Road Safety Authority not consulted on Heritage Bill, says Sinn Fein TD

Published by Niall Sargent on

June 23rd, 2017

Minister Heather Humphreys has not consulted with the Road Safety Authority about the Heritage Bill despite claims that road safety is at the Bill’s core, a Sinn Fein TD has said.

Speaking in the Dail yesterday, Peadar Toibin TD said that the RSA confirmed to him a fortnight ago that it has had no contact with officials from the Department of Heritage in relation to the Bill.

A spokesperson for the RSA confirmed to The Green News that the Department has not been in touch with the Authority. No comment was received from Ms Humpreys’ department at the time of publication.

The Bill, which passed through the Seanad in April, has caused deep concern among various expert organisations such as the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland (HLAI), Birdwatch Ireland, and the Irish Wildlife Trust about the potential impact on natural heritage and biodiversity.

The main concern is with the proposed pilot project which would allow for the burning of vegetation in March and the cutting or destruction of hedgerows in August. Section 40 of the Wildlife Act currently prohibits cutting and upland burning from March to August.

Hedgerow Heritage

Mr Toibin pointed to the “valuable environmental roles” of hedgerows in sequestering carbon, preventing soil erosion and flooding, as well as providing nesting grounds for over half of our birds and food for our struggling pollinator populations.

Common hedgerow trees and shrubs include hawthorn, elder, blackthorn, gorse, holly, and willow, with over 22,000 kilometres of hedgerow in County Meath alone.

“Increased hedge cutting would not only negatively impact on our bird population but also our bees… worth an estimated 54 million in economic terms each year, and invaluable in terms of supporting our delicate ecosystem,” he added.

Brid Smyth, TD said that the planned extension of the cutting period would “deliberately endanger” our pollinator populations and native bird species, with around half of Irish birds nesting in hedgerows.

“I cannot understand the thinking behind that,” she said, adding that the decision would “deprive” several species that nest in hedgerows the opportunity to reproduce.

Pseudo-scientific Approach

Mr Toibin said that he is concerned with the “pseudo-scientific approach” adopted by the Department in determining the need for a pilot phase, adding that the decision was grounded in “political rather than environmental or safety concerns”.

“There has been talk of a pilot – but with no scientific basis for the proposed changes and no methodology for this ‘pilot’ provided,” he said. He added that a last minute amendment by the Minister at Report Stage in the Seanad has made the Bill “arguably even worse.”

The amendment seeks to exempt landowners from obligations to protect nesting and breeding habitats under the Wildlife Act in cases where hedgerows are judged to be a hazard to road safety. The exemption applies to the felling, cutting, lopping, trimming or removal of a tree, shrub, hedge or other vegetation.

Speaking in the Seanad at the time, Minister Humphreys said that the amendment would bring the Roads and Wildlife Acts in line and eliminate confusion as to whether landowners issued with a Section 70 order during the closed season can cut their hedges without infringing on the Wildlife Act.

“If this amendment is not accepted a person is both obliged to remove unsafe growth or branches, but they’re also prohibited from doing so,” she said. “In my view it makes no sense that there would be a direct conflict and contradiction between two separate pieces of legislation.”

Mr Toibin said that he is well aware of the potential dangers on country roads following a collision with a speeding van close to his rural home last year, which injured both himself and his young daughter.

However, he added that the Roads Act already allows for councils to issue a section 70 order for the removal of overgrown hedges deemed hazardous to road safety outside of the cutting season.

“The Minister railroaded a measure at report stage which provided for wholesale, ungovernable derogation to anyone purporting to cut hedges in the interest of public health and safety,” Mr Toibin said. “There is no mechanism to govern this and it is wide open to abuse. “

Senator Alice Mary Higgins previously brought an amendment to extend Section 70 orders to allow landowners and members of the public to apply to their local authority to cut roadside hedges if they were a danger to safety.  The amendment was voted down by both Fianna Gael and Fianna Fail.

Communication with the Department of Transport

Mr Toibin also asked Minister Humphreys to confirm if her department has met with representatives from the Ministry of Transport or Transport Minister Shane Ross.

“If road safety is the primary motive for this section of the bill, why is the Minister for Transport not more closely involved with something which is of huge importance to his portfolio?” he asked.

The HLAI sent an Access to Information on the Environment request to the Department of Transport in March 2017 requesting a copy of all correspondence with Ms Humphrey department concerning the introduction of legislation to extend the cutting season.

The request was refused by the Department and following an unsuccessfully internal appeal, the case is now before the Commissioner for Environmental Information.

“There has been no assessment of the extent of road safety issues caused by roadside vegetation, no assessment of the causes or mechanisms for any problems and no evaluation of the impact of the proposed changes on road safety,” said Neil Foulkes of the HLAI.

Speaking to The Green News he said that the Minister should carry out a proper assessment of the interaction between the management of roadside vegetation and road safety and harmonise the Roads and Wildlife Acts.

“We need researched, well-considered legislation to deal with this, not the ad hoc changes that we have in the Heritage Bill which will not adequately serve wildlife or road users,” he concluded.

Burning Season

Ms Smyth also said that the decision to include a provision for the extension of the scrub burning season will give a “green light for further illegal upload burning”.

Various fire brigades, together with the Air Corps and Defence Forces, were called upon to deal with major scrub and forest fires across the country in early May.

Mr Toibin cautioned that the blame for illegal fires cannot solely be placed at the feet of farmers as many government measures are “unhelpful” to those who wish to practice controlled burning. Famers are currently required to contact various bodies and provide a seven-day notice, which Mr Toibin said makes it “impossible for farmers to plan ahead”.

“Government practice as it stands is failing farmers miserably as it is failing the environment,” he said, with only one farming group applying for a controlled license to burn last year.

Mr Toibin also outlined concern with section 7(1) of the Heritage Bill 2016 which would allow the Minister to make regulations to allow the burning of vegetation during March “subject to such conditions or restrictions specified in the regulations to ensure the protection of fauna or flora”. Mr Toibin fears that this would provide a “blank cheque book for burning”.

 “This is hugely concerning because irregardless [sic] of the ban on burning in s[ection] 40 the Minister can make regulations to specify when and where burning can be done in March,” he said.

“Our wildlife is suffering hugely as a result of uncontrolled upland burning. The charred habitats, the lifeless burnt bodies of sheep, lambs, animals, the destroyed nests and burnt eggs, not to mention the impact had on our blanket bogs and water supply.”

To date, almost 29,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the Heritage Bill.

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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