Farm Ireland

Sunday 25 February 2018

Having to fill out forms and pay €25 to burn some bushes - Is the boom back?


Darragh McCullough

Is it just me that has a feeling of déjà vu at the moment? Traffic getting worse in the mornings, the lines of builders queuing for breakfast rolls in the Spar, spiralling rents, and the resumption of pay negotiations.

All great if you happen to be construction, IT or a public service job. For the rest of us, it's a resumption of escalating prices and arbitrary costs.

A few weeks ago I was getting some fields ready for sowing. During the early spring we had cleared out a couple of ditches and cut back overgrown hedges, resulting in a couple of mounds of branches and stumps that needed burning.

Of course it wasn't until after March that they were all dried out nicely to put a match to, but you dare not light a fire these days for fear of six fire brigades suddenly landing in your field with the attendant bills for €500/hr per engine.

So I rang the local fire station to let them know my plans. I was told I'd need to first apply for a green waste burning permit with the council, and then if we could give the lads in the station a ring anyway "because they often forget to tell us".

Then I got on to Meath County Council to look for a permit.

"That'll be €25," said the otherwise lovely official. For what? "Admin." And is this standard across all counties now I asked slightly stunned. "Yep, that's the way it is now," was the response.

The hack in me wasn't convinced and I duly rang up another random county - Longford in this case. Lo and behold, the equally lovely woman informed me that would be no charge for a permit to burn agricultural waste.

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It reminded me of one of the old reliables that an editor used to get me to do when news was scarce.

"Ring around those councils and find out what they are charging for fire brigades," or "let's do a survey of water charges on a county by county basis".

They were always sure-fire stories simply because the huge variation and apparently arbitrary way that costs are charged by various local authorities, especially when we got into the madness of the boom.

You might not mind as much if the higher charges were related to a better service, but as I was about to find out, the 'admin' is often a joke.

The permit asks you to specify a date and exact location that you are going to burn, which is plainly daft given that it takes days for the permit to be issued and you can't be sure if weather conditions will allow a fire to be set in a week's time.

That aside, I wasn't going to be forking out multiples of €25 for every field in which I wanted to burn, even if they were in different locations.

In addition to the requirement to "limit the overall nuisance or possibilities of endangering human health or causing environmental pollution or damage to habitats", the notice required me to contact the Emergency Response Control Centre to tell them that I was going to burn.

And there was me thinking that it was exactly this kind of 'admin' that my €25 was covering.

So we rang the Emergency Response Control Centre - twice - only to be told that they hadn't received any email from the county council about the details. Bear in mind that this was almost a week after I had emailed off the original application.

We were in danger of missing our specified date for burning because some official hadn't got around to pressing 'send' on an email that I'd paid them €25 to do.

It's this kind of stuff that drives small businesses around the twist. After all, there's no allowance in the price of anything that we sell to cover the faffing around that goes into trying to toe the line.

This is all against the background music of the pay talks that started with the public sector unions last week. All we hear of is the urgent need to increase pay and for the State to row back on its recession-time demand on public servants to work an extra two hours per week.

This is despite the fact that we are still borrowing a billion euro annually to keep the lights on, and there's a €424bn hole in the public sector pension fund and the social insurance fund that we are all hoping to get a cut of in the form of the old-age pension.

The problem with these gaping holes in the public finances is that they will only materialise over the coming decades; there's no political imperative to deal with them right now, so it's a can to kick down the road.

Meanwhile the unions hold the political gun of strike action to the Government negotiators' heads.

And the much anticipated report by the Public Service Pay Commission seems to be a massive document carefully crafted in order not to offend anybody. Key issues in comparing public and private sector pay such as the job security that comes with the public service were deemed to be too complicated to put a value on.

Gold-plated public sector pensions were judged to be worth 12-18pc in pay terms. But this calculation ignored the fact that only 16pc of private sector workers have a pension that bears any resemblance to those in the public sector.

It's hard not to fear the worst and believe that we are simply sleepwalking our way into another massively over-heated economy.

The politicians will say that their hands are tied, which forces the question as to whether our political system - the one where everybody has to appeal to the lowest common denominator, including the parish pump - is one that will perpetually pitch us from boom to bust and back again.

Speaking of setting fire to the system, I've some bushes to burn!

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