Time is rapidly running out to respond to the consultation on Northern Ireland’s proposed Environmental Strategy.
Consultation responses are due by Monday 23 December 2019 so these last few days are crucial in order to contribute to what will be Northern Ireland’s first wide-ranging environment strategy.
The first ever environment strategy for NI
The Department of Agriculture, Environment & Rural Affairs (DAERA) is seeking views on the "potential scale, scope and ambition" of an environment strategy for Northern Ireland.
In this consultation, which opened in September, they are giving the public an opportunity to express views on the future of the environment in Northern Ireland, key priorities and objectives, and how best to achieve them.
As the consultation description highlights, Northern Ireland has "never had an overarching environmental strategy" so this represents a significant opportunity for stakeholders to express their views and concerns. The document suggests that to be meaningful the strategy needs to be ambitious in both breadth and depth – but it must also have clear and achievable objectives rather than simply being a broad “wish list”.
All-encompassing, or somewhere in between?
The consultation raises the question of scope and where an all-encompassing environmental strategy should sit – within DAERA? Alongside other Executive-endorsed strategies? Or between the two?
The discussion document suggests an environment strategy cannot be developed in isolation. It also raises examples of other Executive-endorsed strategies that affect the environment or are influenced by it, such as the Sustainable Development, Public Health, Industrial, Economic and Regional Development Strategies.
With such a broad influence on health, wellbeing and prosperity DAERA suggest an environment strategy should at least have equivalent status and influence to those already endorsed, but regardless of status promotes a joined-up approach across Departments to ensure policy compatibility.
Priorities and potential outcomes
Environmental areas to be covered include climate change, natural environment and landscapes, resource efficiency, marine environment, fisheries and aquaculture, built environment and environmental quality (air, water and neighbourhood).
The public are encouraged to respond across four strategic themes which are environmental engagement, prosperity, efficiency and quality.
There are 6 suggested draft outcomes put forward but it is stressed that there could be more, or less:
- We achieve zero waste and a well-developed circular economy
- Everyone can access and is connected to a healthy environment
- We have reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved climate resilience
- Biodiversity loss halted, ecosystems in a healthy state, and well managed landscapes
- We achieve sustainable consumption and production on land and sea
- We have excellent air, water, land and neighbourhood quality
- Consultation opened: 18 September 2019
- Consultation closes: 23 December
- Summary of findings published: early 2020, before commencing drafting of strategy
- Responses are being collected electronically via NIDirect's Citizen Space hub, but email or hard copy responses are also being accepted.
The form and content of a strategy is ultimately a matter for a Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the NI Executive. A final strategy will require endorsement and the on-going lack of a functioning NI Executive may continue to cause delays.
As the Department has been unable to take policy direction from a Minister, they are seeking views and researching evidence to form a broad view that will help inform an incoming Minister and NI Executive take decisions.
Northern Ireland Environment Agency priorities
The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) is an agency within the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. While the Department is looking at a broader strategy, NIEA have recently published their business plan for 2019/20. Similar to the environment strategy the Business Plan has been prepared in draft pending approval by an incoming Minister.
It outlines five key priorities:
- A fully compliant regulated industry
- A compliant crime free waste sector
- Freshwater and marine environment at “good status”
- Good habitat and landscape quality with species abundance and diversity
- Promotion of environmentally sustainable development and infrastructure
These priorities are perhaps no surprise and reflect current objectives of the Agency. Some progress has been made in recent years, for example in relation to increased waste and water pollution enforcement – but there remains much to be done. The Agency’s track record on dealing with major waste crime remains patchy at best.
A focus on transforming key areas of waste regulation is also mentioned for 2019/20. This would be in keeping with changes that have been made in England and Wales over recent years. However it will be interesting to see what changes Brexit will bring to this area of law that is currently very heavily influenced by EU Directives.
A critical factor in both the Agency’s plan and the Environment Strategy is resourcing; the aims of both will be difficult to meet without adequate investment in staff and expertise. Whether such budgeting requirements can be met in the fact of competing priorities for example in health and education is an issue that will no doubt raise much debate – should some form of government be restored.