Treating the environment like sh*te…

It’s hardly surprising that the front page of the FT this morning that the European Commission wants to make breaches of its environmental directives criminal. In Northern Ireland, the environment comes a poor second to house price hikes and restrictive planning issues with all of its parties (bar the Greens of course). Ferghal McKinney, with some interesting clips from Bangor and Donaghadee, showing the brown outflow of raw sewerage sewage into the Irish Sea just on the Donaghadee side of Groomsport…In fact, since the Bangor area began its rapid expansion in the late sixties and early seventies, its infrastructure has not been able to keep pace. Now, literally, the human waste (just look at the colour of the water hitting the rocks) from a 60,000 population is going straight into the sea, untreated. This from Friends of the Earth:

At the moment there is raw sewage being discharged at Bangor (Briggs Rocks just outside Groomsport) with a population equivalent (PE) of 92414; Donaghadee with a PE of 33600; Portrush (Ramore Head), PE 16391; and Portstewart with a PE just under 10,000. There are probably some small discharges too – Portballintrae, for example.

Population equivalent is a measure of the amount of sewage a works has to deal with. It includes the population of the area plus industry, shops, small businesses and anything else here people are likely to use the sewage network. The biggest contributor is the population, so it gives a fair idea of how many people’s sewage is being discharged, untreated in these areas.

All of this is supposed to be governed by both by EU Directive and its transposition into domestic UK law: hence the European Court of Justice’s damning judgement.


In 2002, according to Dermot Nesbitt, formerly the Minister responsible for the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS), Northern Ireland’s environmental advisory body tasked with monitoring environmental impacts:

• Compliance of sewage treatment works with EU standards fell from 53% in 2000 to 35% in 2001.
• Compliance with domestic standards fell from 81% in 2000 to 57% in 2001.
• Compares with 95% compliance in England and Wales for at least the past five years”.

He further noted that, “the situation reflects the increased stringency of the regulatory standards and not an overall deterioration in the system’s performance”. In other words, this decrease in compliance was not real, but rather a result of closer democratic oversight of the problem.

As a result of identifying this crisis, all planning applications in 57 environmental hotspots were put on hold as a result of concerns over the capacity of the local infrastructure to cope with the extra loading.

A Ministerial fudge:

However, on October 7th 2002, two weeks before the suspension of the devolved Assembly, the Minister announced a compromise between his department and the Department for Regional Development, to the effect that in the short term, he would waive any systematic objection to further development in all of the hotspots, despite the minister’s own legal advice which:

“…emphasised the need for a precautionary approach, taking account of both European and domestic law, and for careful consideration of the issues”.

The Minister for the Department of Regional Development, Peter Robinson, was asked to produce a paper outlining:

“…a location-by-location examination of the compliance problems and the work needed to resolve them together with a comparison of the projects and priorities in the Water Service capital works programme”.

The compromise was based on:

“…an acknowledgement that an absolute constraint on development in those areas with a significant degree of non-compliance with environmental standards until such time as the deficiencies in the sewerage infrastructure can be corrected would have a crippling effect on physical development across Northern Ireland. Such an approach, despite the high level of environmental protection it would have afforded, would have carried a high price in respect of constraints in economic growth and social progress.”

The contentious nature of the issue is contained in the Minister’s speech:

“…it means that developments will continue to connect to the public sewer in areas where the current inadequacy of the sewage collection and treatment systems is having a high or medium environmental impact.”

The decision to drop the requirement to address environmental impacts before development was:

“…based on the Water Service’s commitment to deliver the capital works programme as currently planned, subject to the completion of statutory processes.”

Finally the minister stated that he had:

“…established clear monitoring and review mechanisms by way of a close and clear relationship between the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development, and sought to encourage opportunities for the construction industry to assist in the solution of those problems”.

In an update table, published in March 2005*, charting the progress in each of the hotspots it notes that nine of the new works planned at the time of the mininster’s statement were completed, and several others were slated to reach completion by autumn 2005. The last time I checked early last year, no official review of the status of any of the hotspots had been undertaken.

– The special status of the hotspots, which restrains the status and focus of EHS advice, still holds as they did in 2002, regardless of any consequent change in status.

– The timetable has slipped with some projects not being slated for completion until 2009 – i.e. years outside the Minister’s projected timetable.

A cross party collusion?:

The decision in the first place has compromised the advisory body’s capacity to provide oversight, by making it reliant on the Water Service’s capacity to finance the necessary capital works. It certainly raises questions of naiveity on the part of the Minister responsible. But it also raises some important questions about the underlying attitude of our main political parties, since this environmentally compromised measure was hammered out at Executive level (and presumably with the consent of ministers from the UUP, the SDLP and Sinn Fein).

According to a document uncovered by judicial review:

…the then Environment Minister, Dermot Nesbitt says:

“I am willing to consider options at the lower end of environmental protection. But only on the basis that the Executive notes and accepts that this involves a significant compromise of environmental protection in favour of physical development.”

On the option chosen by the Executive, option 4, Mr Nesbitt says:

“Option 4 is likely to entail permitting developments to occur which will exacerbate non-compliance [with European law] and/or actual and potential pollution problems in areas where pollution is already deemed by EHS to have High and Medium impact.”

* By the latest estimate, 37 out of the original 57 hotspots remain to be completed.

  • Lorcan

    This is just one of many issues. The political parties run scared of the farming lobby (for votes) and developers (for money). The only politician to put a coherent view across on environmental matters was Jim Wells who as the Environment Spokesman for the DUP was supportive of: PPS14 (attempting to stop the mushrooming of single houses in the countryside), setting up an Environmental Protection Agency, and the setting up of a National Park in the Mournes. With all three issues being contra DUP policy Jim is no longer the party’s spokesman.

  • George

    nice stuff and a really important issue.

    This has been coming down the line for years. I remember highlighting the fact that Northern Ireland is the dirty man of these islands last summer.

  • Reader

    Brown outflow of raw sewerage
    That’s sewage, not sewerage. (Sewerage would clatter, not flow)

  • Crataegus

    Could I put in a word for developers. There is a fundamental lack of understanding at the degree of coordination required to accomplish properly serviced developments. It is generally not the developers responsibility to ensure that the sewerage plant is adequate or there is adequate schools, Health Centres etc. It is up to government departments to ensure this happens.

    Primarily it is the responsibility of the Planning Service to coordinate. This is its primary role. It is they who zone land and release land for development. It is they who have decided that 60% of new housing will be in ‘Brown’ field sites. But if these sites are in areas where services cannot cope how does this help?

    Rooker’s move on Rural development had more to do with subjective aesthetics and in reality has nothing to do with sewage treatment. It is actually very easy to solve treatment problems in one off housing.

    With regards the National Park in the Mournes many developers would welcome this and similar, but you need to ensure that local residents are not put under impossible restrictions. They live there we only visit. Treating the whole of rural NI as a virtual Green Belt is plain stupid and is to no one’s advantage. So we need to identify and protect outstanding areas, and have less restrictions elsewhere.

    We have a growing population and need more dwellings, how do we service them and how do we ensure they are built? We could raise money for services by wind fall taxes on development land or we could allow developers to come up with schemes that are virtually self supporting.

    In my opinion we need to loosen up the restrictions and move the emphasis towards more self sustainable developments. Recently there have been some changes in the Building Regs regarding heat loss but nothing about collecting rain water for use in toilets, generating power on sites etc.

    We could easily change the whole emphasis of planning towards self sufficiency (in the loose sense) if the planners adopted sustainability criteria. You could then put the onus on developers but by doing this you would also liberate developers and enable the more imaginative developments. The current straight jacket suits no one.

    With regards the political parties I don’t think any of them have a proper understanding of the built environment and the dynamics of development. Greens do raise issues related to sewage dumping etc but generally it is in the form of criticising others and for me that is just not good enough you need policy. Political parties need to be more than protest groups they need to be for something. Mind you their position on this is a hell of a lot better than many of the other parties who tend to represent narrow factional interests and when in office their record speaks for itself. They were dismal. This does no one any good

    Please someone set proper criteria and enable developers to address many of these issues directly. Empower developers to solve some of these problems.

  • Thomas Thompson

    “significant compromise of environmental protection in favour of physical development.”

    No bloody surprise there. I well remember Nesbitt spouting at the time that it was nothing to do with him , he was doing his best, don’t blame me and on and on.
    Key word here is “development” .. remind me again who the DUP wart is that can’t be photographed with his developer buddy in case we, the Great Unwashed might get any notions.
    Nesbitt is only playing his role in the chorus line of the Muppet Show that the assembly was , is and will be.
    I seem to recall that some horrendous Tory Council woman in the recent past had to pay out vast amounts of dosh when she was found to have acted in a manner financially detrimental to the public concerned. There was a fancy legal name for the process … someone please tell me what it was and then tell me how we can make Kermit Nesbitt pay up.
    NI can be fined BY THE DAY for non-compliance and the prospect of a similar vast financial blood bath even booted the Republic into doing away with the salmon drift nets pdq.
    Since Hain treats us with understandable comtempt and the Muppets are just that then it will be us (the Great Unwashed Rate Payer) who will have to stump up i expect.
    And another thing ..nice to see Mitchell has a fine sense of humour.

  • George

    I agree on developers not having to take the blame on this.

    In the Republic, local authorities now have to audit their waste water facilities and provide a breakdown of required future capacity.

    This can then be used in informing county development plans on where capacity exists or is planned.

    Each sanitary authority is required to make a strategic water services plan every six years.

    On self sustainability as long as it doesn’t involve septic tanks because 60% of those around Lough Neagh are polluting surface water.

    the link doesn’t go to the ECJ judgment.

  • Crataegus


    I am advised by Architects that the sewerage issue related to one off housing can be easily solved. It simply means spending more money, but given sites cost £150,000 what is £10,000? The main problem with septic tanks is detergents. These and biological washing powders need to be kept separate and treated separately from sewage, but I am assured all doable.

    What I would like to see in rural areas is a scheme where developers can put to the planning service proposals for fully services villages and hamlets with the entire infrastructure provided by the developer and a maintenance contact controlled by the future owners of the dwellings. If by doing this I am able to buy land cheaper then there is money to invest in sewerage treatment, on site power generation etc. Everyone benefits except those sitting on development land.

  • Mick Fealty


    I looked for the link, but it wasn’t up there at the time of posting…


    This is first and foremost a political failure, not one of the developers or lobbyists. Nesbitt’s deal was weak and did not take account of how robust (or rather otherwise) the monitoring was going to be. The Executive’s role in choosing such a weak option (if this was option 4 it is likely there were other, one hopes, more sound possibilities also has to be questioned in terms of its capacity to balance the needs of the built and natural environments.

    But the role of the direct rule ministers must also come into serious question, given this expensive drift took place under their watch.

  • Jocky

    It’s is not a developers responsibilty to provide sewage treatment, in the Britain it is the local authorities responsibilty through building control to ensure that the development has adequate sewage.

    To comply with this planning condition Mr Developer asks Mr Utilities Company where he can connect into his system and how much he can discharge.

    If a developer does not do this he would be in breach of his planning permission and the Environmental Protection Act. Big Fine.

    The Utility company who sets discharge limits for the developer, to ensure he only takes in what he can handle, likewise if he for whatever reason discharges into the environement he would be up for breach of the EPA.

    Discharges are highly regulated to the extent that on a 1m development in the UK you end up spending anywhere between, 20k-50k on underground storage tanks and that is just for the clean surface water.

    I’m not sure what the law is in N.I. but if I saw raw sewage dishcarging I’d phone the polis and the EA.

    As for rural development, there is provision within the building regs to use the natural filter process of reed beds, but strangley enough not many folk go for that option.

    Or you can use spetic tanks.

    Under no circumstance could a developer stick a pipe in and do an open discharge.

    Crategus, 10k on a 150k development is your profit margin.

    And to really bore everyone re sustainable development, there is now a provision in the regs that for every new major development 10% of the power consumed must be provided by reneawble means, unfortuantely no one has a clue how to do this short of sticking a windmill ontop of everything.

  • I wonder…

    But it was the tax payer thru WS who had to foot the bill for the water/sewerage infrastructure and the developers’ profits were subsidised by that – a reasonable contribution is only fair. Underspending is generally a problem which is behind the problems with non-compliance, though.

  • páid

    brown outflow……..

    Something wrong with the Guinness up their lads?

  • Crataegus


    I realise and agree the problem is primarily political.

    Some of the departments related to Planning are virtually dysfunctional. Unless you have direct dealings with them you will not fully appreciate the magnitude of the problem. It is much wider than the sewage issue and should never have been allowed to get into the current state. The direct rule lot also have an awful lot to answer for! Our locals were only there a few years.

    It’s is not a developers responsibility to provide sewage treatment, in the Britain it is the local authorities responsibility .
    Same here but the situation is so bad that perhaps a bit of lateral thinking is required. We need housing, and are running out of sites, but there has been underinvestment in the infrastructure for the last 30 years. So all of a sudden we need substantial levels of investment. The question is how do we raise the money and how do we build more houses without increasing the load on over stretched resources?
    Or you can use septic tanks.
    On their own septic tanks just don’t work sufficiently well. You need bio discs and separation of detergents.
    Under no circumstance could a developer stick a pipe in and do an open discharge. Crategus, 10k on a 150k development is your profit margin.
    Firstly they don’t or shouldn’t and secondly if you know you have to spend £10,000 on sewerage treatment you don’t bid £150,000 for the site.
    10% of the power consumed must be provided by reneawble means, unfortunately no one has a clue how to do this short of sticking a windmill on top of everything
    Easy try using heat pumps and passive solar heat gain. 10% is easy. It really only starts to get tricky at 40-50%. Over 50% of our energy consumption is related to housing.

    Trust me I’m a developer!

  • factual

    “The political parties run scared of the farming lobby (for votes) and developers (for money). The only politician to put a coherent view across on environmental matters was Jim Wells”

    That is really not true, all of the political parties here apart from the DUP support an independant environmental protection agency. The UUP even published a policy document calling for one in Dec 2005.

  • itxoger