Environment Minister rejects Environmental Protection Agency for Northern Ireland

May 27, 2008

Arlene Foster has rejected demands for an independent body to protect Ulster’s environment.

Addressing the Assembly, the Environment Minister ruled out an independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for Northern Ireland. Ms Foster has promised to use better regulation methods and work more closely with the business sector to hamper polluters.

The  Minister announced from July 1, the EHS will be re-branded as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). She also revealed two independent board members will be appointed to the body.
“EHS investigators are better equipped than ever before to tackle serious environmental crime,” she said.

The Minister’s focus appears to be on  the recovery of the proceeds of environmental crime through the Proceeds of Crime Act. She stated:  “Assets recovery is now the name of the game. Last year confiscation orders were used to recover earnings from illegal waste totalling over £833,000.”

The Minister’s decision followed a review of environmental governance, which last year called for an independent agency.  With start up administrative costs of £2.5m and estimated running costs of £600,000 a year for a new body, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Assembly member said the EHS already had the capacity and expertise necessary.

Ms Foster said:
“I and my party take the role of environmental governance too seriously to externalise the organisation into an outside agency,”

“The return of devolution resulted in the appointment of local ministers to make decisions.  I am opposed to the setting up of yet more quangos where unelected people take decisions on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.”

Ms Foster added: “I am the minister of the environment. I, along with my Executive colleagues will make the decisions that will be scrutinised by this house and by the environment committee.   I believe that this decision today will result in certainty on environmental governance, both for the staff within my Department and the wider community.”

The  Minister  also  announced a package of measures she hopes will modernise and strengthen environmental regulation and hit the worst offenders where it hurts the most  including:

  • On July 1 the EHS will be rebranded as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA).
  • An extra £2 million a year is to be devoted to better regulation, with 40 extra posts within the renamed Environment and Heritage Service (EHS), already part of the minister’s Department of the Environment.
  • Later this month Ms Foster is launching her agenda for better regulation.
  • The  Minister will appoint two independent members to the board of the EHS, holding public board meetings.
  • The EHS will be entitled to consultation on all planning decisions.
  • The  establishment of  a better regulation group, including business leaders, which she will chair to meet twice a year.
  • The focus on environmental crime will move across her DoE, not just on waste.
  • The Minister’s announcement has attracted criticism from the other political parties and environmental groups.

Green lobby group Friends of the Earth has submitted five complaints to the European Commission about the quality of bathing water and treatment of effluent in Northern Ireland.

Director John Woods said: “The fact that we are driven to this reflects badly on the Assembly’s commitment to good government.   It is astonishing that rather than choose to follow the widespread consensus in favour of an independent agency, it appears that the Executive may be prepared to consider some tinkering at the edges of the current system.”

Alliance Party leader David Ford condemned the decision, saying: “I do not believe that appointing two outside members to the board of the EHS will give it the independence that an environmental agency needs and deserves.   It is clear that the EHS will still report to the minister of the environment and still be subject to political direction, and possible political interference.   The opportunity to amalgamate a number of agencies dealing with the environment has been lost and Northern Ireland will suffer.

Environmentalists, anglers, business leaders and many senior politicians believe that the current Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) which is under the control of the DoE, cannot adequately protect the environment.

Whether the Minister’s proposals will amount to nothing more than a re-branding exercise or will result in real change to environmental  regulation in Northern Ireland remains to be seen.  However, it is clear from her comments that there will be an increased focus on “environmental crime” and the recovery of the proceeds of those crimes.