Calls for Just Transition commissioner to be based in Offaly

Justin Kelly

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Justin Kelly

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news@offalyexpress.ie

Calls for Just Transition commissioner to be based in Offaly

Calls for Just Transition commissioner to be based in Offaly

There were calls for Offaly to be the base for the newly announced Just Transition Commissioner amid decarbonisation and redundancies at Bord na Mona. The calls came at Monday's meeting of Offaly County Council.

Bord na Mona last week announced how the next phase will support employees to transition away from peat-based activities into opportunities in Bord na Móna’s green businesses and peatland rehabilitation activities, although voluntary redundancies are still on the table. 

They said they would invest €1.5 billion in renewable energy development to support Ireland’s 70% RES-E target and create up to 150 indirect construction jobs over the next ten years.

The first part of this plan will be delivered when the €180m Oweninny wind farm becomes fully operational before the end of the year. The company also announced investments of over €60m in waste recycling and resource recovery to create approximately 100 new jobs, investment of over €20m in new green business projects that have the potential to create between 150 and 300 new jobs over the next five years.

The Government announced a new Just Transition Fund for the Midlands as part of Budget 2020 earlier this months, part of which was the pending appointment of a Just Transition commissioner. 

A total of €31m in funding will be focused on the midlands region. The new fund will be focused on social housing retrofits, which could redeploy Bord na Mona workers, peatland rehabilitation which would be utilised likewise and the local economy.

A number of Offaly councillors questioned the longterm benefit of such measures for workers with Cllr Eamon Dooley suggesting bog rehabilitation would perhaps take three years. A number of councillors also questioned the likelihood of some workers in their 40s and 50s retraining as electricians or fitters having spent many years in a different field and with perhaps only 15 years left of their working lives.

Addressing councillors on the regional transition team's progress, Chief Executive of Offaly County Council, Anna Marie Delaney, said the group, which includes OCC and a number of educational, industry and training bodies, was waiting to see how the money allocated in the budget would filter down. She insisted work and engagement was ongoing.

Cllr Dooley criticised the changing of dates for the end of peat production in Bord na Mona, suggesting just a matter of weeks ago it was 2030 and now it appears to be 2020. 

"However you spin it, it's not good news for Offaly or for workers. He said he takes investment plans by Bord na Mona in green initiatives "with a grain of salt," suggesting he has heard similar soundings from the company over many years. He also questioned the validity of some of these initiatives, as well as retrofitting and bog rehabilitation as longterm solutions for laid-off workers. 

"For now these workers are in the situation they're in with very little help. The budget funds announced will have very little impact for them and there is a lot we're not sure of with those figures."

He said if the counties affected were given 20% of carbon tax, it would amount to €400 million in a full year to address the significant employment issues. 

"We have to be careful how we play this. We could get political but we have to box clever or we're going to have the biggest number of job losses in the Midlands since the 80s. When the commissioner is put in place, we have to be in position to get the best for Offaly because we'll be the hardest hit," Cllr Dooley added.

Cllr Leahy described the situation as the Midlands' "very own Brexit situation" where the timeline is unclear. He said €6 million in funding for Just Transition wasn't enough, saying, "this commissioner will have say over where €6 million is spent in an area with a population of 350,000 people."

"They'll take the lead from Government, not regional forums," he suggested. He said Lough Boora was being impacted and pointed to work to clear river banks and create the possibility of further tourism as a potential redeployment solution for Bord na Mona workers and machinery.

Cllr Neil Feighery said the budget measures announced "will create jobs," adding that, "we want the lion share for Offaly because we will be worst-effected by decarbonisation."

He said a lot of retrofitting work could be done by workers with very little training needed. He said the situation is challenging "but not impossible to overcome with the right supports. There are positives and we can't lose sight of that."

Cllr Pippa Hackett said a retention of the PSO levy is a funding stream worth exploring for workers. 

Cllr Noel Cribbin said: "It's not fair to say Bord na Mona aren't doing their best, pointing to the €1.5 billion investments announced last week. Cllr Dooley interjected to say these investments were mostly green projects which will not see existing workers redeployed. 

Cllr Liam Quinn called on the council to write to the Department to ask that the Just Transition commissioner's office be based in Offaly or the Midlands. "These are the areas affected and that is where it should be set up," he said.

Cllr Declan Harvey commended the local transition team members and said, "it's a put the IDA wouldn't get off their backsides and support this county to create jobs."

Chief Executive Anna Marie Delaney responded by saying the IDA attend the regional transition forum and that they would be invited to the November meeting of OCC for a progress report. 

She said OCC and Bord na Mona have co-funded a report on an expansion of Lough Boora as an attraction and that she expected it to be finalised shortly by Bord na Mona. She described Lough Boora as "one of our key tourist attractions."

She confirmed that the council would write to the Minister to ask that the Just Transition commissioner be based in the Midlands and committed to keeping members informed on all updates regarding Bord na Mona and the Just Transition funding announced in the budget.