Days of the Heritage Service are numbered

Duchas, the Heritage Service, is expected to be broken up following the completion of a major review of its operations, ordered…

Duchas, the Heritage Service, is expected to be broken up following the completion of a major review of its operations, ordered by the Minister for the Environment, Mr Cullen.

The review is believed to recommend that the national monuments and historic properties division of Dúchas should be reversed into the Office of Public Works, where it resided before the Heritage Service was established in 1995.

The functions of Dúchas in relation to the natural environment are to remain in the Department of the Environment, which has had responsibility for the Heritage Service since the present Government was formed last June.

This was seen then as part-compensation for the "loss" of the roads division to the new Department of Transport. But the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, said that there would be a review of the heritage area to determine the final distribution of functions.

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Dúchas is the statutory authority with responsibility for archaeology, including the registration of national monuments. It is also responsible for the architectural heritage inventory, although the scheduling of buildings is a function of local authorities.

It is recognised by the EU as the "competent authority" for nature conservation under the EU Birds and Habitats directives, with responsibility for the designation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). Dúchas is also a "prescribed body" under the Planning Act and is thus entitled to be notified of all planning applications affecting sites of archaeological, geological, ecological and historical interest, whether or not these sites are designated.

This latter role is seen as a political "hot potato", especially if it involves the Heritage Service lodging appeals with An Bord Pleanála against developments which might impinge on a site of archaeological importance, for example.

Conservationists complain that Dúchas has been hamstrung in fulfilling its planning role. In one recent case involving a proposed quarry on the Blackwater river in west Waterford, it failed to pursue its objections to the appeal stage.

"Unlike English Heritage, Dúchas does not have sufficient independence to fulfil its statutory functions," one source complained. "It has also failed to take an integrated approach in assessing golf resort schemes for country estates."

The process of designating SACs has been stalled by strong opposition from the farming lobby, "mainly to protect farmers' rights to sell sites for bungalows", according to this source. "It is not even monitoring developments affecting SACs."

An Taisce has just lodged an appeal against plans by the secretary-general of the Department of the Environment, Mr Niall Callan, to build a holiday/retirement home on a highly-elevated and exposed site in an SAC on Sherkin Island, off the Co Cork coast.

The Office of Public Works is believed to be keen to take back the national parks and heritage properties divisions of Dúchas, but it has no interest in assuming responsibility for the planning and nature conservation functions of the Heritage Service.

"These are popping around like ping-pong balls that nobody wants," one conservationist complained. "The Department of the Environment cannot bear to have a prescribed body with a planning role under its wing. That's why it wants to get shut of Dúchas."

The review has been circulated to other Departments and to the Heritage Council, which advises on heritage policy, for their views, before being considered by the Government. It is unclear whether the Heritage Council's own role will be affected by its findings.

Even though many local authorities have shown a marked reluctance to implement recommendations from Dúchas to schedule historic buildings as protected structures, it is not expected that their powers in this area will be changed by the review.