Crisis of Consultations

Nov 13

Crisis of Consultations

November 13th 2022

“We want to hear your views”: six words that make hardened environmental activists want to take up smoking.

Much time is devoted by NGOs and local community groups to making submissions to ‘public consultations’. This is where the government or one of its agencies asks ‘the public’ for its views on a plan or project. Asking for the views of third parties has been a mainstay of planning decisions at least since the first directive on Environmental Impact Assessment was transposed into law in the early 1990s. In 2001, the Aarhus Convention entered into force which enshrined not only the right of the public to make their views known but to participate in decisions affecting the local, national and transboundary (international) environment. Since December 2013 Ireland has been subject to nine complaints and was found to be non-compliant by the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee in 2021. A public consultation on this Plan was launched earlier this year.

So, when you go to the effort of reading sometimes dense and lengthy documents and making a submission to a public consultation, what happens? What influence does it have on the actual outcome? The answer is, very little.

In 2017, then EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan, launched a public consultation across the trading block in relation to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). It saw 322,000 citizens make a response, one of the largest the Commission had ever seen, and the overwhelming message was that people wanted their tax money to support greater ambition on biodiversity and climate action. Yet that is not what the European public got. In Ireland, the new CAP comes into effect early in 2023 and will spend €9.8 billion on farmers over its five-year lifespan. Yet Oonagh Duggan of BirdWatch Ireland, who has been a member of the CAP consultative committee, noted that “only 2-5% of this funding will actually result in positive impacts for the environment”.

These days there’s hardly a week that passes that doesn’t involve some organ of the State launching a ‘public consultation’, sometimes with fanfare, others more on the QT. A recent tweet from Minister of State Malcolm Noonan was encouraging people to respond to a public consultation on our national Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) stating that “we need your input to make it as strong and ambitious as it can be”. He was referring to the process whereby signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity are expected to produce periodic plans which aim to meet local, national and international biodiversity goals. Ireland has produced three such plans (all subject to public consultation), none of which has been effective, and is currently preparing the fourth for publication.

The Irish Wildlife Trust makes submissions, as many of our colleagues in other NGOs do, in the knowledge that they will have little impact. A recent submission we made on the third cycle of the Water Framework Directive was pretty much based upon our submission for the second cycle that we made in 2018.

While taking part in this charade may seem pointless, we continue to so because not taking part will give an advantage to those who would not act in the interests of nature. We also use the exercise to communicate with our members on the issues and at least try to put those with responsibility under pressure. But I’d be the first to acknowledge that this approach has borne little fruit.

There is, however, a mounting risk for the government in continuing on this path and I can’t think of a more blatant example than what has been happening in forestry. In early 2021 Minister for Land Use and Biodiversity, Pippa Hackett, launched ‘Project Woodland’ to address existing problems in forestry licencing as well as to set a path for the sector for the upcoming Forestry Programme. This involved an extensive public consultation consisting of:

  • A public attitudes survey where 1,000 people were interviewed;
  • 6,000 questionnaires sent to members of Irish Rural Link including seven focus group sessions;
  • A Youth Forum;
  • An online survey which received 3,148 responses;
  • A ‘deliberative dialogue’, held over two days with 100 randomly selected citizens and which was addressed by an Taoiseach Micheál Martin;
  • 28 bilateral meetings between officials of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and ‘key stakeholders’ (including industry and environmental NGOs).

What did all of this find? Overwhelmingly, despite the problems in the sector, people want more forests but this comes with a crucial caveat: these should prioritise climate and nature over production. The online survey found that over 98.2% of respondents thinks forests for nature are ‘very important’ or ‘important’, the figure for climate was 97.9%. Only 44.1% thought forests for wood were ‘very important’. Irish Rural Link, which is an umbrella group that campaigns for sustainable rural development, received 557 responses to their questionnaire which concluded that people want to see more native woodland, a greater diversity of tree species in planting schemes and asked that alternatives to clear-felling be found. In fact, the findings of the public consultation were so clear that it means the current model of planting monocultures and clear-felling them is now thoroughly discredited and has no public mandate.

What people want

Yet, incredibly, the Forest Strategy Implementation Plan envisages maintaining the status quo, with the vast majority of new forest establishment going to – you guessed it – planting monocultures which will be later clear-felled.

Minister Hackett has recently announced a significantly beefed-up forestry budget which will be fully-funded by Irish taxpayers to the tune of €1.3 billion over the coming five-year period. If the current targets are maintained, this will represent a substantial transfer of public wealth to the private sector with no reform in return and grossly inadequate protections for nature, never mind the urgent need to restore our native forest ecosystem for the benefit of people, climate, biodiversity and water.

The Plan is not yet a done deal, it is open to yet more public consultation until the end of November, but the department has already signaled that this won’t make a jot of a difference as they are quite prepared to ignore any submissions that might be made.

This is no longer only a crisis of ecology but a crisis of democracy. It is a crisis of legitimacy. The government is happy to blame ‘NIMBYs’ for objecting to poor planning proposals, is content to under-resource planning authorities and is prepared to restrict access to environmental justice through the courts. Yet when they show such disdain for the views outside their circle they leave environmental defenders with no other option, something that in turn leads to rancour and divisiveness in public discussion.

The next time you hear a minister saying that they “want to hear your views”, the truth is, they don’t.

Pádraic Fogarty