Thursday, 12 December 2019

Ceisteanna (12)

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

12. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the status of the relocation of turf cutters; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51119/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Culture)

I know this is an issue close to the Acting Chairman's heart. In 1996, the then Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Michael D. Higgins, signed into law the designation of bogs which led to the ban on turf cutting. Some 23 years later, only 9% of those who sought to be relocated have been relocated. A massive 70% of those turf cutters who sought relocation are still without any plan to provide them with an alternative turf bank.

Deputy Naughten and the Acting Chairman have significant experience in this particular area.

Significant efforts have been made by the State to resolve the issue of the protection of Ireland's raised bog special areas of conservation and natural heritage areas within the framework of the EU habitats directive, including the establishment of a long-term compensation scheme for affected turf cutters.

The cessation of turf cutting compensation scheme was established in 2011 for active turf cutters arising from the cessation of turf cutting on raised bog special areas of conservation. It was extended in 2014 to include natural heritage areas. This scheme is applicable to turf cutters who have been affected by the designation of raised bogs as special areas of conservation and natural heritage areas and who fulfil the qualifying criteria of the scheme. It comprises a payment of €1,500 per annum, index-linked for 15 years, or relocation, where feasible, to a non-designated bog, together with a legal agreement payment of €500.

Up to 2,569 applicants are regularly receiving compensation under the scheme. Of these, 263 have applied for and are awaiting relocation to a non-designated bog. The relocation of turf cutters to a non-designated bog is not always straightforward. Notwithstanding this, progress in relocation has been achieved in several cases. Some 72 turf cutters from 11 different raised bog designated areas have been relocated to non-designated bogs. A further four relocation sites in counties Galway, Roscommon and Westmeath which could accommodate up to 55 turf cutters have been developed by the Department. These are due to be operational from 2020. Relocation sites for a further six special areas of conservation have been identified by the Department and are at various stages of development. These could accommodate a further 50 turf cutters. All of these sites together could accommodate almost 180 of the 263 cutters who expressed a relocation interest. The Department is still investigating suitable relocation sites for seven raised bog special areas of conservation.

In addition, within the framework of the National Raised Bog Special Areas of Conservation Management Plan 2017-2022, the Department is considering the available options in terms of relocation and the provisions of the habitats directive to provide for turf cutting in certain areas of raised bog special areas of conservation. Some 14 sites are under consideration for the possible application of Article 6 of the directive.

While I accept significant efforts have been made to protect bogs, with all due respect, the reality is that little effort has been made to date in actually relocating turf cutters. This is the first test of the just transition programme. At the formation of the Government in May 2016, 68 turf cutters were being accommodated with alternative sites. To date, 72 have been relocated. That is one turf cutter for every year since the Government was formed. Does the Minister believe it is good enough that only four additional families have been relocated over the past four years?

Deputy Naughten referred to the just transition programme. He is familiar with it from his former ministerial portfolio. As part of this programme, on Monday, 11 November, I visited the midlands and met stakeholders, together with the Deputy and the Acting Chairman.

Under the cessation of turf cutting compensation scheme, 150 qualifying applicants from counties Galway and Roscommon have applied for relocation to a non-designated bog within medium range. Up to 37 applicants from designated sites in these two counties have been relocated. One of the designated sites straddles counties Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon. In addition, a further three relocation sites for qualified applications from designated sites in counties Galway and Roscommon, which would accommodate up to 35 turf cutters, have been developed by the Department and are scheduled to be operational from next year.

Up to 61 families, 8% of the total, who expressed an interest in relocation have thrown in the towel as they have been waiting a long time. That is because of the failure to deliver on relocation alternatives for people. The result for those people is that they are now being penalised by the State. The State has failed to provide an alternative site. Now, it deducts from their compensation payment the cost of the turf delivered to them already. I believe that is wrong. Will the Minister treat these people fairly and pay them their just and fair compensation without any deductions? It might take some of the pressure off the relocation needed across this country.

I note the Deputy's comments. At all times we will try to treat people fairly and with just compensation. The scheme was established in 2011 for active turf cutters arising from the cessation of turf cutting on raised bog special areas of conservation and was extended in 2014 to include natural heritage areas. This scheme is applicable to turf cutters who have been affected by the designation of raised bogs as special areas of conservation, as well as natural heritage areas, and who fulfil the qualifying criteria of the scheme. It comprises a payment of €1,500 per annum, index-linked for 15 years, or relocation, where feasible, to a non-designated bog, together with a legal agreement payment of €500.

While these qualifying applicants are waiting for relocation sites to be investigated, they may, on an interim basis, opt for the annual payment of €1,500 or opt to receive an annual supply of up to 15 tonnes of cut turf delivered to their homes. Of the 2,569 applicants regularly receiving annual payments under the scheme, 263 have applied for relocation to a non-designated bog. There are other affected turf cutters who may qualify under the scheme but have not yet applied. It remains open for these turf cutters to apply and opt for relocation to a non-designated bog if they wish.

Question No. 13 replied to with Written Answers.