Assembly News (Oct 10) 6 March 2012
By Seán Kelly, Policy Officer, NIEL
Northern Ireland Water (13 September)
In his Ministerial Statement on the future of NIW, the Regional Development Minister outlined his plans for new governance arrangements for the delivery of water and sewerage services. The Minister stated that when he took office, water and sewerage services were already ‘mired in controversy, principally connected to the direct rule plans to impose water charges but also because we needed to meet EU environmental standards and improve an infrastructure that had suffered from underinvestment in the past’. The Minister’s main aim thus far has been to ensure that the investment issues were addressed, which has been done by pumping £750 million into the infrastructure over the past three years, without having to introduce domestic water charges. However, due to the ‘catalogue of events and governance failures that has made improving essential services more difficult’, the Minister stated his intention to bring proposals to the Executive on new governance arrangements based on water and sewerage services being delivered by a body that is ‘clearly within the public service, subject to public service controls and standards and not set up to introduce separate water charges for households or be privatised’.
British–Irish Council: Environment Sectoral Format (14 September)
As the Minister of the Environment was unable to attend, OFMdFM junior Minister Robin provided members with a report on the tenth British–Irish Council meeting held in environment sectoral format at the Dove Marine Laboratory, Newcastle, on Thursday 15 July 2010. The main focus of the meeting was on marine issues, and Ministers were informed about the work of the Marine Management Organisation and Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership and received update papers on Fishing for Litter and integrated coastal zone management. A commitment was made to work together toward good environment status in the seas around BIC members’ coasts in the context of the EU marine strategy framework directive and to explore further the sharing of research vessel resources and training opportunities. Waste has been agreed as the theme for the next ministerial meeting in Wales. They confirmed that the next meeting will be held in Wales in 2011 and that the theme will be waste. Ministers then discussed possible agenda items for future meetings and although there was support for the theme to be biodiversity, it was felt that some work needed to be done to determine whether that is an ‘appropriate work area’.
Answers to Written Questions
Minister for Regional Development
Budget Allocation for Cycling (10 September)
The Minister explained that the Roads Service aims to provide safer roads for the vulnerable road users, including cyclists by utilising a range of measures that include road safety engineering, traffic calming and enhancement of the pedestrian and cycling network. Details of the budget allocations for the provision of these measures in each Roads Service Division were:
|Division ||2008–2009 ||2009–2010 ||2010–2011 |
|North ||£258,030||£265,442 ||£65,000|
There reduction in the 2010/11 budget allocation for cycling measures is due to a reduction in the allocation for Local Transport and Safety Measures (LTSM’s) which is largely in line with the planned level of expenditure arising from Budget 2008. DRD also promotes the use of sustainable modes of transport, including cycling, through its Travelwise initiative. Travelwise expenditure for the annual Bike Week campaigns, which related solely to the promotion of cycling, were £39,700 (2008/09); £42,500 (2009/10); and an estimated £69,500 (2010/11).
Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure
Illegal Fishing in Lough Neagh (17 September)
The Minister provided details on the actions taken by DCAL to counter illegal fishing in Lough Neagh. Since assuming direct responsibility for the enforcement of fisheries protection legislation on 1 June 2009, the DCAL Fisheries Protection Officers (FPO’s) have been organised into teams in 4 operational areas covering Northern, South Eastern and South Western areas as well as a unit focusing on the enforcement of fisheries legislation on Lough Neagh. FPO’s carry out regular patrols on land and water on and around Lough Neagh and its tributaries. The Lough Neagh unit, augmented by other protection staff, patrol Lough Neagh using a number of craft. A total of 61 boat patrols were carried out on Lough Neagh from 1 June 2009 to 31 March 2010. Intelligence led operations are carried out to detect breaches of fisheries legislation. All illegal fishing gear/catches are seized and from 1 June 2009 to 31 March 2010 a total of 8,500m of illegal nets were seized in operations on Lough Neagh. Any persons found to be acting illegally are reported with a view to prosecution. DCAL FPO’s also carry out regular inspections at commercial dealers, fish retail outlets, hotels and restaurants to ensure that all fish being sold have been legally caught.
Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment
Renewable Energy – Feed in Tariffs (17 September)
The Minister revealed that she will consider the local introduction of a small–scale Feed In Tariff (FIT) as introduced in the rest of the UK. Considerations to be taken account of include the impact of subsidies on electricity bills and the ability of any particular incentive mechanism to deliver Northern Ireland’s overall target of 40% electricity from renewable generation by 2020. The Minister also must take account of the coalition Government’s manifesto proposals to extend the Great Britain FIT to generating stations above 5MW capacity as this will have significant implications for the NIRO. While the Minister stated that she would make an announcement in due course once she had all the information, this was is not likely to be before the end of the year.
Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development
Changes to the Less Favoured Area Compensatory Allowance (24 September)
The Minister provided background information on the LFACA and proposals for a revised scheme. Since 2001, the LFACA Scheme has provided support to those who farm in less favoured areas (LFAs). Since then, EU agricultural support has been decoupled and this has brought significant changes to the economics of livestock production. Cattle and sheep numbers in the LFA, and particularly the SDA, have continued to fall and there is increasing evidence of the environmental impact of that in terms of under grazing, scrub encroachment and rush infestation. The current LFA support arrangements are not preventing this and a review and refocusing of the scheme is required. Furthermore, the EU policy framework places LFA support firmly within the ambit of environmental stewardship. DARD have therefore commenced a series of meetings with stakeholder organisations to discuss detailed proposals for a revised LFACA scheme based on the delivery of environmental benefits through active land management. This builds on the substantial public consultation undertaken last year and the extensive body of evidence compiled by the Department. Discussions on the review are on–going and the Minister is keen to receive stakeholder views to inform the way forward.
Answers to Oral Questions
Sustainable Development Commission (13 September)
In the light of DEFRA’s decision to withdraw funding from the SDC, the deputy First Minister stated that OFMDFM are considering a number of options for the delivery of the functions that have to date been supported and carried out by the SDC. The Minister stated that every effort will be made to identify the most effective means of delivering sustainable development priorities and objectives and that the Executive are committed to the principles of sustainable development and to progressing the priorities and strategic objectives set out in our new sustainable development strategy. The Executive will therefore give careful consideration to how it can continue to deliver the functions previously carried out by the commission that have ‘shown themselves to be critical with respect to affecting our ability to meet our objectives’ while maintaining value for money for the Executive. An added factor is that this matter is being considered against the background of the current spending pressures faced by all Departments.
Minister of Enterprise. Trade and Investment
Interreg IV – BioMara Project (14 September)
The Minister provided an update BioMara R&D project. The project is in its second year and is making good progress across the four areas in which it is engaged namely the economic, social and technical impacts of marine biofuels for local industrial and regional energy supply. It is also looking at the local strains of microalgae for their oil potential, and getting oil from algae. The third area covers the use of macroalgae or seaweeds for anaerobic digestion and bioethanol, and the fourth area will be the development of downstream processing, which will not start until 2011. The Minister added that sustainability will be a very important element in the case for marine biofuels, as will environmental impact. The Minister therefore gave her assurances that DETI will be preparing an environmental impact statement to make sure that there is no undue adverse effect on the marine ecosystem as a result of this work.
Minister of the Environment
Planning Policy Statement 7: Addendum (20 September)
The Minister outlined the intended impact of the PPS 7 addendum. Published on 10 August, the addendum to PPS 7, titled ‘Safeguarding the Character of Established Residential Areas’ is designed to better manage the practice of demolishing existing family homes to build apartments. The addendum offers a significant change to the previous planning policy, moves away from the densification policy in the previous regional development strategy and deals effectively with garden grabbing. PPS 7 also encourages people to install sustainable drainage systems, which, by absorbing much more rainfall and releasing it slowly, as opposed to tarmac and hard surfaces that release rainfall very quickly, are particularly important in cities and built–up areas and will ensure a reduction of the flash flooding problem.
Seal Deaths (20 September)
The Minister gave an update on the investigation into the unnatural seal deaths that have occurred off the County Down coast stating that the NIEA has issued a press release to highlight the issue and to encourage the public to report any suspicious activity involving seals to their local PSNI. NIEA is also continuing to assume responsibility for the collection of seal carcasses as part of the arrangement originally linked to monitoring associated with the marine current turbine in the Strangford Narrows. It is as a result of the marine turbine that seal populations have been monitored and the problem has been identified and the inspection of injuries to carcasses that have been collected to date are not consistent with blows from what are relatively blunt blades on the turbines. The Minister did however believe that the problem is related to illegal netting and therefore NIEA are seeking to monitor such activities and, as far as is possible, eliminate them.
Minister for Regional Development
Public Transport: Carbon Emissions (27 September)
The Minister revealed that from 2000 to 2008, CO2 emissions from public transport increased by 24%. However, it should be noted that CO2 emissions for public transport continue to constitute less than 2% of the total CO2 emissions from transport. The total greenhouse gas emissions from public transport remains less than 0•5% of the total greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors. The Minister added that part of the solution is about providing real alternatives, and that is why he is committed to delivering a significant programme of investment to ensure that we have a quality public transport network and supporting infrastructure in place that will encourage motorists to abandon their cars and take the bus or train in significant enough numbers to reduce commuting times. There was also recognition however, that if we are to encourage cleaner vehicles in a modal shift to public transport, we will need to reconsider how we prioritise not only public funding but space on our roads and there will be no easy choices as any lasting solution is likely to have implications for those who choose the car when real and more sustainable alternatives exist.
Belfast Rapid Transit System (BRTS) – Comber Greenway (27 September)
The Minister provided an update on the BRTS stating that DRD are in the process of completing the outline business case, which will identify the preferred options for the network routes, procurement strategy, commercial business model and fare system for the BRTS. The surveyed data collection work is now complete, and preliminary designs for all route alignment options are being prepared. Identifying the preferred options will allow the DRD to undertake the necessary public consultation, impact assessments and appraisals on the scheme. The public awareness exercise, will give everyone an opportunity to comment on all the options. The necessary legislative powers to allow DRD to implement the Belfast rapid transit system are included in the new Transport Bill, which was introduced in the Assembly on 21 June and is now in Committee. DRD are also liaising with other relevant bodies to develop traffic management proposals through the Belfast city centre traffic management project. The proposals are in accordance with the strategy set out in the Belfast metropolitan transport plan, and the Minister will be making an announcement on the proposals on Thursday 30 September at Belfast City Hall. Meanwhile both the Comber Greenway and the Upper Newtownards Road were examined as possible routes, and the assessment of both continues. The Minister added that he had been made aware of the objections to using the Comber Greenway route and has had the opportunity to visit and walk the route. The use of the Upper Newtownards Road will have a considerable impact on the volume of traffic that can use that road for parking and for accessing shops. The Minister hopes to make an announcement on the chosen route when we get to the consultation phase.
Extension of Committee Stages (20 & 27 September)
The Chairpersons of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, and the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment both sought and received agreement for the extension of the Committee Stages of forthcoming Bills. The Committee Stage of the Welfare of Animals Bill has been extended to 13 December 2010, while the Committee Stage of the Energy Bill has been extended to the 29 November 2010. During Committee Business on the 27th September it was further agreed that Committee Stage of the Tourism (Amendment) Bill be extended to 29 November and the Committee Stage of the Transport Bill be extended to 17 December 2010.