Wednesday, 14 October 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
110. Deputy Pat Rabbitte asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the number of local authorities that have heritage officers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35811/09]
Deputy John Gormley: Heritage officers play an important role in ensuring support for heritage activities and organisations at local level. Since 1999, the Heritage Council, under the aegis of my Department, has developed a partnership programme with local authorities to facilitate the employment of heritage officers. To date, my Department has provided funding of €5.15 million, including this year’s allocation of €550,000, to the Heritage Council for the programme. There are 28 local authorities with heritage officers in the programme.
The employment of heritage officers is a matter in the first instance for each local authority. Local authorities that participate in the programme are eligible for financial assistance from the Heritage Council towards the cost of employing a heritage officer. The Heritage Council also organises training courses and seminars that facilitate the professional development of heritage officers.
There is great variety in the projects supported by heritage officers across the country. These projects have included survey work, development control and forward planning, biodiversity enhancement, allocation of heritage grants, and facilitating partner groups and organisations.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: The Minister referred to 28 heritage officers and I presume this refers to 28 local authorities. Are these local authorities at city council and county council level or are some town councils? Is there anything in train to ensure the other local authorities have heritage officers?
The Minister made the point that there is a need for a more sustainable planning. From the point of view of the Heritage Council, sustainable planning is linked to the protection of our heritage. Heritage officers could play an important role in ensuring we do not make mistakes of the past and in ensuring we have sustainable planning and we protect the environment and heritage.
Deputy John Gormley: Heritage officers can make a major contribution in promoting tourism activities in the local authority area. On every occasion that I launched a book when members of the Heritage Council were present I stated that it is my strongly held view that we should have heritage officers in each local authority area. That is not the case. However, where they are in place it has made a tremendous difference. In 1999, at the inception of the heritage officer programme the number of heritage officers employed was only three. After five years the number had risen to 25 and the number of heritage officers reached its peak in 2008 with the employment of 28 heritage officers. It has remained at that level since then. Since the introduction in March of the general moratorium on the filling of public sector posts in local authorities, the level of employment in the sector has decreased. However, the number of heritage officers employed has remained at its peak of 28.
Recently, the Department of Finance approved a delegated sanction to my Department for implementation of the general moratorium on condition that the overall staffing levels in the local authority sector are to be reduced significantly by the end of 2010 in adherence with the Government’s policy on staffing and numbers in the public sector. When I have been contacted about these issues I have made it very clear that it is very important to keep in place heritage and conservation officers because I consider the job they do to be vital.
Deputy Phil Hogan: The Minister mentioned that many staff might be surplus to requirement in sections of local authorities. This is the type of work that they could do and I support the Minister on that view. There are many legacy issues and work that needed to be done which was put on the long finger because of the Celtic tiger. Will the Minister issue a circular to local authorities to appoint heritage officers, deal with heritage issues within their resources and existing staff and establish a retraining programme?
Deputy John Gormley: It is the case that if they wish local authorities can appoint heritage officers with the assistance of the Heritage Council. The Deputy is aware that because of budgetary constraints grants to the Heritage Council, which is based in his native city and which does a very fine job, have had to be cut somewhat although not as much as could otherwise have been the case. The points Deputy Hogan made on demarcation and the fact that we do not have enough flexibility in the public service are valid. We need to seriously examine how we employ people and the type of job they can do effectively. I believe that type of strict demarcation belongs to another era. We have 30,000 civil servants and 300,000 public servants. I do not see why people in the public service working in the environmental section of a local authority cannot come to my Department; that does not make any sense to me.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: The point made by Deputy Hogan is very important. Local authorities will not need as many planning officials as they did because there will be fewer planning applications to administer. People in planning might be the right people to put into the roles of heritage officers. It is important that rather than stating this as an aspiration, the Government implements it. This is the most important public service reform of all. We need to keep jobs in the public sector but we need to deploy them to where they are needed.
Deputy John Gormley: No, we have not; the McCarthy report is still a list of recommendations. I made these points previously but Deputy Tuffy was not in the Chamber at the time. I made precisely the same point that Deputy Tuffy made, that people in planning departments have little enough to do compared to during the boom. The problem is with regard to public service unions and demarcation and that is a real difficulty. I have succeeded somewhat — not the extent that I would like — in giving people in those departments extra work from An Bord Pleanála. However, I must be candid and state that it is not as effective as I would like it to be. When I see the amount of people available and the amount of work is required I do not see the required results, frankly. I want to ensure that we can get greater flexibility in the public service. It is a real issue that political parties over the years and successive Governments have failed to tackle and I hope this Administration will tackle it.
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