AQW 21673/17-22 – Independent Environmental Protection Agency

Mr Patsy McGlone (Mid Ulster): To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs when will he establish the Independent Environmental Protection Agency, as agreed in New Decade, New Approach.

Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs: I believe that good environmental governance is about focusing on environmental outcomes and taking a strategic approach to the environmental challenges that we face in NI and on the global stage.

I am on record as saying that I am considering the implications of the NDNA proposal for the establishment of an IEPA to form part of the possible outline of a future Programme for Government. The NDNA Agreement does not specify a timeframe for the establishment of an IEPA and neither I, nor the Executive, have taken a decision not to establish an IEPA.

An IEPA, in other words a replacement for the NI Environment Agency, cannot be created overnight – consideration needs to be given to appropriate options and these will require robust economic appraisal to determine the best option for Northern Ireland. It is no small task to scope all of the potential impacts, including significant legislative, financial and human resource issues, which would be necessary before decisions can be made.

The Assembly has given its consent to extend the provisions of the UK Environment Bill giving effect to an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to Northern Ireland and my officials have reviewed the responses to a discussion document issued to gauge stakeholder views on how we should deal with environmental plans, principles and governance in the future. A synopsis of responses shall be published shortly.

The functions of the OEP will be to: provide independent scrutiny and advice on environmental law and policy; investigate environmental complaints; and, if necessary, take enforcement action against public authorities who breach environmental law. It is important to note that the OEP will not take action against individuals or private businesses – that role remains the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and other enforcement agencies – the OEP will exist to hold government to account for the proper implementation of environmental law.

Understandably, in the current crisis resources are spread more thinly than I would like and so some prioritisation has been necessary. There are other issues that need to be addressed first, such as the OEP and the Green Growth Strategy, which will help in our recovery from the devastating effects of Covid-19.

Bearing in mind that the introduction of climate change legislation is also a commitment within NDNA, I trust that you will be giving your full support to the Bill which I introduced to the Assembly on 5 July.