Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht

Environmental Pillar

12:35 pm

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh Mr. David Healy, Mr. Michael Ewing, Mr. Cillian Lohan and Ms Emer Ó Siochrú on behalf of the environmental pillar. I invite Mr. Healy to make his opening presentation.

Mr. David Healy:

The purpose of our presentation is to engage with the reform of local government and community development. We want to set out our engagement with local government and community development over the past several years from the perspective of sustainable development and to explain why it is important that reform strengthens the orientation towards sustainable development. In particular, we will draw on our experience of the environmental pillar since its formation in 2009 and the impact that we have had at local level compared to our experience during the boom, when our warnings went unheeded. Part of the reason we were not heard was because we were formally outside the system and we did not have opportunities to present our case.

Mr. Michael Ewing is co-ordinator of the environmental pillar and an environmental scientist with a background in business and research in participatory democracy. He represents the pillar on the National Economic and Social Council and Roscommon County Development Board. Ms Emer Ó Siochrú is an eco-architect, a farmer and a green business woman and she represents the pillar on the Rathmines Pembroke Community Partnership. Mr. Cillian Lohan works for the Irish Natural Forestry Foundation in Manch, County Cork, and is one of nine Irish representatives on the European Economic and Social Committee. He represents the environmental pillar on Cork City Partnership and Cork county transport SPC. I have a background in law and environmental science and work for Oxfam Ireland on climate policy. I represent the pillar on the Northside Partnership and am a former county councillor.

Mr. Michael Ewing:

I will give a brief introduction to the environmental pillar and how it has engaged at local and national levels over the past four to five years. The pillar has 27 members, all of which are national environmental organisations.

There are approximately 40,000 individual members of these organisations. We focus on sustainability and were established originally by an Act in April 2009. That is our general background.

We nominate to a wide range of bodies and all of our nominees go through a selection process. They report back to local organisations and the environmental pillar. We provide training. We have very few resources, but we train our local representatives as much as we can because it is really important that they understand the processes in which they are engaged and the messages they are carrying. The local representatives form local networks based on the local authority areas in which they are nominated.

We nominate to a number of international bodies. They include the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, and the European Economic and Social Committee, on which Mr. Cillian Lohan represents the Government. He was nominated by it rather than us, although we obviously recommended him. We have representatives on a range of bodies dealing with housing, forestry, the marine and pretty much every area one could think of. Most recently, I was nominated to the working group on active citizenship and local government which was set up by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, in recent months.

At local level we have 172 nominees to county development boards, SPCs and the boards of integrated local government companies and partnership companies. We are very much engaged at local level in a very active way. All of the nominees operate in a voluntary capacity; none receives any payment for his or her work. Nominees do it because of a love of their community and the need to protect the environment and develop communities in a sustainable fashion.

We nominate to SPCs in addition to the environment SPCs, including 12 economic SPCs. This is particularly relevant in terms of the new SPCs. We have 20 people nominated to development SPCs. We have been engaged very closely in local development through the nominees for the past four or five years, that is, since our foundation. It is, therefore, not new to us to talk about economic and development issues. In fact, it is part of our bread and butter. We work with all strands of society for the well-being of people in general, not just the current generation but also future generations. That is the background to what we do.

Society relies on clean air, fresh water and healthy soils. These are fundamental to our living as human beings. That is the background to all of our decision-making and engagement. Whatever we do has to be on the basis of these fundamental supports for life. This is related to sustainability. Essentially, sustainability thrives in an economy in equilibrium with basic ecological support systems. I refer to phenomena including clean water. Without these support systems, the economy is destroyed and cannot operate, nor can society.

Very much to the fore is the limit of growth. We are seeing the limits associated with the raw materials used by industry and limits to the availability of water and land. We need to do something about it and engage with the problems. The environmental pillar is at the forefront in trying to do so and we are working with our partners in the social and economic sectors.

I have a diagram that encapsulates our belief system within the environmental pillar. We believe human beings came from the environment originally. We belong to the environment and it is something on which we fundamentally rely. Our society was built out of that environment and in the context of that environment. We then created the economy as a way of dealing with each other in terms of trading goods. The economy is a creation and can be changed. We can amend it to suit our needs as a society. Our environment is fundamental. We can change it, but we are doing so only for the worse. These are issues that need to be addressed very closely.

The concept of a greening economy is very relevant to local development. Let me give an example of how the Department proposed to engage at national level in addition to local level. We joined NESC in 2011. Prior to that, NESC had produced a report on the economic crisis entitled, Ireland's Five-Point Crisis. This document was extremely well written, but it did not connect with the concept of sustainability. It left the issues relating to bad planning and the series of mistakes made through not including environmental concerns in the thinking process. This very morning NESC produced a new document looking back over the past five years and reflecting on the original document. It includes a series of new ideas that essentially came from the environmental pillar and, therefore, informed the thinking of national government. The new ideas concern greening the economy and turning it into a sustainable one based on the understanding that social, economic and environmental issues go together. NESC's new paper is entitled, Ireland's Five-Part Crisis, Five Years On: Deepening Reform and Institutional Innovation. We are very much in the picture with this and engaged with it nationally and locally. Innovation is part of the game as far as sustainability is concerned. Sustainability will drive innovation in the new economy for Ireland. We very much believe in development, including the development of a sustainable and innovative society for the future.

NESC has ongoing work on the energy strategy. We are engaged with it and the role of data in greening the economy. In the document published today the social partners and the independent representatives - 30 people in total, including Secretaries General of various Departments - have agreed that this is a model that would really work for Ireland in the future. It is a model we generally support. It is actually a very well thought out idea of how the future of Ireland should be mapped out. It operates at all levels of society. The connection between sustainability, the environment, the economy and society is fully mapped out in the document. We have supported its publication and analysis.

Mr. Lohan will talk a little about greening the economy.

12:45 pm

Mr. Cillian Lohan:

As Mr. Ewing said, greening the economy is essentially about putting the principles of sustainability at the heart of any new developmental programme, decision and economic development. The local government reform package presents an opportunity to put issues on greening the economy at the heart of activities at local level, in addition to regional level.

I have provided some examples of the broad range of areas that we can allow to fall under the term "greening the economy" rather than having a quite limited view. Our engagement on this issue has been at national level in terms of the Action Plans for Jobs published in recent years. We latched onto those the year before last and broadened the definition through our engagement in the process regarding the areas that are identifiable as pertaining to the green economy. We have been working on this issue very actively. I am involved with a work package funded by the Department on opportunities within the green economy. As a sector, we have been very actively engaged in this process at national level. Mr. Healy will outline the international context to our obligations in this regard.

Mr. David Healy:

In Rio de Janeiro in 1992 the world committed to Agenda 21. The Local Agenda 21 aspect was about a participative process for sustainable development. What has been striking in Ireland is that the county and city development boards did form that style of participative process. The problem, resulting in the gap, was that they did not specifically have sustainable development as their remit, nor did they have environmental pillar representatives. While they were formally identified by the Government as a delivery agent for Local Agenda 21, what was expected did not actually happen. At this stage, we need to ensure, through the LCDCs and the SPCs, that sustainable development is part of the remit. We must also ensure participation. The Government's policy document, Our Sustainable Future, makes exactly the same point on integrating sustainable development into the processes involved. From there, we get to the specific points on the proposed reform which Mr. Ewing will address.

Mr. Michael Ewing:

The committee has seen our document, but I would like to reiterate our concerns and what we would like to see happen. As we have outlined, we have been heavily involved at local level in community development and local government in so far as this is possible without being elected. We would like to continue with this process. It is essential that the environmental pillar be present in an independent fashion within the new structures of the LCDCs which we believe should be renamed in any case. They should be called sustainable community development committees to get across the idea that sustainability is fundamental to what they do. If something is not named, it will not happen.

It is like that dreadful advertisement about what it says on the tin. If it is named a sustainable community development committee this is what it will be. If it is not, it will not be about sustainability and we believe it is essential this is the case. Sustainability should be an underlying part of the remit of this new body, whatever it is called, and should underlie every decision it makes and every process in which it is involved.

Three new regional bodies are proposed. It is essential there is a connection between them and the communities for which they develop policies. The policies they develop at regional level will have an overarching authority over the plans of local communities, and there needs to be toing and froing between the local and regional structures. At present this is done with regard to elected representatives but civil society also needs to be involved.

We already have economic strategic policy committees, SPCs, in some local authorities but not in all. Under the proposed local government reform there will be a new economic and enterprise SPC in every local authority with a significant role in developing the local economy. For sustainable development to be part of this it is essential the environmental pillar has nominees on it. The new SPCs should engage with local communities through the metropolitan district structures. At present there seems to be a disconnect between the metropolitan district structures and the new LCDCs, and there is an unfortunate blurring of connections which we would like to see resolved before the amending local government legislation comes into force.

12:55 pm

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the delegates for their presentations and acknowledge the work they do on the various bodies for which they have been given the authority to be members and the impact they have. I have listened attentively to what they stated on the opportunities which may exist in the local government reform process for their role to be enhanced by virtue of their involvement in community enterprise boards. I am conscious of the integration of local development groups in local authorities and that sustainable development should be a linchpin of any mechanisms used by local authorities to encourage development. Every effort should be made to continue to explore the opportunities which exist in the green economy and these should be the foundations under which local development plans and area plans are devised by local government. I will be conscious of the input of the witnesses when it comes to tabling amendments on Committee Stage and will make every effort to accommodate their sentiments in this regard.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I am concerned some measures have started to work and that we might be going backwards with some of what is included in the legislation. I am not an enthusiast for the institutional arrangements which have been devised. There continues to be too close a relationship between the Custom House, the Minister and local authorities and I would rather see a greater disconnect. I do not doubt reform is needed.

The Dublin and mid-east regional authorities had a positive influence on setting regional planning guidelines and I would favour an expansion of this role. How members are nominated will be seriously problematic as the process will not provide the diversity required. We need all voices on it. I saw how the regional authority changed the culture with regard to development plans in the local authority on which I served as we had the national spatial strategy, regional guidelines and local guidelines. It made people consider matters more strategically. I am concerned the nominating process will reduced diversity rather than increasing it. I am interested to hear what the witnesses have to say on this. We can see the relationship between land use and transportation strategies but there is quite a fragmented approach to some of the issues with regard to municipal district councils as opposed to county councils.

Another issue is how people participate. Having been a member of a county council and a town council, for approximately 20 years in both cases, I felt there were far more opportunities to involve people at town level than at county level. There seems to be a mismatch, to which the witnesses referred, with regard to local community development committees, LCDCs, as there is only one per county unless the Minister allows more, but local development happens at a lower level than this. I do not see where flexibility in this engagement will happen, and I state this from a citizen's perspective rather than a public representative's perspective. I am interested to hear what the witnesses have to say on this. What might we bring by way of amendments to try to change this?

I take the point about the name, because the common understanding of people with regard to the word "development" tends to be "economic development". We must broaden this and I support the idea of changing the name from this point of view.

The structures and institutional arrangements will change and obviously we will not have county development boards. Some of them worked and others did not, and it is exactly the same with the SPCs. The new arrangements will change the dynamic with regard to who would be nominated. I ask the witnesses to tell us how they see this playing out. Institutional arrangements will change whereby there will not be nominations to bodies such as county development boards. The same number of SPCs will exist and there will be local community development committees and enterprise committees. I presume the witnesses would wish to be represented on all of these elements. How do they see the new institutional arrangements working from their perspective? How do they believe this will play out?

Ms Emer Ó Siochrú:

It is very difficult to know. We share many of these concerns. Even though local control and maximising participation is spoken about, the scale is very large and LCDCs for an entire county will not really be at grassroots level. It diverges from the European model. We can see within the legislation it is possible to have more and we would like to see this happen.

The biggest issue in rural Ireland at present probably relates to wind farms. We must consider how local government reform will help resolve this in a positive way for everybody. Planning regulations will not do it because it involves more than planning. One can see all the arguments for wind farms with regard to the powerful economic SPCs which will be established but one knows this is not where it will be resolved. Where it will be resolved or not is at local community level because this is where the problem is. We are with the local community on this; if it does not work socially and economically for the local community it will not work for the environment, even if the other two structures support it. We are very anxious to have groups in the LCDCs which are effective and whose voice is heard so there is a better flow of information from the ground up. In the existing structure we must have regard to regional plans, but there appears to be a lack of confidence in the voice of local people in feeding up to the other committees.

What, for instance, is the link between the local community development committees and the powerful economic strategic policy committees? How will we be able to feed back into the development plans? Apart from the requirement that development plans take note of and have regard to the LCDCs, how will the latter inform the former? That is not clear. We want to be involved to ensure the loop is circular and that at every point on the loop information feeds back from the ground into the county plans and up to the regional level, before coming back along the loop again. We are very much on the same side as the committee with regard to these concerns. We have noted, however, that the legislation is very much enabling in nature. We hope further detail will be provided and that we will get the outcome we seek from it.

1:05 pm

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Tipperary North, Fine Gael)
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I welcome representatives of the green pillar and thank them for their presentation which contains many thought provoking ideas that will stimulate discussion. Many of us will sleep happier in the knowledge that, according to the delegates, we would have avoided all the bad experiences of the boom if the green pillar had been established before 2009. We can now rest assured that the practices of the past will not be repeated.

I confess that I do not know much about the environmental pillar. We have heard that it has representatives on local development boards and so forth. Perhaps the delegates might identify its representatives in the north Tipperary partnership in order that we can get to know them better.

Ms Ó Siochrú spoke about greening the economy and the role of local government. Will she give us an idea of the base from which we are starting? In other words, will she indicate, on a scale of one to ten, how local government has performed in the environmental area?

Some aspects of the agenda the delegation set out are of great interest to me, as I come from the heart of rural Ireland. Demand for food will increase substantially when one considers that up to one half of the world's population goes hungry. Thinking in terms of Food Harvest 2020 and beyond, perhaps up to 2050, what are the delegates' views on current farm practices and the production of food? What is being done wrong and what are we getting right?

What action should the Department take to address the problem of ash dieback disease? What is the solution to it?

These are exciting times and Ireland has significant opportunities, particularly in the area of food production. We also face challenges such as global warming and climate change. I am interested in hearing the views of the delegates on these issues.

Many topics have been raised. Do the delegates agree that farmers are the principal custodians of the environment? Do they accept that without farmers, the environment would be in a bad way? There is a perception that they are the culprits. While I accept that there are, for want of a better phrase, cowboys in every trade, farmers are, by and large, the greatest custodians of the environment.

Mr. Michael Ewing:

I thank Deputy Noel Coonan for his questions which were as wide-ranging as our presentation.

On the performance of local government, while I would not like to point the finger at any specific county council in a negative manner, the picture is very varied. Waterford County Council is doing considerable work in this area. Roscommon County Council has done much work in recent years of its own volition, rather than at my behest. It has been particularly active on the issue of energy, for example, on heating. While thinking at local government level is evolving and developing, it has a long way to go. To be honest, if I were to give an average mark for local authorities' record on environmental issues, it would be three out of ten. Much learning remains to be done, although the picture is not even. Dublin City Council, for example, has done much work on sustainability and has its own thinking process in the Natural Step programme which covers the carbon footprint and so on. The picture is varied between and within local authorities. The problem is probably that, other than in certain circumstances, corporate learning is not taking place and local authorities are not picking up and running with it. Individual leaders in particular local authorities are doing very good work, but the overall picture is not as good as it could be.

With regard to Food Harvest 2020 and feeding the world, there is a clear understanding the planet faces serious problems in the areas of food distribution and the ability of people to grow their own food. One of the major issues with Food Harvest 2020 is that it was not considered with great care before being brought into being. It was not subject to a proper environmental analysis and the strategy did not consider its possible effects on climate change and so on. The document is a mixed bag as it holds out great potential in some areas and has the potential to do harm in others. This has not been properly examined, although an analysis is being carried out. We are engaging with this analysis to ascertain if Food Harvest 2020 will impact on the environment and if we can make changes in areas where it will impact on the environment. We hope the Minister will roll back some of the damaging parts of the strategy.

On ash dieback, this is a policy issue about which Mr. Lohan is probably better informed than I am. The issue is that we were importing diseased stock, which should never have happened. For a long time, the environmental pillar has pointed out that the nursery sector offers great employment potential. We continue to import large quantities of nursery stock from the Netherlands and other countries for use in infrastructural projects such as roads. The tendering process for such contracts is arranged in such a way that it is impossible for native nursery owners to engage with it. They would have to invest large sums on spec and in advance because obviously one must grow trees long in advance, yet they may not secure the contract. Nurseries elsewhere in Europe are able to do this because they are much larger. The issue of ash dieback raises many questions, including in respect of the importation of nursery stock in the horticulture and forestry sectors.

Given that farms occupy some 60% of the land surface of the country, farmers must be custodians of the environment. As Deputy Noel Coonan noted, some farmers are cowboys, while others are good. Some of the moves made in recent years are positive. We would like farmers to be encouraged and enabled to engage with local development organisations in the area of anaerobic digestion. The potential of anaerobic digestion in energy production is significant, yet the Government's handling of the issue has been very poor. As a result, very little has been done in this area. I will hand over to Ms Ó Siochrú as she has a particular interest in anaerobic digestion.

Ms Emer Ó Siochrú:

I am dying to inform the committee that I am a beef farmer in north Tipperary. It is not the case that there is a complete split between the two sides, as it were. I farm organically and intend to expand my beef production. There is a general erroneous belief that environmentalists oppose beef production. The position is much more nuanced than that. Ireland is one of the best places to produce beef and dairy products in the world. With the right kind of grassland practices and using carbon sequestration in the soil, beef farming can be carbon negative, particularly when new practices are used.

Under Food Harvest 2020, it is proposed to increase dairy production by 50% and beef production by 20%. These objectives can be achieved, provided the right technologies are used. We have to produce food because the number of people on the planet will increase. Ireland is a good food producer and food production generates many jobs and protects the environment. Moreover, the country produces food in an environmentally sensitive manner. Co-ordination is required with other Departments and sectors, however, as there is no co-ordination on the waste side.

Anaerobic digestion is necessary if we really want to ramp up production. There are other technologies also, one of which is the focus of my new business, to allow safe slurry spreading, which is the fundamental issue. It is a perfect example in which many environmentalists are dying to get involved and have much to contribute, instead of seeing us as being on the opposite side. In fact, we have more to gain-----

1:15 pm

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
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On that issue, what is the lead country in terms of anaerobic digestion?

Ms Emer Ó Siochrú:

Germany or Denmark. In Denmark one cannot spread slurry unless it has been through a digester. There are other technologies that we could use that would be cheaper again, but at the end of the day, we have to recycle food back on to the land because that is where the nutrients are. That waste is going to a landfill site or for incineration, whereas it should be put safely back on the land. The Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Environment, Community and Local Government have to work together on this issue, but ,nfortunately, we do not see this happening. It would be wonderful if there could be synergies at local level. If this were to happen, we would have greater local development; we could develop the farming sector, create more jobs and resolve the renewable energy issue. It does not always have to be turbines; there are other ways of creating energy locally. Anaerobic digestion is very good at producing fuel for vehicles. As many of our vehicles are not electric, we cannot switch over and use wind energy as a way of getting around. Anaerobic digestion can offer a solution to that problem.

Mr. Cillian Lohan:

I will respond to questions on the performance of the green economy in local areas. The concept is new; the terminology which had a very limited definition was first used by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation in the Action Plan for Jobs. One of the things about which we spoke to the then Minister was how to broaden the definition and collect baseline information on what we called the "green economy". Like all words, language becomes polluted over time and is misused. It is very hard to measure performance when the definition is quite loose, but we know that within certain sectors such as the 500 designated Natura 2000 sites which cut across the farming community throughout the country, that for each €1 billion invested, one could create 29,000 jobs on Natura 2000 sites. In contrast, an investment of €1 billion under the Common Agricultural Policy could creates between 3,000 and 6,000 jobs. There are opportunities to create employment locally that is sustainable in the long term. The word "green" has a different connotation in a national context than it does across the rest of Europe. The Deputy referred to us as the "green pillar" which may have political implications, but we are not affiliated to a political party. The concepts are sustainability and long-term viability testing. Food Harvest 2020 was rolled out as policy in 2010 without any testing of its impact in the long term. I do not think one can put responsibility on the farming community for taking advantage of policies, programmes and subsidies if the consequence of their activities is environmental degradation and the loss of healthy soil and biodiversity on farmlands. I do not think they can take 100% responsibility if the impact of Government policy has not been tested. It seems ludicrous to pursue a policy that has not been tested to see whether it is sustainable over a long period of time. Following a complaint to the Commission, this analysis of Food Harvest 2020 has now been done and, as my colleague, Mr. Ewing, alluded to, we are responding to it through the public consultation process and engaging actively with the Department on it. I do not want to be too distracted by Food Harvest 2020 which will effectively be out of date in another two years once the milk quotas change. Much has changed since 2010 when that policy was first rolled out.

Mr. David Healy:

First, I will put on my Oxfam hat when commenting on the issue of food security. It is important to emphasise that Irish agricultural production and exports are not connected to the issue of food security or insecurity in developing countries. They are supplying a different market. In the countries in which there is a serious food insecurity problem, in India and Africa, the people who suffer from food insecurity are not in the market for Irish beef, butter or dairy products. The food exports are feeding a middle class demand, but they are not connected to the food insecurity of local people whose diet comprises grains, pulses and vegetables, local agricultural conditions and local markets. The connection with developed countries lies in their demand for grains, in particular, which is driven by the demand for biofuels and animal fodder. These demands from developed countries have an impact on food security in developing countries.

Wearing my "green pillar" hat, we argue that agricultural policy in Ireland needs to be re-examined in the context of its impact on climate change and also in the context of the impact climate change is having and will have on agricultural production. A researcher from Maynooth has recently put together the evidence which is that the changes in terms of a wetter West and a drier East will have implications for the economic advantages in terms of what should be grown and the associated risks. We would like to see that research integrated into the Food Harvest 2020 analysis.

I wish to make a point on water, as I understand some of the Deputies are concerned about Irish Water. Our great concern is that Irish Water is being set up and not taking the water framework directive into account. We have legal obligations at European level to introduce quite significant governance changes in order to meet the obligations under the water framework directive to ensure good water quality by 2015 and later in some places. A great deal of work must be done in order to achieve this. The structures were set up in order to produce the plans, but they have not been maintained. There is no sign of their being incorporated into the new Irish Water structures. We have obligations, but we will end up in trouble with the Commission and the European Court of Justice if we do not meet these obligations. We are charging ahead with major reforms and not taking these environmental responsibilities into account.

The diversity in performance of local authorities and local community development structures in an environmental sense is positive as it means that there are positive as well as negative examples from which we can learn. Similarly, Deputy Catherine Murphy's point on the nominating process and diversity of input is key. What we need is diversity to have voices come into the discussion, as that would help us to move forward more effectively. As drafted, the nominating process seems to be almost entirely in the gift of one person per county, which we do not consider appropriate. The nominating process must be participative, transparent and inclusive. We hope committee members will find some way to bring forward amendments in that regard.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
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I thank the delegates for their contributions.

Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.45 p.m.