Tuesday, 23 October 2018
National Parks and Wildlife Service Funding
The Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, is waiting anxiously and patiently in the wings. Cuirim fáilte roimhe. As we are running a little late, I ask Senator Mulherin, without further ado, to proceed with her inquiry to the Minister of State.
I am grateful to the Cathaoirleach for selecting this matter. While I welcome the Minister of State, I was hoping to see the Minister, Deputy Madigan, here. This is a very serious issue which is compromising and crippling development in rural Ireland. The National Parks and Wildlife Service, which comes under the aegis of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, is charged with the protection and conservation of habitats and species in designated lands around the country. However, there is substantial evidence to show that infrastructure development has been delayed in recent years owing to this environmental designation, especially in the west, where most environmental designation is. I will outline some of this evidence.
In 2010, An Bord Pleanála refused stage 2 of the N26, the road from Mount Falcon to Bohola, which is basically the road between Swinford and Ballina. It runs through the River Moy special area of conservation, SAC. The project was denied on account of over-design and whooper swans. A minor upgrade to this same road has been sought at Cloongullaun to replace the bridge, and solutions have been sought on how to overcome the environmental issues since 2012. A sum of €4 million has been spent on this. A sum of €5 million was spent on the previous project and we still do not have planning permission. I hope An Bord Pleanála will issue planning permission in the coming weeks. If it does not, the alternative is not one to contemplate.
Consultations on flood defences for Crossmolina town, also in an SAC, have been ongoing since 2013 or 2014. On the positive side for Crossmolina, it is listed as one of the projects to be financed under the flood defences capital programme.However, there is still no planning permission. Even a more minor job, that of the dredging of the River Deel to protect people's properties in the short term, has been refused permission. One of the reasons cited was the presence of freshwater pearl mussels. The same issue arises at Cloongullane Bridge. Equally, the much-needed work on Glenisland Bridge on the R312 between Castlebar and Bellacorick has been allocated funding but has been delayed on account of freshwater pearl mussels. On designated lands in Galway, the N59 works between Galway and Clifden have been delayed for years, notwithstanding the 17 or 18 consultations on it. All of these areas fall within the auspices of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS.
We are reaching a point where Government agencies charged with the delivery of vital infrastructure projects are living in fear when proposing them. For example, instead of seeking a major scheme for the worst section of national primary road in the country, namely, the N26, Mayo County Council is seeking a series of minor schemes because it believes it will fall foul of the environmental designation. That is crazy.
The NPWS needs to undertake a major body of work. Other than that, every planning application in a given SAC is dealt with on an ad hocbasis. There is a lack of forward planning and schematic approach, as most SACs do not have management plans. This is key. It means that there has been no examination of the competing interests of conservation and socioeconomic objectives. The need to be able to build bridges and roads and to farm land has not been balanced with the conservation objectives in any formal way.
A case for legitimate development has been identified. Under Project Ireland 2040, there is a plan for 500,000 people in rural areas. If we can get planning permissions, we can get developments through without having to wait years. We have been left very far behind.
I welcome the recruitment steps taken in recent years to plug the science and biodiversity staffing gaps in the NPWS. There was an increase of 15% in this year's budget to €54 million, but that amount covers built heritage as well as natural heritage. The culture budget has been increased to €190 million. There will be no culture or heritage in rural Ireland unless we get our act together. This situation will impede Project Ireland 2040 and must be taken seriously by the Government. The NPWS must be funded if it is to have a schematic approach to developments in designated SACs where there are already substantial settlements and roads.
I am taking this debate on behalf of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, and I thank the Senator for raising it. I will talk to the Minister about the issues outlined. Reading the answer before Senator Mulherin spoke, it might be approaching the question in a different way than the Senator addressed the matter.
In 2018, the Department allocated €11.982 million to the NPWS, which represents a more than 7% increase from 2017. In addition, the overall budget for the heritage division in 2018 of €47.146 million increased by 4% from 2017. A further increase in funding of more than €7 million, or 15%, in the overall budget for the division was announced earlier this month as part of budget 2019. This investment represents a significant proportion of the Department's overall budget and reflects the continued commitment to the NPWS.
Some 14% of the terrestrial area of the State is designated. This includes many remote and inaccessible areas. Most of the land in SACs, special protection areas and natural heritage areas is in private ownership. Through the NPWS, the Department directly manages a property portfolio in respect of national parks, nature reserves and other conservation or recreational properties of approximately 87,000 ha. This comprises 69,000 ha of diverse landscape within our six national parks and more than 18,000 ha within our other 80 plus statutory nature reserves and other heritage properties.Killarney National Park comprises over 10,000 ha. The National Parks and Wildlife Service manages and maintains over 485 km of trails across these properties. Approximately 4 million people visit these sites annually and while 50% of the national parks are in the western region, more than half of all visitors are to the Wicklow Mountains and Killarney National Park.
Staff levels across the Department are kept under regular review in line with emerging business needs and Government policy on public sector pay and staffing as advised by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Of the Department's total staff, approximately 335 work in the area of natural heritage through the National Parks and Wildlife Service. In addition, the Department takes on in the region of 70 seasonal staff during the year to assist the NPWS. Front-line conservation rangers are deployed through a regional structure and assignments are determined in light of departmental business needs and priorities. As well as more senior regionally-based officers of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, there are 62 NPWS conservation rangers stationed around the country who deal with enforcement matters under the Wildlife Acts. As the Senator may be aware, the rangers are involved on a daily basis in a range of enforcement activities. These duties are not based upon a county basis. For operational reasons, I cannot provide the House with specific levels of detail with regard to the exact number of rangers in a particular geographic area as such information could serve as an incentive for wildlife crime and compromise us from an operational point of view.
The Department is working towards increasing the overall number of rangers to 84, subject to constraints. Any further appointments will be made across the country taking account of business needs and financial resources to meet pay costs in the context of Government policy on public sector pay and staffing. As I said earlier, staff levels across the Department are kept under regular review in line with emerging business needs and Government policy on public sector pay and staffing, as advised by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The NPWS endeavours to fulfil a comprehensive and valuable role in the conservation and protection of our natural heritage and delivers an excellent service to the public.
Capital funding is allocated by individual project as opposed to specific regions. As the Senator may be aware, the Department entered into a strategic investment partnership with Fáilte Ireland last year. The first project under this partnership is a €2.1 million investment in Wild Nephin-Ballycroy National Park to develop a continuous 53 km walking-cycling trail from Newport to Ballycastle on the Wild Atlantic Way through the national park. This follows on from a number of key strategic investments in Mayo, including the expansion of the Wild Nephin-Ballycroy National Park with the €850,000 purchase of some 1,200 acres at Altnabrockey and the transfer of Coillte's Wild Nephin holdings to the national park. These acquisitions not only consolidate the national park area, they provide excellent opportunities for the future development of the park, including improved access and trails, as well as other significant enhancements to the visitor experience at Wild Nephin on the Wild Atlantic Way. They also build upon the recent designation of the area as Ireland's first gold-tier dark sky park. A gold-tier award is the highest possible accolade, meaning that Mayo is now internationally recognised as one of the best places in the world to view the wonders of the night. Mayo Dark Sky Park is a great example of collaborative projects between our communities, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Coillte, GMIT Mayo campus, South West Mayo Development Company and Mayo County Council.
Between 2017 and 2017, the Department invested in excess of €7 million capital in the development of Ireland's network of six national parks and more than 80 nature reserves and other conservation and recreational heritage properties. Under Investing in our Culture, Language and Heritage 2018-2027, capital investment of €50 million has been earmarked for the national parks and nature reserves. This investment ensures long-term protection of the national parks and reserves, and the Department is delighted to have this opportunity for investment and implementation of measures to protect our habitats, landscapes and wildlife.
The Minister, Deputy Madigan, has asked me to assure the House that into 2019 and beyond the Department will continue its ongoing programme of maintenance works to safeguard the continuing management and operation of the national parks and reserves not just in the western region but nationwide. I acknowledge that the response fails to address the issues raised by Senator Mulherin in terms of the necessary staffing levels to ensure that infrastructural projects in Mayo can proceed and I will ask the Minister to revert to her in writing with a more pertinent response.
My message is that there needs to be a serious examination by the Minister, Deputy Madigan, and the Government of how the National Parks and Wildlife Service responds to infrastructure projects that are needed urgently.The Minister of State mentioned 14% of the land in the State being designated. It is 55% in Mayo. We cannot build roads or bridges. I am not talking about remote areas that were referred to but about major towns in the county where it is not possible to build roads or bridges because of special areas of conservation. I refer to the freshwater pearl mussel and other wildlife. There has to be a better balance. I ask the Minister of State to impress that upon the Minister, Deputy Madigan.