#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

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.