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Low-income groups ‘side-lined’ on environment

24 Mar 2022 / environment Print

Low-income groups ‘side-lined’ on environment

A report on environmental justice in Ireland has found that low-income communities and marginalised groups perceive themselves to be largely excluded from environmental and planning decisions.

The research was carried out by the Community Law & Mediation’s (CLM) Centre for Environmental Justice, in collaboration with DCU.

CLM defines environmental justice as “the extent to which the physical and economic burdens of pollution and degradation, as well as environmental benefits, are equitably distributed across society".

The organisation reports that participants at a workshop expressed frustration with consultation processes, believing that the final decisions often side-lined their concerns.

Fees and legal costs

“Legal costs and the lack of civil legal aid are significant barriers to public participation in environmental decision-making,” CLM adds.

The report also points to the imposition of fees for making submissions, as well as the need to engage with online platforms, as hurdles preventing more public participation in such decision-making.

The study also finds what it calls “a significant gap” in data on how environmental issues affect the distribution of disadvantage or social exclusion.

As an example, it cites the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2020 report on the state of the environment, which “did not consider in detail the social impacts of environmental degradation, and loss of biodiversity”.

Better data

The report looks at the potential impact of rising energy costs, transport poverty, air pollution, and flooding, and sets out several recommendations.

These are aimed at improving the monitoring of environmental pollution, and its correlation with measures of deprivation and vulnerability, as well as strengthening access to environmental justice.

As well as calling for an improvement in data collection, the report urges that civil legal aid be made available to community and environmental groups.

It also says that a “national policy statement” on environmental justice should be applied by all public bodies in their decision-making functions.

Housing bill a concern

CLM’s chief executive Rose Wall (pictured) said that her organisation had identified areas where public participation in environmental decision-making and access to justice were “severely hampered” by high legal costs and other barriers.

“The Housing and Planning and Development Bill 2019 will only make it more difficult for communities to have a say in shaping their local environment, and ensuring accountability in environmental matters,” she warned.

The proposed legislation includes changes to the standing rights to bring judicial review proceedings in planning cases.

The CLM-backed study warns that, if enacted, its provisions would “significantly restrict” environmental groups and lay litigants from challenging planning decisions in the courts.

At the report’s launch, Joe O’Brien (Minister of State at the Department of Rural and Community Development) also launched a new environmental-justice resource for schools and community organisations, developed by the CLM’s Centre for Environmental Justice, and using illustrations by artist Eoin Whelehan.

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