Assembly News (June/July 12) 5 July 2012
Executive Committee Business
Local Government (Boundaries) Order (Northern Ireland) 2012 (12 June)
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/Assembly-Business/Official-Report/Reports-11-12/12-June-2012/#a2 A further step in reforming local government in Northern Ireland has been taken as the Assembly approved the Local Government (Boundaries) Order (Northern Ireland) 2012. The legislation sets the boundaries of 11 new local government districts as well as the number, boundaries and names of the wards into which each district will be divided. The 11 local government districts are: Belfast District; Derry and Strabane District; Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon District; Lisburn and Castlereagh District; Newry, Mourne and Down District; Antrim and Newtownabbey District; North Down and Ards District; Causeway Coast and Glens District; Fermanagh and Omagh District; Mid and East Antrim District; and Mid Ulster District.
Supply Resolution: Main Estimates 2012–13 (18 June)
During the debate on the Supply Resolution, theChairperson for the Committee of the Environment highlighted the financial pressures DoE were facing. Some 80% of DoE’s discretionary expenditure is on staff salaries, while it relies heavily on income from planning applications for its funding. At the start of this Budget period, DoE advised the Committee that it was looking at an income of some £10 million less, a 45% drop on that of three years ago. The Committee is deeply concerned about the long–term impacts of that on the DoE’s delivery of its services. The Chairperson also raised real concerns over the lack of funding to meet the EU water framework directive’s requirements and the risk of infraction fines. While limited funding will be available from the single–use levy is pending, but we also know that it is unlikely to provide the revenue required in time to ensure that the necessary work is done. In fact, if it is successful in its aim, it will generate no revenue at all. The Environment Committee is adamant that the levy should not be used as a tax to generate essential funding for DOE, and I urge the Assembly to ensure that the necessary funding is provided to ensure that we can meet European standards for our environment.
Executive: Legislative Programme 2012–13 (3 July) http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/Assembly-Business/Official-Report/Reports-11-12/03-July-2012/#a2
Junior Minister Mr Bell, advised the Assembly of the legislation that Ministers intend to introduce during the 2012–13 session. Ministers have identified 26 Bills for potential introduction in the 2012–13 Assembly session, these include: The DARD Minister is considering responses to a consultation on a regulatory framework for the management and inspection of reservoirs, which will require primary legislation. The purpose of the Bill will be to minimise the risk of flooding after an uncontrolled release of water thereby protecting human life, the environment, cultural heritage and economic activity; The DETI Minister intends to introduce two Bills to reform energy distribution and tariffs. A gas Bill will harmonise arrangements for gas North and South. There will also be an energy Bill, which will provide for a number of key energy initiatives, including powers for a feed–in tariff, offshore decommissioning of renewable energy installations and gas storage. The Bill will also amend the duties of DETI and regulator to do with sustainability, meter certification and supplier obligation; The Minister of the Environment intends to introduce a local government (reorganisation) Bill, to provide for new governance arrangements for councils, a new ethical standards regime, the introduction of community planning powers for local government and an updated service–delivery and performance–improvement regime. The Minister announced plans to introduce a levy on single–use carrier bags in April 2013. A carrier bag levy Bill will enable an extension of the levy to certain reusable bags in April 2014. He intends to provide for the identification, designation and management of national parks through the introduction of a national parks Bill. He proposes to introduce a planning Bill to bring forward a number of the planning reforms contained in the Planning Act 2011 and apply them to DoE in advance of the transfer of powers to local councils; The DRD Minister will implement the Executive’s commitment to households that they will ensure no additional water charges during this PfG period by introducing a water and sewerage services Bill.
Public Accounts Committee Reports and Memoranda of Reply (26 June)
During the debate Mr Easton commented on two PAC Reports in particular namely: the reports on the farm nutrient management scheme (FNMS) and on the safeguarding of Northern Ireland’s listed buildings. He stated that in terms of the FNMS DARD provided grant support for farmers to build additional storage that would be required under the directive, and when, in 2007, the budget was increased to £144 million, it became one of the largest grant schemes run by DARD. The scheme had a number of shortfalls including the gross overvaluation of the Crossnacreevy site (the initial valuation of £200 million was the basis for securing an additional £89 million of capital funding from DFP), and the large amount of money had been spent (£121 million) without any evidence of the extent to which it had contributed to improving water quality in Northern Ireland. Mr Easton cast a great deal of doubt over the entire scheme’s effectiveness stating that in 2010, the breach levels were detected at 21%, which is one in five of the farms that were inspected. Sixty–eight of those breaches were discovered on farms that had received grants under the FNMS.
Archaeological Artefacts (2 July) http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/Assembly-Business/Official-Report/Reports-11-12/02-July-2012/#a18
Members debated and passed a joint motion proposed by the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Committee for the Environment: That this Assembly notes that there are gaps in the policy frameworks and legislation relating to the excavation of archaeological artefacts from planning–led developments, particularly in relation to the long–term curation and storage of such items; and calls on the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Minister of the Environment to address these issues, which straddle their Departments, and to gain a greater understanding of the material that has been excavated to date. Both committees had concerns about the lack of statutory and planning policy provisions, which has led to issues around the ownership and long–term curation of archaeological artefacts and excavation records not being addressed and therefore putting Northern Ireland’s heritage at risk. She added that indications are that approximately 1·47 million archaeological objects are being held by commercial companies outside the museum sector and stated that commercial companies are not suitable permanent repositories for artefacts in that ‘they are also inaccessible to the public and researchers and, therefore, are not to the public benefit’. Held in this way, ‘artefacts are vulnerable to theft, decomposition or the disposal of assets should such companies enter into receivership’. Although there is provision under PPS 6 requiring a developer to apply for an excavation licence and record the remains, there is no policy relating to a deposition and curation of archaeological artefacts. In response the Environment Minister outlined a number of actions he proposes to undertake in relation to the issue including convening a summit that avails of best practice from elsewhere, and people outside the system of government who can challenge the system to make things better.
Written Answers to Questions Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development
Rural White Paper Action Plan (15 June)
The Minister announced that the Executive approved the Rural White Paper Action Plan on 31 May 2012. The Rural White Paper Action Plan includes commitments by each Department in relation to rural areas. It is the first initiative to focus entirely on rural issues and to include commitments by all government Departments. The Minister stated that it had been a very intensive process involving extensive consultation with stakeholders and government departments and she was currently arranging for the document to be formally published and will be officially launching the Action Plan shortly.
Common Agricultural Policy (15 June)
The Minister provided an update on the reform of the CAP. The EU Commission published its formal CAP reform proposals on 19 October 2011. The central features of the farm support arrangements within this package include a move to a flat rate payment per hectare at a regional level by 2019 and the introduction of new environmental requirements (greening). There are also proposals for a number of additional compulsory and optional direct support payments. The reform proposals relating to farm support have attracted considerable criticism across Europe, not least due to the complexity surrounding greening and the fact that the current single support payment would be replaced by up to six (and in some cases more) separate payments. The other elements of the reform package, notably around rural development, have proven less controversial. Following the publication of the proposals, the Minister launched a full public consultation and received significant and valuable feedback from stakeholders. Taking due account of this input, she prepared and presented a response to the EU Commission proposals to Georg Haeusler, Head of Cabinet for Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos, on 19 April 2012. In this response, she sought ‘to be constructive and offered various suggestions aimed at improving the focus of the Commission’s proposals as well as achieving significant simplification’. Although there has been very considerable discussion and debate in Brussels since the reform proposals were published last autumn, to date there has been fairly limited progress in the negotiations, with the EU Commission unwilling so far to concede many Member States’ suggestions for change. The European Parliament is currently in the process of preparing its response to the proposals. The Minister stated that she expected the negotiations to intensify in the latter part of 2012 and continue into 2013 and while it is not possible to state exactly when an overall agreement will be reached, agreement on the EU budget for 2014–20 will be an important and necessary precursor to a deal on CAP reform.
Minister of the Environment 2012–13 European Climate Change Priorities (15 June)
The Minister was asked for his assessment of the benefit of new Climate Change legislation in helping to achieve their 2012–13 European Climate Change Priorities. The Minister replied that policy development to support the proposed Northern Ireland Climate Change Bill is currently under way. Although the Bill may not be introduced to the Assembly before early 2014 he was attempting to accelerate this timescale. As such, it will not impact directly on achievement of the key objectives under the Climate Change and Energy thematic priority of the European Priorities 2012–13: Winning in Europe document, although it will be a key driver to meeting similar objectives in future European Priorities. However, one of the overall key aims of the 2012–13 document is to “…work to strengthen our European engagement to realise fully the opportunities which the EU presents, to influence and shape future policy and build our positive profile”. In terms of a NI Climate Change Bill, the Minister stated he had met with the Climate Chaos Coalition, farming groups and others on the issue of emissions and believed a Northern Ireland Bill is necessary and should have challenging targets.
Fines Imposed on People in Breach of Environmental Requirements (22 June) http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/Documents/Answer-Book/2012/120622r.pdf Page WA 99
The Minister was asked to detail how his Department has used the revenue collected through fines imposed on people in breach of environmental requirements. In reply the Minister stated that NIEA has obligations to regulate and monitor potentially damaging activities, respond to breaches of environmental legislation and investigate suspected environmental crime. While the Agency expects full voluntary compliance, they will not hesitate to use enforcement powers, including prosecution where deemed necessary and there ‘is a growing body of evidence that enforcement in this mandate is escalating’. Once a case goes to court it is up to the magistrate to determine if NIEA has proved the case beyond all reasonable doubt and if so to set a fine appropriate to the offence. The scale and imposition of penalties and sentences is therefore a matter for the courts and not a matter for DoE. While the Minister believes that funds generated in NI should remain in NI, currently, fines imposed by Courts are credited by the Northern Ireland Court Service to the Treasury Consolidated Fund and paid to the Treasury. The Magistrate however, can also impose a payment of court costs on the polluter. Any claim for payment for investigation and clean– up costs from the polluter by the Agency is always pursued independently by NIEA.
Independent Committee on Climate Change (29 June) http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/Documents/Answer-Book/2012/120629.pdf Page WA 239
The Minister stated that while he had not yet requested that the independent Committee on Climate Change carries out an audit of climate change activity in Northern Ireland, he intends to build in such a role for the Committee in his plans for a Climate Change Bill. The Committee on Climate Change already provides assistance to Northern Ireland on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and be prepared for the impacts of climate change. The Minister recently sought and was provided with advice by the Committee on the appropriateness of Northern Ireland climate change legislation. The Committee is currently dealing with a request by DARD to provide a robust methodology to measure greenhouse gas emissions per unit of commodity output at the farm–gate. It also engages with DOE officials routinely on UK wide matters including progress being made against UK greenhouse gas reduction targets by Northern Ireland Departments.
Minister of Finance and Personnel
Green New Deal (1 June)
The Minister was asked what will happen to the £4m set aside for the Green New Deal if it is not spent and what flexibility exists to spend the money on other projects. In response the Minister stated that on 18 May 2012, DFP Supply approved a business case submitted by DSD to consider ‘Options for Increasing Domestic Energy & Thermal Efficiency in Northern Ireland’. This case was the outworking of the cross–departmental group created to consider the Green New Deal Coalition’s (GNDC) business model and the GND proposal was one of two shortlisted options. The Minister added that ‘Although innovative, the GND business model was not sufficiently advanced and retained a prohibitive level of risk in relation to both financial and non–monetary aspects of the model. The preferred option, which will avail of the funding allocated for a ‘Green New Deal’ solution is a Northern Ireland Housing Executive led boiler replacement programme that will generate some £27million in terms of wider economic benefits over the next three years’.
Minister for Regional Development
Public Bicycle Schemes in Cities (1 June)
The Minister was asked what DRD has given to the introduction of public bicycle schemes in cities, similar to those in place in London and Dublin. In response the Minister stated that a partnership project was established in 2010 involving Belfast City Council, DRD and the Strategic Investment Board to investigate the feasibility of introducing a public bike hire scheme in Belfast. In August 2010, following a successful tender, Grant Thornton were appointed by the partnership to complete an outline business case. The final report concluded that an opportunity exists for the introduction of a bike hire scheme in Belfast. Officials have been considering the report with a view to agreeing the most appropriate way forward.
Buses: Renewable Energy (1 June)
The Minister was asked what steps he intends to take to introduce a new generation of buses which are more reliant on renewable energy than on fossil fuels. The Minister replied that Translink already uses one twentieth (5%) bio–diesel fuel, but there were doubts about whether this bio–diesel element can be increased. DRD has, however, funded Translink to invest in initiatives to reduce the use of fuels used by its buses. Over the past 18 months Translink has installed idle shut down systems in three quarters (75%) of its fleet ensuring that engines switch off once they have been idling for a pre–determined time. Following a successful eco–driving pilot which demonstrated that specific driver training supported by on–bus systems to inform drivers as to their ‘driving style’ can yield fuel efficiency gains, roll out of this system is due to commence in June 2012.
Construction of Cycle Lanes (22 June) http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/Documents/Answer-Book/2012/120622r.pdf Page WA 170
In responding to a question on cycle lanes the Minister revealed that the Annual Cycling Usage Report for Northern Ireland 2000–2010 contains information on the average daily flow of cycle journeys recorded at both shared and dedicated cycle facilities and shows increases over 47% in the number of cyclists across Northern Ireland recorded. The average daily cycle flow in 2003 based on the Survey was 1245 and in 2010 was 1837. This is likely to understate the volume of regular cyclists. The report is currently being updated.
Oral Answers to Questions
Minister of the Environment
National Park (18 June) http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/Assembly-Business/Official-Report/Reports-11-12/18-June-2012/#a7
The Minister provided an update on his plans for the creation of a national park. He stated that a paper is in circulation around the Executive at the moment and he plans to revise that paper. With the Executive’s support, before the recess in July, the principle of legislation for national parks will have been endorsed. He will then be able to take that forward, with the intention of tabling legislation in the Chamber during the course of this calendar year. In parallel to that, the DoE will continue its work to identify potential candidate sites for national park designation so that, as soon as possible after the legislation receives Royal Assent — if that is what transpires — not just one but two parts of Northern Ireland will be designated as national parks. The Minister provided reassurance that any national parks legislation that the Assembly might be inclined to endorse will fit the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, and that no individual or section of the community can have a veto on the principle or designation of national parks.
SUMMER RECESS 2012: Please note: The Assembly will be on Summer Recess from 7 July 2012. The Business Committee will resume on 4 September 2012 with the first plenary sitting on 10 September 2012.