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Funding Cuts: The Green Legacy

Of all the species, man is the most destructive to the environment. Almost everything we do damages air, water, or soil. And other species are disappearing at an astonishing rate as man proliferates in number and in extent.

Assessments carried out by expert ecologists for the European Commission in 2008 found that only 7% of Ireland’s habitats examined are in good status, with 46% inadequate and 47% bad.

Many habitats associated with water were considered to be in bad condition, the Report noting ‘Even moderate declines in water quality makes rivers and lakes unsuitable for many fish and invertebrate species’ – as well as humans.

As the latest EPA Water Quality Report records a fall in the chemical quality of Irish drinking water, the cost to the exchequer must rise to meet higher and higher European standards under the Water Framework Directive, whose deadlines close in 2015.

This seemingly inexorable tide reflects an electorate amongst whom a recent poll showed that only 4% consider the environment the issue that will influence their vote. Last year the Sunday Business Post ended its ‘Eco Warrier’ column, followed this year by the Irish Times closing ‘Horizons’, its Saturday Heritage Review. The Irish Times used to have an environmental correspondent as well as an environment editor but now retains only the latter.

Yet Budget 2011 saw a fall the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government’s funding from €2.2 billion in 2010 to €1.6 billion in 2011 – a 28% cut. Under the National Recovery Programme, this will fall to €1 billion in 2014 – a reduction of more than 50% in 4 years.

The Department funds both the Environmental Protection Agency (-27% in 2011) and the Heritage Council (-47% on top of -30% in 2010). While €3 million has been recently restored after vocal protests, research grants will vanish, archives are at risk, programs to curtain invasive species will end, and 50% of the educational and outreach programme is to go, even threatening their flagship publication.

The Department of the Environment’s own Heritage Unit, which has responsibility for protected structures (including world heritage sites like the Skelligs) will be hit by a 77% budget cut. The Conservation Grant Scheme for protected structures, funded by the Department vote via the Heritage Council through Local Authority Heritage Officers, has been cut by 90%, ending even most advisory site visits, let alone financial support for our ‘protected’ structures.

While Local Authorities are now required by statute to produce Biodiversity Plans for their areas, no additional funding has been provided for their creation – and nothing for their implementation. In fact, the much vaunted new National Biodiversity Plan is now 4 years late.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service which is responsible for the 14% of our land mass designated for protection under EU law – as well as running all our National Parks – has seen a 56% cutback. Although some of these cuts were due to a transfer of salary payments to central funds, the recruitment embargo on civil service replacements since March 2009 has hit this Service particularly hard on the ground. Rangers – whose specialised roles can not easily be found through transfers – are missing in many areas of the country.

There are increasing gaps in line management with some Rangers now confined to desk duties instead of patrolling their beats. Although the number of Rangers is less than ever, their workload continues to increase as further areas are designated and new Protocols to protect the Hen harrier and the fresh water pearl mussel now legally require consultation and inspection to prevent further decline. The disbandment by Martin Cullen in 2002 of Duchas, the Heritage Service, and its incorporation into the Department began a demoralisation of the Parks and Wildlife Service that, in spite of NGO representations, a Green Minister did nothing to address.

A recent Circular from the Department of Finance warned that “Opening hours of offices, parks and centres will be reviewed in 2011, in line with business needs”. Observers fear that cuts to the heritage sector combined with cuts in school trips mean that the heritage even as an educational resource is at risk.

Even the far-seeing ‘Farm Plan’ programme, which targeted farmers in designated areas since 2005 and assisted them in adapting their practices to protect these sites, is no longer accepting entries. Funding is available under Pillar II of the Rural Development Plan, but the Department oif Agriculture jealously controls these purse strings and has other priorities than environmental protection.

The Planning and Development Act 2010 imposes more responsibilities on Local Authorities to screen to determine if ‘appropriate assessments’, ‘environmental impact assessments’, and ‘strategic environmental assessments’ are required not only for projects but for plans as well. These assessments require specialised expertise that Local Authorities do not have in-house and can no longer afford from outside consultants.

The Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management recently wrote to Minister John Gormley to draw his attention to the OECD note in their 2009 ‘Environmental Performance Review’ that nature protection has “remained the poor relative of Irish environmental policy”. It warned that the proposed budget reductions will make this situation worse.

And none of this actually makes economic sense. An Irish 2010 study showed that in 2009 over three million overseas visitors engaged in cultural/historical visits – and spent an estimated €1.9 billion while doing so – almost exactly the same net benefit a study last year showed for Wales.

John Gormley’s own ‘The Economic and Social Aspects of Biodiversity: Benefits and Costs of Biodiversity in Ireland’, published in 2008, estimated the current marginal value of ecosystem services at over €2.6 billion per annum – not including benefits to human health and well-being. A recent County Monahan study of the value of wetlands showed that the annual value of wetlands per hectare per year ranged from €321 for the Blackwater Flood plain to €907 for Grove Lough, with the Castle Leslie constructed wetland giving its owners an annual benefit of €762 per hectare. And these figures exclude their value in carbon sequestration.

In an attempt to shore up their budget, both the Department of the Environment (-28%) and the Environmental Protection Agency (-27%) claim that the “The reduction in exchequer grant for 2011 is expected to be compensated by way of an increased allocation from the Environment Fund”.

The Environmental Fund is fed by the plastic bag levy (€22 million) and landfill levies (€32 million). In the light of the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2011 not proceeding, the Department now says that 2011 Environment Fund allocations are ‘being kept under review’ as the income from the fund in 2011 will change from projections made in December 2010. The fund was already fully assigned with half of it going to fund waste-management and recycling and the rest meeting a rag bag of demands from EPA research to funding environmental goups (NGOs). Recently, it has also been tapped to address cost overruns in Cork’s Haulbowline Island ‘clean-up’ – and the current toxic fire at the Kerdiffstown Landfill in Co Kildare.

This year’s proposed increase in allocations are actually coming from some €40 million in reserves which has built up over the years, allowing a once-off increase in the 2011 funding of 55%. Unfortunately, although allocations were arranged, John Gormley omitted to sign the necessary Ministerial Order before he resigned, leaving the final distribution in limbo. That may be just as well, as on February 4 the EPA released a report it had commissioned from SKM Enviros that estimated the cost of making the 55-acre Kerdiffstown site safe to be in the region of €30 million. Most of this will have to come from the Environmental Fund reserves as the Landfill Remediation Budget for 2011 was cut by 75%.

Also in limbo is the National Recovery Plan. This suggests a further €91 million was clipped from the Department of the Environment in Budget 2011, with cuts of over €17 million specifically targeted at environmental protection in the built and natural heritage areas.

Under this Plan, which was presented to the EU/IMF in return for the bail-out, the National Pension Reserve Fund had promised a substantial €550 million to fund water-metering. The cost for the provision of water services to the domestic sector in 2008 was €590 million. If metering proceeds without delays, according to this Plan water charges will begin to benefit the exchequer by €8 million in 2014. But all the opposition parties have announced their intention to renegotiate the National Recovery Plan – leaving disarray as its legacy.

This disarray will increase if Fine Gael forms the next Government. Under their ‘New Era’ proposals water investment will be ‘financed by the companies that own the infrastructure, rather than by the taxpayer’ – a clear conflict with the National Recovery Plan’s use of the Pension Reserve Fund. Indeed, the fiscal measures agreed in the EU/IMF ‘Programme of Support for Ireland’ through a property tax (‘site value tax’) is not supported by Fine Gael either, who propose only a tax on profits when properties are sold.

No matter what the outcome of the forthcoming election, the Department of the Environment will face increasing cuts to meet our obligations to the EU/IMF. With a rudderless State, the only constant is that both the built and the natural environment will be further degraded – while the Green’s political capital has been spent.