Foster puts bid for Westminster seat before environmental protection

Few will be surprised that Arlene Foster has opted to rebadge the failed Environment and Heritage Service as Northern Ireland’s new ‘Environment Agency’.

Ironically, the DUP Environment Minister demonstrated the need for a truly ‘Independent’ Environment Protection Agency today when she used her position to pander to the special pleading of the Ulster Farmers Union rather than take the expert advice of Tom Burke’s Review of Environmental Governance (NI). In the process, Foster has ensured that she does nothing to risk her bid to take the Westminster seat of Fermanagh and West Tyrone from Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew at the next General Election.

The purpose of the proposed ‘Independent’ Environmental Protection Agency is to remove important environmental protection decisions from the day-to-day pressures on elected representatives. Instead, Mrs Foster’s bid to take a seat in the next Westminister election has taken priority over the advice of the experts who delivered their report on the Review of Environmental Governance (NI) last year. A core recommendation, based on the deplorable record of the Environment and Heritage Service, was the creation of an ‘Independent’ Environmental Protection Agency. Foster has opted to rebadge and relaunch the Environment and Heritage Service as an ‘Environment Agency’.

The Environment Minister’s performance in the Assembly chamber was abysmal. She flatly contradicted herself when responding to one MLA’s question regarding the need for cross-party support on the Executive. She made the absurd claim that environmental governance is not a cross-cutting issue, having stated earlier in her statement, that she had consulted a number of other Departments (DRD, DARD) regarding proposals to amalgamate their environmental responsibilities.

It is clear that other parties on the Executive, including Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, have decided to hide behind the DUP’s agenda and play it both ways. Both Mark Durkan and Gerry Adams recently signed a public declaration in favour of an independent EPA. Foster put her finger on the weakness of other parties when it comes to their publicly stated support for an EPA, when she reminded the Chair of the Assembly Environment Committee, Patsy McGlone (SDLP) that his own “joined up thinking” left a lot to be desired. She reminded him that he combines his publicly stated support for an independent EPA with popular enthusiasm across the parties for unrestricted building in the countryside.

Further political cover for the Executive parties will be provided in the years up to the next Assembly Election by the launch of the Department of the Environment’s White Paper. Providing cover for non-decision making has become a running theme on the Executive. Foster has obliged and turned herself into an alternative EPA: an ‘Executive Protection Agent!’

  • Billie-Joe Remarkable

    I am shocked and appalled that self-interest and hidden agendas have motivated a government minister.

  • Patrick Stephens

    This is a big mistake by the minister and will dent her reputation significantly.

    I hope the smaller Executive parties will oppose this vigorously.

  • willowfield

    I’m afraid this blog is rather unclear.

    What is the nature of the Foster-proposed “‘Independent’ Environment Protection Agency”?

    What is the nature of Tom Burke’s “‘Independent’ Environment Protection Agency”?

    And how do the two differ?

  • Mick

    This should make this afternoon’s Stormont Live worth keeping an eye on. First for the actual detail of the Minister’s proposals, but also for the response from the two parties you mention have previously supported an independent EPA. Worth mentioning too that if this is as you say it is, Northern Ireland would then be the exception both within the UK and the island of Ireland.

  • Pete Baker

    Could I just mention that there’s more background detail here.

  • Pete Baker

    Peter

    “The purpose of the proposed ‘Independent’ Environmental Protection Agency is to remove important environmental and strategic planning decisions from the day-to-day pressures on elected representatives.”

    Actually, that’s not what the Review recommended.

    From their report [pdf file]

    “Responsibility for strategic planning policy should remain with central government and should be brigaded with environmental policy within the Department of the Environment. Adequate resources should be provided to local government for it to play its full part in the planning system in Northern Ireland.”

    An independent EPA would act as a regulator on those decisions.

  • steve48

    Actually flags up the problems with the current process. Both SF ministers refusing to give up power in their departments shows how the silo approach still takes precedence.

    This decision ensures that Arlene or her successor will be held to account for any slip ups.

  • foundered

    Ironically, this rebadging comes the week after the EHS erected a new sign on wall of their HQ in Belfast (the Klondyke building) – contractors were screwing in the last pieces on Thursday…

  • Peter Doran

    Thanks for the clarification Pete. The EPA would not input directly to strategic policy making but would, by virtue of its oversight role, help to confine politicians to decision-making in line with EU Directives on the environment.

    For example, with an Independent Environmental Protection Agency in place, it would be extremely difficult for Ministers to make strategic decisions about planning and infrastructure that would bring NI into conflict with EU directives on waste infrastructure.

  • Mick Fealty

    Peter,

    What’s the current bill for fines over the DoE’s long term breaches of the Urban Waste Water Directive?

    Willow,

    My understanding is that some rulings by the EPA and the Environmental Agency are binding by statute. The EHA’s role is almost entirely advisory, unless it is specifically backed by a Ministerial decision.

    Independence means it cannot be roped into any politicallly expedient deals that leave the back door wide open. Say for example like this one between the then Ministers for the Environment and Regional Development: http://url.ie/en6.

  • ZoonPol

    To convolute the subject somewhat: i came to this thread after reading the link below about how MPs may award themselves ‘Lump sum expenses plan’.
    To further propound this sore is there any truth in the rumour that our MLAs will award themselvs a 16% increase? What will the new salary be – £52k + (more if you are dual/tri mandate like some DUPers).
    Do we get value for money?
    Are we now over represented?

  • Peter Doran

    Mick

    re Fines

    For all the talk of massive fines back in 2005 when NI Plc was found to be in breach of the EU wastewater directive, no fines have been imposed to date.

    Fines are not automatic and are regarded as a last resort.

    States facing fines for breaches of EU environmental directives have an opportunity to present plans to come into compliance within a defined period of time e.g. investment schedules for new waste water treatment infrastructure.

  • If the other Executive parties (including SF) want to distance themselves from Foster’s decision, they can sign a petiton under Section 28B of the NI Act to refer it back to the Executive, then outvote her there.

    Simple really.

  • This beggars belief – just heard that the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) just went through a major re-brand – including uniforms, signage etc… and now they’re going to do it all again in July! I am sure the money they spent/will spend on that would have gone a long way to setting up the EPA. This is a bloody disgrace! ZoonPoi – I don’t feel over represented, I feel unrepresented.

  • GavBelfast

    Will the “new improved”, if not independent, service move any faster at doing the job?

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/foyle_and_west/7421164.stm

  • observer

    That was the beauty of direct rule ministers. They were not accountable to a ballot box in Northern Ireland and therefore just got on with it. Ministers here are a joke as their own political survival, or advancement, take precedence over what is in the best interests of everyone. We know who would stand to lose most from an independent environmental agency but there are a lot more people who would have welcomed it. The moral of the tale is that the concept of local minister looks good on paper but in reality they are too close to the action when tough decisions need to be made.

  • That was the beauty of direct rule ministers. They were not accountable to a ballot box in Northern Ireland and therefore just got on with it. Ministers here are a joke as their own political survival, or advancement, take precedence over what is in the best interests of everyone.

    Yup, democracy is a bad idea. Let’s have rule by a benevolent class of scholar-leaders and let the lümpenproletariat suck it up if they don’t like the decisions.

    Foster’s decision was bad. Your response is worse. The democratic process is open to you. If you don’t like the decisions being made, change the people making them.

    We know who would stand to lose most from an independent environmental agency but there are a lot more people who would have welcomed it.

    If there are enough of them, and they care enough, then they can vote to get rid of Arlene Foster and her party.

    If they don’t, then they ain’t got no right to complain, sorry.

  • Have to agree with you Sammy, thought I understand Observer’s frustrations too. Problem for me is the alternatives (not that I voted Arlene or her colleagues in). We just haven’t had the time to develop a political class who can deal with real issue based politics, and my sense is that a large chunk of the population feels un-represented by the current offerings. I suppose slow and painful progress is still much better than no progress at all!

  • ZoonPol

    < a href=" http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/7422988.stm"> Electricity bills to rise by 14%
    Unrepresented by those on the hill amounts to moral fraud.

  • “If you don’t like the decisions being made, change the people making them.”

    SM, that 50%+1 part of our constitutional arrangement means that the ‘moral’ electorate will probably give us the Chuckle Coalition 2. The smaller parties lack the financial and ‘other’ resources of the coalition partners.

    “They were not accountable to a ballot box in Northern Ireland and therefore just got on with it.”

    Observer, I suspect that on a number of matters they put decision-making on the back burner in the hope/expectation of a devolved administration and let senior civil servants get on with it.

  • ZoonPol

    Couldn’t agree with you more Nevin: vote Conservative! 🙂

  • interested

    Oh boo hoo – the Environmental NGOs havent been given everything they demanded so now they stamp their feet and throw the toys out of the pram.

    Of course what did they want – an independent EPA with board members made up of, yes you’ve guessed it, members of Evironmental NGOs.

    So its a case of no jobs for the boys being created.

    No wonder they’re not happy.

  • ZoonPol, what could be more ‘Conservative’ than the Chuckle Coalition? 😉

  • ZoonPol

    Or alternatively its the ultimate ‘check and balance’ – I wonder of Robinson and McGuinness will swap berets at half time.
    Do their junior ministers need the joint support of the FM & DFM?