Although the visitors’ infrastructure fulfils educative purposes, it is too expensive and its contribution to the conservation of nature is questionable
Press release on Audit No 21/09 – 9 May 2022
The Supreme Audit Office examined the funds spent on visitors’ infrastructure projects from the Operational Programme Environment (OPE) in the period 2012-2020. The aim of the visitors’ centres was to reduce the environmental impact of visitors in protected areas. However, this was not the case according to the auditors’ findings. In addition, the Ministry of the Environment (MoE) set the indicative investment cost limit at a high level, which enabled the construction of exceptionally costly projects.
The Supreme Audit Office (SAO) verified the system for allocating grants from the Operational Programme Environment on a sample of 28 projects. The auditors found that the visitors’ centres served their purpose to educate and raise awareness. However, their contribution to preserving nature was difficult to prove. The Ministry of the Environment fails to monitor and sufficiently evaluate the fulfilment of the expected benefits of the buildings. Furthermore, the assumptions of the MoE that the visitors’ centres will have a positive impact on the behaviour of visitors have not been confirmed. In some localities, there has been an increase in the number of offences in certain protected areas.
The SAO identified some issues during the phase of selecting projects eligible for financial aid. Although the MoE had introduced a scoring system, it had not set out clear criteria in a meaningful manner. The criteria were set only in general terms, without any specifications. In its assessment, the MoE did not take into account the popularity, size or the number of visitors in especially protected areas. Neither was the distance of future centres from similar facilities included in the evaluation.
For example, the project ‘Environmental Visitor, Information, and Education Centre (Natura Park)’ in the town of Pardubice did not meet necessary ecological criteria, however the State Environment Fund (SEF) stated it was eligible for receiving financial aid and was not excluded by the MoE from any further decision-making processes. The MoE thus failed to comply with its own rules, thereby creating an unequal playing field for grant applicants.
In addition, the MoE significantly overestimated the financial threshold used to assess the cost-effectiveness of the projects. Furthermore, compared to the previous programming period, it increased the threshold of costs for these projects in a manner which exceeded inflation, as well as official data on price increases in the construction sector.
The SAO also assessed the sustainability and funding of the operation of the visitors’ centres. The MoE financially supports the operation of the centres through a national programme. The contribution covers only 20% of the total operating costs on average. The rest comes from other sources (contributions, grants, income from entry fees, etc.). According to the SAO, there is a risk to the sustainability of projects because they are dependent on the provision of state subsidies.
Supreme Audit Office