This post is by Dr Jane Clarke, nature protection policy officer at RSPB Northern Ireland.
“The ayes have it, the ayes have it”, with these eight words the Northern Ireland Assembly rang in a new era of environmental governance for Northern Ireland, as the UK Environment Act entered the statute book.
This new law covers areas of government oversight, principles and improvement, waste and water, and it begins to address Northern Ireland’s global footprint from imports of forest risk commodities.
Importantly, the Environment Act requires the Northern Ireland Department for Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs (DAERA) to create an Environmental Improvement Plan. It establishes a new government watchdog – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – in Northern Ireland and embeds five core environmental principles in ministerial policy making: integration, precautionary, preventative, rectification at source and polluter pays.
But this act will only be effective if it translates into ambitious action. Northern Ireland is ranked 12th worst in the world for the amount of nature it has left, none of its rivers, lakes or coastal waters have achieved good status, there is extensive regulatory dysfunction, along with unacceptable levels of non-compliance with environmental law and a deep seated lack of public trust in the environmental regulator.
There is a long list of environmental issues to deal with, entangled in transboundary concerns, dynamic alignment with regulations in the Northern Ireland Protocol and a complex socio-political landscape, so the task is significant.
We have set the following five tests to judge whether this act will be able to do what’s needed to address the twin challenge of the serious depletion of nature and climate change in Northern Ireland:
1. An ambitious and well-resourced environmental improvement plan The strategy must include ambitious, SMART targets for biodiversity, air, water (freshwater and marine) and waste. It needs to tackle all the pressures on the natural environment, including pollution, land use, development, invasive and non-native species and wildlife crime. Implementation, monitoring and ongoing review must be adequately resourced across the executive.
2. An independent and well-resourced OEP The DAERA Minister has committed between £700,000-£800,000 for the 2022-23 budget with the expectation that this will increase in year two, when full functions and staffing are in place. But long-term funding should be ringfenced within current and future budgets, with the flexibility to enable resourcing to reflect the OEP’s needs.
3. A bold environmental principles policy statement This should be developed quickly, setting a challenge for ministers to respond with urgency to the loss and degradation of nature. In England, Defra’s draft policy statement left much to be desired, so DAERA should learn from this and set a clear political direction.
4. An independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) DAERA has to deliver on the political commitment to establish an independent EPA. The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) carries out functions that other statutory conservation bodies do elsewhere in the UK. But, because NIEA remains an executive agency, rather than an independent body, there are serious concerns about its effectiveness and conflicts of interest.
5. Legally binding nature restoration targets Non-binding targets have so far failed, leaving Northern Ireland’s environment in a poor state. Comprehensive targets are needed for critical areas where they are absent, such as biodiversity, or where they will soon run out, including for water and air quality. These can be transformative if designed well, driving regulatory change, better policy and direct investment in action needed. And such binding targets have strong political and public
It is too early to say how effective the act will be in Northern Ireland (as in England) because, ultimately, it only provides a framework, with details to be filled in and work to be done to strengthen it. To say it has much to achieve is an understatement, but if these tests are met, we’ll be off to a good start.