Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

One year on, will the report into future of Lough Neagh ever be made public?

Lough Neagh supplies 45% of water to Northern Ireland
Lough Neagh supplies 45% of water to Northern Ireland
The Earl of Shaftesbury, who owns Lough Neagh
The Earl of Shaftesbury, who owns Lough Neagh

An official report on the future of Lough Neagh has been sitting on Stormont shelves for almost a year, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Commissioned by Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill, it was sent to Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy, Arts and Leisure Minister Caral Ni Chuilin and Trade and Industry Minister Arlene Foster -- but no decisions on it have been taken.

Now questions are being asked over whether the conclusions of the special working group will ever be made public.

The Earl of Shaftesbury, the peer who owns the lough -- although the water in it belongs to the public -- recently met with MLAs to discuss the lack of progress over the lough since the Assembly decided to investigate taking it into full public ownership 18 months ago.

The DUP's Jim Wells -- who has blasted management of the lough as a "shambles" over recent years -- said: "It is concerning that this report is lying festering while the problems of the lough, with the exception of water quality which has slightly improved, continue to mount.

"I would say it has not been made public because one side or the other does not like its contents. The Executive can be like a glacier which moves very slowly."

Northern Ireland gets 45% of its water supply from the lough.

Responsibility for the lough straddles several government departments -- Agriculture and Rural Development looks after the water level; the Department of Environment is accountable for water quality; Culture Arts and Leisure takes care of fishing issues, and its tourism potential comes under the aegis of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Industry.

Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann, a member of the DARD committee which has been given a preliminary briefing, warned: "This report may never see the light of day.

"But unless there is some serious business or economic sensitivity I do not see why it should not be made public.

"My best guess on why nothing has happened is that it is sitting on the desks of too many ministers or that it contains something that one or more of them does not find palatable."

The North Antrim MLA said: "A taskforce comprised entirely of civil servants pulled together this report. I don't know whether they somehow think the job is now done or the rest of us are going to forget about it, but there are many ongoing issues."

In an Assembly written answer, the agriculture minister said the report is "going through due process".

Ms O'Neill confirmed the draft report was received during December last year and shared with Mr Kennedy, Ms Ni Chuilin and Mrs Foster. "Consideration is being given to additional consultancy work to complement the findings in the report before it is finalised," Ms O'Neill said.

FACTFILE

Land-locked Lough Neagh has mounting problems, including

* bacteria leading some councils to ban some water sports;

* eels once sold at top prices because they could be held for two months now lasting only 10 days;

* plummeting migratory bird populations;

* the theft of fish stocks;

Yet the water quality itself is said to have slightly improved.

How tragic deaths stirred waters over ownership of lake

The Northern Ireland public own the water in Lough Neagh, but not the lough itself.

Instead the land, including the shore and the lough bed, belongs to the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, Nicholas Ashley Cooper.

The earl, aged 31, inherited the title as a result of a double family tragedy. First his father, Anthony, was murdered in France in 2004 at the behest of his third wife.

Nicholas' brother, Anthony, then became the successor but, shortly afterwards he died from a heart attack while visiting his brother in New York.

Concerned at rising environmental problems -- and seeking to exploit the lough for tourism projects -- the Assembly last year decided to set up a 'working group' to look at taking Western Europe's largest body of fresh water into public ownership.

The Earl revealed the decision of the Assembly was "unexpected" and indicated he had "no plans" to sell the lough.

He added, however: "(My) estate will assist the working group in whatever way it can and will co-operate with an appraisal of the lough."

Ownership of the lough by the Shaftesbury family dates back to the 1880s and to this day it leases out parts of the shore to local authorities, sporting organisations and wildlife activists. When the 11th Earl died there were considerable fears that a private company might be able to purchase the family's rights.

That could lead to a company charging for water, sewage, and access, with a risk of increased rates for the seven councils which surround the lough.

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