Dept of Housing, Local Government and Heritage at the Public Accounts Committee

Dept of Housing, Local Government and Heritage at the Public Accounts Committee


Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: I turn to something which was detailed in their opening statement. I want to change tack slightly and look at that heritage element of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service in particular. The figure outlined of the 70% drop in funding between 2008 and 2011 is very stark. There has been an absolute sea change in terms of funding for nature generally within this Government but also within the NPWS where we have had a rapid
re-expansion. Both of those scenarios are challenging. Has there has been a scarring effect on
the organisation from the retrenchment of the money? What does the Department see as growing pains as it tries to regrow, restaff, and repower the organisation?

Mr. Graham Doyle: I thank the Deputy. There has been a huge focus on trying to bring
back and restore the funding and the staffing levels from before. As I said in the opening statement, it has taken a long time to do that but we have done it relatively quickly in the past couple
of years. In terms of scarring effect, I have no doubt there has been. I joined this organisation at
a late stage and the heritage brief joined us relatively recently. I can only imagine, and in terms
of talking to people within the heritage and National Parks and Wildlife Service side, that it is
quite demotivating when you see funding lost and you are passionate about the role you do. I
have no doubt that this scarring effect takes place within the sector generally. I hope that some
of that gets healed or improved by the commitment that has been shown and by the willingness
to negotiate the higher levels of funding and to try to provide the additional staff numbers.
As to the last part of the Deputy’s question, there is a huge challenge for everybody in all
sectors now, whether in the private or public sector, in terms of just getting staff. That is a challenge.

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: The question has been put to Mr. Doyle around his own salary but the question I would ask is around the salaries being offered, particularly to rangers. I
want to talk about both recruitment and retention. These are often very highly qualified people.
I know the starting salaries are in or around €35,000. Those boots on the ground are absolutely
critical. I have submitted a number of parliamentary questions around where we have deficiencies in terms of the rangers and I get back this answer that it is for operational reasons. I understand the rationale behind that but from talking to people, I could identify on a map of Ireland
where it is we are short of rangers. Those boots on the ground are absolutely critical. I ask
about recruitment and retention particularly with regard to that. The strategic action plan for the
NPWS committed to 60 additional staff members as a priority as well as that increasing number
of conservation rangers. Where are we specifically regarding those conservation rangers?

Mr. Graham Doyle: I will bring in my colleague, Mr. Ó Donnchú, on that. It is his area.

Mr. Niall Ó Donnchú: I thank the Deputy for his interest in this area and for those questions. Funding levels are now back ahead of where they were in 2008 which was the zenith
of previous funding. To put the growth of the organisation in perspective, at the end of 2020,
there were 349 staff members in the National Parks and Wildlife Service; as of the last counting,
there were 472. Therefore, there has been very significant growth and recruitment, including as
a result of the programme for renewing and refreshing the National Parks and Wildlife Service
which the Government agreed last May.
I cannot really address the pay issue, in the context of the ranger grade. Front-line staff
are absolutely crucial to us. They are the first among the troops within the National Parks and
Wildlife Service. They cover 87,000 ha of national parks and nature reserves, as members will
know. Some 14% of the country is designated for either birds or wildlife and that is a very
significant footprint for which we, in the NPWS, with partner organisations and the farming
community, have responsibility. The targeted ranger cohort is 120. Now we are at approximately 80. We are in the middle of two recruitment competitions for rangers. We had nine new
rangers assigned to us in the past fortnight. A Public Appointments Service process is ongoing
and we are taking people from those panels as quickly as we can ——

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: I know Mr. Ó Donnchú said it was difficult to talk about
paygrades —–

Mr. Niall Ó Donnchú: I will address that.

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: The simple question is: is enough being paid to get those 40
extra rangers?

Mr. Niall Ó Donnchú: I will address it. They are coming into us. Recruitment is challenging in the labour market right now and retention is a real challenge. We make the investment in
these colleagues who are absolutely crucial. Sometimes they are attracted to the private market. There is an ongoing pay claim with Department of Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery and
Reform which has responsibility for pay and I do not want to prejudice that. Our view within
NPWS, which I will say plainly, is that the pay for the ranger cohort has not been looked at in a
very long time and needs to be addressed. I do not want to prejudice the engagement between
Forsa, the conservation rangers and Department of Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery and Reform at the moment but we certainly will not stand in the way of that review.

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: It is absolutely critical to have those boots on the ground.
Mr. Ó Donnchú mentioned that 14% of land mass is designated in one shape or form. A total
of 85% of our EU protected habitats are in unfavourable condition. The problem is particularly acute in our SACs. Will Mr. Doyle comment on the European Court of Justice case that
is referred to here regarding the State’s failure to fulfil its obligations under the conservation of
habitats and wild fauna? I assume that is the habitats directive, as we commonly refer to it. I
want a sense of the potential liability. Are we are looking at substantial fines from the EU? If so, would we not be better advised to spend that money on bringing those protected habitats up
to scratch? If we are looking down the barrel of fines, we are also looking at the nature restoration law that was debated in the Dáil yesterday. Article 4 in particular will be quite stringent
in respect of our protected areas. Where are we in that case and what are the State’s liabilities
looking like?

Mr. Graham Doyle: Mr. Ó Donnchú has been looking at that case specifically so I will ask
him to come in again.

Mr. Niall Ó Donnchú: The Deputy mentioned the reduction in funding post 2008 at the
outset in the context of addressing the banking crisis and so on and the moratorium on recruitment. In several respects, we see the impact of that on SACs. There are 424 special areas of
conservation within the ambit of that case. The Commission contended – we believe incorrectly – that we had not transposed the directive sufficiently in respect of those 424 sites. There
are three tests of transposition. First, are they protected in law; are they protected through the
planning system? The answer to that, as anyone here who works in the planning system, is an
unequivocal “Yes”. From the moment they were notified to the Commission, every single one
of those 424 sites was protected through the planning system. Second, was there a statutory instrument, SI, backing each of those 424 sites? In that respect, we needed to up our game. As of
today, 401 of those sites that have full SI backing to reinforce the protections we have through
the planning system.

The third test is whether we have site-specific conservation objectives for each of those 424
sites. We now have a full complement of site-specific conservation objectives for each of the
qualifying interests. The qualifying interests would differ. The Chair will be very appreciative
of this in the context of raised bogs etc. The qualifying interests differ from site to site. The
other test, which is challenging and where there is probably a degree of exposure, is did we
have comprehensive conservation measures in respect of each qualifying interest on each of
those sites? We tended to deal with conservation measures on a programmatic basis, that is, a
national programme as distinct from a site-specific programme. We now have a nature conservation directorate within the NPWS as a result of the review. We have comprehensive sets of
measures, some more comprehensive than others, in respect of all of those sites. I believe significant inroads have been made in this respect. We mounted quite a robust defence and, I need
to be careful here, but given the direction of travel in the Advocate General opinion published
in February, it seems there may be some challenges around that. It will not go to immediate
fines, we understand. If the ECJ finds against us, that goes back to the Commission. There has
been significant engagement with the European Commission on the significant progress being
made here. We have 424 subject SACs. There are 127,000 NATURA network sites. We know
that, in respect of the other member states, that a huge number of those are not as compliant as
we are. We are actually leading the charge here. There are very significant impacts for other
European member states if there is a finding against us. In some respects, that is feeding into
the sense of unease about the direction of travel on the nature restoration regulation. I do not
know if the Deputy wants me to address that