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BETTER REGULATION FOR A BETTER ENVIRONMENT STATEMENT TO THE ASSEMBLY 27 MAY 2008 Mr Speaker, with your permission I wish to make a statement to the House on Environmental Governance. As Members are aware the Department of the Environment has a broad remit which includes local government and planning. At the heart of it is responsibility for protecting and enhancing our built and natural environment. And of course – to protect and enhance our built and natural environment we need effective systems of governance and regulation. I have thought very carefully about my approach to these, taking account of the independent Review of Environmental Governance led by Professor Tom Burke and the Criminal Justice Inspectorate report on enforcement in DOE. Of course both these Reviews were progressed under Direct Rule - but I have considered their recommendations in the context of the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive. To help me develop my ideas, I listened to a range of views from members of this Assembly and from stakeholders in the business, farming and environmental sectors. I sought advice from my counterpart in the Scottish Government. And I also took account of wider policy and financial considerations. I am therefore pleased to be here today to set out my goals for the future of environmental governance focusing particularly on my Better Regulation agenda. The restoration of this Assembly and of all our devolved institutions, including the Executive, has meant the restoration of local responsibility and accountability. Our governance system has fundamentally changed. I, as Minister, am accountable to this Assembly and to the electorate. My Department’s performance is scrutinised by the Environment Committee. There are improved and much more effective arrangements for accountability than existed under Direct Rule. I am satisfied that they have brought the clarity and transparency 1 which was previously lacking and whose absence was the subject of much criticism by Professor Burke and his colleagues. Decisions I have taken as Minister will help determine the future shape and nature of our governance system at local levels. My recent RPA announcement will mean greater local responsibility and accountability with the transfer of significant functions from Departments to the eleven new councils in 2011. Major planning responsibilities will transfer, including development control and enforcement. Councils will draw up local development plans for their respective areas, making sure that local people have their say in how these plans are shaped. My fundamental review of the planning system will streamline the planning process, making it more effective and better prepared for the RPA transition. I will take my emerging proposals to the Executive soon. We have already made significant improvements to the planning system. The introduction of pre-application discussions with planners mean that developers know exactly what information is required before they submit applications. Streamlined consultation with the City Council in Londonderry means approvals for minor applications are being issued in 20 working days. And, of course, having taken over responsibility for PPS5, PPS12, PPS13, PPS14, and PPS20 from DRD, my Department is now responsible for all planning policy statements. Of course, the central recommendations arising from the Review of Environmental Governance involved organisational change. The Review team proposed the transfer of environment-related responsibilities from other Departments to mine. It also suggested the creation of an Environmental Protection Agency by merging the responsibilities of DOE’s Environment and Heritage Service, along with DARD’s Rivers Agency and Loughs Agency and some DCAL functions. While there may be arguments for moving all environment-related functions to DOE, there are also strong arguments for leaving them exactly where they are. The Minister for Regional Development, the Minster for Agriculture and Rural Development and the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure have all set out practical and even constitutional reasons to me why transfer of functions is not appropriate at this time. As the Assembly knows we are committed in the Programme for Government to a review of Departments by 2011. It seems obvious to me that this is the proper context for consideration of any fundamental restructuring of responsibilities between Departments. 2 My record, and that of my Department, clearly demonstrates my commitment to working co-operatively across the Executive at all levels and I will continue to do that. I will build a modern, risk-based approach to regulation. And that is my priority. We will make a fresh start with our sights firmly fixed on regulation. In EHS, and indeed in the wider Department, we already have an impressive pool of intellectual capacity, practical ability and determination to get things done. This is a valuable and irreplaceable resource of which we can all be proud. It is a resource we must deploy wisely to achieve our objectives. EHS has the expertise and capability we need. I will retain it and reorganise it as a DOE Executive Agency. I will launch it on Tuesday the 1st of July as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency – with the mission of protecting our built heritage and natural environment. And of course, the Agency will carry forward the range of EHS functions and build on its successes. For example, last year EHS supported maintenance of 97 listed buildings; and its funding of 19 biodiversity officers resulted in District Councils declaring 7 new nature reserves. And in total, EHS has now declared 257 ASSIs that cover 94,400 hectares. This is important work and it is the very backbone of environmental protection. I know that some people will be disappointed by the decision not to make the EHS an independent agency as recommended in the Burke report. To those people I want to say that I, and my Party, take the role of environmental governance too seriously to externalise the organisation into an outside agency. The return of devolution resulted in the appointment of local Ministers to make decisions. I am opposed to the setting up of yet more QUANGOs where unelected people take decisions on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. I am Minister of the Environment. I, along with my Executive colleagues will make the decisions that will be scrutinised by this House and by the Environment Committee. I believe that this decision today will result in certainty on environmental governance - both for the staff within my Department and the wider community. I believe that this decision means that we can get on with the job of better governance for the people of Northern Ireland. My Environment Agency will develop a new, more focused approach to environmental regulation. And EHS has already made an excellent start on this. On the 29th of May I will convene the first meeting of our Better Regulation Board. Its members will be leaders in the agricultural, construction, water and business sectors. By speaking directly to opinion formers at this level my aim will be to inject environmental concerns into the lifeblood of industry. I want to inspire action. Not just because it is the right thing to do – but because it makes sound economic sense. 3 For example, responsible waste management can save up to 25% of construction costs. The Board will be about dialogue. I want to hear directly from industry what its needs are. I want to learn how we can help businesses to help themselves improve their compliance. The Board will meet twice a year, and it will kickstart action. Also on the 29th of May I will formally issue our “Better Regulation for a Better Environment” document. Through this programme of action we will modernise and simplify our approach to regulation. Working in partnership with the Better Regulation Board, we will maximise the environmental benefits and minimise the cost to business. Our programme reflects European and UK better regulation principles: – it is risk-based with the most robust action focused on the most damaging activities; it is accountable with regulatory actions explained and decisions justified on the basis of published standards and criteria; it is consistent in that rules and standards are applied fairly; it is transparent with rules which are simple and user-friendly and policies which are clearly explained; and it is targeted on the problem and on delivering the desired outcome. Through the Better Regulation Programme: the Environment Agency will help businesses to comply – by giving them clear guidance that will take the guesswork out of compliance, along with tools to help them improve their environmental performance. It will streamline permitting by introducing on-line application and payment systems; in the longer term there will be standard permits, simpler registration, management agreements and codes of good practice for lower risk activities. The Environment Agency will also change the way it assesses compliance so that more resources are targeted on the activities and sites which pose the greatest environmental risk. In the longer term site visits will move beyond compliance to look at a business’s overall environmental performance and opportunities for savings The Northern Ireland Environment Agency will not be starting from scratch. I am thinking for example, of NetRegs which already provides online regulatory information and advice to benefit small businesses; the Better Regulation and Simplification review which aims to reduce the regulatory burden on the agri-food industry and the steps which EHS has 4 already taken to rationalise its activity in relation to water discharge consents, packaging regulations and inspection for cross compliance in relation to single farm payments. All of these examples show how, within current arrangements, we are already finding opportunities for modernisation – and acting upon them. Future action will build on these early steps. Environmental crime is not just bad news for the environment, it is also anti-competitive – with the responsible businesses who comply being undercut by the rogues and criminals who don’t. Stopping the criminals – and reassuring legitimate businesses – means the Environment Agency must act, and it must be seen to act. It must hit perpetrators where it hurts most – in their pockets. Illegal waste activities present EHS with a serious challenge. And its response has been equally serious. Since its formation in 2003 its Waste Environmental Crime Team has investigated 5,779 incidents of illegal waste activities. It has secured 299 convictions resulting in over £670,000 in court fines, 13 prison sentences and 4 confiscation orders. And recent developments mean that future action will be more effective then ever before. The Serious Crime Act 2007 classified the most serious environmental crimes alongside crimes such as armed robbery and money laundering and introduced new powers to deal with them. Assets recovery is far more effective than Court fines as both a punishment and as a deterrent. During the last financial year the Assets Recovery Agency, working with EHS, obtained orders to confiscate assets worth more than £833,000 following prosecution in 4 cases involving illegal dumping of waste. For example, following a guilty plea, the owner of one illegal dump received a confiscation order for £100,000 and an 18-month suspended sentence at Crown Court for breaches of waste management and water pollution legislation. EHS now has its own team of financial investigators who are fully trained and accredited in line with the Proceeds of Crime Act. They work with the Serious Organised Crime Agency and with the PSNI. They are investigating illegal dumping with a view to confiscating perpetrators’ illegal earnings. In April 2007, Northern Ireland Water took over DRD’s water supply and sewerage duties – and this also improved the regulatory and enforcement landscape. Unlike DRD, Northern Ireland Water does not enjoy Crown Immunity from prosecution and is therefore subject to the full range of EHS’s enforcement powers. Indeed EHS has brought two successful prosecutions against it for water pollution, the most recent of which was earlier this month and resulted in a £5,000 fine. I understand that a number of further potential enforcement cases are under consideration. 5 To increase the speed and improve the effectiveness of enforcement action, I will implement an Agency-wide Environmental Crime Unit, as recommended by both the Review of Environmental Governance and the Criminal Justice Inspectorate. This will build on the success of the existing Waste Environmental Crime Unit. A wider range of sanctions and penalties is also needed. The use of stop notices, voluntary undertakings and fixed penalties would empower EHS to work with businesses to ensure rapid and effective change. It would also free up more resources to deal with the most serious offenders. We are making a considerable investment in better regulation and the environmental crime team. This investment will be £0.77million in 2008-2009 and will rise to £1.98million in 2010-2011. It will allow the creation of 40 new posts. EHS and our Planning and Environmental Policy Group have both grown to meet a myriad of demands and requirements. Their focus has been on getting the job done – and it is right that this should be case. My officials now need to examine closely the balance of responsibility and the relationship between these two parts of my Department. I want to see clear blue water between the role of the core Department as policy maker and legislator and the role of the Environment Agency as protector, regulator and enforcer. I want to make sure that together we share clear objectives towards the fulfilment of our European obligations and that these are matched by the talent and resources available to us. I am convinced of the need for transparency and openness in decision making. In order to achieve this I will recruit two independent members onto the board of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. These members will have a broad perspective gained from experience elsewhere and they will be independent thinkers who will bring a fresh perspective to the business needs of the Agency. At the same time they will have the ability to challenge constructively and to act as critical friends. EHS already publishes the minutes of its Board meetings on the website; along with its team briefs, its corporate and business plans, its performance data, its accounts and other essential information. And of course it is subject to the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations. The Environment Committee scrutinises its work and Members of this Assembly ask me questions about it. I am keen to make decision-making even more transparent and I have decided that the Environment Agency’s Board meetings should be open to the public. 6 As part of the RPA and Planning Reform programme, I will also ensure that the Agency becomes a Statutory Consultee in the planning process. With this will come the requirement to comment on planning applications within a specified time period. I want to turn now to the Statutory Advisory Councils. We have three Statutory Advisory Councils – the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, the Historic Buildings Council and the Historic Monuments Council. Professor Burke and his team proposed that they should be amalgamated. Each has a distinct and necessary role which is enshrined in legislation. Members are volunteers and bring particular expertise and experience. They do an excellent job. They do not see any additional benefit from amalgamating the Councils, and nor do I. The Chairs are in regular contact with each other and the Councils co-operate as they see fit to fulfil their objectives. The Historic Buildings Council and the Historic Monuments Council have the Joint Committee for Industrial Heritage, through which they work on joint projects such as advising my Department on the Titanic Quarter. I very much encourage the Councils to work in partnership, but I will not change their status. I recently appointed Patrick Casement as Chair of the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside. I will reconstitute both that Council and the Historic Monuments Council next Spring. Recruitment will be in the Autumn and preparations are already in hand. “Accurate, rigorous and timely data on the state of the environment are essential to good environmental governance”. So said Professor Burke – and I could not agree more. Our first State of the Environment Report was published on the 9th of April. It sets out 30 baseline indicators in 6 environmental policy areas. These are robust figures which allow comparison with the rest of the UK and with Ireland. We will revise our State of the Environment Report every year so that we can keep track of developments. And that is not the only way in which we share data and knowledge. In April alone there were 3 significant conferences supported by DOE – the Environment Forum, the EHS Research Conference and the Marine and Coastal Forum conference. And on 20 May we held our major built heritage conference. I have described how we will increase openness and transparency in our regulatory system. We also need to present our policies and our plans - and the European obligations which drive them - in a more open and transparent way. European environmental legislation is notoriously complex – and there’s an awful lot of it. This means that our policy framework is also voluminous and complex. The challenge for us is to make sure it is better articulated. That is why I am commissioning Northern Ireland’s first White Paper on the Environment and it will be published during the lifetime of this Assembly. 7 It will identify our major objectives in the fields of waste management, climate change, biodiversity, water, landscape and built heritage. It will map out our commitments demonstrating how we will work with other Departments to protect and enhance the environment by fulfilling our European obligations and by implementing effective and complementary initiatives of our own. Referring to the State of the Environment Report, it will link the Programme for Government, the Sustainable Development Strategy and individual policies and strategies. It will look ahead to 2025 – focusing particularly on the next budget period which is from 2011 to 2014. I am confident that the reforms announced here today will deliver better environmental governance in Northern Ireland. But to ensure that effective regulation is being delivered, I believe that in 2011 there should be an independent review of both the policy and legislative development within the Department of the Environment and the effectiveness of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency as a protector, regulator and enforcer. As I said earlier, I want better regulation for a better environment. And that is what we will deliver. We will do it by clarifying and simplifying the existing system. By deploying our talents and resources where they are most needed. And by working in partnership with others. We will prioritise. We will focus on the real problems. And we will solve them. 8
"EPLANI CONFERENCE – PAUL SIMPSONS TALK"