Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 20 Oct 2021

Vol. 279 No. 8

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Planning Issues

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, to the House. Page 112 of the Housing For All document talks about extending planning exemptions to 2025 to complement Town Centre First objectives, "We will review and extend the regulations that exempt certain vacant commercial premises, such as 'over the shop' type spaces, from requiring planning permission for change of use". It puts the timeline of quarter 4 of this year beside the objective.

I have been raising this issue since my election to the Seanad. It was one of the very first issues I raised on the floor of the Seanad. The changes that were introduced by the Minister of State's predecessor with the same portfolio, the Minister of State, Deputy English, in February 2018 to exempt certain classes of commercial premises from the requirement to seek panning permission if the building was to be utilised for residential use was a very welcome move.

The aim of the exemption was to add much-needed housing stock while also maximising the use of vacant and underutilised spaces. I have seen evidence of it working in my own city of Waterford where more than 20 housing units have been delivered via this planning exemption. Many more, however, could, and should, have been delivered with the use of this exemption if it had been extended to former pubs. I do not believe it was ever the intention of the Minister of State or his officials to exclude former pubs from the planning exemption but the issue lies in the fact that pubs are not a particular class of building covered by the exemption. Pubs, in fact, do not have a particular class, to my knowledge.

While I understand that some local authorities have been using a liberal approach to the regulations, there is no doubt that an issue will arise down the line if and when the owner tries to sell the building as they were not be in compliance.

Article 6 of the planning and development regulations, 2001 to 2019, exempts certain changes of use, including change of use from use as a public house to use as a shop. Article 10(6) permits a change of use from a shop to a residential use. However, I understand that to avail of this particular exemption, it has to be considered that the premises was in use as a shop for a period of 12 months, which is counter-intuitive and would again add to delays when we are trying to speed up delivery here. Logic suggests that someone should be able to go from a pub directly to residential use without establishing that intermediate retail use.

As the Minister of State will be aware, Waterford has been to the forefront in bringing derelict and vacant properties back into use under the repair and leasing scheme. Some 50% of all repair and leasing units in the country have been delivered in my own county and I compliment the team at Waterford City and County Council and the owners of properties who have engaged with the scheme to bring these properties back into use.

This exemption needs to be extended to pubs because I have examples in the past 12 months alone of people who have been looking to deliver units under the repair and leasing scheme to Waterford City and County Council and have been stuck in a planning process of six, eight or nine months while attracting large development contributions for bringing back a pub into residential use. The owner of the shop, however, on the other corner of the street directly facing that former pub can deliver its four units without the need to go to the planning process. I know that this is something that the Minister of State is looking at and that as a Government we are committed to doing more in this space to bring former derelict and underutilised spaces back into use but I ask him to expedite the extension of this exemption to pubs without delay.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and I acknowledge his work in this area because he has been consistently bringing this matter to the forefront of our Department since his election to the Seanad.

By way of background, the Planning and Development (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations 2018 which came into operation on 8 February 2018, provide for an exemption from the requirement to obtain planning permission in respect of a change of use of certain vacant commercial premises, including vacant areas above ground floor premises, to residential use. This measure was aimed at facilitating the productive reuse of qualifying vacant commercial buildings as homes, while also facilitating urban renewal and the bringing on stream of increased housing supply.

The 2018 regulations were due to lapse on 31 December 2021 but this deadline was extended to February 2022 arising from a Covid-related extension of planning timelines last year. The Government and I recognised that to resolve the housing crisis, we need to give consideration to every viable and sustainable option at our disposal, including converting existing vacant commercial premises to residential use. Current measures to facilitate this include, as mentioned by the Senator, the repair and leasing scheme, which was introduced to assist property owners in bringing vacant properties back into use for social housing purposes, and the buy and renew scheme, which supports local authorities in purchasing and renewing housing units in need of repair which can then be made available for social housing use.

The recently published Housing for All - a New Housing Plan for Ireland includes a further number of new measures to help revitalise towns. These include a new local authority-led programme to help local authorities buy or compulsorily purchase 2,500 vacant homes in their areas, which can then be sold on the open market, with a view to ensuring those homes do not remain vacant. The croí cónaithe (towns) fund will be delivered by local authorities for the provision of serviced sites for housing to attract people to build their homes and to support the refurbishment of vacant properties, enabling people to live in small towns and villages in a sustainable way.

Housing for All further commits to reviewing and extending the 2018 regulations that exempt certain vacant commercial premises from the requirement to obtain planning permission for change of use to residential purposes to the end of 2025. This review is currently under way in my Department and will be completed by the end of the year. This review is looking at a number of potential amendments, including the provision of an exemption for the conversion or pubs to residential use, which could be made to the current regulations.

A notable feature in recent years, as the Senator mentioned, is the number of pubs that have closed, particularly in rural towns and villages, which is impacting on their vibrancy. While the idea of exempting the conversion of pubs to residential use may initially seem positive, we are taking a few considerations into account in this regard, including the size, location, the zoning of pubs and what exemption thresholds might be applied in this regard. My Department is currently working on a detailed review of this proposal with a view to feeding into the draft regulations, which it is intended to submit to the Oireachtas for approval shortly.

It should be noted, however, that under section 262(4) of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, legislative proposals on exempted development require the approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas before they can be signed into law.

Once again, I acknowledge the Senator for raising this important issue. We will be in a position to bring forward draft legislative proposals, including the extending of the timeline, and scope, as alluded to in his contribution, of the current 2018 regulations, to the Oireachtas shortly.

I thank the Minister of State and I welcome him to the Chamber, as always. I ask the Senator to respond to him and he has one minute to do so.

I thank the Minister of State. We all know that this is about speed of delivery and removing roadblocks. In my experience of dealing with this scheme, particularly the repair and leasing scheme, this is one such roadblock. Former public houses in Waterford city have been transformed and they have people currently living in them. It is a great success so I ask the Minister of State when those regulations are being revised not to set any sort of onerous threshold on people being able to bring former pubs back into use for residential use. We all know that there are former pubs in every town, village and city , many of which are derelict and are a blot on the landscape of an area. I cannot think of any better use if those buildings could be utilised for housing purposes at this time of housing need. I ask the Minister of State to expedite this matter, as I know he is committed to doing so, and I hope that the regulations will allow for the liberal use of the exemptions. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach.

I thank both the Leas-Chathaoirleach and Senator Cummins again this Commencement matter. It must be very workable for everyone to achieve a balance in our towns, villages and cities, as the Senator has referred to in Waterford, to ensure that we can bring vacant properties back into use. I have not had sight of the finalised review as of yet but I am in full agreement with the Senator that it should allow for the bringing of commercial premises, such as pubs, into residential use.

I do not believe that anyone in Government wants any onerous, difficult conditions that have to be met to do this because the figures speak for themselves in the challenge we have to address in getting vacant properties back into use. We do not want to put any impediments in people's way to deliver that.

I acknowledge the great work that has been done in Waterford in having such a share of the whole country in the repair and leasing scheme and the way in which the Senator's own local authority, together with him, are working proactively with developers to try to bring vacant properties back into use as sustainable tenancies for all in the community. I acknowledge that great work and thank the House.

National Monuments

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to take this Commencement matter. I am looking for an update on when works will commence on the 1916 commemorative centre in Moore Street and on the regeneration of the street market. The Minister of State knows that Moore Street is at the heart of our capital city. It is a street where there has been market and street trading for generations, dating back to the 18th century. Fruit and vegetable traders are on the street, as well as shops and traders who live and trade on the street.

Over recent decades the street has deteriorated. It has been terribly neglected by the State and the city council to the point where there are very few owner-traders left on the street. Buckley's and Troy's are the only shop owners on the street, and street traders have been neglected for years and left without public lighting, running water and access to electricity. It is absolutely disgraceful how Dublin City Council has treated street traders. Those people have kept the street alive.

The street is also the birthplace of our Republic. Back on 24 April 1916, Pádraig Pearse, James Connolly and Joseph Plunkett led their soldiers to the GPO. For five days they battled with the British to assert our independence. They evacuated the GPO through Henry Street and Henry Place, onto Moore Lane and into Moore Street. The last meeting place and headquarters of the 1916 Rising was at 14-17 Moore Street. It was in 15 Moore Street that nurse Elizabeth O'Farrell made the surrender.

That site has been designated as a national monument for a very long time. Since I was first elected in 2004, no more than all of the relatives and those who trade on the street, I have worked for years with the State to try to regenerate the street and commemorate our history. I brought all of the reports on Moore Street with me today. What I have here is only a fraction of them. I could go on. There is a report on the Moore Street battlefield site, an architectural report, a securing history report and a citizens plan. There are nearly more reports than there were volunteers in the GPO. The State needs to step up to the plate.

There are two final reports. I chaired the Moore Street expert group on Dublin City Council before I was appointed to the Seanad. We made strong recommendations to create a vibrant and diverse market that speaks to the future as well as respecting our past. In May this year, I was delighted to be the Fianna Fáil representative, along with my colleague, Councillor Eimear McCormack, on the Minister's advisory group. We produced a third securing history report which makes strong recommendations for the national monument and street market.

It is unreasonable for us to expect anybody to respect the street when the State is not respecting history and street traders. I hope the Minister of State can give us some good news today regarding a commencement date for the work on the national monument at 14-17 Moore Street and a commemorative centre. A great vision document has been produced by the Irish Heritage Trust. I hope the Minister of State will be able to advise the House today on a commencement date for that. I also hope he will be able to advise us on when Dublin City Council will get its act together and regenerate the street market.

I thank Senator Fitzpatrick for her very important Commencement matter. In March, €121,285,388 was allocated to Dublin City Council in respect of the north inner city concept area 1 under call 2 of the urban regeneration and development fund. The north inner city project involves the regeneration and redevelopment of several areas of the north city that have experienced a degree of decline and dereliction over a number of years, resulting in poor perception issues and the depiction of an area that the market has now forgotten.

The main objective of this project is to achieve long-term sustainable regeneration around the redevelopment of various areas, centred around the fruit and vegetable market, Parnell Square and Mountjoy Square. Complementary projects include the Moore Street public realm renewal works, with the intention of reactivating one of the most important trading assets in the city, along with structural and restoration works to the national monument at 14-17 Moore Street. Work on the national monument, which is in the ownership of the Department, will facilitate the protection and use of these historical buildings as an iconic heritage and visitor attraction in the form of a 1916 commemorative centre, along with the rejuvenation of the historic street.

The regeneration of Moore Street market and street is a matter for Dublin City Council and I am assured by the expert advisory group appointed in this regard. The Moore Street advisory group, of which the Senator is a valued member, recommended in its report to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, earlier this year that the process embarked on by the OPW and the national monument service of the Department to restore the national monument and open it up to the public as soon as possible will continue.

Officials from the Department and the OPW have liaised in order to progress this. I understand the OPW is in the process of appointing a team to carry out phase 1 essential works to the monument which will ensure stability and provide a pathway for the phase 2 completion works to commence. I am sure the Senator will appreciate that the Minister and Minister of State are keen that these essential works commence as soon as possible and without any further delay. I can assure the Senator, on their behalf, that plans are under way for the sensitive and respectful restoration of the monument, along with a visitor centre to the rear, to progress as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister of State. I am really concerned. I have no doubt that the Ministers of State, Deputies Burke and Noonan, and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, understand the value of Moore Street. They are committed to a sense of regeneration and commemoration of our history on Moore Street and the rejuvenation of the street market.

I have grave concerns that despite the €121 million given to Dublin City Council it is not moving ahead and using those funds in a way that would deliver the type of restoration of the national monument and regeneration of the street market that is desperately needed. I ask that the Minister of State have a meeting with the CEO of Dublin City Council and seek from him a report giving absolute timelines that work will progress on the street. It is not good enough for us to allow the neglect, decay and deterioration of the street to continue. There was some excuse during Covid, but we are all re-emerging from it now.

We have a vision for Moore Street that respects the past and embraces the future. The Minister of State, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, share that vision. I ask them to seek an urgent meeting with the CEO of Dublin City Council and secure from him an absolute commitment on when works will commence on the street. I also ask him to arrange a meeting of the Moore Street advisory group with the OPW and the Department to understand their timelines for the commencement of works on the commemorative museum.

I thank Senator Fitzpatrick for her comments and acknowledge the genuine concern that she has about this area. We all share that and it is very important that we put that point across.

I will raise with the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, the Senator's request to meet with the Dublin city manager to try to progress a distinct timeline for when work will commence. I met the management of Dublin City Council last week to discuss projects in other areas of the north inner city that have been delayed and which we are trying to progress. This specific issue is the responsibility of the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister. I will seek a commitment from them to have a meeting.

I will also seek a meeting with the advisory group and OPW in order to establish a timeline for the commencement of phase 1 of the works. I appreciate the value Moore Street has for the community and how important an area it is. We need to display urgency on behalf of the State in getting works under way because it is something that will underwrite the community into the future once it is done.

Renewable Energy Generation

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Across the country, homes, schools, community buildings, farms and businesses are crying out to generate their own solar energy but, unfortunately, the restrictive planning framework for solar generation has undermined progress in this regard. Planning regulations currently require planning permission for all but the smallest of solar panel installations on homes or businesses which are exempt. This has had a major chilling effect in rolling out solar energy generation. The problem is even worse for schools and community groups because there is no exemption, even for smaller installations, on their buildings. This means that planning permission is required for all solar installations on educational or community buildings. As a result, schools and community groups are locked out and cannot share the benefits of renewables. In the rare circumstances where schools decide to plough ahead, they are at a disadvantage because the requirement to obtain planning permission adds €5,000 to €7,000 to the cost of installing solar panels.

Before I go on, I want to make it very clear that I am not against strong planning regulation. In fact, I am in favour of greater democratisation of the planning system and more curbs on the ability of vested interests to manipulate that system to their own benefit. I also very strongly oppose any attempts being made by this Government to undermine the public's ability to engage with the planning process. If there was ever a case for less red tape in the planning system, then surely putting in place rooftop solar arrays on primary schools in the middle of a climate crisis is it.

For the past two years, there have been nothing excuses and delays. Successive Governments have committed to updating the regulations. There were specific commitments in the Climate Action Plan 2019, including a commitment for the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to complete a review of the regulations in the fourth quarter of 2019. In 2020, the Department was still conducting that review and it is still doing so in 2021. What is the status of the review?

A new roadblock was then thrown up. I refer to the supposed need for a review of the potential for glare and glint to impact on aircraft around airports. This is news as Dublin Airport has just opened its own solar farm. At this stage, it is farcical that schools are not able to put up solar panels without planning permission. In response to a parliamentary question tabled in June, the Minister of State indicated that the tendering process for this research had not been completed, let alone the research itself. When is the research on glint and glare going to be completed?

In January we were told that we would get interim planning regulations which would at least allow for greater solar installations, excluding installations in the vicinity of airports to allow for detailed analysis of the potential for airport exclusion zones to be finalised. In April we were told that the revised regulations for solar panel exemptions would be submitted to the Oireachtas for approval shortly. In June it was claimed that a strategic environmental assessment was needed and that interim regulations would instead be put in place in the fourth quarter. However, the full strategic environmental assessment process only started in earnest in September and an associated public consultation will only commence in November. The result of this is that the interim regulations are now set to be completed in early 2022.

Why is it that Ireland suffers these difficulties when other European countries do not? It does not bode well for the climate action we are going to have to take. Can we hear when we will be done, once and for all, with the excuses and delays? When will the interim regulations be delivered to the Oireachtas to allow schools and community groups to participate in the transition to a decarbonised future?

I thank Senator Boylan for raising this very important issue. To provide some background, under the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, all development, unless specifically exempted under the Act or associated regulations, requires planning permission. Various exemptions from the requirement to obtain planning permission are set out in the Act and regulations and these exemptions are subject to compliance with general restrictions on exemptions set out in the Act and regulations. Included among the planning exemptions are those applying to the installation of solar infrastructure on a variety of building types including houses, business premises and industrial and agricultural buildings, to which specific conditions are attached. My Department, in the context of the climate action plan and in consultation with the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications, has undertaken a review of the existing solar panel planning exemptions set out in the regulations, with a particular focus on facilitating increased self-generation of electricity and in recognition of the limitations of the current exemptions. This review is now complete. Substantial changes to the current planning exemption thresholds for solar panels are proposed, in addition to the introduction of new classes of solar panel planning exemptions relating to their use in apartments and in educational, community and religious buildings.

In light of the need to appropriately address aviation safety concerns arising from the glint and glare impacts of solar panels and the easing of the solar panel planning exemption thresholds, my Department is in the process of commissioning the development of detailed aviation safeguarding maps which will identify and delineate specific but limited areas in the vicinity of airports and aerodromes, referred to as exclusion zones, within which the exemptions will not apply. Project scoping feedback has been received from interested parties through the draft request for tender process and has been considered by my Department in the development of the final tender documentation. My Department intends to publish the call for tender imminently.

While this work is ongoing, my Department has advanced interim regulations, adopting a temporary, albeit more stringent, approach incorporating initial defined exclusion zones around airports and aerodromes. These interim regulations, allowing for increased solar panel planning exemptions, will cover the vast majority of the land area of the country, only excluding those limited exclusion zones around airports and aerodromes.

The draft interim regulations have been reviewed under the strategic environmental assessment, SEA, directive, 2001/42/EC, and it is considered that they are likely to have significant effects on the environment, thereby necessitating the undertaking of a full SEA on the draft proposals. The Senator referred to this in the context of the need for a robust planning system. The completion of the SEA screening stage has been delayed by a further requirement for completion of screening for appropriate assessment, AA, under the habitats directive, by my Department's ecological assessment unit. Once this AA screening process is complete, a formal SEA process will commence with scoping of the SEA. Following the latter, the SEA environmental report will be published alongside draft interim regulations for a period of public consultation of not less than four weeks. This public consultation is expected to commence in December. Written submissions or observations will be taken into consideration before finalisation of the draft interim regulations in the first quarter of 2022.

As required under planning legislation, the proposed exempted development regulations must be laid in draft form before the Houses of the Oireachtas and receive a positive resolution from both Houses before they can be made and the SEA process concluded. Accordingly, the process for finalising the interim solar panel planning exemptions as referred to above, with interim exclusion zones around airports and aerodromes and allowing for the vast majority of the country to be covered by the exemptions, is now expected to be completed in early 2022.

Work on the development of the aviation safeguarding maps for airports and aerodromes is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2022. The final supplementary set of regulations, which will delineate the final exclusion areas around airports and aerodromes in which the exemptions will not apply, will be prepared thereafter and, subject to environmental reporting considerations, will subsequently be laid in draft form before the Houses of the Oireachtas for approval.

I thank the Minister of State for outlining all of the roadblocks that are in place and for saying there is a deadline of early 2022. I hope that deadline will actually be the deadline and that it will not move again, as it has previously. This will come as little comfort to schools and community groups that are desperate to be part of the transition and to do their part for climate action. It does not bode well because this is the low-hanging fruit as regards climate action. When we know there are enormous changes to be made, if we cannot get the low-hanging fruit right, I have serious concerns as to how we are to implement carbon budgets when they finally come before this House.

I again thank Senator Boylan for raising this very important issue. I appreciate the concerns in the community with regard to getting this up and running because it is the low-hanging fruit and will aid in building a sustainable model in our communities.

We will progress as quickly as possible and there is urgency in the Department on it. We have to comply with the directives and ensure we have the scoping documentation and seek public consultation on it. We will come back to both Houses of the Oireachtas to approve the draft guidelines. I assure the House there is huge urgency in the Department to progress this and get it right. Communities need it. It is essential and it will make them more sustainable.

Agriculture Schemes

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am sharing time on this with Senator Kyne, who comes from the same type of area as I do, as does the Cathaoirleach. There was a huge fire in Killarney during the summer. Fires pose great problems for many people and many farmers. A fire on commonage, in forestry or on any land can be started by fishers, campers, hillwalkers or various people who can be lackadaisical in throwing away cigarette butts or starting a campfire for a picnic and failing to put it out properly, with the result that commonage, land or forestry in many cases can be burned. This leads to the destruction of habitats. The penalties are in place because of the destruction of habitats. This is most unfair. A fire can be started on one farm and spread to the next farm. All farmers are penalised. Commonage holders are also penalised. The result is that their farm payments are reduced. The penalty is that no payment is made on the burnt land. There is also a penalty on the payment for the farmer's remaining land. Many farmers have appealed these decisions and where evidence was provided that the farmer did not start the fire the Department removed the penalty on the remaining lands but still issued no payment on the burnt land. This is very unfair if a person is not responsible.

Farmers must always appeal in these circumstances. They should not have to do this. Only the person found to have been responsible for starting the fire should be penalised. There should not be any penalty imposed on any other farmer, landowner or recipient of farm payments. This is a big issue. The National Parks and Wildlife Service has a huge part to play in this. I expect a very positive reply from the Minister of State. If not, I ask him to bring it back to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This is creating great hardship for many farmers. In some cases there is a lot of money involved. Every year brings its own story.

I welcome the Minister of State. I concur with Senator Burke on the concerns about penalties being imposed on farmers. Farmers are very aware of their responsibilities. This has been rumbling for a long number of years with regard to responsibilities for protecting habitats and environments. Depending on conditions and at certain times of the year, fires can spread if started maliciously or accidentally by another individual. They can spread – pardon the pun – like wildfire across commonages, protected areas and forestry. In the Connemara area I have seen the aftermath of such destruction. I have seen fires that have taken place. Depending on the conditions and the time of year, they can run wild. Farmers are penalised and their payments are held up or stopped until such time as investigations take place. I look forward to the response from the Minister of State.

I thank Senators Burke and Kyne for tabling the Commencement matter. I concur with their sentiments. Notwithstanding this, I am stepping in for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine so I will read the response from him. I will raise with him the very valid issues the Senators have raised.

The basic payment scheme is a critical income support paid to farmers. It is fully funded by the EU and is subject to EU regulations. Applicants under the basic payment scheme are allocated payment entitlements and are paid annually on the basis of the number of entitlements held, with the requirement to have an eligible hectare of agricultural land for each payment entitlement. I am sure the Senators are very well aware of this.

It is specified in the 2021 basic payment scheme terms and conditions that land burned during the closed season of 1 March to 31 August in any given year is not eligible for the purpose of payment under the basic payment scheme. Where land has been burned, it is not in a state suitable for an agricultural activity such as grazing or cultivation and, therefore, it is not eligible, except where controlled burning is carried out in accordance with all relevant legislative requirements. Burning of land between 1 March and 31 August in any year is prohibited by law under section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976, as amended by the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000. We are all aware of the loss of wildlife habitats and biodiversity caused by fires, as well as the risk to human life and property.

As required under EU regulations, all applications under the basic payment scheme are subject to robust administrative checks prior to payment. Only valid applications under the basic payment scheme that fully comply with the requirements of the EU legislation are paid. The main element of these administrative checks is an area of assessment which is achieved by using the land parcel identification system. These administrative checks are critical in ensuring the Department meets the rigorous audit requirements at EU and national level. Failure to undertake these administrative checks can result in severe financial penalties for the Department.

As part of these required administrative checks, the Department actively investigates incidents of illegal burning using the most up-to-date technology and satellite imagery. Land declared as eligible on a basic payment scheme application that has subsequently been identified as burned during the closed season may give rise to an overclaim. Such an overclaim will result in a reduction in the eligible area. In addition, as required under the EU regulations, administrative penalties are applied where the area overclaimed is greater than 3% of the area declared. The administrative penalty applied is 1.5 times the difference in hectares between the area declared and area determined, or the number of entitlements held, if lower. The penalty will not exceed 100% of the amount based on the area declared.

Where an overclaim occurs, departmental officials write to the affected applicants setting out the options available to them, including the right to seek a review. Each review is carefully considered individually based on the individual facts of each case. Should applicants disagree with the Department's decision on any review, they have a further right of appeal to the independent Agriculture Appeals Office. All the circumstances are taken into account when considering an appeal.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has raised this matter directly with the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, and he has advised that farmers should appeal any decision taken regarding the basic payment scheme when fires occur through no fault of the applicant. His Department will examine potential ways to bring these farmers back into the scheme. It should be noted that the land is only ineligible in the year the burning took place. It does not affect the land eligibility in subsequent years.

What the Minister of State is saying is that if a fire takes place between 1 March and 31 August the farmer loses money unless the appeal is successful. Even at that, the farmer will have to go through the rigours of the appeal process. These appeals should be fast and simple. They should not be complicated. Farmers who are not responsible for the fires should be fully recompensed immediately. This is the view of all farmers. As the Minister of State well knows, there can be great hardship. Farmers have commitments such as bank payments. There is huge hardship in some cases. I ask the Minister of State to bring back to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine our argument that the appeals process should be easy and determined quickly.

The only person who should be responsible at the end of the day is the person who caused the fire.

I thank Senators Kyne and Burke again for raising the matter. I am from a large rural constituency and fully appreciate and understand how delays can affect farm management. As we all know, farmers are dependent on cash flow and they only receive payments, in many cases, once or twice a year. Farmers must make their cash flow management work for the full year. I understand there should not be any delays in that regard, especially if those farmers have not committed any wrongdoing to cause the fire. I will raise the matter with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and report the comments made by both Senators. We can try to see if we can get further movement in terms of reducing the timeframe of the appeals process.

I also note, as I referenced earlier, that farmers must be conscious of the strict regulatory environment of the EU audit service which is required for these payments. We will do our best to see if we can reduce any burden on our farming community. That is the key and it is what we are all trying to do.

Sitting suspended at 11.21 a.m. and resumed at 11.32 a.m.