Belfast Telegraph

'Bad budget deal' behind cuts

Swingeing cuts to environmental groups across Northern Ireland are due to a bad budget deal struck by the Executive, the environment minister said.

Environmental groups in Northern Ireland are facing huge cuts after the money they received from government was slashed.

Letters from the Department of Environment to a range of organisations involved in environmental heritage, tourism and hills management began arriving earlier this month.

Mark H Durkan told assembly members on his scrutiny committee he had made the best of a bad hand. The minister has to reduce his budget by £12.4 million - almost 11% - in the coming financial year.

He said: "If it was up to me I would not have to make cuts.

"Unfortunately I am in an invidious position here, I have no option but to make cuts and what we are seeing is the outcome of what was always and still is a bad budget."

More than 400 people have applied for redundancy from his department, and money saved from salaries could be reallocated to some of the affected groups in September, Mr Durkan told the environment committee.

DUP MLA Peter Weir warned if he didn't make assumptions and commit money now people would move on and organisations would no longer exist by the autumn.

"You will be reallocating to ghosts at that point, " he said.

Public access to some of Northern Ireland's best loved beauty spots is now under threat, the body responsible for outdoor activities has also warned, after a range of environmental organisations were hit by Mr Durkan's wide-ranging funding cuts.

One of the organisations affected is the Belfast Hills Partnership which helps to conserve and promote the mountains around the city. The Ulster Wildlife and Mourne Heritage Trusts also face cuts.

Mr Durkan said: "My department did receive the hardest hit of any other department in the budget process."

He said he had warned of the devastating consequences the spending allocation could have.

"I have been overwhelmed by the response to the publication of my final budget last week, it certainly has been unprecedented in terms of the amount of correspondence I have received personally as a minister.

"I care passionately about our environment, the criticism has been quite stinging as I am accused of short-sightedness or not holding our environment in good esteem.

"It pains me to have to bring forward this budget that makes these swingeing cuts, however I have found myself in the position where I have no alternative."

Outdoor Recreation NI (ORNI), which develops, manages and promotes outdoor activities in Northern Ireland, has outlined the consequences of a decision by the minister to slash all his department's £120,000 annual support.

Dawson Stelfox, chairman of ORNI and the first Irishman to climb Everest, said the future of famous walking trails across the region was now at risk.

One of the organisation's roles was to provide insurance for all trails in Northern Ireland and, without insurance, public access would be under threat.

He said: "This cut puts into jeopardy many of the walking paths throughout Northern Ireland as well as some of our iconic walks such as the Causeway Coast Way and the Ulster Way."

ORNI has spearheaded projects including mountain bike trails in Rostrevor and Castlewellan in Co Down and Davagh Forest in Co Tyrone; a canoe trail on Lough Erne; walking and cycling trails in Beech Hill in Londonderry; and walking trails on Rathlin Island.

He said ORNI had been effective in attracting additional funding on the back of Department of the Environment support, in the last six years generating an additional £7.5 million.

The ability to attract further funding will be at risk following the withdraw of the departmental money, he added.

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