OEP ‘disappointed’ as officials confirm deferral of key Northern Ireland environment plan

Green watchdog the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) has told Northern Ireland’s environment department it “remains disappointed” that there is no timeline to publish a new Environment Improvement Plan for the devolved nation, after the legal deadline was missed earlier this year.

Letters published between OEP chief executive Natalie Prosser and Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs permanent secretary Katrina Godfrey reveal that Northern Ireland’s continued political issues have led to the deferral of the key document. 

The department’s officials have concluded that, with no ministers having been appointed since February 2022, there is no means to democratically approve a new EIP, Godfrey’s letter states. 

In an update on September 11, Godfrey told Prosser: “The conclusion we have reached, having considered all of the obligations placed upon us and having had due regard to the views of other relevant departments, is that it is not at this time appropriate for officials, acting in the absence of democratically elected ministers, to decide to introduce what would clearly be a new, major policy which carries with it new major public expenditure commitments. 

Godfrey added that she is “firmly of the view that the public interest is indeed best served by having a strategy and EIP that has political endorsement and the resources to support its successful implementation” and apologised that DAERA was not in a position to “realise that outcome at this time”. 

Godfrey added that the decision will be reviewed in three months, if ministers have still not been appointed, and in the meantime DAERA plans to publish a work programme on how it will improve the environment.

DAERA officials, Godfrey added, will also continue to update the current draft EIP so that it is ready for Executive consideration when ministers are appointed. 

Prosser – responding to DAERA’s update on September 15 – said: “Whilst I appreciate the complexity of the situation and difficult position that officials find themselves in, as you say, the OEP would have preferred a different outcome given the legal requirements of the Environment Act 2021, and we remain disappointed.

“It is imperative that deferral of the EIP does not impact on the much-needed environmental protection and improvement in Northern Ireland, and we would welcome further discussion on your plans in this regard.”