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!’