Calls for reform of Northern Ireland’s environmental protection arrangements go back almost 20 years, when the House of Commons environment committee called for the establishment of an independent regulator in view of the province’s poor record in transposing and applying EU laws.
However, the government rejected the idea and established the Environment and Heritage Service as an executive agency within the Department of the Environment, where its activities would pose no threat to the public Water Service, one of the province’s main polluters.
Three years ago, a report commissioned by environmental organisations and written by Richard Macrory, professor of environmental law at University College London, set out options for change, including the transformation of the EHS into a non-departmental public body, the status enjoyed by the environment agencies in Britain (ENDS Report 351, p 7 ).
The following year the government announced a review of environmental governance in the province by an independent panel of experts including Tom Burke, visiting professor at Imperial College and University College, London.
The review was asked to propose measures to improve the roles of constituent organisations and the responsiveness and accountability of the system. Its report was due in March, but was delayed until after the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The report explains that, under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, most responsibility for environmental protection is devolved to the assembly, but the UK government does retain powers to set emissions limits and quality standards.
Each government department in Northern Ireland is now overseen by a departmental committee in the assembly.
Another change since the review started is the decision of the parallel review of public administration in the province to rationalise the 26 small local councils into seven larger ones and return to them responsibility for planning control.
Noting that responsibility for payment of fines imposed by the European Court of Justice for failure to transpose or implement EU legislation now rests with the assembly rather than the Treasury, the report warns it would be "very disadvantageous" to Northern Ireland if recent improvements in its compliance record were allowed to slip.
Despite recent improvements there are significant risks of further infraction proceedings against the province, warns the report. Although the Water Service has been transformed into a government-owned company (ENDS Report 387, pp 51-52 ), it and its directors will enjoy significant immunity from prosecution in place of Crown immunity.
Overall, says the report, "to postpone significant reform would expose Northern Ireland to serious financial and environmental risks and deny its people significant opportunities to achieve a high-quality environment." Key proposals include:
The agency should be specifically charged with taking the lead on compliance with the water framework Directive, and its responsibilities should include flood risk planning and monitoring implementation of integrated coastal zone management.
Like Britain’s environment agencies, it should be a non-departmental public body with duties and functions embodied in statute.
All of Northern Ireland’s main political parties except the Democratic Unionist party support an independent agency. The position of the DUP, which holds the environment portfolio in the assembly, is unclear but Environment Minister Arlene Foster has said she has an open mind on the subject.
The idea of making the DoE responsible for both environmental and agricultural policy, similar to the UK Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was rejected because it would "reverse the well-established principle of clearly separating promotional from regulatory functions" and would generate a perception that the environment is primarily a rural issue.