The Chairperson welcomed to the meeting Mr. S. Kelly, Northern Ireland Environment Link, Mr. J. Martin, RSPB NI, Mr. V. Magreehan, National Trust and Mr. R. Hunter, Ulster Wildlife.
Mr. Martin provided an overview of the Nature Matters NI Campaign, a coalition drawn from more than 70 members of NI Environment Link, working together to secure the best future for the environment.
He explained that the project board was made up of the following four workstreams:
· International Advocacy – to raise awareness of and build support for our key Brexit messages at a North/South, East/West level and beyond;
· Sustainable land-use – to develop a new sustainable land-use policy in coalition with others and to advocate this to government;
· Nature and Environmental Protection – to ensure that existing levels of protection for nature and the environment were maintained/enhanced; and
· Marine and Fisheries – to develop a new sustainable fisheries policy and designate an ecologically coherent and well managed network of protected areas at sea.
He highlighted the number of laws that would be affected by Brexit in relation to agriculture and environment, consumers and health protection policy areas.
Mr. Martin stated that Brexit would impact Directives – particularly Birds, Habitats and Water Framework which was the basis of nature conservation and environmental legislation and regulation. He raised concerns in relation to the potential lowering of environmental standards and ‘race to the bottom’.
He highlighted that the UK would no longer be subject to the European Court of Justice and the threat of heavy financial penalties through infraction. He suggested that the current systems would need a major overhaul and re-invigoration to safe-guard the key environmental priorities.
He summarised the Cross-Border and all-Island Environmental Issues such as the implications of the Land Use Policy and the guidance needed for use and protection of shared sites.
He raised concerns in relation to the UK’s future access to EU environmental funding such as LIFE+,INTERREG and partnership project funding.
Mr. Martin then provided an overview of the Non – EU International Environmental Agreements and stated that the UK was a signatory to other international Environmental agreements which would be ‘unaffected’ by Brexit. He advised that most of the 41 environment, agriculture and fisheries policy areas currently dealt with 'under' the EU would require 4 nation agreements in the future.
He highlighted that the Nature Matters NI was campaigning for:
· A sustainable agriculture and land use policy that was fair to farmers, good for nature and benefits society;
· Nature and environmental protection to ensure Northern Ireland’s most treasured species and habitats could thrive;
· A nature–friendly marine and fisheries policy to protect Northern Ireland’s seas and marine biodiversity;
· Funding for nature conservation to replace existing EU funding programmes such as LIFE+ and INTERREG; and
· The island of Ireland to be considered as a single biogeographic unit with effective mechanisms in place to resolve and manage cross border environmental issues and prevent unfair competition post–Brexit.
He advised that many MLA’s had made a pledge to Nature Matters NI Charter to ‘Protect and Restore Nature’ and they wished to develop a similar Charter for Councillors across Northern Ireland.
During discussion, the representatives answered a range of questions in relation to the impact of Brexit on the environment such as air pollution, the spreading of ammonia, the importance of enforcement and restoration. Mr. Kelly highlighted that enforcement of breaches and a clear strategy was required to protect and manage the environment, together with an independent environmental watchdog to help mitigate some impacts of Brexit and hold the government to account.
The Chairperson thanked the representatives for attending and they retired from the meeting.
The Committee noted the information which had been provided.