Independent Environmental Protection Agency

Opposition Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 13 May 2024.

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Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 3:30, 13 May 2024

The next item in the Order Paper is an Opposition motion on an independent environmental protection agency.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move

That this Assembly declares an ecological and biodiversity crisis; acknowledges the complex characteristics of biodiversity and ecological breakdown in Lough Neagh, which includes high concentrations of phosphates and nitrates from agricultural run-off, the durability of the waste water infrastructure, the impact of invasive species and the catalyst of higher temperatures caused by the climate crisis; notes the resolution of the Assembly to address management of the lough; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to address the ecological crisis by bringing forward legislation to establish an independent environmental protection agency by the end of this Assembly mandate.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Maith go leor.

[Translation: All right.]

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one and a half hours for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. As an amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List, the Business Committee has agreed that 15 minutes will be added to the total time for the debate.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is with some disappointment that I move the motion today, not because of a lack of enthusiasm or a lack of need to establish an independent environmental protection agency or because of the urgency with which that is needed, but because we should have had an agency in place already. Like many necessary developments, it has been promised and delayed repeatedly by Executive parties. That is one of the reasons why we cannot support the amendment, because, unfortunately, it would introduce yet another delay in implementing a commitment that had already been given in the 'New Decade, New Approach' (NDNA) agreement of 2020. What is strange is that the Ulster Unionist Party used to support an independent environmental protection agency: I look forward to some clarity on that after a while. The SDLP, along with the Green Party and Alliance, has supported an independent environmental protection agency since the 2002-06 review of public administration (RPA) and we stated that support in our Assembly election manifesto in 2003.

In 2007, following a review of environmental governance in Northern Ireland, the Assembly debated an Alliance Party motion calling on the Executive to establish an independent environmental protection agency for Northern Ireland, as recommended in the review's report, 'Foundations for the future'. The Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Féin supported the motion, but, while the Ulster Unionists supported our amendment in that debate, to establish an independent environmental protection agency in the lifetime of that Assembly, Sinn Féin did not. Sinn Féin, however, supported a DUP amendment that called for more work to be undertaken — a repeat of déjà-vu? — before decisions could be taken. It was ever thus.

By the way, the previous motion, unchanged, was agreed by the Assembly in 2007. Then, as now, the North was the only region in Ireland or Britain that did not have an independent environmental protection agency. To quote the former leader of the Alliance Party, David Ford, in the 2007 debate:

"Either they are all wrong, or we are wrong." — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 24, p72, col 2].

We know the answer to that question.

I mention that to point out that the DUP has always opposed an independent environmental protection agency. It has always sought to delay any decision on its establishment. Even though a commitment was given in the New Decade, New Approach agreement in 2020 for that very agency, unfortunately, the DUP Minister responsible repeatedly ignored it.

The New Decade, New Approach commitment envisaged an independent environmental protection agency that could oversee work on climate change and ensure that the necessary targets would be met. We eventually got a Climate Change Act in 2022, primarily because of individual Members of the Assembly rather than the then Minister, but anyway. It was a twin-track process, if you like, as any of us who were on the AERA Committee at the time know.

We are still waiting for an independent environmental protection agency. After the Assembly motion in 2007, there was some change. In 2008, under a DUP Minister, the Environment and Heritage Service, an arm's-length agency of the then Department of the Environment, was essentially rebranded as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). In May 2016, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs was created, and, again under a DUP Minister, the NIEA was brought fully into that Department.

We had a review, and the Executive, controlled by the same two parties that control it today, ignored both the review and the Assembly. That is where we are today, having travelled in the opposite direction to that recommended by the review of environmental governance in 2007. It is important to note the findings of the auditor general's recent report on water quality: since 2015, the water quality in our rivers and lakes has got worse, not better, and we will miss the 2027 EU targets for water quality standards.

In February, the Assembly debated the ecological crisis in Lough Neagh and called on the Executive to put in place a new management structure and plan for the lough — which is very dear to me — so that it can be managed, protected and promoted in the interests of all. I will not repeat all the arguments from that debate. The Minister and his Department know well what the underlying problem is: it is the build-up of excessive levels of nutrients in the lough — the phosphorus and nitrogen. Other factors come into play, but that is the underlying issue that needs to be resolved. Since 2020, the lough has been in poor status, which is just one level above the lowest status of bad in the ecological and chemical condition of the water. We have seen decreases in the numbers of all the main species in the lough, most notably pollan.

On a wider note, last year's 'State of Nature' report showed a continuing decline in biodiversity, with 12% of Northern Irish species threatened with extinction. The Department's figures tell us that over 60% of the phosphorus in our rivers and lakes originates from agriculture, with 24% coming from waste water treatment facilities and 12% from septic tanks. There has been a recorded increase in the level of phosphorus in Lough Neagh since 2015, and a steady and, indeed, sharp rise — I have seen the graph — in the level of nitrates from 2017 to 2022. A recent report commissioned by Farmers for Action attributed that particularly sharp increase to the ambitions of the Executive's Going for Growth strategy, which was introduced around that time. The report identified attempts at increased crop production, leading to a much-increased use of nitrogen-based fertilisers, as the reason behind the rise.

The auditor general's report on water quality noted that, between 2017 and 2021, 373 pollution incidents linked to farming and 68 incidents linked to NI Water were deemed to be of high or medium severity. More than half — 53% — of all water pollution incidents linked to agriculture in 2022 happened in the Neagh Bann river basin district (RBD). Most of those incidents were in the River Blackwater area, with farm effluent mixture, silage and cattle waste most frequently detected.

Agriculture accounts for 77% of the total land area of Northern Ireland, but only about 1% of farms are inspected by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. I have to put on the record that most farmers are ecologically tuned in. They want to see the environment kept and to be its custodians. However, there are those who clearly do not.

Perhaps the Minister will be able to update us on the recommendations of the cross-departmental task force on Lough Neagh. We are facing another summer of potentially toxic algal blooms. As I mentioned, people have reported to me that the algal blooms are already starting to evolve beneath the surface and, indeed, are manifesting on the surface of Lough Neagh. With warnings issued to the public, as well as to the tourism industry, I would like to think that we will take action before we reach that point again this year.

The task force identified 113 actions that statutory organisations and the wider public can take to address the problem in the lough. In addition to mitigating measures, it made several recommendations to specifically address the build-up of excessive levels of nutrients in the lough. Among the recommended key actions are enforcing the existing regulations; reductions to the levels of phosphates in animal feeds; the development of a policy to eliminate the use of chemical phosphorus fertiliser on grasslands; and, of course, an updated nitrates policy. A cash injection of £131 million for NI Water was the estimated cost of upgrading 18 waste water treatment works.

As I mentioned, although the Assembly had already called for the Executive to put in place a new management structure and a plan for Lough Neagh, there have been attempts to improve the management of the lough. The stakeholder Lough Neagh Partnership was formed in 2003. That is a partnership with a defined role to play, but it lacks resources and powers. However, a single overarching body that could have had the necessary resources and powers to manage and protect Lough Neagh was previously established. The leader of Sinn Féin in the Assembly was the Agriculture and Rural Development Minister at that time and was responsible for that. Following a Lough Neagh cross-departmental working group report in 2014 — 10 years ago — when the ownership of the lough was a talking point, there was support for a community-led approach to the ownership and management of the lough. The Lough Neagh development trust was established in early 2016, and an interim board was appointed to lead the trust through membership recruitment and the election of a permanent board. Despite the development trust's attempts to secure funding to allow it to progress its work, successive Ministers failed to commit the required additional resources.

I wish the Minister the best of luck in his negotiations with the Executive to empower an effective, professional management body for Lough Neagh, hopefully, with oversight from an independent EPA. However, the Assembly should again make its ambition clear: it is not just the immediate response of the Minister and the Executive that is important; it is their commitment to follow through on the decisions that they take and to properly fund the required response to the ongoing ecological crisis in our environment. Key to that response is the establishment of an independent EPA, as recommended by the review of environmental governance (REGNI) in 2007.

As was committed to in the New Decade, New Approach agreement of 2020, the office of environmental protection will still have a crucial role to play, and an independent EPA will have to work closely with it. The importance of the EPA's being an independent body has already been demonstrated, as the threat of legal action from the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) forced the Department to change its approach to providing ammonia guidance for council planning decisions. The non-independent NI Environment Agency was unable or unwilling to do that, because it is an environment agency that still cannot take samples at waste water treatment works without telling NI Water in advance. An independent environmental protection agency is a vital part of modern environmental governance.

It is necessary to secure and maintain public trust in the ability of governance —

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 3:45, 13 May 2024

Patsy, you are well over your time.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

—to protect and nurture the natural environment. Future generations will judge the Assembly by how we respond to that.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat as sin, a Patsy.

[Translation: Thank you for that, Patsy.]

I call Tom Elliott to move the amendment.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I beg to move the following amendment:

After "bringing forward" insert: "a review of environmental governance, including potential" — [Mr Elliott (The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs).]

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Thank you, Tom. You have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

To be fair, I welcome the motion, which has come from those on the Opposition Benches. I have no difficulty with the Opposition's tabling it. The previous Member to speak had a go at the Ulster Unionist Party, but I will not do the same to the SDLP or any other party, because I want to do what is right for Northern Ireland.

I note and accept the principle about Lough Neagh, which is part of the Opposition motion, but blue-green algae is in a lot of other areas, not just Lough Neagh. We have it in Lough Erne in County Fermanagh. It is widespread in England and Scotland. I noticed that Waterways Ireland warned about it some time ago in areas of the Republic of Ireland. The Republic has an independent Environmental Protection Agency, but it has not been able to stop the algae. England has the Environment Agency, which is a non-departmental public body sponsored by DEFRA. I do not know whether you can call that independent, but that is what they have in England. I am not so sure, therefore, that every region has an independent environmental protection agency. By the way, I have no major difficulty with such an agency.

Mr McGlone suggested that we had changed our position. Nowhere have we said that we have changed our position. What we do not want, however, is a plethora of agencies and organisations that oversee the environment, because we will end up with a situation where, as with Lough Neagh and Lough Erne, nobody knows where the responsibilities lie. That is the difficulty that we have. What do you do? Do you just add another agency to the environment aspect of the Department, and, all of a sudden, the Minister is lumped with another agency that his Department or the Executive have to pay for? The real problem is that one will blame the other.

What I want to see is a proper review. That does not have to take ages; it could be done quite quickly. I am sure that the Minister and others know exactly what they want to do. We have the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, which has a couple of separate organisations. We have shared environmental health services, which, I accept, are council bodies, but they still have oversight of environmental issues. We have the Office for Environmental Protection. We will probably have a climate change commissioner soon. We have councils and environmental health overseeing some of it. We also have Waterways Ireland and the Public Health Agency. All I ask is that we have a proper, organised and structured review ASAP so that we can see which agencies we may not need and how we can change the powers or responsibilities. If an independent environmental protection agency is required and that is the right way to go, let us do it. However, that will not stop the blue-green algae. It will take a lot more than an independent environmental protection agency to stop that process. That is a much wider issue than just putting in place an independent environmental protection agency or, indeed, getting Lough Neagh moved from private ownership to government ownership.

Lough Erne, for example, is probably publicly owned — there is no private ownership of it — but nobody can accept who has responsibility for it. Waterways Ireland is there. Rivers Agency has some responsibility. The council, I assume, has some responsibility, and perhaps even NI Water does too. I am sure that DAERA has some responsibility. We need to be exact about who has responsibility for what, otherwise people and organisations will blame each other, no matter which element they represent.

I would like to see an overall structure. Waterways Ireland, for example, has no responsibility whatsoever for Lough Neagh. Why is that? At the time of whatever deal was made, Lough Neagh was not put within Waterways Ireland's structure. Is there anything to stop us — I do not know the answer to this — giving overall responsibility to Waterways Ireland? I do not know.

A huge number of questions need to be resolved. It is not as simple as some Members have outlined in that, if you put an independent environmental protection agency in place, you will get the lough under public control again and all will be rosy in the garden. I can tell you that it will not be. It will take a lot more than that to make this better.

I note the figures that have been mooted: 62% of the phosphorus entering Northern Ireland's water environment comes from agriculture, 24% comes from waste water treatment works and 12% comes from septic tanks. Those figures have been mentioned on a number of occasions here and in other places. I am sure that the Minister will want to raise that issue.

Those figures appear to come from a 2020 Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) report that deals specifically with phosphorus. A quotation from that report reads:

"There is an important gap in knowledge as to the current state of P[hosphorus] within UK agriculture, the wider food system, and the natural environment."

That says that there is a huge knowledge gap, but, as far as I can see, the report gives no indication of the methodology — I apologise if it does, and somebody can put me right, if that is the case — used to reach those figures. Are they estimates? Was there some sort of methodology that is not in that report? I cannot see it. How did those figures come about? Obviously, people will question them. I question them. I am not saying that they are wrong; I merely want to know how they came about. In fairness, that situation applies in wider Northern Ireland waterways, as I understand, and not just in Lough Neagh, but there are a huge number of questions without answers in that respect.

Northern Ireland already has environmental governance in place. A complex, overlapping structure of organisations has responsibility for our environment, such as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Office for Environmental Protection and, as was mentioned, Shared Environmental Services. Indeed, we might soon have a climate change commissioner.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency has established five key priorities: working towards a fully compliant regulated industry; delivering freshwater environment at "good" status; tackling waste sector crime; supporting good habitat, earth science and landscape quality and enhancing species abundance and diversity; and the promotion of environmentally sustainable development, infrastructure and access to quality green and blue spaces. Can anybody argue against any of those? I certainly cannot, and I commend the agency for having those principles and priorities. I assume that the difficulty is that, maybe, they are not all being implemented. I am not sure. However, those priorities, to me, factor in what we want in Northern Ireland. Will an independent environment agency do exactly the same thing? It may, but that is why I ask for an immediate review, so that the Minister, his Department and the Executive do not pay for a plethora of organisations and agencies on top of what we already have but with nobody, ultimately, taking responsibility.

I will leave it there. I commend the amendment.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin 4:00, 13 May 2024

I will speak in support of the motion, and I thank its sponsors for bringing it to the Floor.

There is no doubt that we are in the midst of an ecological and biodiversity crisis. Ireland has suffered one of the worst biodiversity declines in Europe. The curlew and the great yellow bumblebee are on the verge of extinction. Entire species will have gone for ever. I acknowledge the ongoing hard work by the Lough Neagh Partnership and many individuals and community groups along the lough shore to protect both. Things are no better in our waters, where iconic fish such as the Atlantic salmon, the European eel and the angel shark have suffered catastrophic population declines. The freshwater pearl mussel, Ireland's longest living animal, faces extinction.

The loss of those species is more than just a pity. Declines in biodiversity are intrinsically linked to climate change, falls in food production and even our ability to fend off infectious diseases. The OECD has stated that safeguarding biodiversity is vital in avoiding the next pandemic. In addition to the declaration of an ecological and biodiversity crisis, we need to see the urgent development of an all-Ireland biodiversity strategy to help us to halt and reverse the decline of our island's unique flora and fauna.

Perhaps the most visible example of the ecological disaster that we face is Lough Neagh. Maybe, like Mr McGlone, I am being a wee bit parochial in ignoring Lough Erne, but parochial I am. The presence of toxic blue-green algae has been caused by a perfect storm of increased temperatures, invasive species and man-made pollution. The cultural, historical, environmental, economic and public health importance of the lough cannot be overstated, and every effort must be made to restore and preserve it. While it is true that the lough cannot be fixed overnight, there are things that we can do now to aid its recovery. We need to see the creation of a new management authority that is multi-agency and cross-departmental in nature. Crucially, it must involve local stakeholders, communities and fishermen at every level. I declare an interest as the wife of a fly fisherman who has my heart broken on the issue.

For that body to work effectively and efficiently, it is also vital that the entirety of the lough, including its bed and shore, be brought into public ownership. We can save Lough Neagh, but it will require all of us to work together. Lough Neagh is a treasured gem of Ireland's natural landscape, but it faces significant challenges. Pollution, invasive species and the impact of climate change have all taken their toll on its once-vibrant ecosystem. However, amidst those challenges lies an opportunity for us to come together and protect the heart of our community. Establishing an independent environmental protection agency is not just a necessity but the right thing to do. The agency would serve as a guardian of the lough, ensuring that its health and vitality are safeguarded for generations to come. It would provide the oversight and accountability needed to hold those who harm our environment accountable and drive positive change. I agree with Mr McGlone: most farmers are very responsible. They love the land and want to look after it. We need to acknowledge that.

Any independent EPA must be fully independent and equipped with the powers necessary to take on major polluters. While we appreciate the work that individuals on the OEP have done, it is simply not fit for purpose as an environmental watchdog here. The North needs a bespoke body that will focus entirely on matters here and work in tandem with the EPA and agencies in the rest of Ireland to protect and preserve our shared environment.

Let us remember the words of Oscar Wilde:

"The things of nature do not really belong to us. We should leave them to our children as we have received them."

Let us honour that sentiment by acting as responsible stewards of our environment and ensuring a brighter and more sustainable future for all.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I support the amendment. Appropriate environmental oversight is extremely important. Unfortunately, the motion does not fully cover the appropriate outcomes or steps to reach the outcomes that are needed to be effective. There is no acknowledgement of the lessons that should have been learned from the establishment of bodies being tasked to carry out certain roles.

It is important to point out Northern Ireland Water's role in polluting our waters. While the motion mentions:

"the durability of the waste water infrastructure", that underplays what has happened and what continues to occur. Between 2005 and 2022, which is the most recent year for which we have figures, Northern Ireland Water was responsible for 3,576 pollution incidents. Over 18% of pollution incidents come from one body. Between 2017 and the end of 2021, 591 pollution incidents were linked to the operations of Northern Ireland Water, with 28 warning letters and £150,000 handed out in fines. However, that did not prevent more incidents.

Northern Ireland Water is a body that is wholly owned by the Department for Infrastructure, but, disappointingly, that Department feels that figures on the discharge of sewage into our watercourses are an operational matter for Northern Ireland Water. That should be a matter of priority for the Department for Infrastructure. Of course, Northern Ireland Water needs an adequate funding model and, perhaps, restructuring to allow it to borrow to invest, but that does not appear to be on the Department's agenda either. Here we have the example of a fully owned public body that is inadequately funded and absorbs the fines because it simply cannot afford to address the problem. The mere establishment of another body will not address that problem. The Department and the Executive need to address that problem. There is a clear need for Northern Ireland to be properly funded by Treasury, but that should not preclude us from taking the steps that are necessary to address the problems in Northern Ireland Water, whether that includes additional funding or the reform of the structure.

As the proposer of the amendment said, we have already established bodies such as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Office for Environmental Protection. While they have distinct roles, they suffer from a lack of adequate funding. I asked the Minister, in questions for written answer, about the funding of the Office for Environmental Protection and was told that, because it is a new body, the right balance of funding for it had not yet been found. Each year, the OEP has not received the funding for which it has asked. As we know, any independent environment agency will be dependent on funding from a sponsor. I note that Friends of the Earth's view is that any independent environment agency should be well funded and staffed. I would like to see that for our existing bodies as well and for us to see the results of that funding. That is why I feel that the amendment is important.

Before we add another body to what we already have, we need a proper review of our environmental governance. Let us assess what works, what does not work and what is needed to make it more effective in delivering on our aims. Only then can we make a determination of where the gaps are and of how they can best be filled. The blind creation of another body to take resources out of a limited pot is not the right thing to do. I say that not from the perspective of ruling out an independent body but from the point of view of taking a sensible and pragmatic approach. We have a history of creating layer upon layer of governance while delivering less and less. It is time for better outcomes rather than more and more processes.

It is also important that an environmental improvement plan for Northern Ireland be brought forward by the Minister, and it must be one that can command cross-party support. While Lough Neagh is hugely important, accounting for almost 40% of our drinking water, a wider environmental issue also needs to be looked at. Any such plan needs to be balanced and deliverable. We have seen in other jurisdictions targets imposed to satisfy idealists only for them to be rowed back on, either because they are unachievable or because the damage caused to the economy and people's livelihoods is disproportionate.

Given the importance of environmental governance, what is in place needs to be reviewed as a whole before we add yet another layer. Let us have a balanced and sustainable environmental plan that we can unite behind, and let us implement measures that will address the largest polluter in this country and provide it with either the funding or the ability to raise its own capital.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

We should consider everything before us today and all our comments in both a global and a local context, because our basic human needs, such as access to food, shelter and clean air, are threatened as the climate struggles to cope with the strain. It must be put as bluntly as that.

Last summer, we witnessed a season full of intense heatwaves, floods, gorse fires locally and wildfires more generally across the globe. The winter also began with prolonged periods of rain and extreme flooding in many parts of Northern Ireland. In recent months, our farmers battled further weather challenges that threatened our food security. I have no doubt that we will face similar or worse situations in the coming months. In addition, we have been tackling and continue to tackle our own ecological crisis at Lough Neagh and across other areas of Northern Ireland, as blue-green algal blooms threaten species, the lives of those living along the lough shore, the livelihood of traders and recreational opportunities. The environmental crisis is something that we can no longer simply brush under the carpet for future consideration, as the consequences of our inaction are being felt now and will, without a doubt, continue to escalate. Indeed, the lack of a Government and, subsequently, governance in Northern Ireland for two years has only made delivering environmental protection initiatives much more difficult. We have missed many of the deadlines already published for urgently required and robust environmental and biodiversity strategies. For example, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs was to publish an environmental improvement plan by July 2023. That was not possible, however, owing to the absence of a Minister. Now, with a Minister in place and, I am glad to say, already active on the issues, we can and must make progress.

The environmental improvement plan that I have referenced is key to delivering and measuring progress. We know that the Minister is keen to secure Executive agreement for the plan, and I hope that it can be commenced as soon as possible. Alliance attempted to table an amendment to the motion to reflect the urgent need for approval of the plan, but it was not accepted. I have chosen to address the issue in my speech instead.

We are content to support the motion, although it could be argued that an opportunity to link a meaningful environmental improvement plan to enforcement through an environmental protection agency has been missed — a reminder, perhaps, that our frequent calls to eradicate silo thinking should be reflected in how we do business on the Floor of the House. It is clear to us that a properly funded and truly independent environmental protection agency is vital for tackling the climate crisis as well as environmental challenges and is something that Alliance has long called for, and, as Members mentioned, it was a commitment in the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

I was reminded today that when the opportunity arose to include the office that we are talking about in the Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, it was voted down. I have to point out that the party that tabled today's motion did not vote on the Alliance amendment to establish an independent environmental protection agency. We have often said that every policy and practice that has an environmental impact on Lough Neagh should and must be reviewed, including, for example, the sand dredging authorised by the previous SDLP Infrastructure Minister. That is another example of interdepartmental responsibility for required environmental improvement and action.

Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK and Ireland without an independent environmental protection agency. A new agency should act to increase the cross-border and cross-regional cooperation that is essential in fighting to protect a single biogeographical unit, irrespective of borders and boundaries. In 2022, the OEP's remit was extended to include Northern Ireland, meaning that it can now hold our Government and public bodies to account. However, problems and challenges remain, for example, with resources. The Office for Environmental Protection has no enforcement powers over private businesses and citizens. That reinforces the need for a bespoke Northern Ireland environmental protection agency.

In conclusion, I reiterate the Alliance Party's support for action —.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:15, 13 May 2024

I thank the Member for taking the intervention. I appreciate the points that he makes about oversight and enforcement, but does the Member accept — this relates to Mr Elliott's point — that a range of scientific interventions will be required if we are to address the algae bloom on Lough Neagh? I appreciate that the Minister has probably done a lot through the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) to initiate that work.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Very quickly, John. Interventions are meant to be brief, Patsy. Tá a fhios agat sin.

[Translation: You know that.]

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

God loves a trier.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I do not know, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, but I think that I am getting an extra minute. Am I?

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I am about to address some of those points anyway.

I support the call for action on environment, driven by my colleague the AERA Minister, supported by the Executive and delivered through every level of government. As I said, we support the motion. Although I would like to support the amendment, I cannot do so for a number of reasons. First, it considerably weakens the original motion. Secondly, it calls for a review of environmental governance, which the Minister has already commenced. To be frank, the speech to move the amendment sounded like something between pollution scepticism and a case of, "Sure, we will just sit and wait a while to see what happens". I thank those who tabled the motion. I look forward to hearing more from the Minister on these matters.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Committee. The Committee has taken evidence on and discussed a range of matters that the motion highlights. However, the Committee does not, at present, have a position on an independent environmental protection agency.

I will take the opportunity to share some of the issues that we have considered and to reassure the House that the Committee has started, and will continue, to support and scrutinise the Minister and Department in dealing with these issues. At a recent strategic meeting on 25 April, we were reminded in a RaISe briefing that the issue of environmental governance under the independent environmental protection agency (IEPA) has been discussed for over a decade. More recently, the Committee is aware that, in March 2024, the new AERA Minister stated that he was considering best options for environmental governance, including the benefits and costs of an IEPA.

On 22 February, Minister Muir briefed the Committee on his key challenges. It came as no surprise that among them were advancing an action plan to address the cause of algal bloom in Lough Neagh, the draft climate action plan and the environmental improvement plan. At that meeting, the Committee acknowledged that the problems in Lough Neagh were long-standing. We requested that the Minister start to look for some short- to medium-term solutions that might start to make a difference. In addition, the Committee highlighted the fact that the environmental improvement plan should be an urgent priority along with the climate action plans and that an increased focus on scientific solutions going forward and the work of AFBI and other research projects will be important. In fact, we highlighted to the Minister the fact that the soil sampling programme is a good example of the science at work. The Committee is also keen to consider the potential of anaerobic digesters for slurry management, and we plan to see those in action on a site visit soon.

On 21 March, the Committee had a briefing session with the Office for Environmental Protection, which was created by the Environment Act 2021 and is a body with a distinct role to play in holding government and other public authorities to account. Its work covers here and England, and the representatives expressed to the Committee their dedication to fulfilling that role in a meaningful way. The Committee looks forward to working with them. The OEP highlighted some of the priority work, including the environmental improvement plan and the blueprint for how the NI Government plan to protect and improve our environment. The Committee wishes to see a high-quality EIP published as soon as possible.

The OEP also highlighted to the Committee the range of missed deadlines for environmental legislation, and, like the OEP, the Committee wishes to see urgency in the delivery of those, including the nutrient action plan, river basin management plans, the nature recovery strategy and the Climate Change Act. On nutrient enrichment of aquatic and terrestrial habitats, the OEP advised that that is one of the biggest environmental issues here and that the situation that we are witnessing at Lough Neagh is symptomatic of a wider issue.

In a recent briefing from the Ulster Farmers' Union, its representatives highlighted to the Committee the fact that the UFU has a vision of a productive, profitable and progressive farming sector that can deliver for the environment, for the consumer and for the economy. The UFU continues to work with DAERA on the Farming with Nature scheme, seeking a flexible agrienvironment scheme that pays farmers on the environmental results that they deliver as well as actions taken.

The Committee is mindful of the support that the agriculture sector will need, such as information and incentives, to be able to implement technologies to deal with environmental issues that the sector is keen to play its part in tackling. The Committee has concerns about the budget for the OEP, and, between them, DEFRA and DAERA must provide funding to enable the OEP to carry out its functions.

At our meeting on 21 March, we were briefed by Northern Ireland Environment Link. It highlighted to the Committee that it believes that the illegal dumping of waste at the Mobuoy site is a clear example of the failings of the current environmental enforcement, monitoring and regulatory system. In that body's view, it makes the case for the need for an independent environmental protection agency. The Committee accepts that there are many factors that contribute to the situation in Mobuoy, and we have also been briefed by PCI Consulting, which represents some of the affected residents and businesses. We will continue to engage with the Department to further explore the issue in the coming weeks. Like the Committee, NIEL is keen to see a climate action plan and the establishment of a just transition commission.

Having started to delve into these issues in the early months of the mandate, at our strategic meeting on 25 April, the Committee was keen to consider a balanced forward work plan across the remit of agriculture, environment and rural affairs. We were supported by our Assembly researchers, who provided a substantial briefing paper for that meeting and assisted us in exploring a range of issues, including those at Lough Neagh regarding the impacts from agriculture nutrients and animal and human sewage. That research briefing also noted the significant cross-cutting range of departmental responsibilities for Lough Neagh, including responsibilities for DAERA, DFC, DFI and DFE. The Committee will seek to support and assist the Minister as he produces a plan to tackle blue-green algae with evidence-based recommendations and to secure long-term water quality improvements.

At our planning meeting, the Committee also discussed —

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat.

[Translation: Thank you.]

I look forward to the Minister's statement tomorrow, which might shed some light on some of the plans going forward.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

Northern Ireland has one of the most beautiful natural environments. Lough Neagh forms part of that and is the envy of many other countries around the world. Therefore, we must endeavour to do all that we can to ensure that that natural environment and habitat is protected.

It is also welcome that, according to the environmental performance index, which is monitored by the universities at Yale and Columbia, the United Kingdom is ranked second in the world for environmental protection, with Denmark being the only country to have greater environmental protection levels. It is important to bear that in mind when we hear a call going out for an independent environmental protection agency. However, we simply cannot rest on those reports, and we must continue to strive for greater environmental improvements.

We were all witness to the blue-green algae bloom last summer, which not only affected Lough Neagh but travelled along the lower Bann to the north coast, affecting our beaches at Portstewart, Castlerock, Benone and Portrush. Action must be taken on this environmental problem and effective and efficient solutions found to resolve it. As stated, the blue-green algae affects not only Lough Neagh but many other places across Northern Ireland. In tackling the issue, it is essential to look at the root of the problem. The motion refers to the:

"agricultural run-off, the durability of the waste water infrastructure, the impact of invasive species and the catalyst of higher temperatures".

The pollution was linked to Northern Ireland Water's operations, which, while having responsibility for maintaining water quality, was responsible for 24% of pollution into the lough. The lough provides 40% of Northern Ireland's drinking water. It is also a startling revelation that, over the past 10 years, NI Water has released an average of 70 million tons of sewage into our local rivers and lakes. That equates to 7 million tons per year. That bears repeating: NI Water is putting 7 million tons of pollution per year into our waterways. Surely, urgent action must be taken by NI Water, which is under the remit of the Minister for Infrastructure, to curb the colossal amount of pollution that it is distributing into our waterways. While the farming industry has taken measures — they continue to be put in place — to curb run-off from its farmers' land to help improve the environment, it is disappointing and unacceptable that NI Water has shown little sign of action to curb the pollution that comes from its quarters.

The motion also calls for:

"legislation to establish an independent environmental protection agency by the end of this Assembly mandate."

I have to question what that agency is going to do over and above what is done by the Office for Environmental Protection, which is already in existence. Would it be another layer of bureaucracy that is not required? The Minister would be better placed to review the effectiveness of the current structures and operation of the Office for Environmental Protection and the role that it plays in Northern Ireland than to establish another agency that may be neither necessary nor appropriate. The Member who moved the amendment outlined a number of environmental agencies that are already in place. What would another one do, over and above what is already being done? A bit of work needs to be done prior to the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency.

Photo of Danny Donnelly Danny Donnelly Alliance

I want to go back to something that the Member said. He said that the UK is second in the world in environmental protection, but Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that does not have an independent environmental protection agency. Does the Member think that there is any connection there?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. We can look at the status of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, which ranks second in the environmental performance index. That is to be welcomed. We can be proud of that, and it raises the question about why another agency is required. Of course, we are not saying that an agency should not be brought in at some stage, but lot of work needs to be a done on why it might be required and on the role that it is going to play over and above that of all the other agencies that are in place and the work that they do. That is why I cannot support the motion, but we can support the amendment.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

As this is Andrew McMurray's first opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that it is convention that a first speech is made without interruption.

Photo of Andrew McMurray Andrew McMurray Alliance

Yes, this is my maiden speech, so I might go off topic. My grandparents lived in Massey Park, which is just round the corner from here. As a child in the '80s, I remember sledging here on a classically snowy winter's day and asking my father what went on in this grand and imposing Building. I was told, "Not much". Even without having any concept of the context of why not much went on, that felt to me, a child who was already in awe of these surroundings, to be an awful shame.

I was a child of the Troubles, a teenager of the peace process, a young adult during devolution and a parent during power-sharing — or not sharing, as the case has been on occasion. Stormont's timeline has mirrored my own by way of seminal chapters. To say that it is both humbling and an honour to be here is an understatement. I hope I can contribute to the institution in ways that will benefit my constituents of South Down and everyone in our society because it is in the shelter of each other that the people live.

I pay tribute to my predecessor, Patrick Brown, for all the work that he has done. I thank my constituency and party colleagues for entrusting me to perform this role and everyone who sent a message of congratulations or offered a prayer. Finally, I thank my wife, children, parents and wider family for their support and love at this time.

To the motion at hand: my former career was as an outdoor pursuits instructor. That stemmed from my passion for activities in the outdoor environment: surfing, climbing and mountain biking. Kayaking on rivers was my gateway into that lifestyle. As Ratty said to Mole:

"Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING–absolutely nothing–half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

I have been lucky enough to travel the world to mess about on many a river in a boat. While it is true that there is nowhere like home, in the case of our rivers, that is usually in the form of an effluent smell. There has been a demonstrable deterioration in the water quality of our rivers over the past 10 years. Our rivers, lakes and river estuaries cannot even be deemed to be of "Good" overall status; they are merely "Moderate". That marks a deterioration and is proof that we are failing to protect them and the habitats that they provide. All that is extremely concerning and indicative of the ecological breakdown that we face. We are simply not making any inroads on the issue. When we compare ourselves with our nearest neighbours, we see that improving the status of our rivers is possible. Fifty per cent of rivers in the Republic are of "Good" or "High" ecological health. It is worth noting that they have an Environmental Protection Agency that is independent from the Government.

It was a love for the outdoors that led me to set down my roots in Castlewellan in South Down. It has a superb coastline consisting of strands, rocky shores and tidal loughs, and areas of ancient woodland and open hillside, from rolling drumlins to crags on high hills — all areas that I have taken great pleasure and satisfaction in exploring, but all areas where habitats are under threat. The fire on the slopes of Slieve Donard in April 2021 was the starkest of those events, but the truth is that habitat loss was going on before that and will continue unabated without cross-departmental action and legislative support from the Assembly.

We need to be cognisant that there is no silver bullet that will reverse the habitat loss. Our upland environment has seen upwards of a 300% to 400% increase in the number of users accessing the hills, especially during COVID. While it is great to see people getting outside, the impact that we have on our uplands is drastic. Quite simply, other jurisdictions have more levers to pull and more resources to invest in their wild spaces than we do in Northern Ireland. It is not just one Department's role to reverse the stresses that the natural environment is suffering. The problem has been decades in the making and has not been helped by the stop-start nature of this institution. Our natural environment needs support and time to heal.

I want to finish by referring to schemes that have proved that biodiversity can be protected and, with some help, can be successful and thrive. The Mourne Heritage Trust has piloted healthy heathlands in which natural materials have been used to re-profile peat hags so that they retain water and sediment, preventing them from washing out. There are the National Trust's DAERA-funded wildlife recovery projects and path building on the side of Slieve Donard. Landowners in South Down have seen the benefit of tree planting on small parcels of land and on whole hillsides, all of which increase an area's biodiversity. The RSPB's red kite scheme has seen the introduction of that majestic bird to South Down. Indeed, the red squirrel has seen its numbers increase due to conservation schemes. Those successes are noteworthy, but there is no consistent approach or, indeed, funding for them here compared with other parts of the UK. They are, admittedly, piecemeal due to the time-limited nature of their funding. Therefore, while the motion's call for an independent environmental protection agency is welcome, if we are serious about our environmental and biodiversity status and are ever to improve it in the long term, a truly cross-cutting and integrated approach from the Assembly is required.

Photo of Sian Mulholland Sian Mulholland Alliance 4:30, 13 May 2024

The motion will resonate deeply not only with me but with all those who cherish the beauty and ecological significance of Lough Neagh; those who live, work and have built their communities on its shores. As I have said before in the Chamber, although I now represent North Antrim, until last year, when I swapped my view of Ram's Island for Rathlin Island, my connection to the lough was through generations of my father's family, who lived by and worked on the lough. My father made his living fishing for eels. Not many are able to say that any more, more's the pity.

Lough Neagh, as we know, is the largest freshwater lake in these islands, but it is not merely a body of water. It is a lifeline for biodiversity, tourism, recreation, fishing and culture. Its significance simply cannot be overstated, not least because it provides over 40% of Northern Ireland's drinking water and serves as a sanctuary for countless species of flora and fauna. Yet, despite its importance, we face yet another summer of ecological and biodiversity crisis. The truth is, as has been said before, that this did not happen on a whim. It has been decades in the making, and it will take decades and concentrated commitment and investment to control. High concentrations of phosphates and nitrates from agricultural run-off; the inadequacies of our waste water infrastructure; the relentless growth of invasive species; and the looming spectre of climate change-induced higher temperatures are all factors that have conspired to push Lough Neagh to the brink. We knew that it would not be fixed overnight, and we are on the brink of another summer of a blighted lough.

There are solutions and actions that we can focus on, but they must involve many stakeholders. The motion underscores our collective commitment to address the management of Lough Neagh. Central to those efforts has to be a fully independent environmental protection agency, something that, as my party colleague John Blair mentioned, we have been calling for for many years to ensure comprehensive, independent oversight of Northern Ireland's environmental performance. Such an agency must be given the authority and autonomy to enforce environmental laws, rather than adding to money-wasting layers of bureaucracy, as a Member who spoke previously indicated. In fact, we believe that it will serve as a foundation against the further degradation of our precious natural resources.

Since Brexit, Northern Ireland has been without the oversight of the European Commission. The Office for Environmental Protection was established in November 2021 to act as an oversight body across England and Northern Ireland. In response to the Member across the Chamber who was concerned about what difference an independent EPA would make, the biggest thing is that the Office for Environmental Protection did not replace all of the functions that the European Commission held, the most important being the power to levy fines. We have to do all that we can to sanction those who repeatedly pollute our lough. Increasing fines and imposing harsher sanctions and penalties for repeat polluters sends a message that environmental transgressions simply will not be tolerated. We know that investing in waste water infrastructure is paramount, as is supporting nature-friendly farming practices that prioritise sustainability and biodiversity conservation.

For me and for my party, perhaps most crucial of all is the imperative to foster cooperation amongst all stakeholders. As my colleague John Blair referenced, it is about getting out of the silos, transcending departmental boundaries and embracing a holistic approach to the protection and preservation of Lough Neagh. By creating a legislative duty to cooperate, we can forge a path forward that honours our collective responsibility to safeguard that invaluable asset for generations to come. We want to see the multifaceted environmental improvement plan on which my colleague Minister Muir has been seeking Executive agreement since March. That plan could be used to address a wide range of environmental criteria, many of which could be directly relevant to the situation in Lough Neagh. I hope that, following the motion today, that will come through as a matter of urgency with full Executive approval. We know that we need fewer dust-gathering strategies and more cooperative action, and, in the Chamber, Members on all Benches have expressed their concern about the biodiversity crisis, although some continue to disagree on some of the actions needed to make positive change.

Whilst I am not enough of a Pollyanna to believe that we will return to a time when hundreds of fishing boats will leave quays all along the shore at 4.00 am every day from 1 May, I hope that we can put in place a multilayered plan that will see the lough return to its delicate balance in the decades to come.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

At the heart of Ulster lies Lough Neagh, the banks of which grace five counties. With Ireland's largest lake come a rich mythological, stunning natural beauty, a body of water that once supported a vibrant ecosystem and a legacy of fishing and work life that has tied generations of families together. Today, however, much of Lough Neagh sits covered in algae, polluted and stagnant, similar to and symbolic of the stagnation that has characterised the failings of this Chamber for far too long. What should be a rich, thriving, ecological haven at the heart of this place, a lough capable of supporting communities, livelihoods and a diverse and flourishing array of marine and bird life is, instead, a murky pool with dwindling fish stocks, 100,000 fewer wintering birds and water so polluted that pet dogs have, sadly, died as a result. What should be recognised as a shared ecological jewel, a lake cherished and celebrated, is now devastated and has, instead, been neglected by the House, its purity sullied by the actions of industry, and those who depended on it for environmental integrity are now jobless and bereft.

I want to mention two fantastic businesses in my constituency. Edge Watersports and the Cranagh Activity Centre were based on the River Bann. That fantastic centre provided the opportunity for so many to engage in water sports. It had disability access and was a thriving local family business. It started in 1996. and its owners — two wonderful people — hoped to pass it down to their children. Sadly, as a direct result of the presence of the algae, they were told, "People cannot go into the water. If they go into the water and get sick, it is essentially on you." When they reached out at that time, when the Assembly was down, there was no guidance whatever from Departments and no financial support. As a result, sadly, those two family-owned businesses collapsed and closed. It is important that we raise that today to show not only the environmental and ecological crisis that we face but the real-life negative financial impact that the algae and the ruining of the lake have created for businesses around the River Bann as well in my constituency.

It is high time that the Chamber took action to protect Lough Neagh, to grapple with challenging decisions that must be made to truly prioritise our environment and to safeguard the source of 40% of our drinking water for generations to come. Regrettably, we have not been doing that. With regard to the largest wetlands on these islands, the Assembly has been found derelict in its duty.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank my colleague for giving way. Does she agree that it is slightly surprising and really disappointing that some in the Chamber are trying almost to downplay or deflect the seriousness of the crisis that we face and prolong it by calling for more reviews? We have two things: a crisis in one of the biggest freshwater lakes in Europe and one of the biggest environmental crimes in Europe at Mobuoy. The idea that we do not now need serious environmental enforcement is, frankly, unthinkable.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. We have a moral and professional duty to protect the environment for not only ourselves and our generation but for our children and their children. Today is an opportunity to have that discussion about what we can do and what steps we can take.

With only a pitiful 14% of our rivers and lakes having received a "Good" ecological status in 2021, our rivers and lakes remain blighted by run-off from agriculture, animal slurry, chemical fertilisers and human sewage. While our environment continues to suffer, our wildlife diminishes in its numbers and quality, and the people dependent on the lake for their work continue to be shafted. The Earl of Shaftesbury, much like an absentee landlord of the 19th century, continues to collect royalties. It is high time that we took matters into our own hands, took seriously our responsibility to restore nature and its sacred importance and acted swiftly to fulfil what the SDLP has consistently called for and finally establish an independent environmental watchdog.

Minister, I respect that you have been in this position for a few weeks. Hopefully, in the coming weeks, you will use your new position to find an answer and a resolution. That is why it was so deeply regrettable that, when we had a recall motion, the Alliance Party did not sign it. In your winding-up speech, I would like to hear a little more about why that was.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Will the Member take an intervention?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

In a recall motion, the ability to take action on this was not there. It is in having restored institutions that we have the ability to debate the motions, have Ministers in post and progress legislation. That is what we wanted to achieve. I think it is what we all wanted to achieve.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. At that time, civil servants needed to understand where the political sway was. The recall motion would have provided us with a solid and open opportunity to communicate our needs, fears and concerns about Lough Neagh. Just days previously, Alliance Party members on Belfast City Council supported a motion alongside the SDLP and the Greens. That is why it was so confusing. However, Minister, I wish you the best of luck, and I really hope that Members across the House will vote for the motion.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance 4:45, 13 May 2024

Just today, environmental campaigners gathered outside the Building to demand immediate action to tackle the environmental crisis at Lough Neagh. They gathered because the crisis is urgent, because the loss of biodiversity is rapid and catastrophic and because the poisoning of our drinking water has continued unabated since the restoration of the Assembly. Anyone who has been awake during the past three months will remember the promises that the Executive parties made about addressing the crisis at Lough Neagh. Since February, the Executive website and the media have been awash with grand statements from Ministers, who have expressed their supposed willingness to deal with that environmental disaster. Unfortunately for the rest of us, glossy PR photos of Ministers wearing waterboots by the lough shore will not fix the problems. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister promised immediate action over Lough Neagh, and the AERA Minister promised urgent action as well. After all the pledges and alleged priorities, the Executive have failed to take the most basic of steps, and a paltry £1·6 million is the sum that they have pledged to deal with a dying lough.

On Thursday, the Save Lough Neagh campaign, of which I am part, met the AERA Minister to make some proposals that could save the lough, including establishing an independent EPA. I am not convinced that there is an urgent plan to save the lough. The Minister has previously spoken about needing years or decades to fix the lough. I am afraid that it does not have years or decades. It does not have the luxury of time, and neither do we. We are told that there is an environmental plan — it is probably sitting in some drawer — that will be brought before the Executive. I call for that plan to be brought forward urgently and for it to include a commitment to establishing an independent environmental protection agency. The fact that 12% of local species are being threatened with extinction and the fact that we are one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world cannot be separated from the crisis in Lough Neagh, nor can it be understood without reference to the fact that the North is the only place in these islands that does not have a separate and independent statutory nature conservation body.

The reason that we need an independent environmental protection agency is simple. It is that people do not trust Stormont to hold those who are poisoning Lough Neagh and elsewhere to account, and why should they? The parties that say today that they want to protect Lough Neagh are the same parties whose poisonous policies have led to its destruction. The DUP, Sinn Féin, Alliance, the UUP and the SDLP have all played their part. The Executive's Going for Growth initiative incentivised the creation of industrial, factory-style farms, which have been spilling their poison into waterways for over a decade. A lack of infrastructure for dealing with the waste was no obstacle to parties here signing off on that plan. An independent environmental protection agency is needed to deal with the polluters, which had their fines reduced by the then DUP AERA Minister Edwin Poots. There is also a certain irony to the fact that the SDLP is taking up the case to demand an independent EPA. It was its Infrastructure Minister, Nichola Mallon, who granted licences for the destructive sand dredging that is stirring up the nutrients in Lough Neagh, choking its flora and fauna and fuelling the toxic algae growth.

That said, the responsibility is on the new Executive to address the Lough Neagh crisis. They continue to let pig farmers and other industrial giants spill their poisonous dung into Lough Neagh and its tributaries. It might be said that a similar whiff of manure emanates from the Executive, given all the broken promises and excuses. The Tory Exchequer cannot be allowed to dictate whether Lough Neagh lives or dies. The Executive cannot strike a balance between our drinking water and their conservative economic agenda. Saving Lough Neagh requires urgent action and funding, and the AERA Minister should start by establishing an independent EPA that is free from ministerial interference, sufficiently funded and staffed —.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

The Member referred to pig farmers spewing their slurry into rivers. How many reports have you made to the NIEA about that?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I did not hear the Member's question. I am happy to give way again.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

In your remarks, you made the point that pig farmers are putting slurry into rivers that run into Lough Neagh. Will you confirm to the House how many reports you have made to the NIEA about that?

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I could ask the Member the same question. I imagine that, at his end, it is probably zero, but I am happy to be corrected.

I will continue with my points. The Minister should be sufficiently funding and staffing an independent EPA. It should have inspection and enforcement powers, be responsible for both land and sea and have the authority to bring prosecutions, where appropriate. Those are the demands. That is what the public and Lough Neagh deserve. We also deserve to take the lough back into public ownership, end commercial dredging and have a proper research and recovery plan enacted with urgent effect. Frankly, if they were left to their own devices, I do not believe that the Executive would be capable of or willing to do any of that. It will be the environmentalists, the swimmers, the fisherfolk, the surfers and the workers who take up the fight to save Lough Neagh. They will be key to protecting our environment and putting an end to the system that allows a wealthy minority to profit from its destruction. I stand with all those people every step of the way.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I call the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to respond to the debate. Minister, you have 15 minutes.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, and thanks to all those who contributed to the debate. I have quite a lot to cover in the response, so the number of interventions that I will be able to take is limited, but it is important that I respond in detail.

The motion, essentially, has three specific components: first, a call to declare an ecological and biodiversity crisis; secondly, a call to acknowledge the complexity of the issues facing Lough Neagh; and, finally, a call to commit to bringing forward the relevant legislation to create an independent environmental protection agency before the end of the current mandate.

I recall that, more than three years ago, on 3 February 2020 — a date that I fondly remember as the day that I gave my maiden speech to the House — the Assembly agreed a similar motion, albeit with a focus on the declaration of a climate emergency. Since that motion on 3 February 2020, we have seen the passing of two incredibly important pieces of environmental legislation: the Environment Act 2021, passed at Westminster, and the Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, passed by this House. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I support the motion and agree that appropriate action is needed to address the acute and chronic issues facing the environment, not only in Northern Ireland but across these islands and, more generally, globally.

We clearly have an ecological and biodiversity crisis, and it is only through sustained action that we can begin to address all the issues that contribute to it. Those issues are many: climate change, biodiversity loss, water quality, degradation of peatland, air quality and single-use plastics, to name just a few. Properly addressing those issues will require political will, a strategic approach and significant investment — investment that I believe the environment and the people of Northern Ireland clearly deserve. Whilst my remit and that of the Assembly is restricted to Northern Ireland, we must remember that our actions or inactions contribute to wider issues created by the climate and the environmental emergencies facing our planet.

I am Minister with responsibility for the environment. That is a responsibility that I take very seriously, but addressing the environmental issues that affect Northern Ireland does not come down to the actions of just one Minister or Department. It is for all of us collectively, as an Assembly and Executive, to take the necessary actions to deliver the strategic environmental outcomes that my draft environmental improvement plan will seek to achieve. I continue to work with Executive colleagues to finalise and agree the environmental improvement plan, which will be Northern Ireland's first environmental strategy. The six strategic environmental outcomes of the strategy are:

"• Excellent air, water, land and neighbourhood quality • Healthy & accessible environment & landscapes everyone can connect with & enjoy • Thriving, resilient & connected nature and wildlife • Sustainable production & consumption on land and at sea • Zero waste & highly developed circular economy • Net zero greenhouse gas emissions & improved climate resilience and adaptability".

Once the environmental strategy has been approved by the Executive, it is my intention to adopt it as soon as is practicable as Northern Ireland's first environmental improvement plan, thereby satisfying a statutory obligation of the Environment Act. Satisfying that statutory duty is important as a matter of law, but even more important is the potential to improve our environment before it is too late.

The motion highlights the issues with the state of Lough Neagh. It would not be an exaggeration to state that Lough Neagh is the single highest profile environmental issue for the public in Northern Ireland. It is an extraordinarily complex issue that has been many years in the making and that will take many years to solve. There is no single cause but a combination of issues that have conspired to create a perfect storm. Those include climate change, invasive species, agricultural run-off and waste water discharge. My officials are fully focused on developing a report with recommendations for short-, medium- and long-term measures to address the fundamental issues that created the images that we have all seen in the media over the past number of years, months, weeks and days. That report should be finalised shortly and will support the actions that are relevant to improving water quality across Northern Ireland as part of the environmental improvement plan.

There is no getting away from the fact that addressing the issues that affect Lough Neagh will require significant short-term and long-term investment. Whilst the Budget settlement was disappointing, I am now working with officials on how we can reprioritise funding into environmental protection. That will, however, mean that stuff cannot be done or rolled out, and other matters will have to be scaled back, such is the tough financial settlement within which I have to work.

Turning to environmental governance, it is important to realise that that is about more than the creation of an independent environmental protection agency. As a long-time advocate of an independent agency in Northern Ireland, I am most certainly not diminishing the importance of establishing such a body, but good environmental governance is about more than a single issue. To me, good environmental governance means taking a strategic, whole-system approach. That will not only make our overarching approach better; it will make an independent environmental protection agency more fit for purpose and more effective. To that end, one of my first actions when I became AERA Minister was to ask officials to provide me with a scoping paper on strengthening environmental governance in Northern Ireland. That work is now done, and I am considering that paper and discussing next steps with my officials. I will announce those steps in due course.

I believe that there are many benefits associated with the establishment of an independent agency, and I am not the only one who says that. Environmental stakeholders and, indeed, many members of the public have made clear their desire for an independent agency. For example, the responses to a discussion document, which was published by a previous Environment Minister in 2015, indicated that only 6% of respondents did not support an independent agency in some form. Nevertheless, it is important that we consider properly what that independent agency might look like, what its roles and responsibilities should be and how it should be funded. Of course, we also have to consider the changes in environmental governance that have taken place recently and further changes that are on their way.

It may not be as simple as, for example, just making the current Northern Ireland Environment Agency an independent body, although, of course, that will be an option. I have looked at NIEA's counterpart organisations across these islands, all of which have a degree of independence from government. No two are exactly the same, whether in remit, degree of independence or resources, and none is as successful as others would like to be.

We also have the Office for Environmental Protection, the role of which, sadly, is not well understood by many. The OEP was established as an independent environmental oversight body under the Environment Act 2021, to close the environmental governance gap that was created by the UK leaving the EU. I do not believe that that gap has been entirely closed, just to be correct. The OEP performs the extremely important role of holding public authorities to account for the proper implementation of environmental law in Northern Ireland. Its role is a vital component of the environmental governance landscape in the post-Brexit era, but that role is almost completely separate from the NIEA's. It is not a replacement for the NIEA, nor can it ever be.

I remain committed to strengthening environmental governance administratively and through the introduction of new legislation where that is necessary, following full engagement and consultation. I look forward to the support of my Executive colleagues and the official Opposition as I seek to address the mistakes of the past and create a brighter environmental future for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Robbie Butler is going to make the winding-up speech on the amendment. You have five minutes.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Before I start, I welcome Andrew McMurray, who made his maiden speech today. Andrew, I was going to say that you have big boots to fill, but you have big, long legs to follow in former MLA Paddy Brown, so I wish you good luck, and I enjoyed your speech.

Forgive me for not including more contributions, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. Declan McAleer spoke too fast for me to write anything down, but I know that he made really good points. I thought that I spoke fast: my goodness, they are even better west of the Bann.

Members, an opportunity lies before us not just to address the immediate crisis at hand but to enact systemic changes that could fortify our environmental governance for years to come. I am advocating for the amendment, which was moved by my colleague Tom Elliott. I welcome the Minister's response and recognise what he has done, but the adoption of our amendment will offer a level of scrutiny to the Chamber as to what the review that he has carried out will amount to and of where the powers will reside in those agencies that have been reviewed.

Contrary to what was in some Members' comments, we see the value of and need for an independent environmental protection agency. However, we simply seek to ensure that, in the scrutiny, construction and delivery of such a body, it is clearly focused and resourced, has the requisite support and powers and that that is well known across the gamut of stakeholders that will be involved.

Mr Patsy McGlone moved the motion, and it was certainly worthy of debate. As he accurately orated, we have debated the motion many times over many years. Whilst the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency would be a commendable step, we must acknowledge that it alone may not suffice in tackling the multifaceted challenges posed by the ecological and biodiversity crisis in which we find ourselves. We need to take a holistic approach, one that scrutinises our existing governance structures, identifies their shortcomings and explores avenues for improvement. We all need to be involved in that, however; it should not be just within a single Department's purview. The environment belongs to us all, and, as the Minister pointed out, this is a cross-departmental exercise.

Linda Dillon spoke about being parochial. She is not here, but that was an excellent message. If every one of us in Northern Ireland were parochial about the environment, we could all play our part and could all make a difference. By incorporating a review of environmental governance into the motion, we signalled our commitment not only to address the symptoms but to diagnose the root causes of environmental degradation. Such a review would also allow us to assess the effectiveness of the current regularity, no, regulatory mechanisms — I have someone else's teeth in today — identify gaps in enforcement and explore best practice from other jurisdictions. A number of Members referred to that. Furthermore, it would provide an opportunity to engage stakeholders from other sectors and, importantly, to involve civil society organisations, the public, industry representatives and academic experts. Their insights and expertise —.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I will, if you are brief.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I assure him that I ask this question to be helpful. Does he understand my reservation, which is that calling for an environmental governance review — the Minister has already undertaken that and outlined it to the House — seems to be counterproductive and repetitive? That is an issue that I have with the amendment.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I hope to give the Member confidence through my answer. It is a brief amendment, and the understanding of it was to try to be helpful. I am not saying that the review that has taken place was narrow, but I am speaking about a wider consultation process. We are talking about what would happen if we were legislating.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Absolutely. Do not take all my time.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

It would have been helpful if the Minister had told us beforehand that he had undertaken a significant review, if it was significant.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. I will get on here, guys.

The amendment is genuinely meant to be helpful. As I said to the Minister, the scope of the governance piece is inclusive of academic experts, the wider public and civil society. I will move on now.

Michelle McIlveen pointed out the need for funding and resources, which will be absolutely crucial if we are to see a marked difference. Moreover, by explicitly including the exploration of potential enhancements to our environmental governance, we demonstrate a willingness to innovate and adapt in the face of evolving challenges. That is key. It could involve considerations such as greater transparency and public participation, which is my main point, stronger regulatory enforcement mechanisms and enhanced coordination.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Can I not get an extra minute? Oh, man.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

You do not get an extra minute when you are making a winding-up speech. The Deputy Speaker would have known that. I am just saying.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I call Mark Durkan to make a winding-up speech on the motion. Mark, you have 10 minutes.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

[Translation: Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker.]

I thank the Minister and Members for their contributions. I also congratulate Mr McMurray on making his maiden speech. Now that he is here, he can judge for himself whether much happens in here, but he will see that there is still a fair bit of sledging.

We have heard of the frightening, frankly apocalyptic, warning calls from our natural environment. The calls have been repeated and have gone unheeded for far too long. The formation of an independent, adequately resourced environmental protection agency has been a long-established policy position of the SDLP, and it is deeply rooted in our values and environmental ethos. As stated, it was a commitment in NDNA, and, like many of those commitments, it has been neither delivered nor advanced. The SDLP, on the other hand, has engaged with the environmental sector NGOs to draft and develop strong ecological and biodiversity targets and is considering a private Member's Bill to strengthen nature preservation and recovery.

A decade ago, as Environment Minister, I consulted on and attempted to progress proposals for an independent EPA but was unable to garner the required political support to get it through the Executive. At that time, I worked closely with the environmental NGOs, and I vividly and fondly remember the contribution of Jennifer Fulton, CEO of Ulster Wildlife. Sadly, as we heard, Jennifer passed away just last week. Our thoughts are with Norman and Jennifer's family and friends. It is important that we not just record our sympathy and sadness at her passing but strive to achieve the environmental improvements that she did so much to drive forward with rousing passion, realistic pragmatism and remarkable patience. She was a real force of nature and force for nature.

Collectively, our generation has taken the natural environment for granted, but the reality of its decline is becoming more apparent: from the butterflies, once a constant symbol of summer days but now on the edge of extinction, to the resigned acceptance of yearly flood damage. We are on the precipice of an ecological crisis, and Lough Neagh is the apex of that crisis. Its glowing green algae is visible and tangible proof of climate and biodiversity breakdown. The disaster has put Northern Ireland on the world stage for all the wrong reasons, but, rather than that serving as the clarion call it should have been, we had no Executive in place to act. That was despite pleas and attempts from an SDLP Opposition for political leaders to set aside political differences and work together in the interests of people and the environment.

In today's debate, Tom Elliott pondered whether Waterways Ireland could or should take a role in Lough Neagh, while cautioning against the creation of an independent EPA on the grounds that it might be something else to pay for. The Northern Ireland Executive currently funds up to 15%, I think, of Waterways Ireland. If Lough Neagh were to be included in its portfolio, our contribution would increase by multi millions of pounds every year.

The health of biodiversity and natural habitats across the North is in rapid decline. As has been highlighted, the North is one of the most nature-depleted areas in the world, and the water quality in our rivers and lakes is deteriorating. A legacy of chronic underfunding, inaction and failing infrastructure has taken a huge toll and poses serious environmental and public health risks. NI Water admits that overspill into the natural environment is a daily reality due to the insufficient capacity of waste water infrastructure. Miss McIlveen correctly pointed out the further failings of NI Water but neglected to say what steps she took to address those failings when she was the responsible Minister.

Biodiversity, people and businesses are living out the once-forewarned consequences of climate disaster. Just yesterday, we saw the devastation wrought by increased incidences of flash flooding. Sadly, it is a trend that will inevitably continue as the climate crisis deepens. Tackling the crisis before us requires a robust environmental governance framework, one that can work hand in hand with current structures like the OEP. The establishment of an independent EPA for Northern Ireland is a promise to the future. A body free from political interference is necessary to ensure that decisions are made on the basis of science and not short-term interests. It would ensure that environmental regulations are based on and enforced in the best interests of both public health and environmental protection.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am sorry. I will not have time to do so.

On the staffing of such an EPA, it is important to reiterate that the motion is not an attack on or even a questioning or criticism of the highly qualified and committed NIEA workforce; if anything, it is about freeing them from the constraints of conflicting government policies and objectives. As we have heard, Friends of the Earth has said that any new agency should be well funded and well staffed, which begs this question: is the NIEA either of those things? Miss McIlveen said that we cannot set up another agency just to satisfy idealists. I will join Mrs Dillon in quoting Oscar Wilde:

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

Cross-border collaboration and coordination are vital and must be a requirement across all climate policy in recognition of our shared challenges. Linda Dillon spoke of the need for an all-island biodiversity plan. Yes, we should build on the success of the all-Ireland pollinator plan. Furthermore, we have seen the cost, ecologically and to the public purse, of environmental crime as a result of failures to properly address and enforce penalties against perpetrators, and nowhere has that been more evident than Mobuoy.

In order to safeguard our environment effectively, it is vital that any EPA has strong enforcement powers and the authority to bring prosecutions. The power to take immediate and decisive action on the issues will serve as a deterrent and uphold accountability in the protection of our natural resources. The glaring failures in that area to date are unequivocal proof that current structures just are not working.

We cannot afford a paper tiger approach to the ecological crisis. The inertia and delays of leadership have served to exacerbate the climate crisis. The urgency to deliver on the Executive commitment to establish an independent environmental protection agency cannot be overstated. Merely opting for a review rather than a concrete legislative commitment just does not cut it. We cannot afford added delays or half-hearted measures. Before we know it, it will be "Next Decade, Same Old Approach". Therefore, it will come as no surprise that we cannot support today's amendment. The Executive must meet their obligation to legislate for an independent EPA in the current mandate and ensure that its functions are underpinned by law.

I have a wee bit of time to turn to —.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Will the Member take an intervention?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Does the Member agree that none of us wants to set up something that will be ineffective or massively costly? We want to set up something that will do the job. That is the focus. Now that the scoping work on environmental governance has been done, it is right that we move to the next stage, which is looking at the way forward and potentially consulting on an independent environmental protection agency.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his intervention and, indeed, the action that he has taken and proposes to take on the issue. We can assure him of our full support as he does that.

I want to call out comments from Gerry Carroll. In his usual attack on everyone, he pointed to the regulation of sand dredging. I am sure that, after a century of completely unrestricted and unregulated activity, he will agree that the fact that hundreds of jobs can be supported by the regulation and restriction of both the area in which and the volume at which dredging can take place on the lough is no less ironic than the proudly anti-war PBP remaining silent on Ministry of Defence contracts at Harland and Wolff.

What we do or do not do now will have major implications for our immediate future and generations to come.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I did not expect the Member to give way, but I am thankful that he did. I remind him that we submitted leaflets to workers at Harland and Wolff that stated that we are for workers' skills being used in the just transition to green energy and away from warfare. I do not think that the SDLP did that.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

That has nothing to do with the motion.

Mark, you have 15 seconds.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

We have a moral obligation to tackle environmental degradation head-on, mindful of our children and subsequent generations who will inherit the consequences of our actions and inaction. It is imperative that we confront the crisis before us and use every tool at our disposal to do so.

Question put, That the amendment be made. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 28; Noes 41


Mr Allister, Mr Beattie, Mr Brett, Mr Brooks, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mrs Erskine, Ms Forsythe, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Kingston, Mrs Little-Pengelly, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Robinson, Mr Stewart

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Butler, Mr Nesbitt


Dr Archibald, Mr Baker, Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Carroll, Mr Delargy, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dillon, Mr Donnelly, Mr Durkan, Ms Eastwood, Ms Ennis, Ms Ferguson, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Mr Honeyford, Ms Hunter, Mr Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr McAleer, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McMurray, Mr McNulty, Mr McReynolds, Mrs Mason, Mr Mathison, Mr Muir, Ms Mulholland, Ms Á Murphy, Ms Nicholl, Mr O'Dowd, Mr O'Toole, Miss Reilly, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Tennyson

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Durkan, Ms McLaughlin

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly declares an ecological and biodiversity crisis; acknowledges the complex characteristics of biodiversity and ecological breakdown in Lough Neagh, which includes high concentrations of phosphates and nitrates from agricultural run-off, the durability of the waste water infrastructure, the impact of invasive species and the catalyst of higher temperatures caused by the climate crisis; notes the resolution of the Assembly to address management of the lough; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to address the ecological crisis by bringing forward legislation to establish an independent environmental protection agency by the end of this Assembly mandate.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Members, please take your ease for a moment.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Blair] in the Chair)