Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Fury as park more popular than Giant’s Causeway loses 40% of budget

The 11-mile stretch of Lagan Valley Regional Park takes in a host of well-loved landscapes but has been hit with devastating budget cuts which, say staff, could threaten a whole range of services

AN 11-mile ‘green lung’ through the heart of Belfast that attracts more visitors than the Giant’s Causeway has been hit by budget cuts of more than 40%.

Amid fears that services at Lagan Valley Regional Park will be devastated as a result of the cuts, staff expressed outrage that they were being punished for their success while banks received enormous support for their failures.

A spokesman said these will be the most devastating cuts the park has been hit with since it was founded in 1967. The stretch takes in a host of well-loved landscapes, including the Lagan Navigation, Belvoir Forest, Lagan Meadows and the towpath, the Giant’s Ring, Barnett’s Demesne and Sir Thomas & Lady Dixon Park.

Due to the way environment groups are funded, Lagan Valley Regional Park, which employs seven people, is among a small number of groups to bear the brunt of the budget cuts.

While other Government departments face cuts of around 15%, these groups will have to survive cuts of 40% or more because Northern Ireland Environment Agency — part of the DoE — provides funding on a rolling three-year basis. Grants awarded in previous years are contracted.

Among the core services that could be threatened across the 4,200-acre site are ranger services patrolling more than 38km of trails, litter collection, graffiti removal, wildlife protection, recreation, a busy events programme, education and the park’s role as a planning consultee.

It attracts some 600,000 visitors every year — more than the Giant’s Causeway — and rangers scouring its 11-mile length on a daily basis collected 450 bags of litter last year.

“It’s more noticeable when it’s not done. It’s a constant battle. We would also have run a number of events with groups like the Scouts where we target litter in specific areas,” project manager Brendan O’Connor said.

“We collected 450 bags of litter last year through the ranger service — you can appreciate the impact of that and how much less pretty the place would be without that work. It’s not just that litter is lifted but the educational aspect of that as we promote the ‘Leave No Trace’ policy.

“There is quite an extensive range of services that could be hit and that is the fear at the moment — a lot of things are being done at the moment that will no longer be possible.”

Park manager Andy Bridge said it will be impossible to determine how badly services will be hit until further talks take place.

“The deciding factor will be what the remainder of the funding consortium decide to do,” he said. “Undoubtedly the cuts will affect the amount of staff the Regional Park can employ and consequently the public services we provide.

“These are the most devastating cuts the park has been hit with since it was founded in 1967. It is ironic that when an organisation is successful, whose staff work hard for relatively low pay, they are rewarded with massive cuts, whilst banks who failed us so catastrophically last year are given enormous support.

“We are dumbfounded as to why when most Government sectors are being faced with a cut of around 15%, Lagan Valley Regional Park is being hit for over 40%.”

A Northern Ireland Environment Agency spokesman (NIEA) said: “Overall funding across the public sector is declining and as a consequence NIEA has been obliged to reduce its expenditure on running costs and on programmes across the whole agency.

“NIEA has taken measures to ensure that cuts to the Natural Heritage Grant Programme budget will be minimised to reduce the impact on those applying in the current round. In spite of this, the growing bids for grants mean that levels of funding cannot remain constant and decisions on awards have been based on the agency’s priorities.

“NIEA recognises the valuable work carried out by the staff at Lagan Valley Regional Park but regrets that our contribution to the costs must be at a lower level.”

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