the baskets and one would have to unload and reload again. That is history. I call on Senator Paddy Burke and remind the House that we are due to finish in six minutes.
I will be brief. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I also welcome the Bill. It is a very good Bill. As Senator Ó Céidigh said, all of our generation have been in the bog. There is still nothing better than a day in the bog.
Will the next generation?
Part of the next generation probably will.
There are some days in here when I think we are still in the bog.
It is still a great day for one's head. This Bill covers that. There are two areas on which I would like to speak. One is an issue which I have mentioned here before, namely, protected species. We have our own problems with protected species in Mayo, and I have no doubt the Minister of State has similar problems in Galway. I would like his Department to have a look at areas where there is supposed to have been displacement of species. Over the past 25 or 30 years significant development has taken place in the country and there were many issues in respect of the displacement of snails, birds and everything else. I would like the Department to carry out an assessment of whether displaced species have come back to the areas from which they are supposed to have been displaced. Planning permission was refused for a wind farm in our area because it would displace red grouse. The farmer on whose land the windmills are operating to this day informs me that red grouse are nesting under the windmills. Many other species were also supposed to have been displaced.
I may go into the Bill in more detail and bring forward an amendment to strengthen the proposed new section 5(b) of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 which gives to the Minister of the day the power to "make an order to amend or revoke the natural heritage area order which so designated the land." This has been missing from Bills over recent years. I welcome this section because there are areas which should be taken out and others that should probably be included. I have seen a number of golf courses built in our areas and along the whole west coast in recent years. Planning permission for the last golf links in Ireland has been given. There cannot be any further golf links built in Ireland. This section could deal with many of those issues. I welcome it because it gives power to the Minister of the day but I believe it could be strengthened. I will consider tabling an amendment to the section on Committee Stage because this has been missing and we could have a better Bill if it was strengthened.
How much time do I have?
We already extended the debate by ten minutes to 5.55 p.m. The debate will not conclude but will adjourn.
There are positive elements in the Bill, some of which have been highlighted. There has been a 12-year consultation with many stakeholders on certain aspects of the Bill in respect of raised bogs. The designation of 25 new natural heritage areas is positive and needed. The Bill includes, as it must, the special areas of conservation. We need to be very clear that these are not being included out of virtue. Those special areas of conservation are already designated and we are obliged to preserve them under European law. It is very important that a situation does not arise in which the obligation on us to preserve these special areas of conservation is used to counterbalance or justify the removal of natural heritage area status from other areas.
I refer to getting rid of resources. There is a major issue regarding the need to scale up resources and the restoration of peatlands. That is positive. Monitoring is also positive. The fact that we take positive steps forward, however, should not justify backward steps. If we do take steps to de-designate, then that is a serious issue. It is important that we be clear on how this has been framed and how it was framed in the newspapers in September and December. One headline referred to the coalition succeeding in de-designating NHA bogs. The big area of concern is de-designation. It would be different if this Bill simply stated that the Minister might consider making new regulations or orders. The fact is, however, that it involves revocation of orders not only in respect of raised bogs, which have been discussed, but also blanket bogs. The latter were added at a very late stage. My colleague, Senator Grace O'Sullivan, spoke about blanket bogs. They are recognised as a particularly important area of heritage and conservation but were added in at the 11th hour.
We are also at the 11th hour in the context of our climate change targets. The Minister of State did not refer to our climate targets and how they should be factored and nor does the Bill. The landscape has literally changed during this long period of consultation. We have a dual crisis. We are looking at biodiversity - and the conservation thereof - and climate change. Those two issues need to be addressed. A bog may have been degraded to a point where it may no longer be possible to restore biodiversity to its full environmental and conservation capacity, but that bog may still have significance in the context of Ireland achieving its climate change targets. I refer to carbon capture and the reduction of emissions. It will have significance in that regard.
I want to be very clear on this matter. I absolutely support the idea of social sustainability. Turbary rights are very important, as are seaweed rights. These are our traditional rights. The stories we have been hearing of people who like to cut their own turf are important. That is, however, already recognised. It could perhaps be strengthened. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Senator Ó Céidigh suggested that turbary rights should not be set against a fuel allowance in respect of those coping with fuel poverty. That is a sensible suggestion and I would be happy to bring it to the committee. Turbary rights, however, allow people to go to the bog and take turf for household use.
It is already acknowledged that this is allowed where there has already been cutting in NHAs. Let us be clear, however. De-designation is about commercial turf cutting; it is about opening up areas up for widescale commercial use. This is happening at the same time that we are acknowledging we are hitting the end of the fossil fuel era. This is about commercial exploitation and a "last orders" mindset whereby we cut as much as we can. There is also an intergenerational issue here. I would like to see families passing on turbary rights for many generations to come. The use of sausage machines and the industrialisation of bog cutting, however, means we have seen generations of turbary rights being used up by one generation. We are also seeing generations who will have to deal with climate change being ill served by this measure.
My final point relates to the Minister of State declaring that he will advertise in local newspapers when he wishes to de-designate. He should also advertise those de-designations in national and, perhaps, European newspapers. I state that because when we agree to extract fossil fuels on a large commercial scale, that is an issue that affects everybody. There are positive aspects in this Bill but I really regret the inclusion of blanket bogs. That was a poor step. We need to include the pollinator plan and our climate targets to ensure it is fit for purpose.
Senator Mulherin has one minute available to her if she wishes to use it. We have already extended by ten minutes. There is another Bill following and this matter will have to be adjourned to another day. I call Senator Mulherin for a brief contribution.
The Minister of State will be well aware that environmental designation of land can have a severe impact on the ability of human beings to pursue legitimate socioeconomic objectives. I point to the western seaboard, and the west in general, as an example of where most of the lands designated as SACs are located. Contrary to what one might assume, a major road can run through an SAC and still be designated as an SAC. An attempt to take a dangerous turn out of that road will be crippled. It takes years. I can point to an example in the Minister of State's constituency. I refer to the N59 from Galway to Clifden. The amount of investigation that has gone on involving the National Parks and Wildlife Service is ridiculous. There have been 17 consultations concerning the decision to improve that road. The Minister of State knows the lie of the land there better than I do. I can, however, vouch for the same problem in County Mayo. We are years behind. Taxpayers have spent millions of euro trying to find transport solutions in respect of the N26. That has been held back by freshwater pearl mussels and by alluvial woodland. If the Minister of State went down there now, looked at the road and at either side of it, he would ask what is the problem.
We are not talking about virgin wilderness or where people went into bogs. These areas where there is a legitimate objective for human beings to develop, prosper and grow. Finally, when the Minister of State returns the next day perhaps he might be able to give us some information on the conservation objectives set out under the habitats and birds directives. They have been put in place in respect of each SAC by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. When are we going to have management plans for each of those so we can get a better balance between wildlife and human beings? It is not happening. There is massive frustration that it takes years to get a pokey road upgraded whereas other parts of the country can build superhighways. They have them done. That situation is putting us behind from a socioeconomic point of view. It has to be addressed.
A suggestion was made to me that this debate might be extended until 6.05 p.m. to allow the Minister of State to respond. The Leader will have to move that suggestion formally.
I propose that the time for the Minister of State to reply be extended.
Is that agreed? Agreed. The Minister of State has until 6.05 p.m. to conclude. He can come back on another day if he wishes, of course.
It is up to the House.
We will see how the Minister of State gets on. He has approximately eight minutes.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I also thank all of the Senators for their contributions. I acknowledge the work of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, and the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, in taking this through.
I will deal with some of the issues raised. Senator Ned O'Sullivan mentioned those involved. I referred to Deputy Ó Cuív. I do not have the date, but I understand there was much discussion regarding blanket bogs on Committee Stage. I was not in the Department at that time but I understand it was the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, who agreed to look again at the suggestion regarding blanket bogs. The amendments came from that debate prior to Christmas.
I also acknowledge the role of the former Deputy and Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Mr. Jimmy Deenihan, as has been mentioned, and some of the good points made on fuel poverty and rural incomes. Many people in these Houses and beyond have a long association with turf cutting. The cessation of turf cutting scheme was established in 2011 for active turf cutters. That arose from the cessation of turf cutting on raised bog SACs. It was extended in 2014 to include the NHAs. A significant amount of funding has been contributed by the State in that regard.
Senator Boyhan spoke of the reconfiguration being positive in respect of our EU requirements on SACs. Senator Hopkins, likewise, referred to the reconfiguration of SACs and the significant impact of de-designation. Turf cutters have expressed emotion and passion over many years since the cessation schemes were instigated and turf cutting stopped.
The costs and bad publicity that the National Parks and Wildlife Service has endured, unfortunately, for enforcing the law and the associated difficulties have not provided a good setting for what is an important debate. I am pleased that the review and work carried out by the officials in the Department have in some way resolved the difficulties from those early years.
Senators O'Sullivan, Warfield and Boyhan referred to the efforts that have been made. Significant efforts have been made by the State to resolve the issues of protection of Ireland's raised bogs and special areas of conservation within the framework of the habitats directive and national heritage areas. These include the establishment of the Peatlands Council, intensive and ongoing engagement with turf cutting interests, the farming community, non-governmental organisations and the European Commission. We have also seen the establishment of long-term compensation schemes.
Senator Hopkins referred to relocation and the Peatlands Council community engagement pilot scheme 2018. The scheme served to encourage local communities, groups, schools and individuals to engage with the Department on conservation and revitalisation of special areas of conservation. The scheme was developed to grant funds to local community groups, organisations and individuals to support a diverse range of initiatives with community benefit. Under the 2018 scheme, the Minister approved grant funding of a little less than €137,000 in total to 12 local community groups with a focus on conservation and revitalisation of special areas of conservation and natural heritage areas. It is expected the same will apply for 2019.
Senator Warfield referred to the large-scale peat extraction. I am supportive of the regulations of both Ministers. The Ministers made new regulations to provide for an exemption from planning permission for large-scale peat extraction activity coming under the consent system operated by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. These regulations came into operation on 25 January. Corresponding supplementary regulations provide that large-scale peat extraction involving an area of 30 ha or more shall be an activity controlled by the integrated pollution control licensing under the EPA. These regulations came into force on 25 January.
Senator O'Sullivan referred to public consultation. The main task of any future review of blanket bog natural heritage areas would be to assess how these sites could contribute to the national conservation objective of restoring blanket bog habitats to favourable conservation status. The Senator welcomed some aspects of the consultation process, including the peatlands strategy, and referred to the blanket bogs. While the amendments came in December, the matter was discussed and flagged on Committee Stage. They were proposed by Deputy Ó Cuív. As I recall it, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht at the time, Deputy Humphreys, indicated that she would look at the matter on Report Stage, which was done subsequently.
Was there consultation?
No, but the matter was discussed on Committee Stage. It was flagged as a possibility.
Senator Ó Céidigh referred to the long and proud tradition in many rural areas where, to be blunt about it, turf and fishing in the sea were all that people had. It was a way of life and it sustained many families. I accept the point made by the Senator - Senator Higgins mentioned this too - that it is something we could take to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty.
Senators Ó Céidigh, Paddy Burke and Mulherin referred to the de-designation of certain areas. We all know the story about major road infrastructure and minor road infrastructure if a person is impacted by a designated area. Although powers will be given to the Minister, this will not be a blanket policy. A process must be undergone for any de-designation. I understand the Senators have indicated that they may look at amendments in this area.
Senator Higgins referred to raised bogs and to the designation of 25 new areas as being positive. These are mainly State-owned lands. One of the things we often hear is that the State is attacking the little guy while ignoring its own responsibilities. We are now looking at designating and restoring State lands. Since they are larger areas, they will have more of an impact on the total network. The total network of raised bogs will increase rather than reduce. There will be a reconfiguration along those lines.
The question of blanket bogs was discussed on Committee Stage. Senator O'Sullivan is right about climate change and blanket bogs. Clearly bogs, have an important role to play in climate change initiatives. That is why the reconfiguration is adding to the total network rather than reducing it. I would welcome additional designations of particular State-owned land. It is easier and the State has control of these large areas. If additional areas of raised bog that are State-owned could be designated then I would welcome it. Senator O'Sullivan mentioned local, national and European newspapers. Again, I will look at the matter with officials in respect of the requirements.
Senator Mulherin mentioned issues regarding roads. There are ongoing problems on the improvement of roads. Roads are not improved for the fun of it but predominately to improve road safety and reduce the risk of accidents and of lives being lost. A balance must be struck between protecting the environment and the necessity to improve driving conditions, making roads safer and saving lives. It is complex but I am conscious of the importance of it.
I thank Senators for their support in the areas they are supporting while acknowledging the concerns that many have raised. I commend the Bill to the House.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.