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Village will start a dedicated blog by Tony Lowes tomorrow. Here’s the first article.

Green/FF Legacy on environmental funding

Cuts, cuts, cuts…and apathy

By Tony Lowes

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 mankind proliferates. Our water quality continues to fall, costing the exchequer more and more to meet higher and higher European standards under the Water Framework Directive, whose deadlines are typically 2015. Assessments carried out by expert ecologists for the European Commission in 2008 found that only 7% of the Irish 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”.  And unsuitable for human consumption without expensive Water Treatments Plants.

Facing this seemingly inexorable tide stand an Irish Constitution which never uses the word environment  and an electorate of which a recent poll showed that only 4% consider the environment the most important issue. Even the Irish Times has now abandoned ‘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. Since the end of 2010, RTE has  no longer employed an environment correspondent.

Is it any wonder then that under the National Recovery Programme, the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government’s budget will see a fall from €1601 million in 2011 to €1070 million in 2014 – a reduction of a third?

In 2011 alone, the Heritage Unit, which has responsibility for protected structures (including world heritage sites like the Skelligs) will be hit by a 77% budget cut. 56% was sliced from the National Parks and Wildlife budget. Their responsibility includes the 14% of the land mass designated for protection under EU law – as well as running all our National Parks.

Although some of these cuts were due to a transfer of salary payments to central funds, the recruitment embargo on civil service replacements over the past few years has hit this Service particularly hard on the ground, where 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 and some rangers are now confined to desk duties instead of patrolling their beats. Although the level of staffing is less than that in 2002, the 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 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.

A 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.

The Planning and Development Act 2010 imposes more responsibilities on Local Authorities to ensure that wide-ranging ‘appropriate assessments’ are undertaken not only of projects that might damage protected areas and species, but of their own County and Local Development Plans. These assessments require specialised expertise that Local Authorities do not have in-house and can no longer afford from outside consultants.

The Heritage Council, whose role is to protect, preserve and enhance Ireland’s national heritage, suffered a 47% cut on top of a 30% cut 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 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”, warning 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.

In an attempt to shore up their budget, both the Department of the Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency (27% decrease) 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). But it is 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 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 increased allocations are actually coming from some €40 million in reserves which has been carried forward for some 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 the Environmental Fund reserves.

The National Pension Reserve Fund has stepped in with a more substantial €550 million to fund water-metering – on condition a Water Regulator is appointed. By 2014, water charges will begin to kick in, but these funds have been promised by all parties to the Local Authorities – development agencies in themselves.

Almost every action we take adds to the environmental burden. Even to stay in the same place, increased environmental funding is required. With the current financial outlook, and, despite the prospects of property and water taxes, even the Greens couldn’t maintain environmental funding. And now in any event the Greens’ influence on policy, indeed their potency generally, has been slashed.