Public consultation on upland burning a ‘box-ticking exercise’

Published by Niall Sargent on

January 16th, 2019

The leader of the Green Party today questioned the timing and seriousness of the Government’s public consultation over controversial regulations to extend the upland burning season.

The draft regulations to be introduced under the much-criticised Heritage Act seeks to extend the open period for the burning of vegetation by one month to include the month of March.

The move comes despite concerns from conservation experts that it could have a devastating impact on breeding birds such as the near extinct curlew.

The public consultation is on the draft regulation itself and the best practice guidelines for burning management that includes rules on prohibited nature zones, rotational burning and how to avoid impact on ground-nesting birds.

Speaking in the Dail this afternoon, Eamon Ryan questioned the merits of the consultation as well as the decision to launch the public consultation on 21 December, the last Friday before the Christmas holiday period.

He asked the Minister for Heritage Josepha Madigan TD -whose department is running the consultation – if she is happy that this approach will adequately engage the public in the decision making process.

He said that the opening date for the consultation was clearly “not designed to encourage maximum participation” and sends out a signal that “you’re doing a tick box exercise, you’ve made up your mind, [and] the consultation is not real.”

The Government’s Consultation Principles & Guidance document says that a consultation process should vary between two and 12 weeks, with a longer period appropriate where individuals are being consulted.

“In addition, longer consultation periods may be necessary when the consultation process falls around holiday periods,” the document states.

Drone eye view of fire in Saggart last week. Firefighters from Tallaght, Rathfarnham and HQ attended the scene Photo: Dublin Fire BrigadeMs Madigan said that the 28 days consultation period was at the “higher end of the standard consultation period” and that publication over the holiday period “gave people the time and space to reflect on the proposals.”

The Minister added, however, that she appreciated the concerns of individuals and a number of organisations about the closing date and exercised a provision to extend the deadline until 31 January.

The extension follows a letter sent by the Environmental Pillar coalition to the Minister last week outlining concern that the original deadline would have effectively reduced the consultation period to just two weeks over a busy festive season that included the Christmas and New Year break.

This would run in contravention of the Government’s requirements to allow for effective public participation in environmental matters under the Aarhus Convention and European Directives, the Pillar said.

Mr Ryan also argued that schedules one and two of the regulations that include information and guidelines on vegetation burning are not included with the consultation documents.

“So people are being asked to consult on a document where the Department has not provided the necessary schedule which would allow them to actually consult properly,” he said.

Ms Madigan said that the best practice guidelines out for consultation contain detailed information on when, where and under what conditions the Department plans to allow burning in March.

Skellig Michael Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki

Skellig Michael management plan

Mr Ryan also raised concern with the time limit for another public consultation on the Government’s plans to manage Skellig Michael. The site attracted global fame following its inclusion in the new Star Wars trilogy despite concerns from environmental groups over the potential for damage during filming.

The Government must now submit a new management plan to UNESCO in 2019, with the public consultation supposed to help guide and inform the content and direction of the new Plan.

Announcing the commencement of the public consultation process in December, Ms Madigan said that a new and comprehensive management plan will “affirm our responsibilities to this magnificent place”.

However, in another letter sent last week to Ms Madigan, the Environmental Pillar warned that the consultation is “fundamentally flawed” as the only document available for review is the old plan which expired in 2018.

As there is no draft of the next plan available, the public and environmental groups are “in the dark about the government’s proposals” for the heritage site, the Pillar outlined in the letter.

There is also no mention in the consultation notice about screening for Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and Natura Impact Statement, the Pillar said. It is a requirement by law for an SEA to be carried out for any plans or programmes on the scale of the Skellig Michael Management Plan.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London