Northern Ireland

Mark H Durkan in £1m plastic bag pledge to struggling groups

Mark H Durkan
Image caption Mr Durkan said money raised from the levy on plastic bags could help struggling environmental groups

Up to £1m raised from the tax on plastic bags could help sustain environmental groups whose funding has been slashed in the Stormont budget.

Minister Mark H Durkan said he would use the carrier bag levy to offer funds to struggling voluntary groups.

He said money raised from up to 400 proposed job cuts within his department could also be factored in.

Mr Durkan was addressing an emergency meeting of the Environmental Committee at Stormont on Monday.

Last week, a number of high profile organisations lost most or nearly all of their government funding.

The Northern Ireland Environment Link had its budget cut by £150,000.

The Belfast Hills Partnership and the Ulster Wildlife Trust, which both got substantial funding in the previous financial year, were told they would not get any money after the end of June.

Last year the partnership received £50,000 and the trust a grant of £220,000.

The Mourne Heritage Trust is losing three quarters of its funding for 2015/16, falling from £225,000 to £56,000.

On Monday, the Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust said all of its 10 staff had been given redundancy notices.

Image caption The Mourne Heritage Trust is one of the organisations badly affected

Mr Durkan, SDLP, defended his decision to the committee. Earlier he said he had to make "tough choices" as a result of his budget being reduced by £12.4m, a drop of 10.7%.

He also predicted that up to 400 jobs were on the line in his department.

"I warned of the devastating consequences that budget could or would have on the environmental sector," he told the committee.

"I have been overwhelmed by the response to the publication of my final budget. It is reassuring there are so many people who care passionately about our environment. I care passionately too.

"It pains me to bring forward this budget that makes these swingeing cuts. I have no alternative."

But he denied that he had singled out non governmental organisations (NGOs) to "carry the can for these cuts".

Mr Durkan said he had also been forced to halve the Road Safety budget.

He blamed inflexibility within his budgets for the cuts to voluntary groups.

Committee chair Anna Lo, Alliance, told him: "People are concerned the whole sector may be wiped out. There will be job losses."

Mr Durkan said that between now and June, he would be sitting down with people from the groups affected and working to allocate what money he had.

He said that voluntary staff redundancies within the civil service could also factor in fresh funding for them.

Lord Morrow, DUP, said the "whole infrastructure" of environmental NGOs was "about to fall apart" and called for urgent action.

Barry McElduff, Sinn Féin, told the committee it appeared that a massive amount of funding could be lost in "matching" funds.

Sandra Overend, Ulster Unionists, said she was also concerned that matching funding could be lost to these groups already facing "swingeing cuts".

Committee chair Ms Lo asked the minister for an update in a month's time on his talks with the environmental groups affected.

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