I rise as the DUP lead on the Committee for the Environment, and I will be brief.
Much of what is being discussed is based on the restructuring of the Department of the Environment and the transfer of functions following the reduction in the number of Departments from 12 to nine as outlined in the Stormont House Agreement. The Department of the Environment will cease to exist and its powers will transfer to three new Departments in the hope that the work will become more efficient and streamlined, and its functions more cohesive.
Whilst work is ongoing as to how those functions will be delivered, it is hoped that the priorities for the new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs will include improving waste management, protecting our ecosystems and improving water quality. Powers that will transfer to the Department for Infrastructure will, amongst others, aim to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads through improved road safety and better regulation of the transport sector, with the new Department for Communities working towards supporting the economic benefits of vibrant and diverse communities in a manner that protects our built heritage.
As the Budget is based on the new nine-Department model, I have concerns as to how these extremely wide-ranging functions will be met, particularly given that there will be a further budgetary reduction of 5·7%. Whilst a huge saving has been made in the current Department of the Environment through the voluntary exit scheme, I fear that, once the scheme has been exhausted, we will be faced with a gaping hole in funding for environmental schemes, road safety and historical protection.
The unprecedented flooding that many areas have experienced over the last number of weeks is a stark reminder of the danger posed to our ecology and how changes in our weather systems can have a devastating effect on communities. We must be working towards protecting our environment, and my concern is that further stretching of an already overextended budget will mean that the departmental functions will become so watered down that they will fail to provide the protections that we so desperately need.
I welcome the opportunities for greater departmental cooperation and the financial economies that this may bring, for example in the transfer of built heritage, which will see greater partnership with National Museums and public records to improve public viewing and ease of access, or in sharing departmental staff with roads, rivers and emergency response units. Also, the opportunity for greater collaboration on air quality, wildlife regulations and agriculture will provide a common-sense approach to working, and I look forward to seeing the efficiencies that this will bring.
In closing, my primary concern is in protecting our environment, both natural and built, for future generations. I hope that we can continue to identify where efficiencies can be made and that this does not come at the expense of our ecosystems and heritage.