#SluggerSoapbox: It’s the environment stupid…

Colum Delaney works for the RSPB in Northern Ireland. He makes the case that shrinking the Department of the Environment exacerbates exposure to large fines from the European Union Court of Justice. He argues that loping off a third of staff will prove to be a false economy in the long run. 

For those of us working in the environmental NGO sector, there has been a tendency to shy away from using the term ‘front-line environmental services’. Traditionally, front-line has meant things like health and education, but not the natural environment. So what has the environment ever done for us?

All of the things that we rely on, like clean water, food production, the quality of the air that we breathe, flood protection, the environmental economy which employs c32,000 people, the tourism economy which is built on our ‘green’ image and the healthy benefits of a clean environment.

I am not trying to equate front-line health services with cuts to the natural environment sector. That would be absurd. But for too long our environment, the very entity that sustains us all, has been the poor relation in terms of political priorities – like the child in the playground picked last for the game of football, if you will.

Whilst there will be considerable pain across the board from the cuts, the natural environment is once again in line for a disproportionate share of the burden. Of all the departments, the DoE is taking the largest percentage cut – 11.1% which equates to £12.9m. In the grand scheme of things, that may not sound like a massive hit, but it will have a landscape changing effect (excuse the pun).

The DoE will lose a whopping one third of its staff which will inevitably mean that important environmental work will be under threat. Not only this, but the Department manages compliance of several EU environmental directives, on behalf of the Executive. If we do not meet these targets, there is the very real risk of massive fines from Brussels.

Ask Greece. For uncontrolled waste disposal, the Court of Justice of the European Union ordered a daily payment of 20,000 until a landfill site was closed, totalling just under €5 million. Ask Sweden. In 2012 they were fined €4 million with an additional €4,000 a day for failure to properly implement the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive.

The short sighted approach of pinching pennies and not thinking through the implications could yet haunt us.

For those of us in the environmental NGO sector, the future looks equally bleak. The Natural Heritage Grant Programme, the life support for us and many of our sister organisations, has been totally decimated. These are not just ‘nice to do’ environmental projects but many of these grants help ensure the Executive meet core environmental targets.

For RSPB NI, this means that much of the work we do on our reserves to protect some of the most threatened species (on behalf of the Executive and society) will be at risk. Species such as chough, curlew, Irish lady’s tresses orchid, Irish whitebeam and red squirrel already face an uncertain future but now seem certain to be destined for the pages of dusty history books.

In addition, our out of classroom learning programme could come to an end. Each year we engage with 15,000 school children who learn about how the environment supports their future. At a time when our children’s connectedness to nature is at a low ebb (xboxes and iPads anyone?) this is a blow to the RSPB’s vision of nurturing the environmental champions of the future.

These are the front-line services that I mentioned at the beginning. But who will ‘service’ these when the proverbial lights go out?

It’s a pity the Executive don’t get this.   

The draft budget consultations remain open until the 29th December 2014. Please consider sending a short response to the DoE and the Department of Finance and Personnel. For further information go to www.rspb.org.uk/news/387291-nature-under-threat

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  • chrisjones2

    “The short sighted approach of pinching pennies and not thinking through the implications could yet haunt us.”

    If we remain in the EU

    “now seem certain to be destined for the pages of dusty history books”

    as evolution does its work?

  • carl marks

    a major problem in our wee country is that as soon as you mention “The Environment” you are put in the bearded,sandal wearing,lentil eating category, to a lot of people the environment is just something that get’s in the way of property developers and golf club builders .
    the thought that the EU would fine us for ruining the place we live in will be taken by many as proof that we should be out of the EU the concern being the fines not the pollution or threat to our biodiversity,
    About 5 years ago i helped out on a project on the lower Bann (with the RSPB) to extend the habitat of the tree Sparrow along the river from the lough northwards at one stage we had to ask the local council for permission to put up bird boxes on land owned by them and remember talking to a local councillor about this and he obviously thought i was wasting my time with all that nonsense!
    .

  • Sharpie

    I never understand how humans are so stupid. Anyone who denies that every aspect of our existence – food, air, water, clothes, homes, our well being, relies on a functioning healthy environment with rich biodiversity is an idiot. If you are reading this and are ambivalent about the biosphere you are an idiot.

    Unfortunately you are in plentiful company. There are millions of idiots on this planet, I was going to say billions but in fact most who have no access to clean water, or who breathe pollution fumes every day, or who have not enough food, or whose lands and lives are destroyed by irrigation, mining, forestry, or pollution in the water or soil are not idiots but victims.

    We have a good environment in Northern Ireland, not an amazing one because it has been well degraded, but it is still worth valuing for its intrinsic benefits and value as well as its economic value.

    The fact that we treat it with continuing contempt, apathy, or ambivalence is certain to come back on our kids and theirs. No one has all the answers or is above criticism but to wilfully ignore the issue of the environment is just stupid.

    A few posts ago Mick mentioned the Tragedy of the Commons – here it is writ large. The environment where we get all of our life-sustaining resources from is a commons to a large extent – we don’t pay for fresh air, fresh water, or soil services, so we treat them badly – by polluting them, removing habitat thereby destroying diversity and leaving us vulnerable to tree and animal disease that impacts monocultures. Jesus you could go on all day. I won’t. We are stupid. I wish we weren’t.

  • Nevin
  • barnshee

    We must have “growth” and “progress” for success. More people- more houses- more pressure on the environment. The river I sailed on and even swan in now effectively a sewer- Its salmon virtually a history. A living village (Portballintrae) turned into a ghost town for 75% of the year. The annual “run” of bass along the north coast a memory.

    “Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.~ Cree Indian Proverb

  • eiregain

    Chris are suggesting leaving the EU will solve our environmental problems?

    If you can, I would like you to explain how this would help, as it was not the emphasis of the piece.

    The piece spoke briefly about a justified EU penalty for idiotic and unsustainable behaviour (uncontrolled waste disposal). Did you only read this far then let your right wing brain go straight to the comments section?

    The piece is about a loss of fundamental but not front-line services which serve us greatly in the long run regarding environmental issues. Its about awakening people to the fact that the Greece situation will be replicated here if we do not tackle this pragmatically.

    The head in the sand approach simply will not work, as the sand will be polluted and you will suffocate! but go on, do as you must.

  • Dan

    Is this the same RSPB which supports destroying the countryside with bird slicing uneconomic resources guzzling wind farms?

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Actually it’s the economy stupid…

  • Sharpie

    The economy ain’t nothing without an environment stupid.

  • carl marks

    please defend,” Bird slicing ( birds don’t fly into turbine blades any more than they fly into trees, research has proved this) uneconomic (wonder how all those huge energy companies are making a lot of money out of them ) resource guzzling (not like those magic internal combustion engines that use fuel) i glad you brought this up, all these oul chestnuts need exposed!

  • Sharpie

    I think this post highlights very well the cull of NGO work that is going on all over the economy. Every day I receive emails from groups who are about to have their funding slashed – arts organisations, sports organisations, environmental organisations, community development organisations. Its a slaughter of amazing work that has been built up over many years.

    It is being justified because it is easier to cut external posts than internal posts even before you begin to compare value and productivity.

    There is such an outcry over “outsourcing” when in fact it is a great way of getting the expertise precisely where you need it. Unfortunately all of the risk is landed on the poor souls who take on the outsourced work and often for far less money that the public sector itself would spend doing it. The results are normally remarkable – dedicated and passionate people dong what they love for not much money.

    The other unfortunate is the lack of protections built-in to the work that these people do. No-one goes on Unionised marches for them, the way that NIPSA would do over two nurses being made redundant. They are outside the system and disposable.

  • Dan
  • carl marks

    ah the daily mail who could argue with that (bird strikes on turbines are at the same rate of bird strike on pylons and cables), are the birds emigrants,

  • Sergiogiorgio

    I’ll have to take some time to consider that intellectual bullseye…..

  • chrisjones2

    leaving the EU will solve our environmental problems

    ….no but it will stop European Courts fining us

    idiotic and unsustainable

    …….. whats unsustainable one part of the EU may not be elsewhere

  • Sharpie

    Thats nice. I didn’t take too long pondering your own heavyweight, self-derived nugget.

  • chrisjones2

    ” Anyone who denies that every aspect of our existence – food, air, water, clothes, homes, our well being, relies on a functioning healthy environment with rich biodiversity is an idiot. ”

    The problem is that that is an ‘lets not destroy the planet man’ comment. Real life involves compromises in many different areas and we need to understand that the plant itself evolves over time

  • carl marks

    A” lets not destroy the planet man” wondered how long it would take a hippy stereotype to be run out,
    tell me chris what part of the comment is wrong?
    And believe it or not the people who understand the importance of Biodiversity by and large also have a good grasp of the principles of evolution and geology and how these interact with each other! now i think that the destruction of ecosystems is happening at a disturbing rate, that is the real world, that this will have detrimental side effects is already obvious, that also is the real world,and what is the relevance of “the planet itself evolve over time” what the hell has that got to with looking after the place you live in! talk about straw men!

  • Dan

    .

  • carl marks

    then if we leave the EU who will force people to act in a responsible manner as regards the environment, things would get worse not better,would be a developer’s paradise!
    im not sure what you mean in your last line, are you claiming that what we have happening here is sustainable, if you are i would love to see the proof!

  • Dan
  • Croiteir

    To qualify for grazing subsidies the local farmers have been grubbing out scrub and woods like billyo here, so that is one way leaving the EU would help