Sammy Wilson interview: a different shade of green

Climate change sceptic. Planning reformer. Law enforcer. Nemesis of environmentalists. Sammy Wilson wears many hats in his role as Environment Minister. He talks through the environment brief with Owen McQuade, emphasising the importance of planning for the province’s economy.

Sammy Wilson’s move from Education Spokesman to Environment Minister was one of the more unexpected moves in the DUP’s reshuffle last June. With his outspoken views on climate change, the new Minister has done battle with environmentalists and, despite his initial reluctance about taking up the post, Wilson is now beginning to enjoy running his wide-ranging department.

“Basically, I’m in the job because Peter Robinson asked me: ‘Would you move from education to the environment?’ I suppose initially it wasn’t really a move that I was mad keen about, to be quite truthful. Maybe I was comfortable with the education issues,” he remarks.

Wilson had enjoyed a high profile when challenging Caitríona Ruane over academic selection.

“Peter had asked me to take on the Environment Minister’s job. I’d an interest in planning issues anyhow but probably was unaware of the range of issues which I would be responsible for,” Wilson continues.

“It’s called the ‘department of everything’ but a range of issues which are very, very important to the running of Northern Ireland from waste management to the reform of local government – which I believe is one of the most exciting developments which is going to happen over the next number of years – to the core issue of planning reform to road safety, a range of things in the Environment Agency itself from the built heritage – which I’ve got a personal interest in – to the natural environment.”

The Minister sees his role as guiding the DoE through some of the major policy changes taking place within its wide brief while also dealing with “the myriad of day-to-day issues” coming across his desk. He had started off the day of the interview by considering two major planning applications, a query from Arlene Foster about the disposal of contaminated meat, and dealing with planning issues in South Belfast raised by Alex Maskey.

This is what makes the job interesting for him although he admits that he was a “reluctant Minister” at the start. It took “quite a lot of persuasion” to take the job and he “didn’t really enjoy the job too much” in the first month.

“Now, I’m beginning to enjoy it and I suspect that as time goes on, when it comes time to give the job up, I’d probably think I’d love to have more time just to see that through, but at least I know that there’s a limit to my period here in the department.”

Due to the DUP’s policy of rotating Ministers, another reshuffle is possible in late 2009, which gives him a deadline to deliver on environmental issues: “It’s like any job I’ve ever had. There’s no point in being miserable in a job. Throw yourself into it, get what you can out of it, and I hope I’ve done that.”

Although not a believer in “unnecessary regulation”, he says that the environment must be protected against “those who either don’t care or don’t know” about the law. His view is that the punishment should fit the environmental crime and he has proposed changes in the Wildlife Order to allow prison sentences for the “most heinous” wildlife crimes.

“If there’s a law there, I believe it should be enforced because otherwise the law itself becomes an ass and there’s no respect for it. And people who abide by the law then say: ‘Why should I bother?’”

Planning reform

Reforming the province’s planning system is his main priority in office and his views on its current effectiveness are clear and frank.

The reform agenda takes in changing the culture within the Planning Service, speeding up the process, making appropriate policies for the current economic situation, ensuring a “smooth changeover” to the new local councils in 2011 and improving how developers work within the system.

“Planning can facilitate economic development and ironically at a time where there’s been the most interest in investing in Northern Ireland, behind it the planning system has not been capable of responding to that,” he states.

“If the Executive has placed economic development, and especially the economic development of the private sector, as the first priority for the Programme for Government, the Planning Service, I believe, has a huge role to play in delivering that priority. And I don’t think we have got it right.”

He puts this down to a combination of a failure of the system, the policies and also some of the people working in the system.

“That’s not a criticism of those people, they’ve been brought up in a certain culture and they’ve been encouraged to be cautious. I’ve already mentioned the way that developers use judicial reviews and trail the Planning Service through court. So, of course, people will tend to be cautious in those circumstances, and that probably developed under the direct rule period where Ministers weren’t really carrying the tab for these things.”

He wants planners to be more willing to take risks and “deliver the goods” for the Northern Ireland economy. Changing the culture can be achieved through a carrot and- stick approach, the Minister says.

“First of all, you can change it by encouraging officials to come through with decisions quickly. When they do come through with decisions quickly and they do get those big economic decisions made, I praise them publicly. And equally, I will have no reservations in condemning them publicly as well.”

Wilson does not fit into the ‘agent’ model of a government Minister, where the politician follows his officials’ advice and is the department’s man: “I’m not here really to defend my department, if it does wrong things, bad things, or is subject to inertia which stops things happening. If that happens, I will be quite public about it.”

Although he values his civil servants’ advice, Wilson has a mind of his own and goes against their views “quite frequently”. He thinks he is getting bolder as he goes along.

“I’m still feeling the way as to just how I can push the boundaries. Maybe that’s been good. With most civil servants when I make it clear that that is what I want done, sometimes even though they’ve advised me against it, once I’ve made that decision they’ve been supportive of it,” he explains.

“On occasions, I’ve felt that one or two have tried to either change me or change the decision or find another angle of coming back at it, and I’ve had to resist that.”

His key message is that, in government, there’s now a different attitude to planning in Northern Ireland than there was before.

“I want Northern Ireland, the Executive want Northern Ireland, to be seen as more investor-friendly and that does mean changes within the planning system, big changes. And if there are those who resist those changes, then they will have to live with the consequences of that.”

“Planning reform,” Wilson explains, “has got the potential to release an awful lot of economic activity in Northern Ireland and to improve the well-being of people in Northern Ireland.”

“Whilst a lot of the focus of attention is on the planning system, some of the people who read your magazine need to be aware that sometimes the faults lie with the people who are actually making the development proposals.”

He has, though, “absolutely no doubt” that the system has gone too far towards regulation as opposed to helping developers.

Climate change

Wilson is well-known for his scepticism about man’s role in causing climate change, despite widespread support for this theory from scientists and governments.

When it is put to him even the Head of Exxon is now a ‘convert’ to accepting human activity’s contribution to global warming, he counters that sceptics include Czech President Václav Klaus, an ex-Spanish Prime Minister and former Chancellor Nigel Lawson.

“I suspect there are a lot of people in public life who take the same view as me but they’re afraid to say so because it’s not the politically correct thing to do,” he surmises.

“There’s environmentalists, there are scientists, there are politicians, some of whom have stuck their head above the parapet and said: ‘Look, a lot of this is not proven. Don’t be spending huge amounts of money on it because really those resources could be better used than the way that they are being at present’.”

He expects that people will look back in 20 or 30 years’ time and ask what the problem was. In addition, he points out that climate has changed historically at times when humans had little impact on nature. In the Middle Ages, for example, temperatures in Northern Europe were “much higher” than they are now.

“That’s why Greenland was called Greenland. Once you had the period of cooling, you had a totally different climate there and settlements started disappearing,” he adds.

“Yes, we’ve had continual changes and dramatic changes in the world’s climate throughout history and all of them, apart from the recent ones, were not in a period of time when man was producing huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which then would have had some impact on the environment. It happened naturally and in cycles in the past.”

He also claims that many advocates of man-made climate change were predicting a ‘little ice age’ 25 to 30 years ago “and it was all due to the same factors by the way, and then suddenly when the evidence changes, they simply changed their science.”

Wilson warns: “Of course, this kind of science and the policies which come from it are a boon for those who wish to find ways of taxing us more, restricting us more, regulating us more and having more state intervention. And I am not a state interventionist in that way.”

While Northern Ireland is part of the UK wide policy framework on tackling climate change, he says that views are changing with some EU leaders saying “even if we do believe this, we can’t afford it”. Economics will become a more important consideration, he predicts: “As the world recession bites, countries are looking at what is practical in terms of keeping their economies going, as opposed to what the environmentalists might like.”

When environmentalists fly out to conferences in Bali, Poland and Rio de Janeiro, he sees this as hypocritical. And at an Assembly level, he says he loves getting questions on climate change and thinks there are contradictory attitudes and “playing to the gallery” among MLAs.

“On one hand they can talk about climate change and the need to reduce CO2 emissions, and the impact of that is to put up electricity prices, to put up fuel prices etc. And in the next breath, they can talk about fuel poverty without even blinking their eyelid or seeing the contradiction that there is.”

Safer roads

DoE remains responsible for road safety, an issue that he says “seems to sit out on the edge” when compared with the rest of his brief. It is, he maintains, also important for improving quality of life in Northern Ireland.

“The whole idea of devolved government is to make a difference to people’s lives and one of the big areas where I think you can influence people’s quality of life is to [make sure they can] know that they can go out on a road, or their children can go out walking, on their push-bikes, or to school and that they’ll be safe.”

While pointing out that road deaths are down to a quarter of the 1970s level, he says more work needs to be done to cut down on dangerous driving through regulation, education and legal sanctions.

As well as Environment Minister, Wilson represents East Antrim as an MP and MLA, and continues to sit as a Belfast City councillor.

Asked how he manages these commitments, he replies that he has “chosen to do the jobs that I do, and I’m elected to do them and I seek to do them to the best of my ability”. There’s some overlap between Westminster and Assembly constituency work in East Antrim.

There are competing demands on his time and sometimes he can’t be in two places at once, but Wilson says: “We all prioritise … and you tend to prioritise in accordance with what we think is most important.”

He thinks he gives 100 per cent to all of his jobs and is prepared to let the electorate have the final say on whether he is doing them well. Wilson does, though, see the need for new faces to come up through the party’s ranks – something which the rotating Ministers policy aims to do – and notes: “Certainly, I am planning now to make sure that there are people who can come after me.”

Profile: Sammy Wilson MP MLA

A Belfast man, Sammy Wilson went to Methodist College, and studied economics and politics at Queen’s University. After training as a teacher at Stranmillis College, he took up a post at Grosvenor Grammar School, where he was later Head of Economics.

His political life started as the DUP’s press officer and since 1981, he has been a councillor for East Belfast’s Pottinger area. He has twice been the city’s Lord Mayor. Elected to the Northern Ireland Forum for East Belfast in 1996, he served as an MLA for the constituency from 1998 to 2003.

In the 2003 Assembly election, he stood down from East Belfast and was elected in East Antrim. Two years later, he won its Westminster seat with 49.6 per cent of the vote. In the Commons, he sits on the Transport Committee. Outside politics, he is a keen gardener, motorbike enthusiast and has a keen interest in animals and birds.

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