Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Ceisteanna (43)

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

43. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to outline the reason she opened a public consultation on draft regulations allowing burning in March of uncultivated land at 5.30 p.m. on the Friday before Christmas to close on 16 January 2019; her views on whether timing public consultations to run over the Christmas period represents good practice; and if she will extend the consultation period to allow for effective engagement by the public and environmental organisations. [1755/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Culture)

At the time of the formation of this Government the programme for Government stated specifically that the Government wanted to do consultation in a new way. It was to be proper consultation and not simply a tick-the-box exercise. The idea was that we really listen with respect to the views before the public service makes a policy decision. Does the Minister believe it is appropriate, therefore, that the public consultation in regard to the burning of vegetation regulations and the strategic plan for the Skellig islands was announced and issued late on Friday, 21 December, the last Friday before Christmas? Does the Minister believe that was an appropriate approach to public consultation given the intention set out in the programme for Government on how the Government will do public consultation properly?

As the Deputy is aware, section 7(1) of the Heritage Act 2018 provides that I, as Minister, make regulations to allow the burning of vegetation during such periods as the month of March in such parts of the country as specified in the regulations. For me to be in a position to make a decision on whether to allow burning in certain areas this March, my Department initiated a public consultation process on the draft regulations and guidelines on 21 December last. Two documents were published. These included draft regulations to permit controlled burning only in March, only in certain parts of the country and only due to adverse weather conditions such as when winter rainfall is higher than average. The second document sets out draft best practice guidelines for burning management. It covers issues such as the requirement for consent on any Natura sites, advice on rotational burning, the prohibition of burning on blanket bog habitat and guidance on how to carry out controlled burning to benefit certain ground-nesting birds, including the hen harrier, red grouse, curlew and golden plover.

While I take the view that publishing these documents over the holiday period gave people the time and space to reflect on the proposals, I appreciate the concerns that have been expressed by several organisations and individuals on the closing date for the receipt of submissions being 16 January. In making the decision on the standard 28-day consultation period, my Department had allowed the latitude to automatically extend that period if stakeholder interests so demanded. My Department decided to exercise that automatic extension on Monday, 7 January last. Therefore, the consultation period referred to by the Deputy for this process is now open up to 31 January. The Deputy may not have been aware of this prior to tabling the question. I believe this deadline will allow all interested parties to be in a position to consider the documents and make submission if they so wish.

I am glad there was an extension but I retain my concern that the opening date for the consultation, late on Friday, 21 December, was not designed to encourage maximum participation. That is a real problem. It gives a sign of the real intent of the Minister and the Department. Furthermore, the document on wildlife burning refers to a period from XXX to YYY on which we are asked to comment, but without knowing what those dates are. Similarly, the document refers to burning taking place in parts of the State set out in Schedule 1 and to the process taking into account the best practice guidelines set out in Schedule 2 of the regulations, but neither schedule was provided. People are being asked to consult on a document in circumstances where the Department has not provided the necessary schedules to allow them to consult properly. The timing and the nature of the consultation documents, which do not include the schedules or timelines to which the regulations refer, send out the signal that the Minister is not serious about this consultation. The Minister is doing a tick-the-box exercise. She has made up her mind and consultation is not real.

I am sorry that Deputy Ryan doubts our bona fides with regard to this public consultation, bearing in mind the fact that we have extended it to allow for further public consultation and to allow people to make submissions on such a necessary topic. It is a complex issue that the Department needed to research. The drafting of the best practice guidelines for burning took longer than anticipated due to the various issues that needed to be covered in the guidelines. It was not a question of waiting until 21 December. It was more a question of not being ready until then. We offered a 28-day consultation period, as I have said. That is at the higher end of standard consultation periods. We allowed for automatic extension, if needed. It was needed in this case. We did that last Monday. It is now a six-week consultation period. There was no statutory obligation on me to consult. It seems I am actually being criticised for acting in good faith. The extension of the deadline to 31 January gives interested parties a reasonable opportunity to consider. Moreover, I did this without being asked by the Oireachtas.

Why did the Minister not include Schedules 1 and 2 to the regulations? Why were they not included in the consultation documents on which people were invited to comment to allow proper consultation?

Several issues are covered in the regulations and best practice guidelines, both of which are now out for public consultation. The regulations will permit controlled burning only and only on the basis of adverse weather conditions, such as where winter rainfall is higher than average. The draft guidelines refer to the requirements for consent on any Natura sites and other relevant legislation on the burning of lands. Advice is provided on rotational burning, since uncontrolled and unplanned burning can result in monoculture and more dominant vegetation types over land areas. The guidelines also state that burning should not be carried out in a blanket bog habitat in any circumstances or in humid mires or wet heaths as this can lead to damage to the moss layer or to the peat itself. The guidelines emphasise that species and habitat considerations should be to the fore prior to embarking on a planned burn. The objectives should always be to return the habitat to its pre-burnt condition in a reasonable timeframe.