Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Will Environment Minister play the green card?

The general feeling is that Environment Minister Arlene Foster has made a good start. David Gordon looks at how the honeymoon period may be coming to an end

There aren't many people in the environmental sector with a bad word to say about Minister Arlene Foster - for the time being at any rate.

The feeling is that the Fermanagh DUP politician has made a solid and assured start in the job.

She's been described as having a good command of her remit, and has shown a sure touch in front of the media.

Staff within the Department of the Environment also speak positively about life under devolution.

But, in common with the Stormont Executive in general, matters are likely to become more complicated for Mrs Foster in the not too distant future.

Crunch decisions and policy review outcomes will have to be announced before long.

There will inevitably be controversies, with some people left disappointed and angry at the Minister's verdicts. That's the nature of politics, after all.

From an environmental point of view, the biggest decision facing Mrs Foster concerns the future shape of her Department.

A report in June by a Government-appointed panel strongly recommended the creation of an independent environmental protection agency (EPA) in Northern Ireland.

This would involve a significant chunk of the DoE's role being passed to a new watchdog body, operating outside of Ministerial control.

The proposed shake-up would bring us into line with the rest of the UK and the Republic and is the option enthusiastically favoured by green lobby groups.

The panel that delivered its report was appointed by NIO Minister Lord Rooker and a new agency would have been pretty much inevitable if direct rule had continued.

But it is by no means a certainty with the DoE under DUP control. Senior politicians from the party have been openly sceptical of the EPA proposal, echoing criticism voiced by the Ulster Farmers' Union.

For her part, Mrs Foster has insisted that she is "open-minded" on the issue. She can't stay that way for ever - a decision on whether to adopt the panel's recommendations is expected within the next six months.

There are niggling worries among environmental campaigners that the Minister may be swayed against a new agency by advice from within her party and possibly within the Department as well.

Set against such pressures, the Minister may be attracted by the idea of creating a lasting legacy through such a major and far-reaching reform.

The final decision will obviously involve Executive colleagues, as well.

The same can be said for another thorny issue in the DoE in-tray - the future of Northern Ireland's 26 councils.

Mrs Foster last month responded to media speculation on the review of local government by insisting that no decisions had been taken.

But it is, nevertheless, regarded as a pretty sure bet that the original seven-council blueprint will be reviewed upwards.

With devolution becoming increasingly embedded, it is also believed that fewer powers will be passed to local government from Stormont than were envisaged when direct rule was in place.

Mrs Foster cited road safety as her number one priority on taking up the Minister's post.

Measuring Government performance in this area is not a simple task.

But a report on the subject due out this week by the watchdog Northern Ireland Audit Office should prove a useful starting point.

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