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Maritime Area Planning Legislation Passes All Stages in the Oireachtas, In Spite of Call for Amendments by Environmental Coalitions

18th December 2021
The new Maritime Area Planning Legislation will play a significant role in the Government’s response to climate change and to reaching the renewable energy goals set forth in the Climate Action Plan
Offshore wind - the new Maritime Area Planning Legislation will play a significant role in the Government’s response to climate change and to reaching the renewable energy goals set forth in the Climate Action Plan

The Maritime Area Planning Bill 2021 has passed through all stages of the Oireachtas in what has been described as the most extensive reform of marine governance since the foundation of the State.

The Bill establishes in law a new planning regime for the maritime area.

It will be a key enabler of decarbonisation of Ireland’s energy sources and the development of offshore energy, according to the Department of Housing and Local Government.

Commenting on the Oireachtas approval on December 17th, the department said it would “replace existing State and development consent regimes and streamline arrangements on the basis of a single consent principle”.

The Maritime Area Consent will permit occupation of a maritime area, and one development consent (planning permission), with a single environmental assessment.

The Bill is also a key component of the National Marine Planning Framework (NMPF), Ireland’s first national framework for managing marine activities, published earlier this summer.

“The framework, which will apply to a maritime area of approximately 495,000km², outlines a vision for how we want to use, protect and enjoy our seas in the years up to 2040,” the department said.

“ The framework is a parallel document to the National Planning Framework, which guides terrestrial planning and development,” it noted.

Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien described it as “a giant leap forward towards meeting our ambitious climate action goals and targets”.

He said it was “a result of many of years of work in my department to modernise our marine planning system, and would also “play a significant role in the Government’s response to climate change and to reaching the renewable energy goals set forth in the Climate Action Plan”.

Minister of State for Planning and Local Government Peter Burke TD, who has specific responsibility for marine planning, said the Bill gives “legal underpinning to an entirely new marine planning system, which balances our huge offshore wind energy potential with the need to protect our marine environment”.

“It will also introduce a new independent agency, MARA, which will be based in Wexford and focused solely on the regulation of our maritime area,” he said.

“While this Bill has been led by my department, there has been a collective effort to reach this stage and we have worked very closely with colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, the Department of the Taoiseach and the wider Marine Legislation Steering Group, who I would like to thank for their commitment to this Bill,” Burke said.

Minister of State for Planning and Local Government Peter Burke TDMinister of State for Planning and Local Government Peter Burke TD

“ In particular, I want to single out my officials who have drafted and refined this complex and highly technical legislation over an extended period and who always made themselves available to answer questions from the media, the public and the wider political system. Their passion and commitment to best practice marine planning has impressed me greatly since I was appointed to the department in July 2020,” Burke noted.

Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform Malcolm Noonan said the Bill’s approval is “a critical and hugely welcome development in our efforts to mitigate climate change by decarbonising our energy sources through the development of offshore renewable energy”.

“Not only that, but this Bill will embed robust environmental assessments in every part of the planning decision. With the development of our MPA legislation next year, we’re working towards a strong, interconnected, coherent network of protected areas to ensure the sustainable use of our marine environment,” Noonan said.

Earlier yesterday, a group of environmental organisations warned that the Maritime Area Planning (MAP) Bill, which went before the Seanad on Friday, was set to be a “lose-lose situation” for both the climate and biodiversity crises “if passed in its current form”.

“While there have been some amendments made to improve it, a myriad of problems remain with the Bill” the group involving the Irish Environmental Network, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, Irish Wildlife Trust and Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) said.

A statement issued by environmental coalitions SWAN and the Environmental Pillar hours before it passed through the Oireachtas said that “given fundamental issues within the Bill and Ireland’s marine spatial plan, the resulting decision-making system will be deeply problematic for all stakeholders”.

These stakeholders include “those hoping for massive expansion of offshore renewable energy and coastal communities”, they state.

Both networks say they have “repeatedly highlighted the need and legal requirement to confront both aforementioned crises and to address fundamental issues in how the Government approaches our marine environment”.

“If passed as is, allocation for offshore renewables will supersede the much-needed and long-overdue designation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and there will be no adequate interim measures to protect areas of the marine in the meantime”, they said.

They noted that the Department of Housing and Local Government informed a Joint Oireachtas Committee that sensitivity mapping, which is a key element of spatial planning, won’t be completed until the end of next year.

“This means that sites, including our most ecologically sensitive, may not be adequately designated and we could see offshore wind farms developed in completely unsuitable areas,” the coalitions state.

“Ultimately this puts vital future energy infrastructure and the health of our seas and their ability to absorb greenhouse gas emissions at risk, which we simply cannot permit,” they state.

“We are legally obligated to implement a network of MPAs. To date, Ireland has only protected a mere roughly 2.3 per cent of our maritime area through EU Natura 2000 sites and this issue of insufficient protections will be further compounded by the inadequacies of our current marine framework,” they state.

“By prioritising offshore renewable energy, which the Government has shown every indication of doing, Ireland could face infringement actions for non-compliance with our EU obligations and wider issues in respect of obligations under the Aarhus Convention, as well as actions in the national courts,” they state.

“ This will complicate effective rollout of offshore energy needed to decarbonise our energy sector,” they state.

The coalitions had called on the Government, including ministers Darragh O'Brien, Eamon Ryan and Malcolm Noonan to amend the Bill to include the following measures:

(1)Provide interim protections for vulnerable marine areas until a fast-tracked sensitivity mapping process is completed.

(2) Initiate an early and expedited review of the National Marine Planning Framework in advance of granting consents, in order to identify gaps and issues, so they can be addressed as a matter of urgency.

(3) Address serious deficiencies in the Bill on the rules for judicial review to ensure cases are not made more complex by the additional need to argue on non-compliant rules on access to justice.

Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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