23 Jan 2022

Just Transition 'something of a disaster' for Offaly, complain councillors

Just Transition 'something of a disaster' for Offaly, complain councillors

"What is the big rush to demolish Shannonbridge Power Station?" asked Cllr Noel Cribbin during the debate at last week's meeting of Offaly County Council.

Impatience is growing in Offaly with the Just Transition process, because it is too slow to deliver and is not producing significant job growth in the county.

During last week's Offaly County Council meeting, a number of councillors said they are becoming irritated with the European scheme and want it significantly sped up.
Earlier that morning a Council working group, the CPG (Corporate Policy Group), met with a number of politicians including an MEP and Oireachtas members, during which they discussed a “Territorial Plan” for job development, in the region affected by the winding down of Bord na Móna's peat production, and the funding that would be required to implement that Territorial Plan.

Chief Executive Anna Marie Delaney said it was a very good meeting, “which we will follow up with further correspondence with the Oireachtas members.”

Stephane Duclot, Director of Services, admitted that the response to the need for jobs hasn't been as successful as was hoped. Only a small number of projects which sought funding have so far received funding. He said all the projects had to be up and running by the end of 2023. He said a number of projects are finding it difficult to get the matching funding. “Without securing that matching funding then the projects can't go ahead,” he said.

Mr Duclot added that discussions are ongoing with Offaly Council to take over the administration of the Just Transition fund because it's the county most affected. “It's planned to switch the admin of Just Transition from the government department to the County Council. This will be a very big increase in Offaly County Council's workload and we should be taking over in late 2021."

The Just Transition funding is coming from Europe. It's €77 million for many different job creation projects throughout the midlands, who are asked to provide 50% in matching funding.

“Ireland is preparing a Territorial Just Transition Plan," continued Mr Duclot, "which will be submitted to Europe in September 2021.”

While the County Council will take over the administration of Just Transition, the actual allocation of the funds will still be decided by the governmental department.

Cllr Eamon Dooley commented that the Just Transition is proving to be “something of a disaster” for Offaly. “The MRTT (Midlands Regional Transition Team) has been working hard, but really the whole thing should have moved up another couple of gears by now.”

In May, Minister Eamon Ryan said the Government is “committed to a just transition in the Midlands region and has dedicated significant funding to supporting workers, companies and communities affected by the closure of the peat-fired power stations and the end of peat harvesting by Bord na Mona.”

The Just Transition Fund was established in 2020 to “support innovative projects that contribute to the economic, social and environmental sustainability of the wider Midlands region and which have employment and enterprise potential.”

The Department held a call for applications to this Fund, which closed on 17 July 2020, in response to which over 100 applications were received. “16 'Strand 1' projects,” said Minister Ryan, “announced in September 2020, have concluded grant agreements with the Department, to a total value of €1.2m.”

Provisional offers have been issued to a further 47 successful applicants through ‘Strand 2’, with a funding provisional value of €27.8m. There have been no pre-funding or drawdown requests made for strand 2 projects as the Department is currently in the process of finalising grant agreements with these projects. Another €11 million has been allocated to the Fund. “I expect,” continued the Minister, “that a significant quantity of funding will issue to projects towards late 2021 and early 2022 as projects incur spend and seek reimbursement. Allocations in future years will depend on the total funding requirements for all projects that conclude grant agreements with my Department.”

Cllr Dooley in last week's Council meeting pointed out that “The spin from the Department is that Just Transition is the best thing since sliced bread.” However, he admitted that the morning's meeting between the CPG and the MEP and Oireachtas members had been a positive one.

“The fact that Offaly County Council is now going to be the headquarters for the administering of the Just Transition fund is a significant step forward. This is only right as the greatest job losses have been in Offaly.”

Cllr John Leahy said he too felt positive after the morning's meeting. “I was delighted to hear that Offaly will be the epicentre of the administering of the Just Transition Fund.”

He said finding the matching finance could be very difficult for some. The local authority will also not be able to administer the matching funding. “A project in Ferbane is looking for €200,000 but I don't think they will be able to find 50%.”

“We need to get this right,” commented Cllr Danny Owens, “and present the best Territorial Plan we can to Europe.”

He too highlighted the high matching funding as being a big stumbling block. “We need to make it far less or else a lot of the proposed projects won't be able to get off the ground at all.” Cllr John Clendennen agreed and asked how many jobs will be created as a result of Just Transition. “We need to have monthly updates on job creation. It's all about jobs.”

“The last 12 months,” remarked Cllr Peter Ormond, “we have been focussed on securing the funding, but now we are realising that the matching funding could be a stumbling block. In fact it will be very hard for many of the applicants to reach the matching funding required. We need to greatly reduce it as swiftly as possible.

“It is good news that we will be doing the admin for the Just Transition funding but we will need to be resourced properly.”

Cllr Ken Smollen agreed that it's all about creating new jobs. “€77 million is in fact a small figure and you wonder how many jobs will be created from that. But you know I wonder when I see that there are quite a few power plants being built around the world and yet here we are in Ireland about to demolish a 17 year old, €240 million power station. It looks like we are being the fall guys again. Offaly is the second poorest county in the country. How then are homeowners going to find the matching funding for retrofitting?

“Meanwhile lignite briquettes are being imported into Ireland while our peat production has basically stopped.”

Cllr Tony McCormack agreed. “A lot of the people behind the proposed projects simply won't be able to find the matching funding. I think Bord na Móna is being let off the hook here and it should be encouraged to do more, a lot more here. At the end it's all about creating jobs. It's time for Bord na Móna to give something back.”

“What is the big rush to demolish Shannonbridge Power Station?” asked Cllr Noel Cribbin. “Isn't there nine months left on the station's planning application?”

“Ten years ago,” said Cllr Declan Harvey, “everyone was talking about natural gas, but in fact not many houses in Tullamore have gas connectors.” He didn't think retrofits were going to work for many. “People can't afford these things. The EU has to come up with something better.

Anna Marie Delaney admitted that a lot of the groups seeking Just Transition funding are “finding the process very onerous." She added that the ESB has sought repayment of the €5 million which they gave to the Just Transition scheme through their PSO levy.

Mr Duclot said that as of May, twenty-eight jobs and 175 indirect jobs have been created through Strand 1.

Cllr Dooley said the low number of jobs speaks for itself. He added that most of the Strand 1 jobs which have been created are jobs in Research. He doubted that as many as 28 jobs have been created. “I would question that very strongly.”

Cllr Fitzpatrick said the support which should be coming through for the people of Offaly is simply not happening.

Cllr Smollen pointed out that many families are wondering how they will heat their homes in the future with the phasing out of fossil fuels. “They are thinking will they have to install wood pellet stoves as their chief source of home heating?”

“We have been very patient so far,” remarked Cllr Clendennen. “Now we want to see results. We want to see Just Transition delivering.”

The councillors proposed and seconded a proposal to seek a meeting with the ESB about the future of Shannonbridge Power Station.

Cllr John Carroll said a lot of good work is going on behind the scenes.

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