Monday, July 11, 2022

Opportunity Lost

Many local authorities recognise that, with climate change and the loss of biodiversity, all sections of society will have a role to play in addressing the challenges ahead. Some are at the forefront of initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by decarbonising their vehicle fleet or switching to renewable energy sources. But unfortunately too many tentatively engage or, with a clear lack of organisational understanding, steer clear of the issues. 
For some environmental achievements are measured in the award of Green Flags or honourable mentions for short-term seasonal initiatives.
To address the challenges future generations will face a transformation in organisational understanding is required both in energy use and improving biodiversity.
Take the example of a roundabout in Antrim. A large flat grassy area with a sculpture of a tree adorned with leaves etched with children's artwork, a Peace project funded by the EU, is in the centre. Some hedging radiates out from the centre but mostly it's a flat grassy surface.
Last year a local environmentalist persuaded the council to leave the area unmowed to allow the grasses and other plants to grow. They agreed and during the summer a botanist was asked to carry out a survey of the plants growing there. What he found was quite amazing, 55 different species, some rare were growing on the site. So varied was the fauna that he was surprised that the site had not been especially seeded. The results were provided to the council as an example of what could be achieved by actually doing nothing.
This year
the council mowed the area and left it like a bowling green.
No doubt council has all sorts of policies and statements about the environment, none of them have meaning unless the organisation understands the challenges we face and the changes needed to meet them. If council and other agencies don't have the knowledge there are many environmentalists locally who do, time to listen.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

A crying shame

 A few years ago I nominated Antrim Castle Gardens for an award from the Fields in Trust charity and this wonderful legacy for the people of Antrim was named the best park in Northern Ireland in 2016. It is a special place to me and that is why what I witness now is so heartbreaking.

If you park in front of Clotworthy House to the right was a green open space, it was safe and while occasionally used for temporary events it always returned to its multi-purpose people space. Families picnicked, toddlers toddled, children kicked their first football or caught their first frisbee, it was a priceless space to those who used it. 

For some in authority however it was valueless and value could only be added by concrete and structure.

The site has been bounded by Portugal Laurel, a non-native species whose leaves are apparently considered poisonous releasing cyanide when burnt or crushed. What was open and safe is now closed and unsafe.

Throughout the Castle Gardens run drainage channels, vibrant areas so recently filled with frog spawn, now tadpoles and froglets should grow, along whose banks ducks will nest.

Those who care for none of this see only somewhere to dispose of the waste from the construction site. Where flora and fauna flourished there is only the dead space of cement washings.

For Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council the measure of success has been obtaining the services of a "big name" garden designer. While the Garden Show has been a good temporary attraction its value was always that things would go back to normal, but no longer, the drive to develop more, more often, more permanently destroys the heart of this precious resource.

Elected representatives may have been sold a picture of heaven, what has been delivered is environmental hell.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Strategic failure

 So Nicola Mallon, Minister of Infrastructure, has finally taken a decision to refuse planning permission for the Energy from Waste plant for ARC 21 at Hightown. It’s not an unexpected decision as her view on the proposal has been known for many years long before she became Minister. There was certainly no prospect of her approving permission a few weeks from an election. Parish pump politics trumps process every time.  So here are my thoughts on her decision, the implications for ratepayers, the implications for the environment but more importantly the undermining of good governance and the loss of confidence in strategic investment in Northern Ireland. 

Many years ago I was a Councillor on Antrim Borough Council and to be honest waste management wasn’t a subject I had a particular interest in other than when local bins weren’t being lifted for some reason. Colleagues had a greater interest and it was those individuals who sat on agencies such as ARC 21, a collaborative effort amongst a number of councils to find ways of reducing the cost of waste management. When ARC 21 proposed the development of an Energy from Waste (EFW) plant to address the decreasing level of landfill available and the increasing awareness of environmental impacts from creating new landfill it was something I took under my notice but again without looking at the issue too deeply other than being satisfied that this would take the option of a new landfill facility at Lady Hill in Antrim off the table. 

That changed when the preferred site for such a facility was identified as being at the then current landfill site at Dargan in Belfast. This North Belfast site had for years catered for the landfill needs of a significant proportion of Belfast, indeed much of the existing infrastructure in that area is built on historic land fill. At the time I was managing a community health partnership in Inner North Belfast and local residents asked if I could consider what impact such a facility would have on them. Having recently completed some training in carrying out health impact assessments from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland it was an opportunity to apply some of that knowledge.  

The first thing to say is that Inner North Belfast already suffered from some of the worst air pollution in Northern Ireland. With a multilane motorway system running the length of the area in question, a large feed mill, a sewage waste incinerator already in existence in the docks, other industry and leakage of gases from the existing landfill site there are many factors which contribute to poor respiratory health. Coming from a position of knowing very little about EFW I quickly found that this was a preferred technology in many Scandinavian countries which prided themselves in high environmental standards. I found many examples where EFW plants were integrated into large city infrastructure places like Manhattan or close to the centre of Paris. I was able to logon to the operators website and see in real time the make up of the gases leaving the Manhattan facility chimneys. Courtesy of the very effective filters in place the air leaving the facility was cleaner than the air at ground level in Manhattan. After reviewing the operation of a number of sites it was clear that locating this plant at Dargan would not pose a health risk during operation. Over the years formal HIA processes, independently reviewed, have confirmed that assessment of the technology. 

Health impact assessments however are not just about identifying negative impacts and mitigating them, they also provide an opportunity to identify positive impacts and ensuring that they were included in the project design. Working with the consultants employed at that time by ARC 21 a number of suggestions were made. Just as the transportation of waste to the landfill site had a negative impact on air quality, road safety and council budgets the location of the railway line presented an opportunity to take municipal waste off the road and deliver it to the site by rail from transfer stations in many parts of Northern Ireland. We discussed how energy from the plant could drive new, clean manufacturing in the area. The idea of using heat from the plant to heat poly tunnels and create an inner-city urban horticultural outlet providing fresh produce for those living in inner North Belfast was also discussed. The area is known for having historic high levels of fuel poverty driven both by poverty and poor housing conditions amongst our suggestions was that in the event of the project providing electricity to the grid those living in inner North Belfast could have a reduction in electricity unit cost. Then surprisingly in June 2009 Belfast city council denied permission for the Dargan site, which was in their ownership, to be used as a location for the EFW plant. 

A site selection process continued with those bidding to deliver the project and a disused quarry at Hightown Road in Mallusk was chosen as an alternative with a planning application being submitted in March 2014. That wasn’t an unexpected outcome as planning policy indicated that the reuse of worked out quarries for waste management purposes was preferred over the use of a greenfield site. 

On January 6th 2014 Infrastructure Minister Mark H Durkan had approved an energy from waste plant in the Belfast Harbour estate. After much concern about the long-term viability of Bombardier due to rising energy costs, the approval of an EFW gasification plant was rapidly progressed. The plant was approved based on an application which stated it would be fuelled by commercial and industrial waste but using relatively experimental technology.  

While in any major planning application it is likely there will be a level of local opposition, (not in my backyard), what started to appear in relation to the ARC 21 application was a funded, professional campaign directed at the application. But parallel to that was a concerted effort to undermine the entire ARC 21 procurement exercise. Representatives of the EFW plant at Belfast Harbour estate started to promote the idea that they could take the municipal waste despite the fact, that bringing their plant online successfully has proven to be problematic just as similar gasification plants have also experienced across the UK,  and due to the nature of the process it is unable to cope with the municipal waste mix. Most concerning about this was that local representatives began to parrot the same message. These were individuals who had a decision-making role in a multi-million pound procurement exercise and were proactively undermining that exercise in calling for the process to be ended and multi-million pound contracts awarded to their preferred alternative. They continue to do so to this day and at the very minimum the local government ombudsman should investigate the actions of those locally who sought to undermine this process. 

In September 2015 then Minister Mark H Durkan issued a notice of opinion to refuse the ARC 21 application on the grounds of health risks and lack of justifiable need, despite the evidence presented to him showing unequivocally that there were no health risks and the absolute critical need for the facility. ARC 21 asked for a hearing before the PAC and more information was provided by both parties. By this time there had been an election and there was new Minister and rather than opposing the appeal, he instructed the Department to adopt a neutral position preferring to rely on the professional decision-making of the PAC.  Subsequently, before the determination was issued Stormont collapsed and when the PAC decision to recommend approval was received by the Department there was no minister in place to make a decision. On 29 August 2017 the Permanent Secretary, based on legal advice and information he received from the PAC, decided the planning permission should be granted and this happened on 13 September 2017. In October 2017, an application for a judicial review was initiated by Mr Colin Buick, the chairperson of the leading campaign organisation against the ARC21 proposal. As a consequence, the court decided that in the absence of a Minister the Permanent Secretary of the Department was not empowered to make the decision. 

Coming then to the re-establishment of the Stormont executive and north Belfast MLA Nicola Mallon, who has consistently campaigned against the proposal, is appointed Minister of Infrastructure and the person responsible for making the decision on the planning application. 

Over the past few years, the level of external pressure from competing private interests has continued to grow with the single objective of bringing this process to an end and freeing up waste management contracts for diversion into their businesses. For some politicians, lack of assessment and analysis of the information they have been given by those private companies leaves them at personal jeopardy. For others a lack of understanding about the processes involved have led them down informational cul-de-sacs. Some have questioned the business case; the formal business case could not be finalised until a decision on planning application was taken yet some politicians were unable to separate the two issues. Consequently, their lack of understanding of the need to find a waste management solution, now hampers future proposals. For some, the reason to block the development was about the end use of the power output of this facility, in a world where generation of energy locally is a critical need, exporting energy production seems counter intuitive. Why would we export waste at cost to other countries, for those countries to benefit from the renewable energy produced from the controlled utilisation of that waste; whilst still agreeing to the continued import of fossil fuels to Northern Ireland? Where is the climate and environmental sense in that? 

There are moral and environmental imperatives that society should deal with its waste management issues close to where they arise. Too often we see images of waste washing up on foreign shores far from the place it originated. Yet those who argue against this proposal are more than happy for the alternative to be the shipping of our waste to similar facilities in Scandinavia, the United States of America and potentially landfill further afield.  

For Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council the negative influence of external commercial actors was focused through a small number of elected representatives onto the council as a whole. The reputational damage is significant and it’s clear that for a number of individuals more direct intervention by the ombudsman, when it was first recognised that they were acting on behalf of external commercial actors, would have assisted the council in open and transparent decision-making. 

Nicola Mallon’s decision does not solve our waste management crisis, new landfill development is not an option bringing with it significant environmental and health consequences. An ever-decreasing range of options brings increased cost especially for local ratepayers. Her statement on the refusal states that she does not see “a need for this specific facility”,  effectively creating a policy vacuum in the management of waste in Northern Ireland with the absence of a detailed assessment of what she personally would accept. But there are other far reaching consequences. 

We have witnessed multi-billion pound companies trying to invest in Northern Ireland to provide us with the infrastructure we need to grow as a society and we have watched as many have turned and walked away in sheer frustration at the investment hurdles that we present to them. Any company seeking to invest wants to know that there is an open and transparent process that is fair, whether in procurement or in planning. What Mark H Durkan and Nicola Mallon have shown is that no matter how robust and open the planning system is they are not bound by it. They are instead bound by other factors, in this case electoral, while Nicola’s personal interests are satisfied, there won’t be a company interested in capital investment in Northern Ireland if, after many years of preparation and meeting all of the requirements of planning regulations, the ultimate decision comes down to someone who is bound by none of them. If it is the case, that ministers are not required to follow the same rules and regulations citizens and companies are required to follow when coming to a decision then what, beyond electoral interests, might future inducements be to take a decision one way or the other. 

Saturday, November 6, 2021

A response to Sammy Wilson

Being an MP gives Sammy Wilson certain opportunities such as having letters and statements carried by the press. However when his communication is so clearly outside the accepted scientific knowledge it is also encumbent on the press to allow a timely rebuttal. This week I responded to Sammy's misinformation/misunderstanding but this has not yet been covered by the press so I'm setting it out here for the record.
There are few individuals left in the world who deny the reality of anthropogenic (caused by human action) climate change, most who have a vested interest in maintaining activity which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions have moved to delayism or doomism. In Sammy Wilson MP however we have one of the world's last holdouts for straight denialism. He states, "many will be scratching their heads in bewilderment at the suggestion that world leaders can somehow control the earth's thermostat simply by changing the level of CO2 emissions" .  In 1856 a paper by Eunice Newton Foote detailed her observations of the warming effect of CO2, three years later an Irish physicist John Tyndall published a paper outlining how a rise in CO2 levels would increase global temperatures. Scientists have known this for 170 years, some of the most detailed studies and projections were produced by major fossil fuel companies, who promptly buried their results and began a campaign to undermine those who pointed out the impact of unrelenting use of fossil fuels. The world's governments and scientists recognise the problems and know the challenges in addressing them. The are many authors such as Michael Mann and Katharine Hayhoe whose work would educate anyone with an open mind on the subject, for the closed minds I don't have an answer other than ensuring they do not delay the important work to be done.

Friday, August 6, 2021

When the grass doesn't grow

 What happens when the grass doesn't grow? Not such an outlandish thought, indeed recently DAERA issued a warning to the agricultural sector about the impact of prolonged very hot weather on fodder supplies later in the year. Simply put, as climate change means more extreme events, hotter weather in summer, wetter weather in winter and sudden storms will all have an impact on Northern Ireland’s agriculture. 

For those who are reluctant to consider any changes to agricultural output to reduce climate change the failure to do so carries a far greater risk to the sector in what is a rapidly shortening time frame. The scale of the challenge is immense, Northern Ireland’s admittedly high quality grass fed beef, dairy and lamb sectors support 2 million sheep and 1.6 million cows. All options to reduce our contribution to greenhouse gases include a reduction in these numbers to reduce methane output. 

What is important is that any management of the impact of climate change ensures a socially, financially and environmentally sustainable agricultural sector. That means a proper grown up discussion about how to make changes which protect farmers and ensure long term stability for the sector.

The alternative is not the industrialisation of agriculture, something that has happened already in a number of food sectors. Farmers should not be reduced to being production managers in a factory system, indentured servants carrying all of the financial and environmental risks while shareholders in large multinationals take all of the profit.

While we will face the challenges of extended periods of intense heat and will face sudden and devastating rainfall events which will result in a serious disruption of farming activity we should be supporting farmers now to try and reduce the potential for these events, putting in place an alternative sustainable framework which both reduces the production of greenhouse gases and ensures viability for the sector even when the grass doesn’t grow.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Status Quo, rock band not political ideology


In his article in today’s Newsletter Ben Lowry states “Unionism is now the only significant movement in Northern Ireland that ever seems to defend the status quo.” I suspect from Ben’s perspective this is a good thing. A few weeks ago I wrote an article in which I stated

“Those who clamber onto the backs of lorries are fond of using a phrase “what we have we hold” it has been a feature of Unionist politics my entire life. It was unchallengeable, but now perhaps is the time to challenge it, for the sake of the union and for Unionism. What if what we have, what if what we hold, is not enough.”

To be clear being robust defenders of the status quo is not a winning political strategy.

Over the past few weeks I heard a number of interviews with young people caught up in the violence arising from protests against the Protocol, for some they believed that the Protocol was making them second-class citizens in their own country. What saddens me is that those same young people did not understand that they are second-class citizens already, like their parents and grandparents before them. The Protocol is an unconscionable act of social, economic and constitutional vandalism by people in power who neither know nor care about its impact but it is not the cause of the generational poverty which undermines the lives of the young people in the streets throwing bricks. Neither are their conditions determined by whether they are unionist and nationalist or whether they are Protestant or Catholic. Institutionalised poverty and deprivation exist and for that reason what we have can never be the status quo that some Unionist politicians and commentators aspire to.

Areas of multiple deprivation have been a feature of government policy and questionable investment for generations. Across a broad range of civic society, community and voluntary sector, churches, schools and sections of government funds have flowed to organisations to address the impact of poverty in education, health, community development, employment, arts and many other sectors. One cannot underestimate the massive impact that those individuals delivering such programs have had on improving the quality of life of people in those areas. But such work comes with many frustrations, there is little long-term funding, projects are funded on a piecemeal basis, pilot projects, even the most successful, disappear because there is no route to sustainability and time after time organisations are expected to reinvent the wheel when all is needed is a retread.

The reality is much of that work is focused on papering over the cracks and we have some of the best decorators available. But the cracks will re-appear and they do so because the foundations are either too weak or non-existent within too many communities, that is the status quo that we cannot sustain. Imagine if we had the courage to take all of that knowledge and experience within people working in those areas and applied it to building a new foundation, if we invested in changing society from the ground up rather than simply saying we must defend the status quo.

In Ben’s article he goes on to say “If there was not a Unionist education Minister, for example, academic selection would be gone.” It’s almost as if Unionism is dependent on academic selection, on the school you go to or the badge you wear. It’s not. For those who live in areas of multiple deprivation they are told that academic selection is the route to be a better future, it is the educational equivalent of the Hunger Games. Many schools, individual teachers and community organisations do all in their power to give those children who wish to attempt selection process every opportunity to succeed but overcoming the impact of disadvantage is a massive undertaking. Levelling up every child’s life opportunity means not accepting the status quo but charting a new path.

I don’t believe that for all its efforts nationalism will bring about a United Ireland but I do think that by default unionism will push society in that direction. We cannot defend a unionism which cannot deliver for working class unionists never mind anyone else. The world around us is changing and in evolutionary terms the saying is “adapt or die” it’s a valid metaphor for political movements as well. For political unionism the challenges remain that for many such evolution is an anathema,  controlling the flow of funds to areas of deprivation gives a level of power and control over the populace and importantly too few have the vision, ambition or commitment to truly change the society we live in.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

When Mr Ben came to the rescue


Today’s Newsletter carries an article by Mr Ben Habib a recent champion of Unionism who has arrived on scene to rescue the union from the worst excesses of a seriously deficient Boris Johnston and the Conservative Party unable to protect Northern Ireland from those pesky Europeans.

When he writes

“The Northern Ireland Protocol has been imposed on Northern Ireland without even a shred of consent from its people, let alone the cross-community consent which is at the heart of the Belfast Agreement.”

he does so without any sense of irony given that he, himself, did indeed vote to impose the Withdrawal Agreement containing the NI Protocol on the people of Northern Ireland when a Brexit MEP.

This is the same Ben Habib who is mentioned in a recent Irish News article,

Mr Habib believes "Northern Ireland has been left behind" and that the Irish Sea regulatory border has disrupted trade between Britain and the region.

"What it said on the referendum paper and what the prime minister promised in his manifesto of 2019 was that the UK would leave the EU – there was no deal that we'd leave Northern Ireland behind," he said.

"It's actually repugnant that we should leave part of the UK behind. It makes me feel sick to the core, which is why I've taken the action I've taken." Irish News 25th February 2021

Yet this is the same Ben Habib who wrote on the 18th February 2020 in the Daily Telegraph

“Undoubtedly the Protocol and associated border down the Irish Sea was an unnecessary and hefty concession made by the British government to get Brexit over the line. Undoubtedly it belies any claim that the UK is leaving the EU whole, in control of its laws and borders. But instead of resisting the inevitable, NI should embrace it and make it work for its own great benefit and that of the United Kingdom.”

Earlier comments in the same article detail why Mr Habib felt that trying to mitigate the  Protocol would be wrong

“Many unionists now wish for the future arrangements between the EU and the UK to be as close as possible. They hope that, by diluting the effects of Brexit and staying closely aligned with the EU, they will neuter the adverse implications of the Protocol for the union of NI and GB.

They must resist the temptation to push for close alignment between the EU and UK.”

Any idea that the pure Brexit Mr Habib sought would be lessoned to protect the union was not in Mr Habib’s plan and so the economic benefits of the Protocol as seen by him were writ large for all to see:

“NI has been afforded one major advantage by the Protocol. It will be able to export goods tariff-free to both the EU and GB. This is a unique position, the advantages of which grow the greater the divergence of the UK from the EU.

NI should be the perfect home for businesses seeking to export to both the EU and GB. The British government should assist by ensuring that businesses wishing to locate in NI are able to access cost effective funding and that the tax environment for businesses in NI is made at least as accommodating as it is in Ireland. The rest would happen automatically. Indeed, with the right support NI could and should become a tiger economy within the UK.

If the NI economy does as well as it should, irrespective of the obvious drawbacks of the Protocol, there is every chance of Ireland itself aligning more closely with Great Britain, rather than NI aligning itself more closely with the EU. The border down the Irish Sea should diminish greatly as a threat to the UK’s union.”

So what has motivated Mr Habib to saddle up a white charger and come to the rescue of unionism. Perhaps a clue is to be found in an online interview with Proactive Investors, available on You Tube, on the 10th June 2016, a few days before the referendum, Habib touches on the BREXIT debate, noting he would be “very gung-ho” should the UK vote to leave the EU.

“If we get a vote for BREXIT and if the commentators are right that sterling will weaken and the markets will go into a degree of volatility, we’ll be looking at that as a really great opportunity to buy assets in the UK,” he says.

Of course Mr Habib is first and foremost a businessman indeed while an MEP he apparently earned more from his main employment than any other MEP. His business model was highlighted by BBC Newsnight on Jul 16, 2019 when Emily Maitlis pointed out: “You line your own pockets with everyone else going bust”

Mr Habib depends on volatility and disruption to create the markets conditions in which he thrives. Resolving issues with the Protocol doesn’t deliver for Ben, in fact the Trade and Co-operation Agreement doesn’t deliver for Ben despite the disruption so far. What delivers for Ben is winding things up to create the circumstances where the UK and EU revert to a no deal Brexit over NI. By the way even Ben admits that in those circumstances the Withdrawal Agreement remains.

Should Mr Habib arrive at the offices of the Dept of the Economy with plans for a factory to build gull-wing door cars which can travel in time in a factory on the Shankill there will be unionists who hail him as a hero. I will not be one, like many before he is not here for us, he is here for himself and the profit he can make. When he is done he will be gone and we will have to pick up the pieces of whatever he leaves behind.  

Opportunity Lost

Many local authorities recognise that, with climate change and the loss of biodiversity, all sections of society will have a role to play in...