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Northern Ireland Department of Environment - Call for evidence on permitted development rights for mineral exploration

The Northern Ireland Department of Environment has launched a call for evidence to review the permitted development rights for mineral exploration in Northern Ireland. Details of the inquiry can be found on the government website.

The submission produced by the Geological Society can be found below:

Submitted 13 May 2016

Do you believe that the existing provisions on permitted development rights for mineral exploration (as set out in Annex A and B) provide a suitable balance between supporting operational business activity and environmental protection?

If not, please provide information to support your answer.

1. The Geological Society (GSL) is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with about 12,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences.

2. The Society recognises that mineral extraction is an important facet of the economy of Northern Ireland. Our role as a learned society is to comment on the scientific and technical aspects and implications of policy and regulation. It is not appropriate for us to comment on the social or political impacts of policy options, or on social or political motivations for policy choices. It is in this context that we present our evidence below.

3. The current planning rules relating to exploration for mineral resources and oil and gas, including permitted development rights, provide the required precautions and caveats that are needed to ensure effective environmental protection, if they are applied correctly. It is important that the stipulated precautions (particularly the restrictions on length of work, consultation with stakeholders and the exclusions around Areas of Special Scientific (ASSI) interest and sites of archaeological interest) are strictly observed if the dual aims of supporting operational business activity and environmental protection are to be achieved.

4. An important area of consideration, in the context of work exclusions, is around those conservation areas that are either due to be notified under protection area designations or where recognition to be protected is being sought. The Geoconservation Committee of the Geological Society has been working over the past 2 years to raise awareness of the number of sites that are awaiting designation as ASSIs (and SSSIs in Scotland, England and Wales). These are sites that would fall outside of the exceptions listed in the current policy on development rights for mineral exploration and are thus vulnerable to damage. We urge the Department of Environment to expedite the designation of Earth Science Conservation Reviews sites to ASSI’s in order to ensure conservation sites in Northern Ireland are not vulnerable to damage through this legislation. This would both assist with legitimate protection of important and vulnerable sites, and give greater confidence in the robustness of the planning and environmental regulation framework within which mineral exploration is conducted.

5. We do not advocate either more or less regulation for its own sake, and nor do other stakeholders committed to an evidence-based approach, whether from industry, environmental organisations, government or elsewhere. Rather, we think it is important to seek smart, effective and efficient regulation. Thorough, evidence-based and well-researched regulation that minimises unintended consequences and unnecessary costs while providing effective environmental, health and social protection should be welcomed by industry, environmental organisations, government, regulators and the wider public alike.