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Assembly News (July 11) 6 March 2012

By Seán Kelly, Policy Officer, NIEL

Executive Committee Business 13 June

Supply Resolution for the Northern Ireland Main Estimates 2011–12 and Supply Resolution for the 2009–2010 Excess Votes
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/record/reports2011/110613.htm#a4

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Anna Lo) revealed that the Committee received a departmental briefing on the Budget for 2011–15 at its meeting on 9 June. Members heard that the DoE is facing many pressures on its budget, with the actual current expenditure pressure for this year, 2011–12, amounting to £11•7 million. This represented a significant amount for a Department with a relatively small budget. Income from planning receipts has dropped dramatically, with a 45% decrease in the past three years. The DoE now finds itself in a situation in which it has to cut costs across a range of functions. The Chair added that Committee is particularly concerned with the funding cuts to the voluntary and community sector and to NGOs. It is well recognised that those sectors perform vital roles at a fraction of the cost and that they represent value for money and often use their grant money to lever in considerably more money than government could ever do. She urged not just the DOE but all Departments to try to limit the funding cuts as best they can, as it may cost more to bring some of the services that they provide back into the Departments. The Assembly Committee has asked for a list of all groups funded and their levels of funding, and it feels that, if there are to be cuts, the groups involved need to know as soon as possible to allow them time to prepare and seek other funding sources. Undoubtedly, DOE budget cuts will lead to a reduction in the services that it is able to provide, and the Committee heard from officials that the impact of cuts will be felt across the board, with less money being available to maintain country parks and for the Environment Agency to conduct its enforcement activities.

Written Answers to Questions

Minister of the Environment
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2011mandate/writtenans/2011/110603.htm#7
Single Use Carrier Bags (3 June)
The Minister stated that the detailed framework for the introduction of a carrier bag charge – including both the amount and the scope of the charge – will be contained in subordinate legislation made under the Climate Change Act 2008, as amended by the Single Use Carrier Bags Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. This will allow for full consultation on the detailed policy proposals, discussion by the Executive and subsequent debate in the Assembly. Although the Minister was being advised that charging may be in place by April 2013, he considered this timeframe unreasonable and was looking at how this can be accelerated.

Review of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (3 June)
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2011mandate/writtenans/2011/110603.htm#7
The Minister outlined his commitment to reviewing the present role and functions of the Environment Agency and would look at the case for an independent environment protection agency as part of the review. He has asked officials to initiate a programme of work within DoE with a view to bringing forward options for his consideration. While the establishment of an independent environment protection agency would be an exercise with significant implications that may require the introduction of new primary legislation in this Assembly, the Minister stated that the proposal has ‘clear attractions’. A full consultation exercise on proposals emerging from his review will be required along with a detailed analysis of the potential costs and benefits. The Minister has asked for proposals to be with him before the July holidays.

Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2011mandate/writtenans/2011/110610.htm#2
Woodland (10 June)
The Minister confirmed her intention that woodland creation targets are included in the next PfG. The Minister admitted that woodland expansion targets have been difficult to achieve in the recent past and we have seen a decline in the area of woodland created. This has been due to a number of factors, including the farmer definition within the Farm Woodland Premium Scheme and a number of applicants with approvals possibly having chosen to delay their commitment to woodland creation in the hope that the farmer definition criteria will be amended. However DARD have received a negative response from the EU Commission on this issue and will be advising woodland stakeholders. Competition with the Woodland Grant Scheme and other Departmental land–based schemes, such as the Countryside Management Scheme, which can appear more attractive to farmers has also impacted on the uptake of woodland schemes. This issue will be considered in the context of a review of Agri–environment programmes in consultation with Policy and Service Delivery Group colleagues. Forest Service will include a target in their Business Plan 2011/12 around an appropriate programme of work on how best to incentivise and promote woodland expansion.

Less Favoured Area Payments (17 June)
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2011mandate/writtenans/2011/110617.htm#2
In her assessment of the European Commission’s policy review of Less Favoured Area payments and the potential impact of changes to these payments, the Minister indicated that latest indications are that the Commission will bring forward a formal legislative proposal on an objective classification system for areas with natural handicaps later this year. Local map simulation work based on the Commission’s initial proposed biophysical criteria suggested that the re–designated areas would be broadly in line with the current Severely Disadvantaged Areas. The future of LFA support beyond 2013 will depend on the outcomes of both this re–designation exercise and the EU CAP reform process. The Minister stated that she was clear in her own mind as to the need for a robust support framework in areas of natural handicap – areas which encompass many of our most valuable landscapes and habitats – and the benefits this support can deliver in terms of environmental outcomes.

Minister of the Environment
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2011mandate/writtenans/2011/110617.htm#7
Marine Management (17 June)
The Minister was asked as to whether he will consider including the establishment of a marine management organisation in the proposed Marine Bill. In response he stated that he would introduce the Marine Bill to the Assembly at the earliest possible opportunity. In this context, he will give further consideration to the best delivery arrangements for marine management in Northern Ireland, as the Bill progresses. The Minister has already met with a range of external groups to identify further possible additions to the draft Bill currently being prepared to ensure that the Bill is as ‘expansive, farseeing and challenging as possible’.

CO2 Emissions (17 June)

http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2011mandate/writtenans/2011/110617.htm#7
The Minister stated that he believed that tackling climate change provides us with an opportunity to protect our built and natural heritage while at the same time delivering a more resource efficient, sustainable economy and a fairer society. That is why one of his first actions as Minister was to ask his officials to consider how government currently delivers its climate change responsibilities and to identify areas where further legislation might be of benefit. The Minister has also sought and will consider the advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change and the experience of other administrations in developing and delivering climate change policy through legislation and added ‘My early view is that we should put climate change targets in the face of a Climate Change Bill and that the targets should be rigorous and challenging’.

Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2011mandate/writtenans/2011/110624.htm#6
Renewable Heating Incentive (24 June)
In September 2010, the Minister  announced that DETI would seek to introduce a Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) in Northern Ireland, providing it was economically viable to so. DETI has recently concluded an economic appraisal of a RHI for Northern Ireland and the Minister plans to shortly launch a public consultation on the preferred method of incentivisation for the Northern Ireland renewable heat market. Funding of £25million, over the next four years, has been made available by Her Majesty’s Treasury for the introduction of a RHI in Northern Ireland.

Minister of the Environment
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2011mandate/writtenans/2011/110624.htm#7
Turf at Ballykenver, Armoy (24 June)
The Minister was asked what action he intends to take to ensure that local people can continue to cut turf at Ballykenver, Armoy, to retain a local source of fuel in the area. He replied that the cutting of turf for purposes other than for sale does not constitute development and as such does not require planning approval. Thus a person may cut turf for domestic purposes without the need to obtain planning approval. Turf cut for sale is defined as development under the Planning legislation and as such requires planning approval. Anyone wishing to extract turf on a commercial basis from the Ballykenver Wood area or indeed any other area would therefore be required to submit a planning application for the development. The Minister added that he has also met with officials to make assessments about turf cutting policy and opportunities, including particularly in relation to fuel poverty.

Single Use Carrier Bags (24 June)
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2011mandate/writtenans/2011/110624.htm#7

The Minister outlined how the introduction and implementation of the single use carrier bag levy is a complex matter which presents a number of significant practical challenges. These include: the level at which the levy should be set to deliver the key objectives of reducing bag usage and generating revenue; the specific types of bags to which the levy will apply; how the level will be collected and enforced; and ensuring that the staff and operational arrangements are in place to enable the levy to be collected effectively. A secure, fit–for–purpose and value for money Information Technology (IT) system also will need to be procured, developed, tested and refined to enable the levy to be collected effectively and efficiently. Some advice suggests that the required timescale to complete the IT project is estimated to be up to eighteen months. An economic appraisal is being developed for the set–up costs and to choose the preferred option for taking the levy forward. This will require approval from the DFP. The Minister has instructed his officials to accelerate progress on the development of the detailed proposals and wish to assure members that adequate time to consult with stakeholders on the emerging policy proposals will be built into the programme timescale.

Answers to Oral Questions

Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/record/reports2011/110606.htm#h
Less–favoured Areas (6 June)
In response to what action she will take to ensure that the level of support that is currently offered in less–favoured areas will continue, the Minister confirmed that the architecture of that scheme will remain unchanged until the end of the programme in 2013 and that the level of payments for the remaining life of the current scheme will be fixed in light of affordability and competing demands in the rural development programme. In the longer term, the future of LFA support beyond 2013 will depend on the outcomes of the EU CAP reform process and the EU–led project on the redesignation of less–favoured areas or areas of natural handicap. The Minister was clear about the need for a robust support framework for areas of natural handicap, which encompass many of our most valuable landscapes and habitats, and the benefits that such support can deliver in environmental outcomes. The European Commission intends to introduce a formal legislative proposal on an objective classification system for areas of natural handicap later this year. Map assimilation, based on the Commission’s earlier proposed biophysical criteria, suggests that the redesignated areas would be broadly in line with the current severely disadvantaged areas.

Minister of the Environment
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/record/reports2011/110614.htm#a4
Planning Applications/ PPS 21 (14 June)

The Minister revealed that he is currently interrogating the management of PPS 21 in particular, because the anecdotal evidence is that there has been some inconsistency in planning decisions between planning offices. He was currently determining whether there are potential variations in PPS 21 that do not breach in any significant way the intention or ambition of the planning policy but do, nonetheless, create some greater flexibility for non–farming rural dwellers. The Minister added ‘there is an opportunity to identify further moderate interventions that could see not just consistency in the application of the policy but some betterment in the conduct of the policy to enable those with a legitimate interest in living in a rural area to have the opportunity so to do’.

Waste Management: Incineration (14 June)
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/record/reports2011/110614.htm#a4

In response to his assessment of the use of incineration as a form of waste management the Minister stated that he would look at any recommendations that come forward to the DoE and assess any proposal against the current planning and wider policies. He would determine whether it is sustainable and does not jeopardise any further opportunities for recycling and assess any proposals for waste incineration by judging them against. The Minister wanted to see how we can push to up their game on recycling, reusing and maximising opportunities that could mitigate the need for incineration. He also pointed out that incineration is not merely a matter of burning waste, and opportunities to get energy from waste make the incinerator option more attractive adding ‘I am not a Minister minded in all circumstances to turn down any application for an incinerator’. 

Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/record/reports2011/110620.htm#a5
Rural White Paper (20 June)

The Minister stated that as the public consultation on the draft rural White Paper action plan closed on 13 June, her officials will shortly begin engaging with other Departments to consider the outcome of the consultation. A total of 26 responses were received. The views expressed indicate the need for more work to be done with other Departments to develop more specific and more measurable targets; clear linkages between priority policies and actions; and more focus on sustainability and the environment. After this period, the Minister will take the action plan back to the Executive to get a recommitment from all Ministers that they are on board and committed to taking it forward. Implementing this plan will take cross–departmental working and commitment from all Ministers in the Executive. While it will be an Executive project, DARD will take the lead and monitor progress closely. No separate budget is set aside for delivering the actions contained in the rural White Paper and the Minister ‘assumed’ that the cost of implementing all the measures was factored into each Department’s budget when the commitment was made in the previous term of the Assembly.

 

Private Members’ Business (7 June)
http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/record/reports2011/110607.htm#a

A5 Dual Carriageway
Members discussed a motion proposed by Pat Doherty That this Assembly supports the A5 dual carriageway project; recognises that it is essential to the economic regeneration of the north–west region; welcomes the financial commitment made by the Irish Government; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development to give an assurance that there will be no dilution of the project, or delay in its completion. Mr Doherty explained that the project was in keeping with the long–term vision for transportation as outlined in ‘Shaping Our Future’, the regional development strategy 2015 “To have a modern, sustainable, safe transportation system which benefits society, the economy and the environment and which actively contributes to social inclusion and everyone’s quality of life.”

Lord Morrow however proposed the following amendment: Leave out all after “supports” and insert “the upgrading of the existing A5; recognises that it is essential to the economic regeneration of the north–west region; welcomes the financial commitment made by the Irish Government; and calls on the Minister for Regional Development to consider all alternatives to the current proposed scheme.”. Lord Morrow explained that he wanted to see an upgrading of the A5 and believed that the west is entitled to a good road infrastructure however ‘it is patently obvious that there is no justification whatsoever for the proposals.’

Unionist members supported the amendment, stating that as there is an on–going inquiry into the A5, the motion that there should be no alteration whatsoever was ‘ill–timed’ and, at worst,’ foolhardy’, that we were in much changed economic times since the current extravagant A5 proposal emerged, and the considerable opposition from farmers, landowners, environmentalists and even transport groups.  Nationalist members meanwhile spoke in favour of Mr Doherty’s motion argued the strategic nature of the route adding that it was a national all–island strategic transport route with its construction leading  to a significant increase in jobs in the area and the sustaining of existing jobs in that sector. In response to the debate the Minister stated that as the public inquiry into the A5 was in progress, he did not wish to interfere with due process and pre–empt the inquiry’s findings. In conjunction with the independent inspector’s report and recommendations, he intended to consider proposed investment levels across DRD, including the impact of Budget 2010 on the strategic roads programme. In the intervening period, he will consult with his counterpart in the Irish Government to discuss and confirm their position on their contribution, and discuss funding implications with my Executive colleagues.

As a valid petition of concern was presented in relation to the motion, and a valid petition of concern was presented in relation to the amendment the effect of the petitions was that the votes on the motion and the amendment were on a cross–community basis. Both the motion and the amendment subsequently fell as neither achieved the necessary cross–community support.

The Northern Ireland Assembly is now in Summer Recess till 4 September 2011 with the first plenary sitting on the 12 September 2011.