Progress on the National Parks and Wildlife Service: Dáil Statement

Progress on the National Parks and Wildlife Service: Dáil Statement

Full Transcript: I met recently with an ecologist I know who works very closely with developers as part of her role. She gave me a very simple message, and I think it is one the Minister of State will appreciate. We are just gone three years in government. We spend a lot of time up against the coalface and sometimes we do not get to see the road we have travelled. The ecologist gave me a very simple message. She said, “Keep at it – it is working.” That was a good message to hear. She said it in the context of the work she does with developers to develop planning permissions. She said not so long ago that biodiversity provisions within a plan or an application or treatments of sustainable drainage – the sustainable drainage systems, SuDS, and so on – would have been very peripheral, very last-minute and just tacked on to the end as an afterthought. She said there has been a sea change whereby developers are now engaging with her proactively and, before they put the planning permission in, ask what to do about SuDS in the development and what to do to make sure there is no net loss of biodiversity over the course of the development. It was a good message to hear. We do not often hear the positive messages. “Keep at it – it is working.”

That message applies to the Minister of State’s work in the NPWS. There has been a sea change in the organisation since the formation of this Government and, in particular, since the Minister of State took the Ministry and brought a real impetus and focus to that role on the need to reform and expand the NPWS. There is no doubt but that the job of work we have in front of us is very substantial. Notwithstanding what my colleague, Deputy Bruton, said earlier, there is a worry that this can be expressed too bleakly or that people can be lost by our outlining what is in fact the reality of the situation. So many of our bird species, fish species and native plants are in serious danger. As I have said before, there is no comeback from extinction. This decline needs to be halted because we need, as I think all generations want to do, to hand on what we have received to the next generation in good order. That has to be a principle for us. In fact, it is a principle of sustainable development that one provides for the needs of this generation without inhibiting the needs of future generations to be able to provide for those needs.

That returns me to something I often talk about, that is, the insufficiency of things like GDP to fully measure what is good within our economy and the fact that things like GDP and how they have been constituted in our current iteration of capitalism, that late-stage neo-capitalism, do not pay any attention to the fact that that economic model is world-eating. We pay no attention to the four capitals, including our social capital, human capital and, in particular, natural capital. GDP is blind to that. It does not care how many forests we plough up; it only really cares about how many rolls of toilet paper, toothpicks, matches or whatever else are sold. We therefore have a job of work to do in recasting our whole view of society.

The NPWS is extremely important. It is a figurehead for nature movements and there are so many projects. The Minister of State has done a huge job of work in attracting more funding into it. We still have to address the fact that it has been historically understaffed and under-provided for in terms of the wealth of expertise and knowledge available to do it, and there has been an issue around the funding of staffing. I know a number of people who signed on to become rangers because they love nature and then for financial reasons felt they had to move elsewhere with their considerable talents, expertise and qualifications. There were other outlets that would allow them to get their mortgage, raise their family, pay for schoolbooks – all those things that need to be done. That needs to be addressed. The skills deficit or the availability of skills and this piece of workforce planning need to be addressed as well. That was another message the ecologist I mentioned at the start gave me. I suppose it was a less positive one, although there are positives in it as well. She said there is more and more need for people with these skills. She said she has to turn down work, that she is absolutely flat out. However, there is no place in Ireland that trains for those skills. I think Birmingham is the closest place where you can get that specific skill set. We are going to need those skills not just in the NPWS but across society, whether ecologists, hydromorphologists or the fellas who know how to work the diggers to set up the leaky dams. We have to factor in for all the skills related to the restoration of our wetlands and bogs, our annexe 1 habitats. We have to get out there and tell people there are jobs here in the same way we are trying to do with renewables, retrofitting and installation of solar. We are telling people there are jobs here for the coming decades and they will be good jobs. We need to do the same for jobs in nature because our response to the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis must be layered one on top of the other.

Going back to the idea of keeping at it because we are making a difference, I was very heartened by the vote last night on the nature restoration law. I demur from what Deputy Bruton said earlier. I do not think there were people finger-pointing in the debate. I think there was a narrative created that wanted somebody to finger-point. I do not think that is what was at play at all. We discussed the scale of the challenge posed by the Nature Restoration Law and the need for the multi-annual financial framework that will have to underpin it if we are in any way serious about it. The more we have talked through it, the more people have seen that this is an absolute necessity. It is so interesting to see the likes of Nestlé, which would not necessarily be expected to line up behind the Nature Restoration Law, coming out and very strongly making the call in tandem with all the scientists and environmentalists. It was unusual to see those voices line up in support of the Nature Restoration Law. One would expect the Greens to be fully behind the Nature Restoration Law but it was interesting yesterday evening to see Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, which represent three of the large voting blocks in the European Parliament, voice support for the law. That was significant. Our colleague, Deputy Leddin, tweeted about it. I looked at quote-tweets of his tweet. They appear in a number of languages. The Germans paid attention to what happened here yesterday evening, as did the French. It was a significant vote. “We are making a difference – keep at it.”

All these things are important. We could give chapter and verse on all the habitats we need to redevelop. I have talked before about shifting baseline syndrome. It would be a really interesting social history project, before we lose the knowledge of our older people, for them to be interviewed and for us to write down those interviews. I refer to those people who can remember the 1930s and 1940s and what our wildlife was like then. As I said, my boys do not have that experience. They have not seen the salmon shoaling. They will never hear the cuckoo call in the south east. That would be an interesting social project for us to take on.

I wanted to touch briefly on the meeting of the Public Accounts Committee with Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, this morning. It was a difficult meeting for the representatives who were there. There is no doubt but that there are issues around corporate governance. The Minister had to step in and take a strong stand on it and those issues had to be resolved. There was a tension in the room because the IFI representatives were telling us the body has 320 staff but needs 520. I agree with them. It absolutely does.

The role it performs is complementary to the role the NPWS performs. The central point we were making then – and I know about the work the Minister of State has done around reviewing the NPWS – was that if a body is making the case for a 61% increase in its staffing function, then it has to be able to stand over the corporate governance, because as overseers of the public purse we have to be sure the money is well spent.

It presents us with the broader issue that we have to get serious about how we fund nature. We have to understand that our economy depends on our ecology, and that one is the subset of the other. We often understand it the wrong way around. If we are serious about addressing issues of climate change and biodiversity loss and if we are serious about issues of nature restoration, then we had better get serious about funding it. That includes providing funding for the landowners. If people are being encouraged to manage their land in a particular way, then they need to be funded for it but it is also about funding those oversight bodies like the NPWS and IFI to make sure that works.