Destruction of special sites, decline in farmland birds, industrial pollution, eutrophication of water bodies, illegal waste disposal, atmospheric ozone levels, unconstrained carbon dioxide emissions, demolition of listed buildings, illegal landfill, bungalow blight: it is not difficult to come up with a litany of environmental degradation in Northern Ireland.

The official state of the environment is documented in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency’s first State of the Environment Report published in 2008 with a statistical update in 2009 with some more candid assessments available from a range of NGO sources.

While the reports and data series now being developed are welcome, an arguably more useful indication of the state of Northern Ireland’s environment is to be found by taking a closer look at the politics of the environment.

There have been three key influences on the Northern Ireland environment in recent years. In common with most developed countries, economic growth has placed huge pressure on eco-systems. And in common with other regions of the EU, European environmental law has been the main means of protecting those eco-systems – with varying degrees of success. But unique to Northern Ireland has been the emergence of devolved political responsibility – local democracy welcomed by almost everyone but fraught with difficulty as the political class makes the transition from decades of opposition to responsibility for extensive governmental powers.


Underlying these three factors is a history of environmental neglect under a succession of Westminster direct-rule administrations. While environmental governance made significant strides in Great Britain with the 1990 Environmental Protection Act, for example, and the creation of the Environment Agency as an independent regulator, Northern Ireland remained trapped in governance structures and attitudes towards the environment that had changed little since the 1970s.

Early stages of the devolved government did not offer much in the way of changed attitudes.  For example, Environment Minister, Dermot Nesbitt, had agreed that the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS), an agency within his department, would not object to planning applications in areas where the sewage infrastructure was inadequate. This led to a long running legal saga that wound up in both the European Court and the High Court.  The catalogue of failures to comply with European legislation had been growing from 2001 onwards confirming the position of environmental NGOs that an independent agency was needed.

Things began to change under direct rule in 2005 when the then environment Minister, Angela Smith MP, after persistent lobbying by a group of environmental NGOs, agreed to review the structures and processes of environmental governance. There was at least tacit support from the Minister for the idea that Northern Ireland, in common with England, Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland needed an independent environmental protection agency. Smith’s successor, Lord  Rooker, progressed things by appointing Tom Burke to lead the Review of Environmental Governance which reported in May 2007, the central recommendation being the creation of an independent agency. The timing proved to be unfortunate.  After a period of suspension, the Northern Ireland Assembly was reinstated in June that year and the Environment portfolio went to the Democratic Unionist Party. A year later Environment Minister, Arlene Foster MP, rejected the Burke report’s key recommendation and instead the EHS was rebranded as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and given some additional resources.

This was a controversial decision opposed by all other political parties and a broad spectrum of civil society organisations from the CBI to the Consumer Council. Cheer-leading the Minister, however, was the Ulster Farmers Union which had brought its considerable influence to bear on a party keen to bolster its rural vote.

In practical terms this means that although NIEA possesses the enforcement powers it needs to require Northern Ireland Water to bring its sewage infrastructure up to scratch, in reality there are significant financial constraints on NI Water that mean it is struggling to fulfil promises made to the European Commission on the timetable for its capital works programme. The Assembly’s refusal to impose water charges means that there is a revenue shortfall of some £400 million per annum, much of it needed for water infrastructure and the Executive has been reluctant to make this up by raiding other budget lines. It is difficult to imagine the Environment Minister pressuring his NIEA officials to require NI Water to invest money that can only be provided by his cost cutting party colleague, the Finance Minister.

Thus environmental protection in Northern Ireland remains compromised by NIEA’s lack of independence and its inability to prioritise the environment above all other considerations.


A recent compelling example of why NIEA needs to be free from political interference was when Environment Minister, Sammy Wilson, attempted to block the designation of an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) after being lobbied by the affected landowners. Refusing to recognise that the process was an administrative and legal one properly left to his officials, the Minister attempted to rescind the decision. A legal opinion for Friends of the Earth showed that the Minister was acting unlawfully and a threat of judicial review brought about a swift volte face by Mr Wilson. It is now possible to be reasonably confident that the Minister’s extraordinary statement that he would be ‘cautious’ about declaring ASSIs where commercial activity might be restricted by the declaration will be consigned to the dustbin that contains his less considered utterances. The case highlights the fact that as long as the NIEA lacks independent status, environmental protection relies on litigious NGOs and the generous benefactors who fund their legal actions.


Another early victim of the return of the Assembly was Planning Policy Statement 14 – a strong document designed to stem the proliferation of one-off building in the countryside.  Bungalow blight is popular with rural landowners and their political representatives, however, and the draft policy was quickly ditched and replaced with the much looser PPS21. The new policy includes the capacity for farm businesses to add a new dwelling to the land-holding every 10 years – official sanction for property development as an alternative agricultural income. No estimates have been given of the expected number of dwellings that will be built under this policy and no assessments of the impacts on water quality or carbon emissions have been made. Largely unnoticed is the fact that all of Northern Ireland’s Green Belt areas have been abolished at a stroke.


The reform of the planning system has become an important plank of the Executive’s economic policy with the current consultation on planning reform clearly focussing on speeding up the planning process. Inevitably the environment and those who would protect it are casualties of such an approach. As a response to recession, Sammy Wilson even took the step of instructing his officials to elevate economic considerations when assessing planning applications, although it wasn’t clear whether this was a serious attempt to subvert the planning system or just a bit of political grandstanding.

The reform proposals include the withdrawal of fundamental rights of individuals to be heard at both developer appeals and area plan inquiries. This is driven by a perceived need to speed up both the formal and informal hearings process; but the workload problems of the Planning Appeals Commission should be tackled by managerial solutions and not by depriving citizens of their basic rights. Although the proposals raise the possibility of a third party right of appeal and the current Minister, Edwin Poots, has publicly supporter such a right in the past, this will not be won easily. The Government’s advisor, Professor Greg Lloyd, has made much of the ‘front loading’ effect of pre-application discussions: if those affected are thoroughly consulted beforehand, there should be no need for a right of appeal as the decision will, by definition, be the right one. This would be fine if the Professor’s perfect world corresponded with reality but it seems unlikely that developer led pre-application discussions could produce such unquestionable results.

Two other aspects of the reforms that set Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the UK is the failure to recognise the role of planning in combating climate change and the absence of a statutory purpose to achieve sustainable development. Instead the reforms rely on the Programme for Government’s prioritisation of economic development.

But what really separates the Northern Ireland planning system from those in England, Wales and Scotland is the emphasis on individual rights (e.g. a rural landowner’s ‘right’ to develop his land) and economic development, in contrast to the accepted norm that planning is an expression of the common good.  Failing to pursue the common good is a trait we share with the Republic of Ireland, but at least a right of appeal exists there for third parties to recover some of the ‘good’ appropriated by developers and landowners.


Northern Ireland has a serious and growing waste problem. Illegal landfill sites and other waste operations are commonplace. In some areas anyone buying land would be as well to check for an illicit tip beneath what may seem an otherwise green and pleasant field. On the legal side of the fence, successive Waste Management Strategies have failed to arrest the growth in waste arisings and often struggled to meet a range of EU waste targets.

The Waste Framework Directive has a target for recycling 50% of household waste by 2050. In addition the Landfill Directive has targets of 25% diversion from landfill of biodegradable waste by 2010, 65% by 2020, and recycling targets for total waste of 35% by 2010, 40% by 2015 and 45% by 2020. Northern Ireland’s average recycling rate is in the low to mid 30s so the recycling target is likely to be met, but the diversion from landfill target won’t be.

Faced with an ever growing waste problem and imminent fines for missing European targets, local councils have been attracted by the quick-fix of incineration despite the well documented environmental downsides.  One argument used by proponents is that an energy-from-waste facility would displace a fossil fuel power station, and therefore should be considered an environmentally friendly option. However, it is more likely to displace new-build generation, such as renewable energy sources, making it a poor choice from an environmental perspective. And of course incineration would undermine ambitious recycling rates like those being pursued in Scotland which has adopted a 70% target, with 25% cap on incineration and a 5% cap on landfill.

The recent decision by Belfast City Council not to have an incinerator on the north foreshore is a set-back for ARC21 (the group of councils in the east of Northern Ireland). The Belfast site plan was stopped by Sinn Feín, some SDLP and some North Belfast Unionists of various hues. Alliance and most Unionists were in favour. If a site is sought in a Unionist dominated council area it is likely the plan will be passed. The no vote from Belfast is a serious set-back, however, and it will probably be several years before a new proposal is made.

Bryson House is running a campaign to achieve a target of 70% recycling by 2025 and an ARC21 household waste composition study found 72% of residual waste is recyclable or compostable. A combination of kerbside collection of recyclables, with green waste and food scraps going to anaerobic digestion could make the 70% target attainable. EU targets could be met without the need for incineration.


Northern Ireland’s contribution to the UK’s obligation to cut greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol has been minimal: just 5.8% on 1990 levels compared with 15.7% for the UK as a whole. The reduction in carbon dioxide emissions has been just 1.5%.

If emissions cuts have been poor, targets have been equally unambitious. The Executive is committed to cutting greenhouse gases by 25% on 1990 levels by 2025 and CO2 by 30% by 2030. This compares with the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change recommendation of a 34% cut in GHGs by 2020 (42% if there is a new global deal on emissions cuts).

Although the Assembly agreed to opt into the UK Climate Change Act and although the official line from the DOE is that Northern Ireland will fulfil all its statutory obligations under the Act, in fact the Act does not oblige Northern Ireland to make any cuts at all. Despite an ongoing campaign by a broad coalition of environment, development and other NGOs, there is no sign of a willingness to legislate for the same mandatory emissions cuts that apply to the UK as a whole.

Instead plans to spend over 80% of the £3 billion available under the Executive’s Investment Strategy on road building at the expense of public transport remain intact. If any of the grandiose schemes to dual the regions A roads fail to go ahead it will be due to spending constraints rather than for the sake of controlling spiralling emissions from transport.

On the plus side, former Energy Minister, Arlene Foster, appears to be serious about maximising renewable energy’s share of electricity supply with an ambitious but realistic target of 40% in the new draft Strategic Energy Framework. Disappointingly, though, there is no mention of the UK Climate Change Act as a key policy driver and only a commitment to ‘supporting’ the 2050 UK and EU Climate Change targets.

While Northern Ireland has clearly underperformed for many years in terms of cutting emissions, the period when Sammy Wilson MP was environment Minister from mid 2008 to mid 2009 was a time during which the need for action on climate change rocketed up the political agenda.  At least that was the case in most of the developed world and many of its less developed regions, but not in Northern Ireland. Having a ‘climate sceptic’ environment minister was more than just an embarrassment for most people in Northern Ireland; it meant that serious action on climate change was kept off the Executive’s agenda. Now that Mr Wilson has been promoted to the position of finance minister, it remains to be seen whether he will continue to exercise his power to malign environmental effect.


Lest it appear that the state of Northern Ireland’s environment and the politics that determine it are beyond repair, there is one brightening green light on the horizon. The language of the ‘Green New Deal’ has become commonplace since it made its first public outing in July 2008 and in Northern Ireland it has put down strong roots amongst the social partners (business, trades unions, farmers and voluntary sector) and civil society more widely. The idea that the ‘triple crunch’ of recession, climate change and energy insecurity could be tackled in a joined up manner is being addressed by a broad coalition comprising groups as diverse as the CBI, ICTU, the Sustainable Development Commission and Friends of the Earth. The basic idea is that high levels of both public and private investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy would create jobs, cut carbon emissions and reduce Northern Ireland’s 99% reliance on imported fossil fuels.  A series of working papers are being produced with the intention of building political consensus around the Green New Deal and making it a central plank of economic, social and environmental policy.


At the heart of Northern Ireland’s grim state of the environment is the mistaken belief that the economy and the environment are always in conflict and that the former should always prevail over the latter. This is plainly very old-fashioned thinking. The Green New Deal demonstrates that this need not be the case and there can be clear win-win situations. Likewise a report from the NI Green NGOs Group and NIEA showed that the environmental economy supports nearly 33,000 full time jobs.

But that is the easy bit.  In fact environmental and economic considerations are often opposed and politicians and policy makers must have ways of resolving such conflicts. Sadly, in Northern Ireland the gut reaction of Ministers appears to be to privilege the economy. That it is thought acceptable to re-orientate the planning system, itself a balancing mechanism between competing interests, in favour of economic interests, speaks volumes for the value that Ministers attach to Northern Ireland’s environment.

It may seem a forlorn hope, therefore, that our political masters might embrace the promise of sustainable development: Northern Ireland’s first Sustainable Development Strategy was published in 2006 by the direct-rule administration but remains largely unimplemented.  And yet if the Executive cannot be persuaded that sustainable development offers solutions to the challenges it faces, the outlook for the state of Northern Ireland’s economy will be as bleak as it is for its environment.

Next articleState of the Environment: Republic of Ireland - Environmental challenges ahead

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