Buy a plastic bag and save the environment: how not to make cuts

27 Apr 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 6 Jul 2015

Scope analyses the bizarre recent conduct of the Department of the Environment and suggests this is a text book example of how not to implement cuts. 

Last week officials from the Department of the Environment were trying to tidy up a mess they had created.

First they issued letter withdrawing funding from the environmental charities they had previously funded. The announcement devastated the sector, condemning many important bodies to oblivion.

Then, with boards preparing to wind up and redundancy notices under preparation, Minister Mark H Durkan delivered a message of hope at an emergency meeting of the environment committee.

He was going to allocate £1 million from the plastic bag tax to help keep many of these groups going, and when members of his own department take voluntary redundancy later this year he offered the prospect of diverting some of the monies saved to further funding to the sector.

Great news, or evidence of a lack of strategic thinking, effective planning and clear prioritisation by the department?

Tough Choices

Politicians do not like making tough choices. It is not in their DNA. And it is so much harder when those “tough choices” are not ones they have come up with themselves, but have been imposed by others.

The Stormont House Agreement may now be stalled over Welfare Reform, but all those parties who have ministerial positions signed up for it. So they are all now responsible for implementing cuts, even though the cuts have been effectively imposed by the Westminster government.

The Ministers have known the figures involved for months and have had time to reflect on how they should be administered whilst doing as little damage as possible to their portfolios.

If, after examining the numbers, they conclude that they have been placed in an impossible position then they face another “tough decision” this time about themselves. They can resign, as Edwin Poots threatened to do about the Health budget last year, or else knuckle down and get on with it.

At least the lights won't go out 

As a politician you risk losing credibility amongst voters if you claim that you are opposed to cuts that you are personally responsible for implementing.

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan understands that. In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph last year he said: “While I do have a duty as Minister of the Environment to protect my budget as best I can, I do recognise political priorities. That is why you didn't hear me running to the radio screaming. I don't think it would have the same effect as saying the lights are going to go out or there won't be any police officers.”

So we cannot indict Mark H Durkan for the same kind of hypocrisy that other Northern Ireland politicians, including party colleagues, are guilty of when they join protests against cuts whilst simultaneously enforcing them. 

However it would be interesting to speculate how his department set about addressing spending cuts in the months that followed: we might have expected a forensic audit of every penny spent both internally and externally to eliminate waste; a further examination of any activities that the department is involved in which does not provide value for money, and then a strategic plan, linked to the necessary cuts, backed by a rationale of why those missing out were doing so.

That is not what happened, or at least that is not what appears to have happened from the outside.

Instead the department wrote to all the voluntary sector organisations it funded advising them that support was to be withdrawn. Some of them were given three months temporary funding.

Save the environment. Buy more plastic bags! 

There was a media outcry when the sector started to piece together the total impact of Durkan’s cuts. The entire environmental voluntary sector was under threat, with all that implied for the future of Northern Ireland’s most important asset: its landscape, built heritage and wildlife.

Durkan was correct. There will still be police officers, the lights (or at least most of them) still work. Yet his cuts would lead to the devastation of groups hitherto regarded as essential for the protection of the environment.  

After the deed was done Durkan was invited to speak to the environment committee at Stormont to justify his actions.

The full debate makes for an interesting read, if only for what was not said rather than what was.

The Minister promised that he would allocate £1 Million from the plastic bag tax to help make up the shortfall and help keep charities threatened with closure in operation for a while and then said that further monies might be allocated from savings made through redundancies in the department.

His appearance, however, raised more questions than it answered.

If the department had always intended to allocate funds from the plastic bag tax to save voluntary organisations from closure why was this not communicated before they were sent letters advising them that funds were being withdrawn?

Where is the strategy?

If the department had planned this all along, why did they not use the additional cash to strategically prioritise those groups they deemed to be most important?

The department is currently meeting with the sector to discuss how the funding will be portioned up, but why did this not happen months ago?

The lack of strategic thinking and the timing of the announcement leaves some organisations affected no better off than they were the day they received their “Dear John” letters because responsible trustees cannot rely on a wing and a prayer for survival, good governance requires certainty over funding commitments.  

Over and above that the responsible Minister has already said that he’s not going to make a fuss with colleagues about his cuts programme because there are more important priorities (police officers, street lights and the like).

There’s another irony here. The plastic bag tax was introduced to reduce waste and relieve pressures on landfill sites. Ironically Durkan has now made environmental groups dependent on it. In order to survive they are left hoping that as many people as possible buy as many plastic bags as possible. This is perverse.

In addition there is a mystery about monies saved through redundancies. We were led to believe that public sector redundancies were being made to balance the books, not to generate extra revenue that could then be invested in the voluntary sector. There’s nothing about that in the Stormont House Agreement and it is hard to believe that the public sector unions and indeed Durkan’s own party, which describes itself as being pro-public sector worker, is going to be too happy about what he has in mind.

Whichever way you look at it this looks like a mess:  it destabilised an important sector, put vital work in jeopardy and there does not appear to be a plan for the future.

Painting our way out of trouble

Meanwhile Durkan is investing £21,000 in more of the tomfoolery that we remember so well from G8 when Northern Ireland made global headlines after derelict buildings in Fermanagh were turned into fake shops. He plans to do the same to give the impression to visitors to the Irish Open that our towns and villages are thriving.

There is historic precedence for this sort of thing. In 1787 the Russian Minister Grigory Potemkin built fake villages along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea into thinking the region was bustling and prosperous. The incident has gone down into legend and the phrase Potemkin Village has been used to mock falsehoods in building projects and attempts to deceive. And, of course, Northern Ireland itself still carries the legacy of fake shopfronts along the route taken last year during the visit of the Giro d’Italia.

If you look up Potemkin Village on Wikipedia you will find that NI finds itself cited on a list of examples alongside others from North Korea, Nazi Germany and China.

So our environmental groups are in danger of extinction. But don’t worry. The next time you drive through Kilkeel you’ll see a beautiful old-fashioned butcher’s shop. Just don’t try to buy anything there, it is just a photograph.

And, perhaps, with nobody to protect our environment any longer, before long he’ll have teams out painting the countryside as well.




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