Eleventh Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 3 December 2002
[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]
Draft Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela Smith): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.
I welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Hurst. It is the first time that I have served as a Minister under your chairmanship, and the second time that I have served in Committee in that role. It may be worth informing the Committee that the first meeting chaired by you that I spoke at was in 1985, when I was selected as a candidate for the first time. I doubt whether either of us then expected to be in the positions we are in now. I know that you will guide our proceedings with your customary fairness and diligence.
The order was laid before the House on 25 November. It is worth reminding hon. Members that my position as a Northern Ireland Minister is temporary, while the Assembly is suspended. Hon. Members would no doubt want to place on record their wish for the Assembly to be up and running as soon as possible. While it is suspended, we want to give effect to measures that have been debated. Considerable work has been done by the Assembly on the measure before the Committee.
The order is a combination of three Bills that were before the Northern Ireland Assembly at the date of suspension—the Pollution Prevention and Control Bill, the Local Air Quality Management Bill and the Areas of Special Scientific Interest Bill. The measure will help to ensure that Northern Ireland properly carries out its statutory obligations with respect to three European directives: 96/61/EC on integrated pollution prevention and control; 96/62/EC on ambient air quality assessment and management; and 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora.
By fulfilling those obligations we shall secure more effective protection of the Northern Ireland environment; health issues are also involved, in the combating of pollution and improvement of pollution controls. We shall extend existing measures to preserve and protect key habitats and the environment. The measure will also ensure that the people of Northern Ireland continue to enjoy the level of protection that is currently available elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Perhaps it will help the Committee if, when explaining the order, I mention the stages that the various measures had reached in their consideration by the Assembly, and what consultation had taken place on them in Northern Ireland. Part I contains the usual introductory provisions and part II deals with pollution prevention and control. The main purpose
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of part II and the subordinate legislation to be made under it is to provide a statutory framework for the transposition of EC directive 96/61 on integrated pollution prevention and control. Similar legislation is already in force in Great Britain in the form of the Pollution Prevention and Control Act 1999.
The directive is designed to control pollution from industrial sources. It is aimed at providing a high level of protection for the environment through the establishment of a regulatory framework to prevent or reduce emissions to air, water and land as a result of industrial activity.
The key feature of the directive is that it provides for an integrated approach to dealing with pollution from major industrial installations. It is designed to avoid potential problems that might arise from separate approaches to the combating of releases to air, water or land. The integrated approach to dealing with pollution is similar to the current arrangements under the Industrial Pollution Control (Northern Ireland) Order 1997. The provisions in part II share many features with current arrangements under that order. Most important, they will provide for the retention of the regulatory structures of that order, with a chief inspector assuming responsibility for regulation of the installations already listed in annexe 1 to the directive. All such installations will be subject to an integrated approach and will be assessed against their capacity to cause significant pollution to air, water or land.
In addition, the provisions and regulatory structures of the 1997 order relating to air pollution control will be repealed and re-enacted in new legislation. District councils will continue to exercise those functions, but their repeal and re-enactment in the order will remove the necessity for emissions from industrial installations to be regulated under two separate pieces of legislation, which will, of course, minimise disruption to the industry.
It is estimated that approximately 250 existing industrial installations will be subject to the controls. Some of them are already regulated under the existing arrangements, but a number of them, which are listed in the notes, are being brought under the controls for the first time. Those installations will be above a certain capacity, and include installations for the intensive rearing of poultry and pigs, sites for the landfilling of waste, slaughterhouses, installations for the treatment and processing of milk, installations for the treatment and processing of animal raw materials and installations for the treatment and processing of vegetable raw materials.
There will be a number of other changes from the current controls. Permits will be granted in respect of installations rather than processes. The range of environmental impacts to be covered will be increased, and it will become significantly wider. It will include issues such as noise, site restoration, accident prevention, energy efficiency and the selection and use of raw materials.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): I am listening carefully to the list of things that will be monitored, and one of my concerns is offensive
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odour. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister were to inform me about how the regulations will cover offensive odour.
Angela Smith: My understanding is that odour is included in the new regulations.
Mr. Howarth: I am grateful for that information, but I have looked through the order—admittedly, I did so only this morning because I have not had time to study it—and cannot find a reference to offensive odour.
Angela Smith: My officials advise me that offensive odour is included in the order. If that information is incorrect, I shall come back to my hon. Friend before the end of the Committee. A longer look at the detail, rather than just the notes, may provide him with that information.
The consultation period on the draft regulations, which have been out for consultation since August, ended on 29 November. We have received 27 responses, which are currently being considered by the Department, the overwhelming majority of which welcome and support the proposals. It may be helpful if I add that the Northern Ireland Assembly's Environment Committee was considering the Pollution Prevention and Control Bill. The draft regulations were available to it, and its members made their comments in that context.
In addition to providing the statutory framework for transposition of the directive on integrated pollution prevention and control, part II has three other purposes. First, article 3 provides my Department with a general power to transpose other EU directives by way of regulations thereby avoiding the need for primary legislation. Except for those directives specifically mentioned in the draft order, any measure intended to be implemented in that way will be required to be designated by order. I can assure the Committee that all regulations made under the provision will be subject to full scrutiny and consultation in the usual way.
Secondly, articles 5 and 6 provide new transitional provisions in respect of waste disposal licences under the Pollution Control and Local Government (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. The purpose of those provisions is to facilitate the transition to a new waste management licensing system, which will be introduced in 2003. The provisions will ensure that no one is penalised unfairly because a waste disposal licence has been inadvertently allowed to lapse.
Thirdly, article 7 provides my Department with new powers to make grants to any body having among its objects the furtherance of the disposal of waste or, more generally, the prevention or control of environmental pollution. The provision of grant aid in that way to stakeholders is a major element of our plan for implementing a waste management strategy. Until now, it has not been possible to make grants to voluntary organisations, which are key stakeholders, and it is worth while ensuring that we allow them to play their part. Existing powers are limited in terms of the purpose for which grant aid may be provided. The new power provided by article 7 deals with that.
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My Department published initial consultation on the matter in June 2001. There was full consultation at that stage with the Assembly's Environment Committee. There was strong support for the proposals, and the subsequent Bill received Second Reading in the Assembly on 25 June. At the date of suspension, the Bill had completed the Committee stage and agreement had been reached with the Committee on seven amendments to the Bill, which have been incorporated into part II of the draft order.
The purpose of part III is to make provision for implementing EU directive 96/62 on ambient air quality assessment and management. It will also meet the commitment in the Northern Ireland Executive's programme for government to have in place by May 2003 a policy and legislative framework to deliver Northern Ireland's contribution to the targets on air quality strategy for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The provisions of part III place a range of statutory requirements on district councils and relevant authorities. Those relevant authorities will be prescribed in regulations, and it is proposed that they will be those Northern Ireland Departments covering transport, planning, economic development, health, housing and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Those proposals have already been welcomed by various players, and will be the subject of an eight-week consultation commencing in December 2002 or January 2003.
Part III requires relevant authorities to provide information and produce proposals to secure necessary improvements in air quality relating to the activities under their control. In anticipation of the new legislation, my Department has already introduced a grant scheme to assist district councils in reviewing and assessing local air quality to identify likely problem areas and remedial measures.
In October 2001, my Department carried out a public consultation on the proposed legislation. Having considered and taken account, where appropriate, of the responses to that consultation, a Bill received its Second Reading in the Assembly on 18 June 2002. At the date of suspension, the Bill was near completion in Committee. During that stage, officials met with the Assembly's Environment Committee on several occasions and matters raised were clarified either at the hearings or at a later stage in writing. In addition a series of meetings was held with all key stakeholders. All were in favour of the legislation and no key concerns were raised. As a result of the consultation exercises, a number of minor amendments have been incorporated into part III.
Part IV of the draft order deals with areas of special scientific interest. Those are equivalent to sites of special scientific interest in Great Britain. We are all aware—I have already become aware during the short time that I have been in Northern Ireland—of the diversity of the landscape and the reasons why we want to protect it. Such sites are special places, rich in all forms of wildlife. Nearly 200 have been declared to date. There is a need for such sites to be properly safeguarded so that they can be appreciated by future generations.
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In addition, the provisions of part IV will address the requirements of the EC habitats directive, by ensuring that Northern Ireland can better protect sites that, in addition to being areas of special scientific interest, are protected and have designation under European legislation. Those measures are similar to those taken in England and Wales through the provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
The provisions of part IV will replace the existing legislation for ASSIs in the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. They build on features in that order, but incorporate new proposals that reflect the outcome of a comprehensive process of public consultation. That process began in a March 2001 consultation paper entitled ''Partners in Protection''. It set out 20 key issues pertaining to the protection and management of ASSIs and sought public comment on how best to deal with those issues. Responses were received from a wide range of organisations, which showed strong support for new legislation.
On the basis of the comments received, my Department drew up a number of proposals that were subject to a further round of public consultation in November 2001. Subsequently, a Bill was introduced to the Assembly and received its Second Reading on 23 September. At the date of suspension, that Bill was in Committee.
The provisions of part IV of the draft order endeavour as fairly and equitably as possible to address and accommodate the wishes and concerns of all parties who contributed to the consultation process. In the first instance, we are improving some of the procedures associated with declaration—for example, by introducing greater flexibility in the ways in which amendments to site boundaries or citations can be introduced—as well as providing a statement on how a site can best be managed in the interests of conservation.
Public bodies, including Government Departments, must also play their part. Part IV contains provisions that will ensure that, in the discharge of their responsibilities, they acknowledge the need to conserve and enhance these valuable sites. It also aims to ensure more effective protection of ASSIs through measures that address damaging operations undertaken by owners, occupiers or so-called third parties and neglect or inappropriate management of sites.
There are also safeguards for landowners, including the right of appeal to the Planning Appeals Commission against a decision made by my Department. Many of the measures contained in part IV are needed for the small number of landowners who wish to carry out activities or operations that could irreparably damage the sites. That is particularly relevant for sites whose importance is recognised by designation under European legislation.
Another feature of the draft order is the inclusion of provisions to ensure better management of sites. There
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are over 250 management agreements in place between the Environment and Heritage Service in my Department and owners and occupiers of ASSI land. I congratulate both sides on having reached agreement on so many issues.
The measures contained in the draft order create the right climate for the encouragement and support of beneficial management of ASSIs. They will reinforce the change to positive management agreements that the EHS introduced in September. The ASSI provisions of the draft order strike the right balance between the effective protection of ASSIs—sites that are vital for the well-being of our diverse natural heritage—and the continuation of established and sustainable land practices.
Part V of the draft order provides for a number of amendments and the repeal of other provisions that are consequent on the introduction of the order. The draft order represents an important milestone on the path to a better environment for Northern Ireland. It provides protection to ensure that the environment of Northern Ireland remains one of its greatest assets and introduces legislation in a number of key areas, comparable with that in force in the rest of the United Kingdom, as well as ensuring compliance with EU obligations. The vision behind the order has been welcomed after scrutiny by the Assembly and the Environment Committee and considerable public consultation. I commend the draft order to the Committee.