Councillors approve new Climate Action Plan

Westmeath's county councillors approved a new Climate Action Plan at a special online meeting yesterday.

Amendments were made to the original draft Climate Action Plan after a sizeable number of councillors refused to give it the green light at their most recent monthly meeting, which was held on February 26. Their opposition was mainly due to concerns about the impact it would have on local farmers.

In total, six councillors (John Dolan, Paul Hogan, Denis Leonard, Johnnie Penrose, Louise Heavin and Frank McDermott) made submissions outlining what they wanted changed in the draft plan.

Cllr Paul Hogan said that the amended plan is "a lot more reflective of members' concerns".

"I am certainly satisfied of the responses and assurances that we have received in terms of the concerns we raised with regards to agriculture, with regards to planning, with regards to community issues."

Cllr Hogan also said, however, that it is important that the small number of local households that rely on turf to heat their homes are accommodated and that any move towards renewable energy sources is encouraged only "where feasible".

"Research suggests that more people die each year due to fuel poverty, the inability to heat their own home than will die from poor air quality."

Cllr Andrew Duncan said that he had concerns over a number of items, including what he sees as the "stealth" removal of car parking spaces in town centres and from new housing developments.

He also noted that some local authority owned housing is "not fit for new modern heat pumps" and that he would like to see the council set an "ambitious" target when it comes to tree planting as it is a "real thing with tangible benefits".

Speaking on behalf of both himself and Cllr Johnnie Penrose, Denis Leonard said that while he was happy with some of the amendments, he didn't feel that "we have gone near far enough in terms of agriculture in recognising the carbon savings they are making, recognising the fact that we are an agricultural county, recognising how important food production is in this area".

"We are going down the same road as fossil fuels bringing them in from foreign countries. ..It's a daft policy and it needs to be resisted and I think we in Westmeath need to do our part."

Cllr Leonard also said that when it comes to renewable energy, there is an over emphasis on solar and wind energy production, which, he says, is developer rather than policy led."

Cllr John Dolan, who is a farmer, said that the agricultural sector is one of the only parts of the economy that has a plan when it comes to reducing its carbon footprint.

"We are doing our part," he said.

Cllr Frank McDermott asked that school transport be included in the transportation section. If a school bus service was laid on for every school, there would be a huge drop in the number of car journeys taken in rural Ireland, he says.

"If the cars were taken from Fore school and a bus replaced it you'd do away with 70 per cent of the cars, the same in Castlepollard, Clonmellon, Streete, Finea. It would be a huge plus if every kid was collected and brought to school."

Cllr Lousie Heavin raised concerns about whether the amendments on smokey fuels put forward by Cllr Hogan would hamper the council from enforcing legislation.

Acting chief executive Barry Kehoe said this wouldn't be the case as "it is the law of the land".

Mr Kehoe also said that the Climate Action Plan is a "living document", which can be revisited and revised during its five year lifespan.

Responding to Mr Kehoe's comments on smokey fuels, Cllr Heavin said that while she is conscious of the importance of air quality, "I am not ever suggesting that we remove fuel from people who are allowed to cut and burn turf and have been doing so [for years]".

"I am very conscious of fuel poverty and I am also very conscious of air quality and deteriorating air quality. We do have a duty to those who suffer from respiratory problems. I am very conscious of urban areas and the concentration of smokey fuels and that we, as councillors, are mindful of people in those areas.

"Fuel legislation must be enforced to protect public health and public good. I am just appealing to you all. I know that sometimes people see me on the opposite side of the fence but really we are all in it together for people's health..."