Establishment of an Independent Environmental Protection Agency (Assembly)

Independent Environmental Protection Agency by Green Party MLA Brian WilsNorthern Ireland Assembly, Tuesday 25 September 2007

Mr B Wilson: I thank the Minister for her response. I welcome her commitment to the environment, and she made some positive points. However, I was disappointed that she could not go further and accept the case for an EPA. If she had even accepted that concept, I would have considered it progress. I also welcome her commitment to providing the Assembly with the associated costings before Christmas, and I look forward to seeing them. However, the costs are not a significant issue, because most of them relate to something that has already been carried out by other Departments, and it would merely be a case of changing Departments, rather than providing new resources.

The case for the EPA is a no-brainer, as the Minister of Finance and Personnel described another issue last week. It is disappointing that we could not get agreement today. The case made by all the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has the support of the public. Moreover, we have to set up some form of EPA to comply with European directives.

I am happy enough to go along with Mr Gallagher’s amendment: he recognises the need for an EPA. However, Mr Weir’s amendment is merely an excuse for delay. Why did some Members argue for delay? Their arguments relating to costs — among other things — do not stand. I see no excuse for further delay: we have delayed long enough. As Mr Wells said, discussions on the establishment of an EPA have persisted since 1962, so it is about time that something was done. We have gone through many inquiries, and there is no need for any more investigations. The issues have been covered many times, and amendment No 1 is an excuse for further delay.

We must also consider European law and how it is interpreted by our judiciary. Mr Weir’s reference and reaction to the diktats of Judge Weatherup are wrong. Judge Weatherup was saying that the present system is inadequate and that it does not comply with European law, and that something must be done about that. We have to do something about it, even if Mr Weir does not agree.

At a recent seminar inBelfastthe chairman of the UK Environmental Law Association commented thatNorthern Irelandwas the dirty corner of theUKwhen it came to protecting the environment, and added thatNorthern Irelandhad a uniquely serious problem of weak environmental regulation and enforcement.

Northern Irelandhas ignored the environment for too long, and we seem to be doing it again today. We have not looked at the impact that development is having on our environment.

The other countries of theUnited Kingdomintroduced legislation in the 1970s and 1980s, as did theRepublicofIreland.Northern Irelandis now starting to catch up — but we are doing it very slowly, because we continue to pump raw sewage into the watercourses and the sea. I have been campaigning to end the dumping of raw sewage into Belfast Lough for more than a decade, because of the impact that it has on beaches. The Department of the Environment seems to have little concern about that, and the Environment and Heritage Service is totally ineffective.

The power station at Kilroot is the dirtiest in theUK; and although Lough Neagh is one of the most polluted lakes inEurope, it is the source of most of our drinking water. The European Court of Justice has foundNorthern Irelandguilty on many occasions of failing to meet minimum standards set out by European directives. Environmental pressure groups continually highlight the inadequate protection of existing wildlife, sewage pollution and poor planning as areas where the DOE has failed to protect the environment.

Mrs Foster: For the information of the Member and the House, papers have been sent to the Public Prosec­ution Service in the first case against Northern Ireland Water. The Member should take note of that in what he is saying.

Mr B Wilson: I thank the Minister for that inform­ation, butNorthern Ireland is still doing very little to resolve long-standing problems. It appears that those problems are being further deferred today.

Mr Wells said that the problem dated back to 1962. Certainly, in 1990 the House of Commons Environment Committee called for the establishment of an environ­mental protection agency. The Environment and Heritage Service already deals with many of the issues that an EPA would, but it is not independent, which led to the situation in 2002, for example, in which the Environment and Heritage Service’s concerns over housing hotspots were ignored to let more house-building take place, and so raw sewage went on being pumped into Belfast Lough.

This is a conflict between the Department of the Environment and an independent body. A piece in today’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’ reports that the Environment and Heritage Service recommended that the planning application for theGiant’s Causeway— an argument I have no intention of entering — be rejected, and yet the Minister is minded to approve it. That shows the potential for conflict in the Department. That is why we need an independent environmental protection agency.

Mr Wells: Would the Member be surprised to learn that every other European democracy has had exactly the same arguments that this Assembly is having today, only 20 years ago? Every one of them decided to go for an independent EPA, and not one of them wants to go back to having it in central Government. Is it not unusual thatNorthern Ireland is out of step with everyone else?

Mr B Wilson: I certainly agree. The Member has made that point much more clearly than I have. All the arguments are in favour of an independent EPA, but it is going to take longer than I would like.

Mr Weir mentioned cost in his amendment.

I am not convinced that significant costs are involved. The Environment and Heritage Service is already performing regulatory and enforcement duties, and other bodies are complying with European Union directives. Those requirements have to be met, and they are being met, so there is no argument to be made that significant additional resources will be required.

3.45 pm

A certain amount of nit-picking is going on. Mr Weir said that we would have to cut our budgets. Which budget would we cut? Would we close hospitals or whatever else was needed in order to find sufficient funds? That is not necessary. The resources are already there but are not being used efficiently or effectively. They do not have the correct legislative balance, so they appear ineffective.

We have a long list of problems to solve, but we should proceed with the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency. I would like the Minister to give that commitment. An environmental protection agency would help us to lose our image as the dirty corner of theUKand would allow us to presentNorthern Irelandas having a green and clean environment that can attract tourists and investment.

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