Points of View 14th February 2018

NI Open Government Network Blog – Environmental governance and democracy in Northern Ireland

by Connor McLean

Written by Jonathan Bell

UN Sustainable Development Goal 16, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. This Goal implies a link between strong and accountable Institutions and the realisation of sustainable development.  Indeed, the quality and condition of our environment is directly affected by the way in which our democracy functions. The correlation between the environment and democracy is demonstrated through the Aarhus Convention, to which the UK is a signatory. Accordingly, Northern Ireland is expected to uphold the three pillars of the Convention – Access to Environmental Information, Public Participation in Decision-making, and Access to Justice in environmental matters.

Devolution of political powers back to Northern Ireland represented a watershed moment that was intended to bring about democratic renewal, through more responsive and proximate governing. However, the NI Executive has suffered from political paralysis and struggled to pass meaningful legislation. Any new governing arrangements must enable more legislation to be passed and incorporate greater levels of accountability.

Northern Ireland has experienced a number of challenges around environmental regulation and governance. For example, discovery of illegal dumping on a massive scale has thrown environmental governance into the public spotlight. Meanwhile, RHI has demonstrated the difficulties that can arise around the administration of a green energy scheme. These issues have contributed to political instability. The political Institutions have now collapsed, the democratising intentions of devolved governance have not been met and the very existence of devolved government in Northern Ireland is in jeopardy. Therefore, addressing the challenges around devolution and democracy cannot be resolved without creating new and robust arrangements for environmental governance.

The collapse of the Institutions can be attributed, in part, to the way in which the region has failed to effectively deliver sustainable development and environmental governance. The most important aspect of improving environmental governance in Northern Ireland is creating a separation between environmental regulation and policy responsibilities. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that does not have an independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Indeed, regulatory failures in Northern Ireland have been attributed to the lack of an independent regulator:

Although the presence of an IEPA is not necessarily a prerequisite for effective environmental protection, many of the regulatory failures that have occurred over the past 30 years have been attributed to this feature [lack of an independent regulator] of Northern Ireland’s environmental governance arrangements (Brennan et al., 2017, p128).

The financial costs of weak environmental regulation, perhaps offers the strongest argument politically for urgent action. While conservative estimates suggest RHI has the potential to cost up to £500million, the clean-up of illegal landfill sites could cost upwards of £400million. Weak enforcement of environmental law has also contributed to considerable loss in tax revenue.  For example, fuel laundering between 2009 and 2014 is estimated to have cost £400 million in lost revenue[1], while illegal landfilling is estimated to have cost over £100 million in lost landfill taxes and charges[2]. These criminal activities, which have been linked to paramilitary gangs[3] also undermine democracy and attempts to create a more normal and peaceful society. Not only is weak environmental regulation jeopardising the integrity of Northern Ireland’s vitally important environmental asset, but it is threatening the economic viability and political stability of the region.

An independent regulator would transfer regulatory responsibility away from the political arena and Government Departmental responsibility and would begin the process of strengthening environmental governance and restoring public trust and confidence. Brennan et al. (2017) outline both the gravity of the situation and potential opportunity that now exists:

A unique moment in time may have been created where there are opportunities to reform environmental governance structures, remould political attitudes to the environment and set in place a plan for full-scale renovation of Northern Ireland’s approach to environmental protection. On the other hand, continued sidelining of these issues will have serious implications for decades to come (p125)

It is impossible to discuss environmental regulation without mentioning Brexit and the potential for the impacts to be felt more acutely in Northern Ireland than other parts of the UK. EU legislation has been the primary driver of legislative modernisation in Northern Ireland. Post-Brexit there is a danger of legislative and policy stagnation. This could be compounded by the lack of a NI Assembly to pass legislation. In the absence of an Executive, Direct rule intervention from Westminster will be required to provide much needed updating of legislation in Northern Ireland to align with the rest of the UK.

Fundamental reforms are necessary to revive environmental democracy in Northern Ireland. Reforms must deliver increased levels of public accountability, provide regulatory independence, enable key pieces of legislation to be passed and improve citizen’s access to environmental information. Reform of environmental governance is fundamental to delivering democratic renewal and helping to build a politically stable society. Better environmental governance will help safeguard Northern Ireland’s environment which in turn will strengthen the economy and contribute to enhanced societal well-being.

[1] HL Deb 15 July 2014, vol 755, col 501, Question: Northern Ireland: Illegal Petrol and Diesel’ www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201415/ldhansrd/text/140715-0001.htm#14071553000425.

[2] ‘It is impossible to evaluate the exact landfill tax that has been lost with any accuracy as the precise tonnage of waste dumped is unclear and not all the waste that has been buried would have been subject to landfill tax. A crude estimation, if closer to one-and-a-half million tonnes has been buried at Mobuoy Road, is that the lost tax revenue could be over £100 million. Adding the further 561,000 tonnes of waste that has been discovered at the other 89 NIEA enforcement cases at various stages in the investigative/legal process, then this could potentially add another £35 million to the total figure of tax evaded’ (Brennan et al. 2017).

[3] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmniaf/1504/1504.pdf

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