My portfolio as Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform is expansive. It spans incredible dossiers from the cultural wealth of our archaeology and monuments, to the distinct architecture of our built heritage, the beauty, resilience and fragility of nature, and our democratic future. Ar dtús, tá cúpla focal le rá agam ar leasú toghchánach. Some €4.7 million has been allocated in 2022 to support delivery of our ambitious programme of electoral reform. This includes the establishment of an independent electoral commission and the modernisation of our electoral registration process and will deliver on the commitments in the programme for Government. The general scheme of the electoral reform Bill, which provides for these reforms, was published earlier this year. The drafting of the Bill is currently being progressed by my Department and the Office of the Attorney General. The Bill is included on the Government’s legislation programme for publication in the autumn session.
On heritage, I inherited areas of responsibility that were relatively under-resourced and the top priority for me on becoming Minister of State was to restore heritage funding; placing nature, heritage and biodiversity at the heart of what this Government does well. Central to what we do in our Department are the National Monuments Service, the built heritage programme and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS. They are extraordinary teams of civil servants who did incredible work with curtailed resources, delivering for the citizen directly and through the agencies and bodies under our aegis, namely, the Heritage Council, Waterways Ireland and The Irish Heritage Trust.
The NPWS is a crucial and important service that is mandated with the protection, conservation and presentation of our natural heritage. Our nature and biodiversity; the variety of birds, mammals, invertebrates, fungi and plants, with water, minerals and air, combine in the dynamic ecosystems that give us vital services that society and the economy depend on, like soil fertility, water purification, carbon sequestration and storage, and of course that sense of peace and wonder that so many of us benefit from. In 2019, we learned that globally many of our protected habitats were of poor or inadequate status and that almost half were declining. That same year, the Dail declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. At that time NPWS resourcing was not sufficient to address the challenge with the level of urgency required. I was determined a hallmark of my tenure as Minister would be to leave a positive legacy for biodiversity in Ireland, to deliver on this Government’s unprecedented ambition for nature and respond comprehensively to the programme for Government commitment to strengthen the NPWS, improve its effectiveness and make it the voice for nature we need it to be. The primary determinant in all of that is resourcing. I secured additional moneys in the 2020 July stimulus, significantly increased the service's funding by almost 50% in budget 2021, and this week, I announced funding for the service would increase yet again to more than €47 million in 2022, amounting to an increase of 64% since I became Minister of State, bringing it back up to a level not seen since before the financial crisis. The funding secured in successive Estimates also enabled our Department to bring approved staffing at NPWS back to its pre-2008 levels. This has led to the establishment of a new team that will focus on the protection of our special areas of conservation and special protection areas, a wildlife crime unit, a substantial cohort of new conservation rangers, as well as the recruitment of ecological and scientific expertise, field staff, guides and administrative staff. These are major achievements that are already having positive impacts for nature and biodiversity all across the country and I will do my very best to ensure we continue on this trajectory.
Similarly, I have addressed long-running resource challenges at our National Monuments Service, the Heritage Council, our built heritage programmes and in Waterways Ireland. Together as a unit, our heritage services and agencies can now go forward with renewed purpose. The 36% increase in our heritage allocation year-on-year means that their programmes have been rebooted and a re-energised. We will see more national monuments protected. We will see further infrastructural work on out stunning inland waterways, North and South. The Heritage Council will be able to do more for our historic towns and through its schools programme, communities will have more financial assistance to help preserve and maintain local monuments and restore the built heritage of their areas. Many thousands of traditional building man-hours will be supported for our skilled craftspeople. Recruitment will continue at the National Monuments Service and we will promote further candidates for world heritage status.
However, we must do much more. For instance, realising the totality of our shared vision for the NPWS requires further transformative action that acknowledges the past, reflects the present and renews for the future. I am now leading on this through a comprehensive phased process entitled Review, Reflect, Renew: A Strategic Action Plan for the Future of the NPWS. Preliminary to all of this, and as a recurring underpinning, is addressing the resource challenge. The orientation or "review" part in this process commenced in February 2021 under the direction of chair Professor Jane Stout, of Trinity College Dublin and deputy chair, Dr. Micheál Ó Cinnéide, formerly of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. The independent reviewers heard from more than 3,000 people and groups, providing an external perspective on some specific aspects of the NPWS and conducting an analysis of comparable organisations across Europe to inform a suite of recommendations. The next phase, "reflect", will take account of the outcome of the Stout-Ó Cinnéide work and then synthesise the resourcing gains of the past 18 months with a detailed, expert analysis of governance, organisational structures, communications, data systems and future resourcing, and outline the NPWS's specific requirements across those areas. The final "renew" phase will detail the objectives and prioritised actions that will equip the NPWS to deliver on the ambitious goals, objectives and targets emerging from our programme for Government, the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, the EU biodiversity strategy to 2030, Heritage Ireland 2030 and the new national biodiversity action plan, and to be the respected voice for nature that so many have called for. Working with my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, we intend to bring this strategic action plan for the future of NPWS to Cabinet by the end of 2021 and implement it in the lifetime of this Government. In that regard, I also acknowledge the hugely positive and constructive working relationship with the Minister and our shared ambition for nature and heritage.
I have listened to our many stakeholders, both internal and external. I am reflecting on the findings, in the context of significant resource increases since I became Minister of State, to define exactly what is needed, and developing an action plan to renew the NPWS and ensure it is equipped to respond to Ireland’s biodiversity emergency now and in the decades to come. I look forward to working with the Department on this exciting new chapter for the NPWS.
As a chapeau to all of that, I will also publish Heritage Ireland 2030 in the coming months. This, Ireland’s first heritage strategy, will set the backdrop to realise our full set of ambitions for our built, natural and archaeological heritage, as we enter our second century of full nationhood. In the meantime, I commend the heritage budget 2022 to the House.