An Bord Pleanála has just one ecologist among its more than 60 inspectors despite the potentially enormous impact on the environment and biodiversity of many of the cases it decides.
The National Biodiversity Conference heard that ecologists were also “a rare breed” among local authority planning departments where key decisions on zoning are made.
Speakers made pleas to “put ecologists at the table” from the outset in planning.
Where ecologists were asked for input, it was often when the project was advanced and all they could do was make recommendations to minimise impacts rather than prevent them, the conference heard.
“In-house ecologists in planning departments and in An Bord Pleanála are an extremely rare breed. At An Bord Pleanála, with over 60 inspectors, there’s one ecologist role,” said Dr Maeve Flynn – who fills that role.
Dr Flynn said the planning system was understandably dominated by planners but the scarcity of experts in ecology and biodiversity was stark.
“Some [planners] will come from a natural environment background but most do not,” she said.
“Without in-house ecological expertise in local authorities, positive effects for biodiversity can not be assessed and delivered in a consistent way.”
Annette Lynch, ecologist with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, echoed that view, as did Aebhín Cawley, a private consultant ecologist.
“Often the ecologist is brought in at the project stage and they’re left faced with trying to mitigate the impacts rather than avoiding them in the first place and showing there are better ways of doing things,” Ms Lynch said.
“My key message is have the ecologist at the table and I’m talking from strategic planning to design to implementation because that’s the only way we’re going to get out of our biodiversity crisis.”
An Bord Pleanála recently advertised consultant posts in specialties including ecology but ready availability of ecologists and other experts in public bodies was a goal of the last National Biodiversity Action Plan for 2017-2021.
The ecologists were united in calling for the next plan, currently being drawn up, to deliver on that promise.
They also said it should be more ambitious than its predecessor which sought to ensure that planning and development did not result in a net loss of biodiversity.
“It would be better than no net loss, to have net gain,” Dr Flynn said.
There was strong criticism of the planning system from the floor during questions.
Ian Lumley of heritage and environment body, An Taisce, said An Bord Pleanála failed to take into effect the cumulative impact on the environment and biodiversity of planning projects instead of evaluating them each in isolation.
The conference heard scientists, policymakers and activists speak about the dramatic decline in Ireland’s natural places and species.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who gave a keynote address yesterday, acknowledged their often ignored efforts to highlight the decline.
“Many of you have worked tirelessly to convince those of us in the political and policy spheres of the dangers to us as humans and to our way of life of our continued destruction of nature,” he said.
“It is fair to say that your message has not always been heeded. It is probably also fair to say that it is still not being adequately incorporated into our decision-making.”
He committed to completing the new action plan and ensuring it delivered results.