Page last updated at 07:43 GMT, Wednesday, 31 December 2008

A new centre, agency and birds

Giants Causeway
The plans for a visitor centre at the Giant's Causeway caused problems in 2008

by Mike McKimm
BBC Northern Ireland environment correspondent

For the Northern Ireland environment 2008 was a year of change, but by the end of the year not a lot had changed.

One of the first issues of the year was the outcome of a controversial planning application.

The Giant's Causeway needed a new visitor's centre and in 2007 Environment Minister Arlene Foster had previously expressed her mind to go with a local developer's plans.

But this year, she was forced to change that mind when the National Trust did a deal with Moyle Council, closing the door on other developments.

It was a slightly embarrassing back-down to what had always promised to be a controversial subject.

Soon the minister was to move on, but not before she'd decided that there would be no independent Environment Protection Agency.

The main demand for the agency had come from the various environmental non governmental organisations (NGOs) who had earlier 'persuaded' the government to carry out a review of the need for more independence in environment governance.

The review reported in favour of an independent body.

But Arlene Foster was undaunted, deciding on a different path for environmental governance and a different career for herself.

She announced that there would be no independent agency and then moved to the DETI.

'In with the new'

A new minister, Sammy Wilson, took over at the start of the summer and made his approach very clear from the start.

The ice caps are melting but what does the environment minister think about climate change?

He also didn't believe in an EPA and didn't agree with the majority view that climate change was man-made.

These were viewpoints that went down badly with the aforementioned NGOs.

They listened in jaw-dropping amazement as Mr Wilson set out his stall.

The minister accepted climate change was happening although he wasn't sure if it wasn't just a cyclical change rather than a major change for the worst.

He has stuck firmly to this approach ever since.


And he also had new plans for his department.

The Environment and Heritage Service, the backbone of the DOE's environment focus was revamped and rebranded. And so the NIEA or Northern Ireland Environment Agency was born.

Wags immediately dubbed it the No Independent Environment Agency.

But the minister was adamant that the new agency would do things better and more efficiently that any independent agency.

In its place PPS 21 was born. It was almost the same but with some important tweaks

He claimed that the much-lauded independent agencies in the rest of the UK were not as proficient as many made out.

There was one special headache facing the new minister.

A planning policy known as PPS 14 had been previously introduced as a control over building in the countryside. It presumed against new single dwellings in rural areas or so it was claimed.

A direct rule policy, it was universally unpopular amongst most political parties but universally popular with most environmental groups.

But PPS 14 had run into legal problems.

So, one judicial review, one public review and lots of delayed planning applications later, PPS 14 was finally shelved.

In its place PPS 21 was born. It was almost the same but with some important tweaks.

But even more importantly, it was widely accepted by most.

Problem solved.

One of the most colourful moments of the year was the reintroduction of red kites back into Northern Ireland after a 300 year gap.

Red Kites
The RSPB released 27 birds in County Down

More than 20 birds were released by the RSPB in the Castlewellan area and took to the skies like veterans despite never having flown outside their pens before.

They now face their first winter alone and will have to find food in the forests and hills of County Down.

And the Woodland Trust came up with a clever plan to encourage ancient woodlands.

They bought land surrounding a site in Londonderry and will allow the ancient trees to spread their branches, quite literally, along with their roots over the new ground.

These were just a couple of the many environmental schemes carried out by NGOs in the past year.

Good year?

So was 2008 a good year for the environment?

Well, it wasn't a major year of change.

Illegal cross-border dumping still continues, albeit at a much reduced level.

River pollution is alive and frequent. But we are getting closer to sensible recycling targets and slowly weaning ourselves off landfills.

We are still very short of habitat protection and Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI), and another year has slipped past without important changes in these areas.

And there are new ministerial challenges for the new year.

They include the local response to the Climate Change bill and just as important, a clear direction for Northern Ireland on the new Marine Bill.

At the very least these will test the minister and his personal philosophies to the extreme.

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