National Parks & Wildlife Service to be restructured under €55m package

Additional funding will be used to overhaul organisation and appoint extra staff

A major overhaul of the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) is to see it restructured as an executive agency under a €55 million package.

A decision taken by the Cabinet on Tuesday allows for an “emergency staffing provision” which would see an extra 60 staff appointed to key roles in the short term.

Some €47 million was allocated for the NPWS in Budget 2022, but this only restored funding to its 2008 level. It is expected that the additional funding will be provided over coming budgets.

The restructuring of the NPWS, which has key roles in enhancing biodiversity, the protection of fauna, plants and habitats, and enforcement of environmental legislation, means it will sit as a dedicated entity within a Government department – as is the case with Met Éireann. In this instance, it will continue to be under the remit of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

Minister Darragh O'Brien updated the Cabinet on Tuesday on a strategic plan for the NPWS, which stems from a commitment in the programme for government to review its resourcing and functions.

The plan for the organisation, to be completed by 2024, will be published by the Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan on Wednesday.

Mr Noonan commissioned ecologist Prof Jane Stout and former Environmental Protection Agency director Micheál Ó Cinnéide to carry out an independent review last year, which involved extensive consultation with the public, nature experts and environmental NGOs.

Not fit for purpose

It concluded that the NWPS was not fit for purpose and “cannot meet current obligations, let alone plan for and respond to future challenges and legislation”.

According to a leaked draft report, they warned: “There needs to be a fundamental overhaul of structures and governance, a clear strategic plan and leadership to implement it, better internal and external communications, and re-energised teams, working together effectively inside and beyond the organisation.”

While the authors recognised serious problems derived from chronic underfunding, they highlighted a range of structural issues undermining the ability of the NPWS to achieve its aims even if resources were increased.

The NPWS has been assigned additional responsibilities in recent years, especially as a consequence of EU legislation.

Under a subsequent "review phase", Mr Noonan commissioned former Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs secretary general Gerry Kearney to examine the structure of the organisation to inform the strategic plan. It is understood that he reached similar findings to the external review, notably on the operation and governance of the NPWS.

Environmental organisations and experts in environmental conservation and biodiversity repeatedly criticised the Government for failing to publish the independent report after it was submitted last June, claiming it indicated there was a reluctance to restructure the NPWS. Both reports are to be issued along with the strategic plan.

Speaking to The Irish Times last month, Mr Noonan said it was always his intention to publish the report and submissions from the public, but that was just one element in restructuring the organisation to address the biodiversity crisis affecting Ireland.

He said he was happy that the strategy would amount to “a transformation” of the NPWS.

* This article was amended on May 3rd, 2022