Protecting the environment for future generations

Chief of Staff at the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), Richard Greenhous, outlines the organisation’s role in protecting and improving the environment in Northern Ireland at a “critical time”.

Describing the environmental protection and improvement challenges for Northern Ireland as “numerous and complex”, Greenhous believes that the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly presents an opportunity for progress at a time when urgent action is needed and tough decisions must be made.

With a mission to protect and improve the environment by holding governments and other public authorities to account against environmental laws and commitments, the OEP has been the independent environmental oversight body for Northern Ireland since 28 February 2022.

The OEP was established in England under the 2021 Environment Act, and came into effect for England and reserved environmental matters on 24 January 2022. The extension of its functions to Northern Ireland was aimed at replacing the oversight of environmental protection that had previously been provided by the European Union. The OEP was never meant to play the role of an independent Environmental Protection Agency, which has long been lobbied for by some groups.

Greenhous explains that the OEP has not built separate Northern Ireland and England teams, but instead has built “one joined up organisation that delivers for both Northern Ireland and England”.

The “one organisation, two jurisdiction approach”, as he describes it, allows for the “most efficient use of all our resources to benefit both regions, while also remaining sensitive and responsive to their differences”.

“We are not an English organisation dabbling in Northern Ireland. We are one organisation, passionate about delivering our mission to protect and improve the natural environment by holding public bodies to account in both Northern Ireland and England.”

Greenhous explains that, through the OEP’s engagement to date, stakeholders have raised four major barriers to environmental protection: political instability; a lack of enforcement; low prioritisation for environmental issues; and the planning system.

“None are easy to address, but all are areas where progress is possible,” he states.


Greenhous describes it as “hugely regrettable” that Northern Ireland does not have an environmental improvement plan (EIP) in place. The independent assessment of the Government’s progress against an EIP is one of the OEP’s main functions and the Chief of Staff says that the organisation “have been clear to officials and now to the [agriculture, environment and rural affairs] minister, that an EIP must be in place as soon as possible”.

“The EIP will spur the action required to protect and improve Northern Ireland’s environment. It will focus activity on what is needed to deliver the positive changes sought. It will allow progress to be monitored, and amendments to be made as necessary to overcome all the barriers over time,” he states.

In the absence of an EIP, Greenhous says that the OEP continues to prepare for its implementation and points to its role in advising the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) on how its draft Environment Strategy could be improved as it is adopted as the EIP.

“We advised that the vision and targets should be clearer; targets needed to be strengthened; prioritisation needed to be better; the right policies, resources, and governance arrangements must be in place to support delivery; and a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation regime is needed,” he explains.

“We have also engaged persistently with DAERA on it meeting other important statutory deadlines. For example, the Nutrient Action Programme (NAP), which is so important to address the critical issue of nutrient pollution that is in part exemplified by the situation at Lough Neagh.”

Later in 2024, the OEP will publish its findings on an ongoing review of the drivers and pressures affecting biodiversity across Northern Ireland, with Greenhous indicating that the impact that land use change and pollution are having on nutrient enrichment set to be a large feature. In addition, the OEP is conducting research projects in relation to the regulation, management, and monitoring of waste; marine environment condition; and monitoring species abundance.

“We are particularly interested in looking at how various environmental policies and strategies interact – how they stack up – so we will also be undertaking a review of how coherent the EIP and climate action plans are,” the Chief of Staff says.

A second core function of the OEP is the scrutiny of environmental law, and Greenhous sets out that the OEP is preparing three reports which scrutinise the effective implementation of environmental laws in Northern Ireland. These include the design and management of protected sites (proposed publication in September 2024), the implementation of laws to support water quality, including an evaluation of river basin management plans (proposed publication in prior to summer recess), and the implementation of laws which protect water quality at bathing sites (proposed publication in October 2024).

Fulfilling a third function of government advisor, the OEP advised DAERA on its draft ammonia and circular economy strategies.

“On the Ammonia Strategy, we called for clearer targets, an action plan for delivery and evaluation, and for a clearer roadmap of how targets up to 2050 will be achieved,” Greenhous says.

“In September 2023, we advised DAERA on its draft Environmental Principles Policy Statement (EPPS). Once this statement has been finalised, ministers and their departments will have a legal duty to be guided by the statement when making policy. The potential here to drive environmental protection and improvement is huge. When the EPPS is in place, we will have a key role in monitoring its implementation.”

The fourth and final key function of the OEP is enforcement. Greenhous is quick to point out that the OEP is not “a front-line regulator”, but does receive complaints from the public about suspected breaches of environmental law by public bodies, which can inform its work.

“Our role is more strategic… What are the systematic issues that have led to the situation at Lough Neagh – which is itself an illustration of wider problems across Northern Ireland – and where can we play a unique role, given our specific remit, to make a difference?”

Concluding, Greenhous says: “We want to see good environment laws, well implemented and with high levels of compliance – the foundation stones for the progress to be made.

“The restoration of Stormont brings fresh opportunities; to progress the Environmental Improvement Plan, Environmental Principles Policy Statement, Nutrient Action Plan, River Basin Management Plan, the requirements of the Climate Change Act, and so on.

“These are the vehicles that can start to drive much-needed progress in protecting and improving the environment here for future generations.”

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