‘Environment can’t be sacrificed’ - Flanagan

WINDFARMS, the sale of Coillte forests and commercial rates provoked some tough questions from Laois Chamber of Commerce members to guest speaker Fine Gael Deputy Charlie Flanagan at their AGM last Thursday.

WINDFARMS, the sale of Coillte forests and commercial rates provoked some tough questions from Laois Chamber of Commerce members to guest speaker Fine Gael Deputy Charlie Flanagan at their AGM last Thursday.

DepTUY Flanagan first spoke at length to the audience, acknowledging the difficult climate for Laois businesses, but said there was “light at the end of the tunnel”, with €28.5bn of savings now made.

“Most of the heavy lifting has been done. By 2016 we will have turned around very difficult circumstances,” he said, adding that while Portlaoise lacked factories, it had many public sector jobs. He promised good news for the factory unit on Portlaoise’s Mountrath road.

“I expect the IDA empty building to be occupied by the end of the year,” he said.

He defended the cuts to the carers respite allowance. “It was dubbed harsh, but this is a choice government made, not to increase income tax or reduce core social welfare payments. The allowance was introduced nine years ago at €100 a year, then increased. The outcry was to the reduction back to €1,400. No department is immune. It just isn’t possible to reduce spending without seeing balanced cuts across the board,” he said.

Several business people had concerns over plans to build 450 wind turbines 185 metres high in Laois, including William Telford. “Rabbitte mentioned 10,000 jobs, but Deloitte did a report in 2009 predicting 10,500 jobs, north and south, with 4 per cent in ongoing maintenance. That’s 400 countrywide. If there was a big number of jobs, I would have to consider it, but this will desecrate the land, with the scale, the visual impact and potential loss of tourism jobs. As business people we have to know the balance. There is some woolly thinking going around. I have no objection to farmers signing up, but they need to look at what bonds are in place, these companies will be sold on. There will be no boost to Irish energy. This should be studied carefully before going head over heels,” Telford said.

“People are genuinely concerned, the effects on tourism are not being addressed. We have Australian tourist who come every year on barges, they said they wouldn’t be back,” said Colm Ward from the Fishersman’s Inn.

Deputy Flanagan said he did not believe there will be “hundreds of windfarms” in Laois. “There is a lot of bogland and elevated upland, that’s where I believe they should be. I would be anxious to determine the number of jobs beforehand. There is an element of revenue, but the environment can’t be sacrificed,” he said.

Several businesspeople criticised the proposed sale of Coillte’s harvesting rights. “They are our national assets, making a profit. The HSE are top heavy in administration, that’s paid first before people get their service,” said one.

“You never sell a capital asset to pay a current expense. Why sell a performing asset to put into another asset you’re not sure of? It will disappear into current spending,” said another.

“There was a run-down of state assets, to see what can be made money on, because the country is broke. I assure you tonight, if Coillte is sold on, built into any contract of sale will be a supply to the Irish market, and rights of access for tourists,” Deputy Flanagan said.

Outgoing Chamber President Breda Stackpoole was critical of Laois County Council’s openness to discuss commercial rates. “The difficulty we have is we are not getting a response. We are waiting four or five months, it’s near impossible,” she said.

Deputy Flanagan suggested an invite to county manager, Peter Carey. “I thought the crisis was being handled well by the council. I am sure he will attend your next meeting,” he said.