Independent Environmental Protection Agency

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 14th September 2021.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00 pm, 14th September 2021

3. Mr Durkan asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs when he will fulfil the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) commitment to establish an independent environmental protection agency. (AQO 2396/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Mr Durkan knows where he is in the pecking order. Good environmental governance is always about focusing on environmental outcomes and taking a strategic approach to the environmental challenges that we face in Northern Ireland and, indeed, on the global stage.

New Decade, New Approach does not specify a time frame for the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency. I am on record as saying that I am considering the implications of the NDNA proposal for the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency to form part of the possible outline of a future Programme for Government.

An independent environmental protection agency — in other words, a replacement for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency — cannot be created overnight. Consideration needs to be given to appropriate options, and those will require robust economic appraisal to determine the best option for Northern Ireland. It is no small task to scope out all the potential impacts, including significant legislative, financial and human resource issues, that would be necessary before decisions can be made.

The Assembly has given its consent to extend the provisions of the UK Environment Bill to give effect to the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) for Northern Ireland. Recently, I published a synopsis of responses to a discussion document that was issued to gauge stakeholder views on how we should deal with environmental plans, principles and governance in the future.

The functions of the OEP will be to monitor environmental improvement against Northern Ireland's environmental improvement plan; provide independent scrutiny and advice on environmental law and policy; investigate environmental complaints; and, if necessary, take enforcement action against public authorities that breach environmental law. It is important to note that the OEP will not take action against individuals or private businesses. That role remains the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and other enforcement agencies. The OEP will exist to hold Government to account for the proper implementation of environmental law.

Understandably, in the current crisis, resources are spread more thinly than I would like, so some prioritisation has been necessary. Other issues need to be addressed first, such as the OEP and green growth strategy, which will help our recovery from the devastating effects of COVID-19.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I remind the Minister that if he needs more than two minutes, he can indicate so in advance.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

He needed an extra 10 seconds for his wee wisecrack at the start. My desire to see an independent environmental protection agency is, in no way, an attack on the expertise, professionalism or passion of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency staff, many of whom I had the privilege to work with in a previous role. Does the Minister concur that any new environmental protection agency should be looked at on an all-island basis, given that we breathe the same air and share the same environment?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

If you want to do that, maybe we should do it on an all-islands basis and see our friends in Ireland come back under the banner of the United Kingdom. I am sure that they would be very welcome to do that, given that that is where they do most of their trading and business. It is a fairly complicated, difficult and tricky issue as things stand, so I do not think that I would be keen to introduce further complications to any suggestion of the creation of an independent environmental protection agency.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Given that it was an NDNA commitment and part of the basis on which the Assembly was reconvened 20 months ago, when does the Minister envisage that the independent environmental protection agency will come into place? He has been considering it for around 20 months now.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

If I had kicked off on day one, it would have been a struggle to achieve it in what was left of this Assembly term. I will not take criticism from people who actually held the Assembly back from meeting for three years. If you are that keen about the environment, it would have been much better had you ensured that the Assembly was not defunct for three years because of your own political considerations.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

In the interests of environmental protection, what is the Minister's assessment of the DUP's proposed withdrawal from North/South Ministerial Council areas of environmental cooperation and the impact that that is likely to have on areas of much-needed cooperation, particularly around environmental protection, pollution, water quality and waste management?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 2:15 pm, 14th September 2021

It will have considerably less impact than the Northern Ireland protocol — well over 70% of our goods come in to Northern Ireland from Great Britain on some 419,000 HGVs per annum — and the consequences of not dealing with that issue and not arriving at a circumstance where that barrier is not put between Northern Ireland and its main body of trade, when we will be able to move things forward. People cannot just believe that they can drive a coach and horses through east-west relationships without there being some sort of consequence.