Date: 19 November 2013
ISBN: Only available online
Membership and Powers
The Committee for the Environment is a Statutory Departmental Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of the Belfast Agreement, section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and under Standing Order 48.
The Committee has power to:
- Consider and advise on Departmental budgets and annual plans in the context of the overall budget allocation;
- Consider relevant secondary legislation and take the Committee stage of primary legislation;
- Call for persons and papers;
- Initiate inquires and make reports; and
- Consider and advise on any matters brought to the Committee by the Minister of the Environment
The Committee has 11 members including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of 5. The membership of the Committee since 9 May 2011 has been as follows:
Ms Anna Lo MBE (Chairperson)
Mr Simon Hamilton (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Cathal Boylan
Mr Sydney Anderson (1)
Mr Colum Eastwood (4)
Mr Tom Elliott (2)
Mrs Dolores Kelly (3)
Mr Barry McElduff (5)
Mr Ian Milne (6)
Mr Peter Weir
1 Mr Sydney Anderson replaced Mr Alastair Ross on 7 May 2013
2 Mr Tom Elliott replaced Mr Danny Kinahan on 23 April 2012
3 Mrs Dolores Kelly replaced Mr Patsy McGlone on 23 April 2012
4 Mr Colum Eastwood replaced Mr John Dallat on 18 June 2012
5 Mr Barry McElduff replaced Mr Chris Hazzard on 10 September 2012
6 Mr Ian Milne replaced Mr Francie Molloy on 15 April 2013
During the Assembly session 2012-2013 the Environment Committee continued its scrutiny of a wide range of issues referred to it by the Department. This included the completion of the Committee stage of the Planning Bill and the commencement of the Committee stage of the Carrier Bags Bill. The Committee also concluded its inquiry into the safe disposal of used tyres.
In addition, the Committee engaged with a wide range of stakeholders, both within and outside Parliament Buildings.
The Planning Bill was referred to the Committee on 22 January 2013; 112 responses were received to its request for written evidence on the clauses of the Bill, indicating the high level of public interest in this legislation. The Committee offered all respondents an opportunity to present their views in order to inform its consideration of the key areas of the Bill, prior to producing its Report in June. The Committee made a number of recommendations, which were accepted by the Department and delivered through commitments for action or amendments to the Bill.
The Committee also began its consideration of the Carrier Bags Bill on 12 June 2013 and issued a call for evidence over the summer recess. The Committee stage of this Bill is scheduled to end by 30 November 2013.
During the year the Committee considered 35 Statutory Rules dealing with areas right across the Department’s remit . When scrutinising The Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc.) (Amendment) Regulations (NI) 2012, members expressed concerns at the possibility of infraction proceedings and the lack of a full Departmental consultation on the Rule. Despite these reservations the Committee agreed that it was content with the Rule but emphasised to the Department that future regulations on this issue needed to be dealt with in a timelier manner, and with appropriate consultation. Members raised similar issues with Regulations relating to Local Government reform, where very little opportunity was provided for scrutiny before the Rules were laid – the Department has provided assurances that this will be avoided in future.
The Department continued the process of introducing subordinate legislation relating to the Taxis Act 2008 in June 2013. In response to concerns raised by organisations representing the taxi industry, the Committee challenged the Department’s intention to introduce a Statutory Rule on single-tier licensing. The Committee believed that the legislation was not being presented in an appropriate sequence and that single tier taxi licensing should follow taximeter and fares legislation, rather than precede it. In response, the Department has instead agreed to introduce single tier arrangements as part of a suite of legislation in September 2014, allowing the Committee time for thorough scrutiny.
Inquiry into the Safe Disposal of Used Tyres in Northern Ireland
During the 2011-2012 session the Committee initiated an inquiry into the safe disposal of used tyres. The Committee agreed to issue an interim report in April 2012, pending the outcome of all-island survey of used tyres by the Department of the Environment which would provide up to date figures and a detailed analysis of the waste tyre sector.
Having received this further information from the Department in February 2013, and taken further oral evidence relating to it, the Committee reconsidered each of its twenty interim recommendations. This reconsideration led the Committee to revise its recommendations down to twelve. The Department confirmed that it intended to incorporate the Committee’s final recommendations into its Used Tyre Action Plan, and indeed some of the Committee’s interim recommendations had already been implemented. The Committee agreed to publish its final report on 25 April 2013 and members await the Department’s formal response.
The Committee gave its support to the Department’s proposed budget at the start of the year, and welcomed the general direction of expenditure and priorities. Members accepted that constraints and prioritisation were unavoidable due to the required cuts and, recognised that the on-going decline in planning application fees was adding to the pressures being faced by the Department. Staffing difficulties in DOE’s Planning Division continued to concern the Committee; the Committee therefore welcomed the introduction of a voluntary redundancy scheme for planners under the Executive’s Invest to Save Scheme and supported DOE’s bid to secure funds for it.
The Committee expressed concerns about the necessity for adequate enforcement of environmental measures and the need to ensure that these measures are properly funded. Accordingly, members were in agreement with the additional finance made available to the Department under the June monitoring allocation in order to address fuel laundering and environmental crime.
Revenue generated from the recent introduction of the carrier bags levy is unlikely to compensate for the amount of £4m removed from the budget – perversely, the success of the scheme has resulted in lower receipts - so the Committee was disappointed that the bid submitted under June monitoring to cover the net deficit arising from this was not met.
The Committee also felt strongly that progress on achieving targets on River Basin Management Plans has been severely hampered by inadequate funding. The overall status of water bodies within Northern Ireland has not changed significantly since 2009, with only 29% currently at ‘Good’ status. The status of our largest inland water, Lough Neagh, is in the lowest possible category - particularly concerning to the Committee as this is the source of 40% of our tap water.
The Committee’s scrutiny of policy has mirrored the wide remit of the Department. The Department has consulted extensively on proposed policy changes and the Committee has considered the responses received to these consultations, requesting Departmental briefings where it felt it needed more information.
The Committee was particularly engaged with policy proposals for bringing forward enabling legislation for the creation of national parks in Northern Ireland. As well as taking evidence from relevant stakeholders, the Committee also visited National Parks in Scotland and the Lake District to evaluate the possible impact of such a designation in this country. The evidence from this fact finding trip will inform future policy scrutiny in this area, particularly in assessing powers to be delegated to any future National Park managing authority.
Committee members meet with representatives of the Lake District National Park Authority
The Committee also extended the scope of its scrutiny of forthcoming European policy after it became aware that the EC was consulting on proposals that would radically change MOT testing in Northern Ireland. The proposals were aimed at improving road safety across Europe but, as drafted, they would incur significant costs for small businesses in Northern Ireland with little impact on road deaths. Since the Department had not informed the Committee about these proposals there was insufficient time to make its concerns known through OFMDFM, but members spoke directly, via conference call, to the Chairperson of the House of Lords EU Sub Committee dealing with the proposals. The Committee’s concerns were included in the UK response to the proposals, which were subsequently amended to address those concerns.
The Committee places great emphasis on facilitating engagement with both individuals and organisations, and to this end it hosted two stakeholder sessions on the Planning Bill as well as an event which offered an opportunity to various groups to discuss a range of issues in a more informal setting.
The stakeholder event on the Planning Bill took place in the Long Gallery, Parliament Buildings and was attended by over 80 people. The event focused mainly on the two clauses of the Bill which had been singled out by the majority of those who responded to the Committee’s call for evidence. Participants were invited to give their views on these two clauses as well as other areas of the Bill. The meeting was also attended by Departmental officials who participated in the discussion. Members found this a very useful evidence-gathering exercise, both in terms of the quality of the information received and the most effective use of time.
The Committee also engaged with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and Gaeltacht in a joint event held in Enniskillen in October 2012 to discuss the difficulties faced in planning issues and especially on their impact in town centres in border areas.
During the period of this report, September 2012 – August 2013, the Committee met 35 times. Where possible meetings were held in public session, but on 6 occasions it was necessary for the meeting to go into closed session. These occasions related to the discussion of Committee reports, the oral communication of legal advice and, in one instance, a Ministerial briefing on a matter which was sub-judice.
Five meetings were held outside Parliament Buildings at the Killyhevlin Hotel, Enniskillen; Clotworthy House, Antrim; the Verbal Arts Centre, Derry-Londonderry; the NILGA Conference 2013, Everglades Hotel, Derry-Londonderry; and the Silver Birch Hotel, Omagh. All these meetings allowed the members to engage with their hosts and to incorporate local issues in the agenda for the Committee meeting.
Members taking part in the panel question and answer session at the NILGA annual conference
In addition to a fact-finding visit to Scotland and the Lake District, the Committee also undertook a number of more local visits. These included trips to Kilkeel and Rathlin Island to inform members’ understanding of marine conservation; to Antrim to observe the work of the Freshwater Task Force; to Derry-Londonderry to view how the Department carries out its role in recording, conserving and protecting historic monuments and buildings; and to the Sperrins to assess the impact of wind turbines.
Committee members meet with representatives of the Northern Ireland Freshwater Taskforce to observe water quality at the Six Mile Water River in Antrim
In addition, the Environment Committee joined with the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure to see at first-hand the progress of the archeaological dig funded by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency at Drumclay Crannog in Fermanagh. This enabled both Committees to get an insight into the painstaking work necessary to garner evidence of previous settlements – on this occasion under severe time pressure to allow the completion of the A32 in time for the G8 summit in June 2013.
Key priorities for 2013 - 2014
In the next session the Committee is likely to focus on scrutiny of legislation for the reorganisation of local government, the Road Traffic Amendment Bill and the Carrier Bags Bill.
Members will also continue to monitor the progress towards climate change targets through effective waste management, the improvement of water quality in rivers and lakes, and the environmental impact of wind energy.
Committee for the Environment – Expenditure for the period
Committee travel – Committee members and staff travel and subsistence in relation to visits and meetings outside Parliament Buildings
Includes the costs of external meetings at the Killyhevlin Hotel, Enniskillen; Clotworthy House, Antrim; the Verbal Arts Centre, Derry-Londonderry; the NILGA Conference 2013, Everglades Hotel, Derry-Londonderry; and the Silver Birch Hotel, Omagh
Printing of Committee reports
Reports and CD ROMS on Inquiry Report into the Management of Used Tyres and the Planning Bill
Advertising – the cost of public notices relating to Committee inquiries, the Committee stage of bills and meetings held outside Parliament Buildings
Public notice calling for evidence on the Carrier Bags Bill and the Planning Bill
Committee meeting refreshments, room hire, stakeholder engagement events and hospitality