By Ciara Brennan, Ray Purdy and Peter Hjerp
Recent scandals including the RHI debacle and the discovery of illegal dumping on a massive scale (most notably at the Mobuoy Road ‘super-dump’) have catapulted Northern Ireland’s environmental governance failures into the public eye. The divergence from what can be considered ‘good’ environmental governance is clear and the environmental, economic and socio-political consequences of these failures cannot be overestimated.
Protecting the environment is not a one-way cost and there has been very little political recognition in Northern Ireland of some of the serious economic impacts that weaknesses in current systems of environmental governance are having. Conservative estimates suggest that resolution of the RHI commitments alone could cost the Northern Ireland taxpayer over £490 million. Combining the cost of RHI, cleaning up the illegal dumping that has been discovered to date and remediating the consequences of illegal fuel laundering gives a total and already incurred cost of over £1 billion. In addition, weak environmental regulation and the failure to uphold the rule of law present critical disincentives to foreign direct investment, where a top priority for investors is the ‘stability and transparency of political, legal and regulatory environment’. A further risk created by a damaged environment relates to potential damage to the tourist economy (worth £723 million annually to the economy and sustaining 43,000 jobs).
A well-managed environment should be seen as a vital asset for the shared future of the people of Northern Ireland and a greater focus on protecting this common interest would enhance confidence in power-sharing and demonstrate stability. The high membership numbers of environmental NGOs in Northern Ireland indicate that there is clearly an appetite for environmental protection that is currently at odds with the level of importance assigned to it by the previous devolved governments. Given the severe consequences of environmental governance failures and its potentially devastating economic and environmental consequences a reform of the current state of environmental governance is urgently required. With the current political impasse creating significant uncertainty surrounding the NI Assembly’s future, these decisions must be taken by UK government directly or jointly with the ROI government as a matter of urgency to ensure that environmental protection in Northern Ireland is insulated from the surrounding political turmoil. We suggest the following reforms:
- An environmental audit committee should be established to enhance environmental integration across policy areas and ensure that departments are carrying out their functions within environmental limits.
- An integrated and overarching environmental strategic plan should be produced in one single document, which contains priorities of the Executive with outcomes to be aimed at.
- A review of institutional arrangements encompassing an examination of who does what and why, where integration between sectors and other departments applies and where it needs to be strengthened should be undertaken by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
- A Commissioner for the Environment should be established to ensure effective implementation and application of environmental law.
- The enforcement function of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) should be delivered by one integrated entity within the Agency to ensure a unified, consistent and proportionate enforcement response across all areas in which the NIEA has an enforcement responsibility.
- The NI Judicial Studies Board should produce updated and more extensive sentencing guidelines to ensure penalties imposed in environmental prosecutions have a real economic impact and provide a stronger deterrent to re-offending.
- A clear and robust fly-tipping protocol incorporating improved liaison, cooperation and information-sharing should be established between the NIEA and all local authorities.
- Waste regulation systems should be modernised through emerging technologies. These offer new avenues for ensuring compliance, such as a mandatory electronic duty of a care based system to replace the current paper-based waste transfer notes system.
- The issue of an Independent Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) should be re-inserted into political discussions. Although an IEPA is not a panacea for the myriad problems that have characterised the experience of regulating the environment, it would at least inject some much-needed credibility into regulatory efforts in the wake of years of scathing criticism.
- Formal consideration should be given to enhanced cross-border cooperation to deal with the environmental challenges faced on the island of Ireland. This could present opportunities to ensure maintenance of EU standards of environmental protection post-Brexit, reduction of unnecessary duplication of regulatory services, streamlining of administrative processes associated with any alteration to the border and prevention of divergent regimes on either side of the border from creating opportunities for environmental crime.
Ciara Brennan, Ray Purdy and Peter Hjerp have undertaken a detailed examination of the causes, consequences and potential solutions to Northern Ireland’s environmental governance failures in an article recently published in the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly.