North/South Ministerial Council: Environment

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 14th November 2011.

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Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following statement on the thirteenth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in environment sectoral format, which was held in NSMC headquarters in Armagh on Friday 21 October 2011.

The Minister for Regional Development, Mr Kennedy, and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive at the meeting, which I chaired. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Phil Hogan TD, Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. The statement has been agreed by Minister Kennedy.

The Council welcomed ongoing developments in waste management. It also welcomed the closer working relationship between Departments to align policies where appropriate in areas of mutual benefit. Ministers received presentations on arrangements for dealing with food waste, including organic waste, where there are opportunities to do more on an all-Ireland basis given our mutual schemes.

The Council noted that environment Ministers launched the ‘Irish Recycled Plastic Waste Arisings Study’ jointly in September. The North/South market development steering group will now consider it. As I said to the House previously, only 30% of plastic waste on the island of Ireland is recycled. Of that 30%, only 30% is recycled on the island of Ireland. Those figures are not good. Clearly, there is a challenge for both Administrations to do more in that regard. The Council also noted the recent publication of a tender for a bulky waste reuse management best practice study and the first meeting of the quality protocols subgroup.

Ministers also welcomed ongoing progress towards implementing the EU landfill directive. The Council also noted that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is willing to engage with the Department of the Environment (DOE) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to consider current restrictions in the UK plan with regard to cross-border, trans-frontier, shipment-of-waste movements of mixed municipal solid waste from Northern Ireland to Ireland. That is an important matter. We have an unusual situation in which untreated waste can be moved from Belfast to Bristol but cannot be moved from Newry to Meath. There is some contradiction and tension therein, which could be interrogated further and worked through satisfactorily.

The Council welcomed the ongoing co-operation and sharing of experience between the DOE and the Office of the Revenue Commissioners in the development of the DOE’s carrier bag levy project. I acknowledge the assistance of the Dublin Administration, as they have had longer, good experience of reducing the number of single-use and reusable bags and generating useful funds for central government. The model of practice in Dublin may be of assistance as we develop our model of practice here in Northern Ireland.

The Council noted that the removal of waste from a site at Ballymartin near Kilkeel was nearing completion and that work was expected to commence on a further site, if possible, later this year. Since the statement was agreed with Minister Kennedy, work at the Ballymartin site has been completed, and it is expected that initial work on the site on the Belfast Road, Newry will be taken forward in the very near future.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) is continuing to develop plans to deal with the remaining illegal waste sites, of which there were 13 in total, and is working closely with its counterparts in Dublin City Council. Ministers discussed and commended the joint enforcement actions being conducted by the competent authorities. Those actions are ongoing and, indeed, in the very recent past, the authorities, North and South, conducted joint enforcement action on illegal waste issues.

Ministers noted that the North/South working group on water quality is considering a range of water quality issues, including abstraction and impoundment controls, nitrates, shellfish waters, bathing waters, the scope for all-Ireland beach awards and INTERREG IVa projects, with a view to the formulation of a work programme for agreement at a future meeting.

The Council noted that the North/South working group on water quality is continuing to drive and to oversee the co-ordinated implementation of river basin management plans and associated measures under the EU water framework directive.

Environmental reporting and research issues were also touched on, and all three Ministers welcomed the ongoing work on a common set of environmental indicators, including web-based presentation and the planned publication of ‘Ireland North and South: A Statistical Profile’, which should be in place next year.

The Council noted progress by NIEA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in taking forward joint actions on research to support the implementation of environmental policy and legislation and welcomed further co-operation in supporting researchers seeking European funding for priority environmental research under the EU seventh framework programme (FP7), INTERREG and LIFE+ programmes.

That latter point is crucial, given that we all now acknowledge the scale of European funding, which is €50 billion for FP7, and other environmental funding under different programmes. The opportunities to exploit simply have not been taken by the Department and the Northern Ireland Government. We have a lot to learn quickly from our colleagues in the South. They have the inside track when it comes to European funding and have created architecture in government to maximise the opportunities to draw down funding. There are issues, and we need urgently to learn lessons for the residue of FP7 and for when eighth framework programme (FP8) commences in 2014. That six-year programme has €80 billion of funds available for research and development and innovation.

The Council agreed to hold the next environment meeting in February 2012.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

The Committee welcomes the Minister’s statement, and we are very pleased to hear that co-operation on environmental issues has been not only productive but very constructive. We hope that that will continue in the future. Will he confirm that when more responsibility for dealing with fly-tipped waste is passed back to the councils, they will not be required to deal with any hazardous waste?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:15 pm, 14th November 2011

I thank the Member for her question. As she rightly identified, constructive work is done on the environment on a North/South basis. That is why I find it increasingly frustrating that the St Andrews review of North/South mechanisms that was initiated in early 2007 has yet to publish its phase 1 report on existing North/South implementation bodies and co-operation. It is also frustrating that it has barely started, if at all, its phase 2 report on identifying opportunities for North/South developments going forward.

So, here we are in the eye of an economic storm, the scale of which we still do not know, given developments in Europe and beyond. Yet, opportunities to scope, identify and take forward North/South co-operation on a whole range of initiatives have barely been touched. If we cannot get our act together and get through the political fog that those North/South opportunities throw up, future generations on the island, both North and South, will live with the adverse consequences. It is a matter that needs to be addressed, and I am asking my Executive colleagues, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister and the leadership of the Irish Government, now that we have a new Irish Government, not to waste a further moment. A moment will arise this Friday when we will have a further meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in Armagh, where those matters will have to be taken forward.

The Member identified that under recent contaminated lands legislation, new requirements for fly-tipping will be laid down. However, it is already the case that councils have significant responsibilities in the disposal of materials that have been identified in, for example, fuel laundering. So, councils already have responsibilities that will be extended to fly-tipping, as opposed to those areas of existing concern. However, it is clear that when it comes to working with councils on hazardous waste, the best advice and assistance will be provided to them to ensure that risks are mitigated.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. I refer him to the item in the statement that deals with the repatriation of waste. It obviously highlights the particular advance that has been made on the Ballymartin site at Kilkeel. Can the Minister give us any update on the timescale for the full removal of the remaining 13 or 14 sites and whether there has been any progress on speeding that process up?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member. I am pleased that he acknowledged the work at Ballymartin. That clean-up concluded at the end of October. Over 20,000 tons of waste and nearly 500 tons of leachate were removed. Fortunately, in that case, no chemical or hazardous waste was identified on the site. The task was immense, if at least less perilous, given that that no chemical or hazardous waste was identified. As I indicated, work on the Belfast Road, Newry site is due to commence in the near future. I know what the time frame for that is, but I do not want to comment further on it. However, I hope that during this calendar year, the waste at that site will be addressed.

I cannot recall off the top of my head, but I think that the original time frame for the repatriation of illegal waste at the 13 sites in the North of Ireland was up to 10 years. However, I will check that for the Member. That time frame has been agreed under a framework agreement between the Belfast Administration and Dublin, which, in this instance, is represented by Dublin City Council. That is the authority that is dealing with the Department of the Environment on this matter. There is no indication that there has been any slippage of that time frame, which may be implicit in the Member’s question, given that that arose in another significant North/South project in the past number of days. Hopefully, more certainty will be created in that matter going forward.

I refer to previous answers that I have given on the Floor. The time frame that was originally indicated continues to be that by which we will be judged. If there is any contrary time frame, I will come back to the Member.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement. Will he share some of the experiences, to which he referred in his statement, in relation to the carrier bag levy? Will he also indicate when he proposes to introduce that levy? What projects or legislation will be held up in the interim if the levy is not introduced?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

It may not have leaked out yet, but, then again, those things are not meant to happen around the Executive table. Last Thursday, the Executive agreed to further legislation on carrier bags because the original legislation, which was passed earlier this year by the Assembly, had a limited mandate in that it was for single-use carrier bags. As we all know from shopping, reusable carrier bags are now commonplace. The evidence afforded to me confirmed that if we proceed as we will do — I will explain that in a second — with the single-use carrier bag levy, there will probably be a displacement. Rather than pay whatever amount for a single-use carrier bag, customers would choose to purchase a reusable bag at a slightly higher price.

The consequence of that would be that the intended revenue stream to government under the carrier bag legislation would not be realised, nor would the intended and more primary environmental considerations; namely, to reduce the number of carrier bags in circulation. The Executive agreed last week that further legislation would be brought to the Assembly, which would extend the carrier bag levy to all categories of carrier bags, single-use and reusable. It may well be that, in the fullness of time, by way of regulation, certain bags would be exempted. Those used by chemists, or by butchers for meat, may not be subject to the carrier bag levy, but that is for another day.

Independent of that, in order to create greater rigour around the law, I advised my Executive colleagues, and they, with a little hesitancy from the Minister of Finance and Personnel, agreed that the proposal in the original legislation that was passed earlier this year would still proceed independently of the new legislation on multiple-use carrier bags. The consequence of that is that the levy scheme for single-use carrier bags is intended to be in place by the 2013-14 financial year. The consultation to be concluded in respect of all that will provide a direction of travel towards that outcome.

There are still issues to be resolved. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is not being helpful to the devolved Administration in relation to the collection of that levy. It would be a simple matter for HMRC to use a computer programme to collect the carrier bag levy once it is introduced in the 2013-14 financial year. The Minister of Finance and Personnel is working with me to prevail upon HMRC to collect that revenue stream on behalf of the Northern Ireland Government going forward, but, at the moment, it is showing some resistance. There are major managerial, logistical and operational issues around the levy scheme, but I have created certainty around the single-use carrier bag levy scheme, and I hope to create certainty, through new legislation, around reusable bags as well.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP

I am glad that we are going to have a chance to discuss what we are going to do about the carrier bag levies. However, I would like to ask about water quality. I am under the impression that we are not likely to meet our EU targets. I wonder whether the Minister had a chance to discuss best practice in ensuring water quality improvements with his North/South Ministerial Council colleagues and whether any actions on best practice were forthcoming from the meeting.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

On the current pattern, we will be able to comply with the requirements of EU water directives. However, it may have been hinted at in the question that new EU water directives will be coming down the track in 2016. Whatever the standards that we lived by and were faithful to heretofore, the standards going forward are going to be more rigorous.

One reason why I convened water and beach summits over the past few months was to make the Government and those who have an interest in these matters acutely aware that although we should be doing more in the current phase to address water quality, we need to get together to discuss future demands on water quality.

The consequence of all that is that some of our beaches that attain a high status for beach water quality would fail on the far side of 2016. The consequence of the new water directive is that more demanding requirements may be made of the North in respect of septic tanks. As was touched on during Question Time last week, we, unlike in the South, have a good regime in place. Unlike in the South, we are not likely at this stage to be on the wrong side of infraction proceedings because of issues around septic tanks. I am acutely aware of the issue. There was a TV programme the other day on which a specialist was talking about global water issues. Basically, the issues are that some do not have enough, and although the West may have enough, there is an issue with quality.

As the Member will be aware, good work has been done between the North and the South on water quality. The river basin management strategies are evidence that now that the South and the North have strategies in place for all relevant river basins, we are working in a much more co-ordinated way. Ultimately, issues around the environment, water, wind and wave are such a shared and common resource and opportunity that the more that we work together and integrate what we are doing, the better that we will all be.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. Will he give us some indication as to what plans he has for the further integration of waste policies and tell us about any discussions that he may have had in that regard with his counterpart in the rest of the country?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. That is an example of how, if we can cut through the politics around North/South, the potential future opportunities are nearly unparalleled for any North/South developments. What should we be looking at? We are about to review our waste management strategy in the North. In taking forward a new waste management strategy, we should learn from best practice on these islands and identify opportunities for doing things together on this island. I previously advised the House of a joint North/South study on the use of plastic recyclates. As I said in my opening remarks, there is a quite disturbing figure when it comes to plastic recycling on the island of Ireland: we recycle only 30% of what we could, and 70% goes into landfill. Of the 30% that is recycled, only 30% is recycled on the island of Ireland, with 70% getting exported. There are opportunities on the island of Ireland to recycle plastics more and to recycle higher numbers of plastics that get recycled more. Work is being done, arising from ‘The Irish Recycled Plastic Waste Arisings Study’, to identify where there might be commercial or business opportunities on a North/South basis to deal with plastics.

When it comes to food, we intend, in the next number of months, to launch a programme about how the hospitality sector disposes of food and packaging waste. Much more could be done in that regard.

That should be done on an all-Ireland basis, because the Republic of Ireland has a green hospitality scheme that deals with the issue of food and packaging waste, and, clearly, there are opportunities for one to learn from the other to deploy best practice and to integrate where possible. Those are just three examples of the scale of the opportunity to take North/South action on recycling, waste disposal and waste management generally.

As we roll out the procurement strategy through the three procurement groups for the three sets of councils, in all likelihood, there will a need for some interim measures. As those procurements develop and get built and commissioned, in order to comply with EU directives, there may be some opportunity to dispose of some of our waste through mechanisms in the South. Ultimately, when the procurement plants are all commissioned, there may be greater opportunities on a North/South basis for trade in waste that cannot be disposed of in any other manner.

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP 12:30 pm, 14th November 2011

I thank the Minister for his statement. I shall draw the Minister back to item 8. Can he expand on the problems due to the present restrictions on cross-border movement of mixed municipal waste from Northern Ireland to Southern Ireland?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for that question. As I indicated in my opening remarks, given that we are, for now, separate jurisdictions, movements from the North to the South are deemed to be transnational or trans-boundary in nature. The consequence of that is that there are European requirements that do not allow untreated municipal waste to move from one jurisdiction to another without a scale of treatment being applied to that waste before it goes across the border. Given that we are, for now, a member of the United Kingdom, that rule does not apply. That is why I was able to say that you can move untreated municipal waste from Belfast to Bristol or from Newry to Norwich, but, if you were to move waste from Newry to Meath — a plant is under construction for the disposal of waste in Meath — it would require to be treated. The scale of treatment is not necessarily that demanding, but some level of treatment is required to ship waste between the North and the South.

It is a difficult issue, and, although we might look for an opportunity to accommodate the disposal of waste and waste management generally on a North/South basis, it will escalate to a European-wide basis. Because you are dealing with so many member countries of the EU, what might be a local remedy for an Irish problem may not be the right remedy for a European problem. Nonetheless, we are looking at, interrogating and scoping out the issue and seeing whether something can be done.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

I also thank the Minister for his statement. Minister, your statement focused on illegal waste, but have any opinions been expressed on waste that was not deposited illegally? I am thinking particularly of Ballymena Borough Council. It was, at a time, issuing its own licence to lay waste in lands, and that waste has now caused contamination. More should be done about the borough councils to prevent the outfall of that being put upon the landowners.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

That matter has not been flagged up before, and I am not aware of the situation in Ballymena. I am aware of situations around the North, including my constituency, where, in my view, the then local and regional government managed issues of waste disposal very casually. That may have led to contaminants being part of landfill. There was not sufficient regulation of how water and leachate came off those lands. I am not aware of the particular circumstances, but I will look at them. However, I am aware of other circumstances where the management of waste did not, in my judgement, live up to the standards that were necessary. That is why, as I have said on the Floor previously, I have advised officials that we will have a robust and, at times, uncompromising approach to the enforcement of environmental requirements when it comes to the application or removal of licences.

Without going into detail — these are live issues — there have been examples of consistent and absolutely best practice and the proper interpretation of licence conditions. There are businesses in the North that now know that there is a more rigorous and robust approach to ensure that the right standards are complied with when it comes to environmental law and environmental licences. If there are issues with respect to Ballymena, I would welcome hearing more from the Member.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Thank you, Minister. You referred to the waste management companies in one of your answers. Are you committed to maintaining the three large waste companies that we have, or would you, perhaps, move to one large company or another alternative? If you are minded that way, what would the future be for the large companies already in place to deal with waste?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I accept the argument that, although we may continue the good progress made in waste management and recycling in recent years, where there is a healthy story to be told, when the Programme for Government comes out, hopefully we will see a much more challenging target for recycling objectives in the lifetime of this Government and the period up to 2020-25.

Ultimately, however, I accept that, whatever the direction of travel may be for waste being recycled, there will be a need for alternative disposal. That is why we have procurement going on in respect of the three companies reflecting the 26 councils in the North. I am highly vigilant around that procurement process. It runs into hundreds of millions of pounds and stretches out over the next 25 years. Therefore, councils that are members of the three procurement groups and central government must be absolutely satisfied that all affordability and deliverability hurdles will be jumped.

I had a meeting with the waste management board just last week, at which the three procurement groups were represented, as well as their council sponsors. I made it very clear that I would continue to be rigorous and robust on the standards of affordability and deliverability. Although the direction of travel remains positive and the three procurement groups have moved at somewhat different paces, all three are nonetheless moving in a positive direction. I will robustly interrogate all that to ensure that the outcome reflects our waste needs, represents value for money and a price that the community and ratepayers in the North can afford and is deliverable with regard to planning and wider management issues.

I have said publicly that we need to see a single waste authority some time down the road. There has been scoping done on that. I have advised the procurement groups and the waste management board that that is my view. I believe that that is the right direction of travel. It will provide a more cohesive and co-ordinated approach to waste management strategy and produce efficiencies and better value for money. However, that is for another day, although that day may not be that far away. The issue for today is making sure that the three procurement groups fulfil the standards of affordability and deliverability. On that matter, I am sure there is a lot more to tell.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement. Further to his last answer, will the Minister outline what perceived benefits would come from a single waste authority? Will he also recognise that there is concern in the community that, of the existing three groups in the procurement process that is being followed, the ratepayers may not get the advantage or benefits that they should if the new contracts are being negotiated as of now rather than five years ago?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank both him and the Member who asked the previous question because, given the scale of the issues — the hundreds of millions of pounds that are involved, the length of the contracts and all the factors that I outlined previously — this really is a matter that requires vigilance at government level and at Assembly and Committee level. I very much welcome the questions and encourage more interrogation of me and by me when it comes to this entire project.

The reason for that is self-evident. When I was in DSD, there were 33 housing associations. I indicated that, given the particular character of local identities and housing needs in the North, there should be between 10 and 15 housing associations to best manage housing association stock and newbuilds. That would also reflect the need for better efficiency and greater value for money. I hope that that work is ongoing in DSD as I speak.

Similarly, with respect to RPA, people will be aware that I believe the right number of councils for the North is 15. That number reflects local identity and loyalties, and it is a good model for the future, given the indicative savings under the ICE programme. It is also more consistent with the number of Westminster constituencies that we will have. For good reasons, 15 councils reflects what we need in the North and the need for efficiency and value for money.

Similarly, with the waste authority, whilst the three procurement groups were a consequence of issues in politics a number of years ago, it seems to me that the better model is a single authority. I am not going to do anything at the moment that would in any way impede the work of the three procurement groups. However, on the far side of that and perhaps sooner rather than later, this is a matter that we need to address and conclude.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Minister was anxious to assure us that there has been no slippage in the repatriation of waste to the Republic. However, if we examine his statement today and compare it with his parallel statement of just two months ago, there demonstrably has been slippage. He told us in September that work was expected to commence on the further two sites in Ballymartin in August —that was taken from the July statement of the North/South body — on a site north of Newry in early September 2011 and on 13 sites further down the line. Yet, today, he tells us that work has been completed on only one of the sites at Ballymartin, the second one has not even been mentioned and there is some vague aspiration of starting work at Newry, which was meant to start in September. There has been slippage. Why has there been slippage in such a short period? Does that not bode ill for the overall plan of dealing with the outstanding repatriations?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question, which confirms, on the one hand, that you should beware the lawyer’s mind but, on the other, listen carefully to the politician’s words. The words that I used were “expected to commence”, because there are inevitable circumstances beyond the control of the Minister or government that can lead to difficulties with a site. For example, the Member will be aware that issues around farming, such as slurry spreading, over the past number of months have become more uncertain because of the weather. There are interventions beyond the control of government that lead to having to revise how you do a bit of political business.

Similarly, in respect of repatriation of waste from sites, I was cautious in saying “expected to commence”, because the principle on which we are moving forward is that we do not work on more than one site at a time. That is good practice because, when people began to dig at Ballymartin, we did not know if they might discover chemical hazardous waste. If there were material on the site that would put people at risk or peril, the management of that site might become somewhat different. Moreover, the scale of what you discover at any one site means that you have to manage it over a slightly longer period. Therefore, when I used the words “expected to commence”, I meant that we expected the work at the Newry site to commence in September. There has been some slippage, but not in the commitment that, subject to what people find when they start digging up that ground shortly, the repatriation of waste from the Belfast Road site in Newry is expected to commence and be completed in this calendar year. If that changes further because of circumstances beyond my control, I will alert Members, but I think that I have lived up to the principle that the work was expected to commence, albeit that I note the lawyer’s mind.ITC Franklin Gothic Demi'; ">