The Business Committee has agreed to allow one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose, and there will be 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. Two amendments have been received and have been published on the Marshalled List. Each proposer will have 10 minutes to propose, and there will be five minutes for each winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes to speak. I call Mr Brian Wilson. My apologies, I call Mr Ford.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that the rest of our communication will be better than that.
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Executive to establish an independent Environmental Protection Agency for Northern Ireland.
This is an extremely important issue for the people of Northern Ireland. It is absolutely clear that our environment is in a mess and requires urgent attention. We are suffering from a legacy of failure, over many years, to take the necessary action to protect the environment and to recognise its role in the welfare of our people and in the development of our economy.
Compared to other regions of these islands, Northern Ireland’s wildlife-protection laws are extremely weak. We are seeing the disappearance of habitats that ought to be protected. Only this morning, I took a telephone call from someone who was extremely concerned that Prehen Wood, one of our few tracts of ancient woodland in the north-west, is under threat from a proposal to develop housing and build a road. The Planning Service seems to be minded to accept that proposal, and, at the moment, no agency with responsibility for protecting the environment seems to be able to influence the Planning Service on such matters, despite material considerations such as the protected status of the wood.
We are also seeing the loss of historic buildings in towns and villages right across the region. It is clear that important places for wildlife are not being looked after. We are simply not designating enough areas of special scientific interest; we are not doing it fast enough; and we are not protecting the ones that already exist. At the same time, we are seeing wildlife facing — at least localised — extinction. Although we may be grateful to see birds such as the chough return to Rathlin Island this year, it is also clear that birds such as the corncrake and the lapwing are under huge threat.
We all know the problems associated with the EU Water Framework Directive and the failure to deal with water wisely. We see illegal dumps blighting the countryside, despite the fact that the responsibility for policing such matters was centralised from district councils into the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) a short while ago.
It is clear that, for whatever reason, the Department of the Environment in general, and the EHS in its particular responsibilities, have not been carrying out their duties — perhaps owing to a lack of resources — on behalf of all my people. That may be a political rant, but those are not just my words; they reflect the decisions of bodies such as the Audit Commission; the Public Accounts Committees, both at the Assembly and at Westminster; and House of Commons Select Committees. It is clear that something needs to be done.
I freely confess that, as a party to some of the early decisions on structuring Departments back in 1999, I accepted that we should split the then Department of the Environment in two, creating a Department that would be responsible for infrastructure and a Department with responsibility for environmental protection. There were sound reasons for doing that. Of course, that was later somewhat amended by Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon, who decided on the final departmental duties and managed to place part of the regulatory role into the Department for Regional Development so that it was not simply the Department with responsibility for infrastructure.
However, that aside, there has been a failing in the Department of the Environment’s structures to deal with its responsibilities. It seems that those are failings of structures, rather than of individuals. A Department staffed by the Civil Service is not the right place to carry out regulation of environmental matters. Of course, that is no surprise, because elsewhere in these islands, we see the Environment Agency of England and Wales, which has an independent role; the Scottish Environment Protection Agency; and the Environmental Protection Agency in the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is the only region that is out of step. Either they are all wrong, or we are wrong. Look at the litany of issues that I cited at the beginning of my speech — it is not England and Wales or Scotland or Ireland that is out of step, it is Northern Ireland that is wrong.
In recent years, we have seen some movement towards the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency. That probably started with the Macrory Report of 2004. ‘Transparency and Trust’ was the title that Professor Richard Macrory used; it was about the need for environmental governance. That was then backed up by sound work by the Coalition for Environmental Protection, which led to the establishment of the review of environmental governance (REGNI) and the report that was published earlier this year, ‘Foundations for the Future’. There is no doubt that that has been backed by a huge groundswell of support from across the community, as can be attested to by those of us who have received large numbers of green “What future for her environment” postcards.
The review of environmental governance examined a wider issue, but it is absolutely clear that the authors of that report saw an independent environmental protection agency as the key driver for changing environmental governance in Northern Ireland and for ensuring that progress is made. However, that was not just the view of the usual range of environmental non-governmental organisations; groups such as the Confederation of British Industry, the Quarry Products Association, and the Consumer Council all backed that call. We have seen in recent weeks that that is not just a good idea; it is now an essential idea.
On 7 September 2007, in his High Court judgement on the judicial review taken against the strategic environmental assessments in the draft northern area plan and the draft Magherafelt area plan — a judgement that bears reading, even though it was rather overshadowed by another on the same day — Mr Justice Weatherup said:
“By the terms of the Directive it is apparent, as the Department accepts, that there be separation between the responsible authority and the consultation body. In the present cases I am satisfied that no such separation occurred and that it was not achieved by the Planning Service and the Environmental and Heritage Service being separate divisions of the same Department. For all practical purposes there was integration between the Planning Service and the Environmental and Heritage Service in the preparation of the documents. In any event had their been a formal separation of roles between the Planning Service and the Environmental and Heritage Service I would not have been satisfied that there was sufficient separation for the purposes of the Directive while the two services remain part of the same Department and legal entity.”
It could not be clearer than that. An environmental protection agency is no longer an optional extra; it is now essential in order to comply with the European directive that an independent environmental protection authority be established.
By way of an aside, I note that elements of the REGNI report would have cured issues that arose in the other judgement on 7 September on whether the Department for Regional Development or the Department of the Environment was the Department responsible for Planning Policy Statement 14. The REGNI report states that the Department of the Environment should have responsibility for:
“spatial planning, (including the elements which currently reside with DRD)”,
as well as several responsibilities that currently reside with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
We need to simplify the structures, and part of that simplification process — the essential part — is the establishment of an independent agency. That would be the next logical step in a process that began in 1962, when the Abercorn Report called for an independent nature conservancy council. If an independent environmental protection agency were to be set up, it would follow up on recommendations in the Balfour Report on the need to remove environmental protection from the departmental core. The Balfour Report was published in 1984.
I have no doubt that Mr Wells, with his great experience of the Prior Assembly and the one-man-band role that he played in it, will be able to tell us more about the Balfour Report, but it is clear that we are still playing catch-up 20-odd years later with what was an essential recommendation then.
An independent environmental protection agency would have the duties and the powers to tackle environmental problems that are causing difficulties for us, both here in the Assembly and in Northern Ireland generally. Those problems are making it less attractive for those of us who live and work here and lead to our taxpayers being threatened with fines for failure to comply with directives. We absolutely must have an environmental protection agency, and the case for so doing is quite clear.
I shall mention briefly the two proposed amendments to the motion. When we tabled the motion, our intention was to make a simple, clear statement, and nothing could be simpler or clearer than a call for the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency, with no ifs, buts or qualifications —
I said “simple”, not “simplistic”, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the Member, in his capacity as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, will manage to work out the distinction when it comes to his Department.
Our intention was to set out that simple, clear call. I understand why Tommy Gallagher has tabled amendment No 2, which may be viewed in certain circles as beefing up our original proposal. His amendment causes me no great difficulty one way or the other, although I do believe that a simple, clear call for the establishment of an agency was beneficial.
Amendment No 1, however, which stands in the name of Peter Weir, appears to be a classic example of the obfuscation that we expect in this place. The case for an independent agency is clear, and the benefits are clear. If it was not clear enough from the REGNI report itself, Mr Justice Weatherup further highlighted the fact, yet amendment No 1 calls for further consideration and further delay. There is no choice — we know that we must do something. Instead of pretending that we can debate the issue a little bit more, we should be getting on with the establishment of an environmental protection agency.
I am not a lawyer, but I understand that Mr Weir is, and I have no doubt that he is as capable of understanding Mr Justice Weatherup’s judgement as anybody in this place. I hope that the House will be of the clear opinion today that best practice elsewhere be followed. Moreover, I trust that those Members on the Unionist Benches who understand the issues under discussion will add their votes and not just their voices to this call for action.
“notes the recent report ‘Foundations for the Future’, which recommends the creation of an independent Environmental Protection Agency; and further notes that more work needs to be undertaken to identify the costs and benefits of this recommendation, before decisions can be taken.”
I say in passing, with no disrespect to any of my learned colleagues at the Bar, or even in the courtroom, that, whenever we are deciding what is best for Northern Ireland as a whole, the Assembly represents the will of the people. Consequently, we will be taking sound decisions that are based on the best way forward.
We are not here simply to follow the diktats of Mr Justice Weatherup or any other member of the judiciary. We have a proper mandate to fulfil.
This simple — some might say simplistic — motion is somewhat premature, although I appreciate the opportunity to debate the issue. The motion is being debated before the matter has been discussed in the Committee for the Environment, and the Member who proposed the motion will be well aware of that. The DUP’s amendment should not be dismissed as some form of obfuscation, as it looks at the issue of costs and benefits. The Alliance Party is not in the Executive and, therefore, has no responsibility in this place. However, on this issue as with any other, we cannot have blank-cheque government. We need to be rooted in reality.
The DUP disagrees with Mr Ford’s motion, and it disagrees more strongly with Mr Gallagher’s amendment, which would be unworkable. An attempt to set something up immediately would create major problems for many Departments. It will be interesting to see whether the views of those who support Mr Gallagher’s amendment will be shared in the Executive by their ministerial colleagues, who may well have concerns for their own Departments. That will be brought out later.
All Members — certainly those on the DUP Benches — believe that there is a need for environmental protection and changes in environmental governance, and that should unite us all. Irrespective of our backgrounds or political views, we all view Northern Ireland as one of the most beautiful places that has been put on the earth, and it is important to protect that natural asset. However, when we look at environmental governance, it is also important to ensure that whatever route we take to try to copper-fasten and preserve the best in our society, we take the correct route. That may mean us taking a little bit longer to get there, rather than rushing, but it is important. We need efficient, effective and balanced solutions.
While it is important to fully protect the environment, we must also recognise the needs of the farming and business communities. The rural community — and particularly the farming community — have suffered greatly from various crises recently. We must have something in place that is responsible for, and looks after, the full remit of that.
I said that the debate is premature, and it is premature for several reasons. There must be recognition of the complexity of the establishment of an environmental protection agency (EPA), which was somewhat skated over by the proposer of the motion. Under the existing arrangements, the EHS has a much broader remit than the environmental agencies in any other part of the United Kingdom. For example, the work done in England by Natural England and English Heritage would be covered by the EHS here.
It is not simply a question of the role of the EHS. In addition to amalgamating with the EHS, an EPA would have a wide range of other functions, which would affect several Departments. For example, the responsibilities of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s Rivers Agency; environmental health officers in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety; the Loughs Agency, a North/South body; and a range of Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure functions on inland fisheries and inland waterways would be subsumed in any EPA.
An EPA may seem like the golden bullet that would cure all our problems — and that may be particularly relevant to Mr Gallagher’s amendment — but there are massive political, policy, practical, financial, legislative and administrative issues that would need to be tackled. That could not be done overnight.
For example, the wider governance model that was proposed in the report will also cover changes to the planning appeals commission, the water appeals commission, the audit office and the judicial system. All those factors must be taken into account when considering an EPA.
Members must also ensure that the scope of the proposed EPA remains focused and that the good work that is ongoing in the Environment and Heritage Service is not lost. Several groups have expressed concern that the built heritage may become a low priority for the proposed EPA. There has already been some success in that area. By 2005, 456 buildings were already on the register, and the number of listed buildings has exceeded each annual target.
Above all, before an independent environmental protection agency is set up the DUP wants an examination of the potential costs to ensure value for money. Although the review panel produced many good proposals, it fell outside its remit by failing to report on how much an environmental protection agency would cost to set up and run.
Given the commitments of the Department of the Environment (DOE), the wide range of other financial pressures and the fact that a large amount of money would be required to set up an EPA, some degree of analysis is required to see where that money is to come from. It is unacceptable to say that the Department of Finance and Personnel can simply write another cheque. If the EPA is to be set up — particularly if Mr Gallagher’s amendment is accepted and it happens immediately — people must know which budgets are to be cut. Does Mr Gallagher wish to forego the hospital in Enniskillen? I suspect that that is unlikely. Even the Minister of the Environment would be reluctant to do that. If there is to be a large financial commitment to an EPA, people must explain where the money is to come from, which is why there must be proper costings before the proposal can progress. There are widespread pressures in the DOE — concerns about planning issues and underinvestment in the Planning Service are highlighted weekly. Are we to cut the Planning Service budget to provide an EPA? If people make proposals without any costings, they must give some idea of where the money is to come from.
Given the experiences of environmental protection agencies in other parts of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, concerns have been raised that, in the long run, it would be necessary to levy charges on local businesses and farmers of up to 40% of the total funding. If Members wish to create a competitive economy, particularly in rural areas, can we burden people with such a levy? That question remains unanswered. Funding is the overriding issue.
There are also governance issues that must be tackled. It is important that the idea of independence does not become a panacea. An EPA would be a statutory body set up under the auspices of the Department. It is questionable how truly independent it could be.
Unfortunately, this motion is half-cocked and has been tabled prematurely. Rather than being a well-thought-through proposal, I suspect that it is an attempt by those who tabled it to associate themselves with a cause that they believe to be popular.
Clearly, there is a need for better environmental protection in Northern Ireland, but, instead of dwelling on administrative issues, Members should consider practical issues that must be dealt with first, such as waste discharges, which require urgent attention. Further consideration must be given to costs, and the proposal must be well thought through if it is to progress. I support amendment No 1.
I wish to commend Brian Wilson and David Ford for tabling this important motion. The environment is the most important issue to face the world this century. Proposals to address the problems with it can certainly not be dismissed as premature.
My amendment puts the creation of an independent environment watchdog into a specific time frame. Amendment No 1 does not do that; it says a lot about costs. None of us want to duck the issue of costs; it is important and cannot be avoided. However, chapter 5 of ‘Foundations for the Future’ is specific about the functions that should be transferred. Costings could be carried out in a matter of weeks, at most. That is not huge task, given that we have the report to work from.
As many Members know, the cost of not setting up an independent agency will outweigh the inaction that lies behind amendment No 1. We have only to think about the EU fines that lie ahead of us.
There is no reason for delay. The DUP amendment is asking the Assembly to fiddle, and Members know the rest of that story. Are we to fiddle while being submerged by floods and with our marine life and biodiversity continuing to be ruined?
The quality of life and the health and well-being of people in Northern Ireland depend on the quality of air and water and the capacity of the countryside to support people as well as a rich diversity of wildlife. Environmental issues have been a low priority here for too long while our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, as we have just heard, have handed over responsibility for regulating the environment to independent agencies. We have not heard any complaints about their costs.
During the 1980s and 1990s, those countries had independent agencies to tackle abuses of the environment and to enforce environmental legislation. We have fallen behind, and we do not have the systems and structures in place that have the capacity to produce the outcomes necessary to protect the environment properly. Illegal dumping and the discharge of raw sewage into the sea continue, and many species are threatened due to the removal of their habitats. The scale of environmental protection is simply inadequate. The Environment and Heritage Service cannot act effectively as our environmental champion — the recent Giant’s Causeway controversy and Northern Ireland Audit Office reports on delays in the designation of areas of special scientific interest (ASSI’s) are testament to that.
The EHS has also been heavily criticised by the Waste Management Advisory Board for Northern Ireland and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee. Granted, after so many reports, there have been attempts to address some of the issues. Work has been done on a cross-departmental basis, and we have had the development of a waste management strategy, but the Government cannot act as both poacher and gamekeeper.
The Department of the Environment is one of 11 Departments, and, as such, is often overruled. Moreover, there are barriers to environmental regulation by bodies within central Government.
No, I am not giving way.
That has been recognised by many countries, and it is identified in ‘Foundations for the Future’, which states:
“First, the necessary confidentiality of departmental policy making processes and inter-departmental debate creates a serious lack of transparency around the making of regulatory decisions. Without transparency, regulatory decisions command neither the confidence of the public nor that of the regulated.
Second, the officials administering the regulations are exposed to both a real and perceived risk of conflict of interest.”
The report goes on to state that the effectiveness of regulation by bodies internal to Government is inhibited since:
“Modern environmental governance requires a strong and focussed regulator able to adopt modern risk-based regulatory practices without a loss of public confidence.”
Northern Ireland needs a strong independent voice to champion and safeguard the environment. It is no surprise that ‘Foundations for the Future’, launched in May 2007, recommends that environmental regulation should be transferred to a new EPA with statutory powers.
The report is detailed and thorough, and was compiled after wide-ranging consultations. It sets out the functions that should be retained by the Department of the Environment; for example, planning and environmental policy, and it spells out the necessary and important accountability mechanisms for a new environmental protection agency. Moreover, it recommends that the EPA’s purpose:
“should be to protect and enhance the environment and in doing so to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.”
A well resourced and independent EPA should be the first layer of environmental governance. However, there are other necessary elements — a shared vision on local and agreed standards for the protection of the environment needs to be developed between the Government and other stakeholders. Effective arrangements for the integrated management of important assets such as coasts, uplands and river basins are also required.
Owing to this being a small island, a problem such as air or water pollution can spread quickly. The reality is obvious — we cannot partition the environment, therefore, managing it needs a whole-island strategy. To maximise its effectiveness, any new EPA must have the capacity and the powers to pursue its own programme of practical co-operation with its counterpart in the Republic of Ireland.
A number of official reports on areas such as water pollution and nature conservation have highlighted problems in Northern Ireland of poor resourcing, inadequate management systems, and, as many Members are aware, poor enforcement. Northern Ireland has a reputation for the late transposition of EU directives, and is currently facing fines for failing to implement them.
Given the urgency of all environmental matters, not least the warnings from environmentalists about time running out for corrective action, procrastination is no longer an option. I propose the creation of an independent environmental protection agency within the lifetime of this Assembly. That would send out the message that the environment has, at last, been put at the top of the agenda in Northern Ireland.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the aims of the motion and amendment No 2. I thank Mr Ford and Mr Wilson for raising a key issue for many of those who are involved in the protection of the environment.
It is important to state that Sinn Féin is in favour of the eventual establishment of an all-Ireland environmental protection agency. This, we believe, is an important first step in that process. All-Ireland environmental governance makes sense in so many ways, and it is an issue that we will raise at the North/South Ministerial Council.
There is little doubt that there is a need for reform of the present system of environmental responsibilities. Support for that reform stems not only from a loss of public confidence in the quality of environmental regulation, but from a desire for greater transparency, leadership and public debate in decision-making.
The EHS has been criticised by several public bodies because of its activities in recent years, particularly in respect of its poor performance in certain areas. Examples include: poor management of funding for environmental protection; Government intervention to the detriment of the environment; poor performance in achieving environmental objectives; and a lack of co-ordination with Departments with responsibilities for the implementation of environmental legislation.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds released a report card on how the EHS was performing in regard to areas of special scientific interest (ASSI). On ensuring that all qualifying sites are declared ASSIs by 2010, the EHS achieved a grade F. That indicates that it is not on course to halt biodiversity loss here by 2010 — a key EU target. The EHS simply has not made the grade in protecting our environment.
The report of the review of environmental governance, which was published in June and which has already been mentioned, recommended that responsibility for environmental regulation be transferred to a new environmental protection agency. John Woods of Friends of the Earth said at that time:
“This report affords us the best opportunity in a generation to reform the system which protects our environment.”
I hope that the Minister of the Environment shows leadership on the issue and seizes the opportunity that has been presented by implementing the report’s recommendations.
Another of the report’s key recommendations is that appropriate measures be taken to restore and enhance an all-island approach to environmental governance at policy and operational levels. Given that we have distinct island biogeography that does not consider boundaries, such an approach would benefit biodiversity conservation. That approach would also ensure greater regulatory and enforcement mechanisms and would bring cost-saving benefits in staffing and resource requirements.
Sinn Féin commends the work that environmental non-governmental organisations have done to date to highlight the deficit in effective environmental protection and governance. The establishment of an independent environmental protection agency is essential in order to protect the beautiful environment that attracts so many tourists here every year, to avoid the colossal European fines to which Mr Ford alluded, and to halt biodiversity loss and illegal dumping.
To date, all parties, bar one, have publicly backed the immediate establishment of an independent environmental protection agency. We should not stall, nor should anyone sit on the fence on the matter. Given that the destruction of our environment and its wildlife is already happening without reproach on a daily basis, steps must be taken to establish an environmental protection agency as soon as possible.
I support the motion and amendment No 2. Go raibh maith agat.
I welcome the debate, and I am pleased to contribute to it. There is no doubt that environmental concerns, such as waste, waste management, planning, renewable energy and climate change, are increasingly important and are at the centre of political debate. We are now much more aware of the importance of taking care of our natural environment and of the need to promote sustainable development so that we can play our part in tackling global warming.
At the moment, Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that does not have an independent environmental protection agency. The Environment Agency is responsible for England and Wales, while Scotland has the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Both agencies were established in 1996. Many diverse voices have called for the establishment of an equivalent body in Northern Ireland. Those voices range from environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth, the National Trust, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, through to the Confederation of British Industry, the Quarry Products Association and the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland.
I am a great believer in saying if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The problem is that the existing system, in which the Department of the Environment, in the shape of the Environment and Heritage Service, is responsible for the protection and control of the environment, most certainly is broken and cannot be left alone.
I declare an interest as a farmer, even though I am not wearing any particular hat today. Many in the farming community view the prospect of an independent environmental protection agency with a suspicion that borders on hostility. That unfortunate position is the result of past experience. The perception in the farming community has been that farmers — and let us not forget that they are the custodians of the countryside — have been an easy target for the Environment and Heritage Service. At the same time, Government agencies, such as the Department for Regional Development’s Water Service, which is protected by Crown immunity, and big business have been given something of a by-ball. That situation cannot continue, regardless of what happens in the future with an independent agency.
If an independent agency is established to protect the environment, it must work in close and genuine partnership with farmers, who, more than anyone, have a vested interest in protecting and preserving the environment as it provides for their livelihoods. On many occasions in the past, such a partnership has been sadly lacking.
An independent agency must not form an additional layer of bureaucracy or become another burden on a farming community already overburdened with red tape and apparently endless regulations. I stress that farmers must not be dictated to by a busybody organisation.
I appreciate that. You do get an extra minute, but I will curtail my time to give you the maximum opportunity. I appreciate the point that you have made that farmers should not be overburdened by bureaucracy. I assume that you are aware that the main representative farmers’ body, the Ulster Farmers’ Union, is on record as being opposed to an independent environmental protection agency? That may be another reason for further thought and caution before a form of environmental governance is put in place, and that adds further weight to the DUP’s amendment.
Before an independent environmental protection agency is established, I would recommend genuine and meaningful engagement with the farming and agricultural community so that both sides may learn from the past to ensure that mistakes are not repeated.
I am not sure that I can follow Mr Armstrong’s contribution, but I will attempt to.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this important environmental issue. I agree with my colleague Mr Weir that the matter has been brought before the House prematurely. It should have been brought before the Committee for the Environment before the motion was tabled.
I assure the Member for North Antrim Mr McKay that any notion that he has of an all-Ireland environmental protection agency is only in his dreams.
A significant non-governmental organisation environmental lobby has prompted today’s debate. Its concerns are not without substance; neither is its ambition without merit. As the House has heard, there are critical challenges, both current and emerging, facing Northern Ireland’s environment. All will have a huge impact on our communities’ quality of life.
Many of the challenges, such as tackling climate change, halting the loss of biodiversity, minimising waste, reducing landfill, safeguarding the marine environment and the protection of landscapes, habitats and species, will require long-term policy frameworks.
Enhanced regulation and a marked change in public attitude and behaviour as well as clear environmental leadership are necessary if we are to sustain the world in which we live. REGNI is an ambitious and complex undertaking that looked beyond regulation and enforcement and considered ways to stimulate action, not only by the decision-makers, but by urban and rural communities, business leaders and individuals.
In addition to encouraging positive behaviour, REGNI ensured that its recommendations are fit for purpose and will result in Northern Ireland having the most efficient and effective arrangements for environmental governance.
In preparing for a 10-year strategy, the EHS referred to an environment that is both highly valued and well-protected. Unfortunately, experience has shown that that has not always been the case: there have been numerous high-profile incidents in which our natural and built environments have not been afforded the correct protection, with devastating consequences. Therefore, one can immediately appreciate why so many may feel that the penalties and sanctions for environmental crime have been largely ineffective.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has considered how offenders could be forced to carry the burden of repairing significant environmental damage. Polluters could potentially be faced with greater financial penalties and increased sanctions. They could also be forced to improve the environmental quality of the communities most detrimentally affected by their actions. I ask the Minister to consider that type of approach in Northern Ireland.
It is clear from the work undertaken by the review of environmental governance in Northern Ireland that there is no quick-fix solution to heal all environmental ills overnight. Any advancement must encompass a considered and measured approach to ensure that any changes to the current system are not only financially viable and beneficial, but, ultimately, sustainable.
While the Minister is considering the options, the opportunity exists to enhance and promote the role of the EHS as the champion of environmental priorities. Progress has already been made on waste minimisation and water quality. Indeed, those achievements were acknowledged in evidence sessions to the review of environmental governance. Partnership between the EHS and other Departments, such as the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, key environmental stakeholders and representatives from the farming and business sectors has also improved, which can help to deliver joint objectives. As the chief executive of the EHS stated at the Environment Northern Ireland conference in October 2005:
“there is a job to be done; an environment to be protected.”
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It has been outlined already that the North is unique among these islands because it does not have an independent environmental protection agency. That is an absolute disgrace, and it does great injustice and disservice to society’s children.
There must be greater transparency and accountability, and an independent environmental protection agency must have rigorous enforcement powers to enable it hold polluters to account. That is essential to ensure public confidence. The effectiveness of the proposed agency is paramount. It must be a powerful advocate for the environment. Reports stretching back over the past decade, including those of the Waste Management Advisory Board, have been highly damning of the Department of the Environment’s record on environmental protection and waste management and have demanded real solutions and answers.
Sinn Féin’s view is that an independent environmental protection agency offers the most viable alternative to the Department’s many past failures in regulating persistent offenders properly. There is a clear need for radical solutions to problems that will simply not go away, and the emphasis must be on preventing damage to the environment rather than dealing with the aftermath of pollution — or not dealing with it, as is the case in my constituency, where sewage has been lying in Glenlough Park, a public park in Ballynahinch, for the past four weeks. This issue cuts across Departments, and that is why an independent environmental protection agency is needed.
The Department of the Environment should be stripped of its environmental protection powers because it has failed to do its job with the vigour that is needed. An independent environmental protection agency could take the lead in ensuring that all Departments meet environmental targets on, for example, use of renewable energy, recycling and pollution control.
We are facing a crisis in waste treatment capacity, and it makes no sense to examine the problems of waste management and illegal dumping in a segregated way. We need an all-Ireland waste management strategy that is driven by an implementation body that has tough enforcement powers — “enforcement” being the key word — that will move from landfill and incineration.
EU environmental directives put the onus on the Assembly to act faster and invest more in meeting new tough guidelines, and failure to comply could, potentially, cost millions of pounds. That will hit local councils, which have not been given the support or resources needed. They have led the way in waste management, and that must be recognised.
I am pleased that the recent review of environmental governance recommended that an independent environmental protection agency should be created. However, Sinn Féin’s view is that the focus must be on establishing such an agency on an all-Ireland basis. Other Members have said that also, and it makes sense for a small island.
The recently published ‘Foundations for the Future’ contains wide-ranging, radical recommendations that the Assembly and the Executive must study carefully. The report calls for the establishment of an environmental protection agency (EPA) and recommends the transfer of powers from several Departments, those powers to be placed in the Department of the Environment. In addition, the report highlights and signposts the need for an all-island approach to environmental issues. The protection of our environment is a core issue that transcends geographical and political boundaries. The value of cross-border implementation bodies to deliver sound environmental governance makes sense.
It is abundantly clear that the future development of environmental policy should formally go down the all-island route. Enforcement is the key; we must not allow large development companies to ride roughshod over ordinary citizens. The only way to safeguard our environment is through the creation of an independent EPA. I support the motion and Amendment No 2, because of its inclusion of a timeframe element. Go raibh maith agat.
There is absolutely no doubt that environmental issues are becoming more important, particularly among young people. There is a rapidly increasing concern about the environment, particularly on the issues of global warming and climate change.
I feel a sense of déjà vu. In 1962 — when I was around and the Minister was not — a report recommended the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency in Northern Ireland. Nothing happened, and our environment continued to be degraded. In 1984, when I was a Member of a former Assembly — of which I am, perhaps, the only survivor present in the Chamber this afternoon — there was a similar debate when the draft Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands Order (Northern Ireland) 1985 was published.
In answer to those points, the then Minister decided to set up a review under the auspices of Dr Jean Balfour. I met Dr Balfour four times during that review. She opted not to have an independent agency. She promised us a new, strong, independent, clear voice for conservation, called the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside (CNCC). Twenty-two years later, very few people even know of the existence of the CNCC. If 100 people on the streets of Northern Ireland were asked what the CNCC was, they would say that it was a paramilitary organisation. Few people realise that it exists. It has had absolutely no impact. It has not been the independent voice for conservation and environmental protection — it has been totally anonymous. Powers were transferred to the Environment and Heritage Service, and the environment continued to be degraded.
We have a third opportunity to try to correct that situation. There is no doubt that the environment in Northern Ireland desperately needs better protection. That is the one issue on which we all agree. We have seen many examples. The classic example occurred in the first Assembly when the then Minister of the Environment, Mr Dermot Nesbitt, was pressurised by developers to allow major developments to be linked up to sewerage systems that we all knew did not work. We had many seaside towns where the only attraction was a brown stream of fluids — untreated sewage — flowing into the water.
People say that there are costs attached to an EPA, and that is undoubtedly true. The fact must be accepted that infraction proceedings were taken by the European Union and we face significant fines for our failure to implement proper sewage treatment systems. Eventually, those fines could far outweigh any expense associated with establishing an EPA.
We have seen the wholesale destruction of habitats. We have seen much of our countryside destroyed by inappropriate development, and we have seen a lower standard of environmental protection than in any other part of western Europe. I have to ask the obvious question: what is different about Northern Ireland when compared to every other democracy in the northern hemisphere? In every country in Europe, North America, Great Britain and the Irish Republic, there is an independent environmental protection agency. Somehow, Northern Ireland is totally different. Either the rest of the world is wrong, or we are wrong. It cannot be both. Is Northern Ireland’s situation so unique that it does not deserve the same strong environmental protection that is afforded the rest of the world?
There are major difficulties in having environmental protection within the ambit of a Government Department. There has already been the suggestion of the problem of Crown immunity. The facts must be put right on that. Since the establishment of Northern Ireland Water, Crown immunity no longer applies to the water service in Northern Ireland. Of course, it still applies to every other Government Department and agency. So, if they cause environmental damage, there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it because one part of Government cannot prosecute another. That alone is a good reason for considering the establishment of an EPA.
I support the creation of an EPA — and I assure Members that this is a personal view, not a party view — because I believe that we need a strong independent voice to stand by the environment in Northern Ireland — a voice that will state, when things go wrong, that that cannot be allowed to continue. The EHS cannot do that because it is within the Government structures; if it tried to do so, it would be sat on, either by its own Department or by the greater Executive, and told not to rock the boat.
I support amendment No 1 because it outlines important issues. There are difficulties that have to be overcome, and a consultation will have to be undertaken. I do not believe that a decision can be taken in September on a report that has been published in June. However, I hope that, after the consultations, Ulster, like every other part of the world, will have a strong EPA — and I point out to Mr Willie Clarke, it will be an EPA for Ulster alone.
It is always a pleasure to follow the honourable Member, particularly when he is on his hobby-horse. To be fair to him, he has a long-standing record on those issues.
I welcome the debate, which has been useful. I wish to make it plain from the outset that we are minded — [Laughter.]
I also wish to make it plain that we have considerable concerns about the wording of the DUP amendment. Not only does it send out a message of indecision, but it hints that the Minister may reject the proposal for an environmental protection agency. We need look no further than the wording of the amendment to see the way that the Minister’s mind might be working and to understand what she might be minded to do. At best, that would be kick for touch, and the decision can perhaps join the long and growing list of decisions that the DUP Ministers have not made. At worst, a decision may once again put Northern Ireland out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom, which is a very odd position for a professedly unionist party to favour.
However, we should not be surprised by that, because the DUP manifesto was equally vague about what it would do in respect of an environmental protection agency. If I can borrow an expression used by a senior — or perhaps a junior — DUP Member, the DUP tree-hugging faction was openly at odds with that party’s environment policy over this issue during the last Assembly mandate. The UUP position is one of clear support for an environmental protection agency.
At the same time, however, my party does not want this issue to be used as a stick to beat the back of our already hard-pressed farming community. The UUP wants the creation of an environmental protection agency, but it wants its terms of reference to be stringently designed so that it gains widespread support among the rural community, particularly the farmers, who, after all, are recognised as the custodians of the countryside. Therefore, we will seek to work with bodies such as the Ulster Farmers’ Union to achieve a satisfactory outcome. It is for that reason that my party leader, Sir Reg Empey, the Minister for Employment and Learning, has indicated to the Minister of the Environment that a degree of caution is necessary when deciding how that can best be achieved.
The UUP is a genuine unionist party, and it wants to keep in step with the rest of the United Kingdom by creating such an agency. As people who are proud of Northern Ireland, UUP members are determined to have the best for Northern Ireland, and to end, once and for all, Northern Ireland’s sad reputation for having the worst environmental record of any part of the United Kingdom.
The review of environmental governance report of May 2007 advised the creation of an independent EPA. Our party’s submission to that review was delivered by my colleague Sam Gardiner. We supported the proposal at an evidence-gathering meeting of the environmental governance panel — a meeting from which the DUP and Sinn Féin were noticeably absent.
The development of such an agency is seen to be important to the people of Northern Ireland. Five thousand people took the time to write to the political parties, asking for an independent environmental protection agency to be established and for the environment to be made a higher political priority. Some 50,000 people belong to environmentally-friendly bodies in the Province. We support the motion and the SDLP amendment because people want it; and what the people want, the people should have.
Let us see progress on this, but, at the same time, design the agency in a way that commands widespread rural support. That is why my party is cautious about timings and costings but gives its broad support to the SDLP amendment.
I welcome this debate, indeed, any Assembly debate on environmental issues, as Members know. I thank Brian Wilson, who will make the winding-up speech, David Ford, who moved the motion and Peter Weir and Tommy Gallagher for their amendments. Many contributors made important points.
We were given a history of attempts to create an independent environment protection agency by the Member for South Down Mr Wells, who gave us the benefit of his experience. However, the most recent idea for such an agency was proposed by the environmental governance review in its recent report, which I received on 19 June 2007. Having read that report, I said that I was open-minded about an independent agency and, indeed, about all the review’s recommendations, including one that urged all political parties to appoint environmental advisers. I look forward to all parties taking action on that recommendation.
Environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been lobbying for an independent agency for a long time, and I have had opportunities to hear what the representatives of individual organisations have been saying on that. As has been mentioned, other stakeholders who are subject to regulations, particularly the producers, such as farmers and food processors, as well as quarry operators and other sectors of business and commerce, have a different view. Having listened to their representatives, I know that they have concerns about the cost of a new agency and its likely impact on fees.
I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to listen to the views of Members, and I shall briefly respond to some of them. Mr Ford mentioned the transposition of European directives. The need to achieve a high-quality environment is critical to the future well-being and prosperity of everyone in Northern Ireland, and for that reason I am determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past — at least while I am in office. Rather, I want to ensure that appropriate policies and legislation that will protect and enhance the environment are put in place so that all our obligations are met fully, including the timely transposition of European directives, which did not happen in the past.
In that context I am also pleased that we were able to bring into effect legislation on natural habitats under the Conservation (Natural Habitats etc) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007 on 21 August to meet our commitments under the habitats directive. Legislation will further transpose the requirements of that directive and will provide consistency of approach throughout the United Kingdom.
Mention was made of waste offences, and it was said that my Department, through the Environment and Heritage Service, has not pursued people who have taken advantage of waste regulations. That is untrue. The rising number of convictions is a reflection of the extent of current and historic illegal waste activities in Northern Ireland, but the seriousness of those offences is also increasing owing to the involvement of illegal gangs. In that regard I welcome the intervention of the Assets Recovery Agency and the work that it does.
EHS has a dedicated environmental-crime section, which I had the chance to visit last week in the Klondyke Building. It is using enhanced legislation and interaction with other law enforcement agencies to try to tackle that serious issue.
Mr Ford and other Members mentioned water quality. Since 2000, there has been a 15·5 % increase in the length of rivers classified in the top two categories of chemical quality, and an 18% increase in compliance with discharge consent. Between 2000 and 2005, there was a 30% reduction in the number of substantiated pollution incidents.
The Minister has gone through a catalogue of issues that the proposer of the motion talked about, such as the loss of habitat and the impurities in water. Does the Minister agree that, even where there are independent bodies in Scotland, England, Wales and the Irish Republic, the same complaints are still made? Taking the issue away as a core departmental function and giving it to an independent agency will not produce the panacea that the proposer has suggested.
There is an element of truth in the Member’s comments. Many of the points that have been raised in the Chamber concerned resources. That pertains whether environmental protection is externalised or kept in the Department. The issue is one of resources. Unfortunately, the motion and much of the discussion has not concentrated on that. That disappoints me because those of us who are trying to push for more resources for environmental protection put a lot of work into doing that.
Some Members made reference to built heritage. It is a concern that, if REGNI is implemented in the way in which it is envisaged in the report ‘Foundations for the Future’, built heritage work will have a low priority. As a Minister, I have a special interest in the built heritage and I am well aware of the good work of EHS Built Heritage in identifying and listing buildings of special architectural or historical interest, in registering those buildings most at risk from deterioration or demolition, and in facilitating restoration and preservation work. Some Members may say that good work has been done but that more needs to be done. I accept that, but it is also a resource issue. Built-heritage groups are concerned that, if built heritage is part of an expanded agency of the type proposed by the review of environmental governance, the work that they do will have a low priority. I appreciate those concerns, and I take them on board.
Mr Ford said that there had been a downturn in the number of corncrakes. I can assure him that corncrakes are thriving in County Donegal and there is an expectation that they may return to Northern Ireland in the near future.
I am assured that they have a residential address in Londonderry.
Mr Ford mentioned that the CBI supported a review of environmental governance that should run in parallel with the review of public administration. In a letter to me, the CBI says that if a decision were taken to establish an independent environmental protection agency, it should be cost effective and focused on:
“enforcement of environmental regulation and the provision of information and advice on promoting best environmental practice”.
The CBI recognises that there must be a value-for-money element to the issue.
Mr Weir referred to a lot of issues, and I welcome his comments. He talked about the concerns about the built heritage and about value for money. He also pointed out that the report did not include costings.
The Minister referred to Mr Weir’s comments about the lack of costings in the REGNI report; indeed, producing costs was not part of the review team’s functions. However, will the Minister assure Members that she and her officials will work on the costs and benefits and return to the House as soon as possible in order to advance the discussion?
I am happy to address that question. Unfortunately, the REGNI review team was supposed to consider the cost implications, but did not fulfil that part of its remit. As soon as I received the REGNI report, I assigned officials to examine the costings, and they are working on those now. I am happy to come back either to the House to discuss the matter, or, in the first instance, to the Committee for the Environment. The latter option may, indeed, be more appropriate.
If the officials are quick, initial costings will probably be available to the Committee for the Environment before Christmas. Santa will bring them in his bag of goodies.
It is important to recognise that the substantive motion calls on the Executive, not the Department of the Environment, to take action. It does so because the report affects almost all Departments. I wrote to my fellow Ministers, the Comptroller and Auditor General, and, because the reports include comments on environmental justice, to the Lord Chief Justice. Most have replied, and the majority have indicated that they welcome the report but wish to see costings. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety said that he had some initial concerns about the recommendation on the realignment of Government policy functions. He went on to talk about costings. His view is similar to those expressed throughout the Executive. Although some Members may want to use the debate as a DUP-bashing exercise — and that is a matter for them — they must reflect that the issue affects every Minister, not only the Minister who stands before the House today.
Much has been made of the independence of a new agency. There is no doubt that a non-departmental public body has freedoms that an Executive agency does not. One such freedom is that chairpersons of boards sometimes feel impelled to criticise Government, and the REGNI report refers to that. It is important to point out, however, that non-departmental public bodies are required to operate within well established governance and accounting frameworks that limit their flexibility and freedom.
The legislation under which any agency is established is likely to set out its functions and powers, arrangements for ministerial appointments of the board, and mechanisms by which the DOE would sponsor or oversee the agency. The Department would set out the agency’s funding regime by determining what proportion of its income would be provided through grant aid and how much it must recover through fees or by other means.
In his contribution, Mr Armstrong said:
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
He went on to reflect on his discussions with the farming community and spoke of the concerns about an increase in red tape and regulations. If he is concerned, he must ensure that Members have a balanced debate with open minds on that matter in order that they can consider the effects on the whole community in Northern Ireland, not just some of it.
Mr McKay spoke about areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs) and the need to designate more. That point has been raised in the House on several occasions. He knows my position on that: if the resources were available in my departmental budget, I would designate more, but, unfortunately they are not. He asked me to show leadership and to implement the REGNI report. Mr McKay knows that that is not solely up to me. The issues with which the report deal are cross-cutting and will affect, particularly where his own party is concerned, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Department for Regional Development, and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. He must reflect on the implications that the report will have for his party colleagues who are Ministers.
Willie Clarke said that it was a travesty that Northern Ireland did not have an environmental protection agency. He thought that such an agency would be a powerful advocate for the environment, and he spoke at length about waste and sewerage issues. If Mr Clarke has any specific issues concerning his constituency, I would be happy if he wrote to me about them. He also highlighted the fact that local councils lead the way in waste management, and I recognise that. Furthermore, I recognise the good work of councils in implementing the waste management strategy and the good work of the three waste management boards. They work closely with the Department, and that relationship will continue. Members should reflect on where we are today.
It is clear that Members support the establishment of an environmental protection agency as the most appropriate arrangement for caring for our environment. I thank the Minister for her comments, some of which are encouraging. However, she mentioned costings, but I am sure that everyone here will agree that costings are not a problem. She referred to other Ministers in the Executive also raising that issue, and that is not surprising. In fact, we would be alarmed if Departments were in the hands of Ministers who did not carefully monitor the costings of all initiatives.
It is encouraging to hear that there have been some convictions for dumping illegal waste; however, in my view, there have not been enough. I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that convictions for dumping illegal waste are one thing, but cleaning up that waste is an entirely different matter, and the Environment and Heritage Service is not confronting that issue. In fact, it appears to offload the responsibility for cleaning up onto councils and, ultimately, onto ratepayers. That culture of caution and inaction in the protection of our environment is costly, and the price will be higher than that of simply establishing a new, independent environmental protection agency.
I refer again to concerns about the role of the Environment and Heritage Service in the Department of the Environment. I wish to point out —
During recent judicial reviews into the draft northern area plan and the draft Magherafelt area plan, the judge expressed a major concern in his determination and conclusions that Environment and Heritage Service, as part of the Department of the Environment, a Government Department, could not act as an independent consultative body advising that Department on matters relating to, in this instance, planning.
The Member’s comments illustrate the public’s concerns about the role of the Environment and Heritage Service on environmental matters. Daithí McKay and Willie Clarke from Sinn Féin referred to an all-island approach, or, perhaps, an all-Ireland approach.
That makes common sense in relation to the environment. I notice that my colleague on the Committee Ian McCrea said he did not support any of that. However, the environment is one issue in which the border is not recognised: we cannot stop rivers flowing or pluck the birds from the sky. There should be common sense and logic on this issue.
Billy Armstrong and Danny Kennedy mentioned the importance of working in co-operation with farmers, who are the custodians of the countryside. I agree entirely — we must work in co-operation with them and all rural stakeholders.
Jim Wells gave a passionate speech on the environment, as he usually does, and outlined the previous attempts that have been made to secure independence in monitoring the regulation of the environment. The point was well made, and I hope that as a result of today’s discussion we will have that body in place during the lifetime of the Assembly.
It is a pleasure to speak so soon after the Minister of the Environment, and it was particularly interesting to hear her give a clear commitment to environmental protection — a sentiment that permeated throughout the Chamber.
It is obvious that all Members are committed to environmental protection, and there was much talk about the loss of historic buildings; the threat to certain species; the pollution of rivers, and so forth. Strong environmental protection is clearly supported throughout the Chamber. As that is our shared vision, the task is to find the best way of enforcing it in Northern Ireland.
I would not say that the motion was ill conceived — far from it. It is obvious that the proposer and his colleagues are committed to environmental protection and are very supportive of an independent environmental protection agency. However, I concur with colleagues who said that the motion is a little premature, because the Committee for the Environment has not yet discussed the matter and the ink is barely dry on the review of environmental governance report.
Fundamental issues need to be addressed before any final decisions can be taken. There are four key areas: cost; bureaucracy; accountability; and overall necessity. Cost is of paramount importance.
The report of the review of environmental governance goes into excruciating detail at times on why an environmental protection agency should be created; its various powers; its management structure; its boards; its personnel; what reports it should produce; and even the need for an iconic headquarters building. The report discusses whether the agency should be in a historic building that has been renovated or in a state-of-the-art new one — it goes into detail about everything except costs. On page 17, which sets out the terms of reference, there is a specific reference to a “costed business case”. That costed business case is not in the report, and it is essential that work to cost the establishment of an environmental protection agency is carried out.
The Member mentioned the Minister of the Environment’s commitment to the environment. This afternoon, the Minister gave the House a specific commitment to do some of the costing work by Christmas that the Member is referring to. I presume that the Member would not regard a report presented to the House by Christmas as being premature.
The Minister outlined that some initial costings could be produced before Christmas, but I will leave the detail to her and will await the results with keen interest.
The matter is important, and although some may consider the report to be wonderful, the absence of costings is pretty woeful. There are essential questions about the costs of creating and running an environmental protection agency. If the designation of areas of special scientific interest, which the Member for North Antrim Daithí McKay spoke of, is to be carried out, and an environmental protection agency performs the functions that people want it to, how much will that cost?
Resources are vital, because if they are not available, people’s disappointment with the current system of environmental governance may be perpetuated by any future system. I am sure that no one who supports the need for an EPA wants to see that happen either.
I am mindful of a comment in the Macrory Report on environmental governance which, in considering options for the future, stated that fully incorporating the Environment and Heritage Service into the DOE would:
“recognize that in a country the size of Northern Ireland a more independent environment agency is too costly an exercise.”
That is worth considering, because given the tight budgetary framework within which we are living and with which we have to deal, cost is critical, and it must be addressed.
Allied to cost is bureaucracy. There is, rightly, much talk in the Chamber about the bureaucracy faced by businesses and farmers. During the mandate of the Transitional Assembly, Members supported a motion that backed the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) Cut it Out campaign against red tape and bureaucracy. As Peter Weir said, the UFU has made clear its concerns about increased bureaucracy through an independent EPA, and that must be addressed.
I was also struck by the comments of the Institute of Directors in its submission on the review of environmental governance. It stated that:
“a new agency will simply add another organisation, another layer of bureaucracy, another layer of costs,”
I thank the Minister for her response. I welcome her commitment to the environment, and she made some positive points. However, I was disappointed that she could not go further and accept the case for an EPA. If she had even accepted that concept, I would have considered it progress. I also welcome her commitment to providing the Assembly with the associated costings before Christmas, and I look forward to seeing them. However, the costs are not a significant issue, because most of them relate to something that has already been carried out by other Departments, and it would merely be a case of changing Departments, rather than providing new resources.
The case for the EPA is a no-brainer, as the Minister of Finance and Personnel described another issue last week. It is disappointing that we could not get agreement today. The case made by all the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has the support of the public. Moreover, we have to set up some form of EPA to comply with European directives.
I am happy enough to go along with Mr Gallagher’s amendment: he recognises the need for an EPA. However, Mr Weir’s amendment is merely an excuse for delay. Why did some Members argue for delay? Their arguments relating to costs — among other things — do not stand. I see no excuse for further delay: we have delayed long enough. As Mr Wells said, discussions on the establishment of an EPA have persisted since 1962, so it is about time that something was done. We have gone through many inquiries, and there is no need for any more investigations. The issues have been covered many times, and amendment No 1 is an excuse for further delay.
We must also consider European law and how it is interpreted by our judiciary. Mr Weir’s reference and reaction to the diktats of Judge Weatherup are wrong. Judge Weatherup was saying that the present system is inadequate and that it does not comply with European law, and that something must be done about that. We have to do something about it, even if Mr Weir does not agree.
At a recent seminar in Belfast the chairman of the UK Environmental Law Association commented that Northern Ireland was the dirty corner of the UK when it came to protecting the environment, and added that Northern Ireland had a uniquely serious problem of weak environmental regulation and enforcement.
Northern Ireland has ignored the environment for too long, and we seem to be doing it again today. We have not looked at the impact that development is having on our environment.
The other countries of the United Kingdom introduced legislation in the 1970s and 1980s, as did the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is now starting to catch up — but we are doing it very slowly, because we continue to pump raw sewage into the watercourses and the sea. I have been campaigning to end the dumping of raw sewage into Belfast Lough for more than a decade, because of the impact that it has on beaches. The Department of the Environment seems to have little concern about that, and the Environment and Heritage Service is totally ineffective.
The power station at Kilroot is the dirtiest in the UK; and although Lough Neagh is one of the most polluted lakes in Europe, it is the source of most of our drinking water. The European Court of Justice has found Northern Ireland guilty on many occasions of failing to meet minimum standards set out by European directives. Environmental pressure groups continually highlight the inadequate protection of existing wildlife, sewage pollution and poor planning as areas where the DOE has failed to protect the environment.
I thank the Minister for that information, but Northern Ireland is still doing very little to resolve long-standing problems. It appears that those problems are being further deferred today.
Mr Wells said that the problem dated back to 1962. Certainly, in 1990 the House of Commons Environment Committee called for the establishment of an environmental protection agency. The Environment and Heritage Service already deals with many of the issues that an EPA would, but it is not independent, which led to the situation in 2002, for example, in which the Environment and Heritage Service’s concerns over housing hotspots were ignored to let more house-building take place, and so raw sewage went on being pumped into Belfast Lough.
This is a conflict between the Department of the Environment and an independent body. A piece in today’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’ reports that the Environment and Heritage Service recommended that the planning application for the Giant’s Causeway — an argument I have no intention of entering — be rejected, and yet the Minister is minded to approve it. That shows the potential for conflict in the Department. That is why we need an independent environmental protection agency.
Would the Member be surprised to learn that every other European democracy has had exactly the same arguments that this Assembly is having today, only 20 years ago? Every one of them decided to go for an independent EPA, and not one of them wants to go back to having it in central Government. Is it not unusual that Northern Ireland is out of step with everyone else?
I certainly agree. The Member has made that point much more clearly than I have. All the arguments are in favour of an independent EPA, but it is going to take longer than I would like.
Mr Weir mentioned cost in his amendment.
I am not convinced that significant costs are involved. The Environment and Heritage Service is already performing regulatory and enforcement duties, and other bodies are complying with European Union directives. Those requirements have to be met, and they are being met, so there is no argument to be made that significant additional resources will be required.
A certain amount of nit-picking is going on. Mr Weir said that we would have to cut our budgets. Which budget would we cut? Would we close hospitals or whatever else was needed in order to find sufficient funds? That is not necessary. The resources are already there but are not being used efficiently or effectively. They do not have the correct legislative balance, so they appear ineffective.
We have a long list of problems to solve, but we should proceed with the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency. I would like the Minister to give that commitment. An environmental protection agency would help us to lose our image as the dirty corner of the UK and would allow us to present Northern Ireland as having a green and clean environment that can attract tourists and investment.
Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.
Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McQuillan and Mr G Robinson.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Dr Deeny, Mr Durkan, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr A Maginness, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr B McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr McNarry, Mr Neeson, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Mr K Robinson, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Attwood and Mr Dallat
Question accordingly negatived.
Question put, That amendment 2 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 36; Noes 37.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Dr Deeny, Mr Durkan, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr A Maginness, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr B McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mr McGlone, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr McNarry, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Mr K Robinson, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Attwood and Mr Dallat.
Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Neeson, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan and Mr G Robinson.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Executive to establish an independent Environmental Protection Agency for Northern Ireland.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)