OEP Chief of Staff Richard Greenhous: Northern Ireland Environment Forum 2024 speech

OEP Chief of Staff Richard Greenhous spoke at the Northern Ireland Environment Forum 2024 on 18 April. The topic of his speech was 'Protecting the environment for future generations'.

Protecting the environment for future generations

Hello. This is a most important and welcome event. Thank you for inviting us to speak. Our Chair, Dame Glenys Stacey, was due to be here but is unable to travel. She offers her apologies. Instead, you have me: Richard Greenhous. I am Chief of Staff at the Office for Environmental Protection and oversee our work in Northern Ireland.

This is a critical time for environmental issues in Northern Ireland. The return of the Assembly provides such opportunity for progress to be made – but the challenges faced here in Northern Ireland, for environmental protection and improvement, are numerous and complex. There is a need for urgent action, and for what might be tough decisions to be made. At the Office for Environmental Protection, we are committed to playing our full part. Committed to our significant role in helping address those challenges. Committed to protecting the environment for future generations. 

We will be new to many of you. You may have heard the name ‘Office for Environmental Protection’ or OEP, but not yet got a sense of what we do, or how we do it.

So first let me introduce you to the OEP. I will then move on to describe our work so far in Northern Ireland, provide some reflections on what we have learned, and where next we plan to focus our attention. 

A brief introduction to the OEP

In England, we were established under the 2021 Environment Act. This put in place four cornerstones for environmental governance: 1) Environmental Improvement Plans, or EIPs, which set out how a government intends to improve the natural environment; 2) statutory targets, to which government is legally committed, and which set the specific states and timelines for improvements to be made; 3) an Environmental Principles Policy Statement, or EPPS, to which all public authorities must have regard when making their decisions; and 4) us - the Office for Environmental Protection, to oversee and make sure that this new system works.

Our mission is to protect and improve the environment by holding governments and other public authorities to account against environmental laws and commitments. We have four main functions: 1) scrutinising EIPs and targets; 2) scrutinising environmental law; 3) advising government on changes to environmental law; and 4) enforcement, which includes taking complaints from the public about suspected breaches of environmental law by public authorities.

In England, these functions came into effect in January 2022. The following month, the Northern Ireland Assembly gave its approval for the OEP to become the independent environmental oversight body for Northern Ireland too.

So, what does all that mean, what does it look like?

We started by building the specific knowledge, expertise and capacity we need for our work here in Northern Ireland. But we have not built separate Northern Ireland and England teams. Instead, we have built one joined up organisation that delivers for both Northern Ireland and England. So far, we have recruited 15 excellent staff here. We also have Malcolm Beatty as our Northern Ireland non-executive on our Board. Many of you may already know Malcolm, from his various other and previous senior roles here in Northern Ireland. Malcolm, and all our Northern Ireland based staff’s expertise is invaluable to our work here, and across the piece.

In taking our ‘one organisation, two jurisdictions’ approach, we can make best and most efficient use of all our resources to benefit both regions, while also remaining sensitive and responsive to their differences. This means sometimes our work is focused on Northern Ireland, sometimes on England, and sometimes both.

Alongside building our own expertise, we have been learning from others about the environmental issues in NI. Our full Board has met twice in Northern Ireland to listen and to see things on the ground for themselves. As an organisation we have been proactive in engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, including the Minister, Assembly members, officials, local authorities, environmental NGOs, business groups, farming bodies, academic and research institutions etc. Although there is always more to do.

Messages from our stakeholders

I just want to reflect here on what we have heard from those stakeholders. Information that has been important in informing our priorities.  I will be interested to hear your views on these throughout the day, as will my OEP colleagues here with me today. Do let us know of anything you think we are missing!

We have heard that four big barriers to environmental protection and improvement in Northern Ireland are: 1) political instability; 2) lack of enforcement; 3) the low priority given to environmental issues; and 4) the way the planning system works here. None are easy to address, but all are areas where progress is possible.

Stakeholders also raised concerns about our independence and the need for transparency. I will reflect on these later.

So that is a bit of background to the organisation, but what have we actually been doing?

Our work in NI

Earlier, I mentioned our four main functions. I will now run through what work we are doing under each of those functions.

First, a key role for us is to independently assess Government’s progress against its Environmental Improvement Plan. As you will no doubt realise, there is no EIP yet in place for NI. This is hugely regrettable. We understand some of the reasons for this. But we have been clear to officials and now to the Minister, that an EIP must be in place as soon as possible. This is not an administrative or legal point, although the missed statutory deadline is significant. 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. 

When the EIP is in place, we will provide an independent, thorough, and evidence-based annual appraisal of progress. We have already done this twice in England, and I would encourage you to seek those reports out. 

The lack of an EIP has not left us twiddling our thumbs, though. We are already playing our part in ensuring that, when the EIP is in place, it does what it needs to do. Back in September 2022, we advised DAERA on how its Draft Environment Strategy could be improved as it is adopted as the EIP. We advised that 1) the vision and targets should be clearer; 2) targets needed to be strengthened; 3) prioritisation needed to be better; 4) the right policies, resources and governance arrangements must be in place to support delivery, and 5) a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation regime is needed.

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. I will talk more of that important site later.

To prepare for our role in monitoring progress against the EIP, we are carrying out a review of the drivers and pressures affecting biodiversity across Northern Ireland, which is due for publication later this year. As an emerging theme from that work, we can see the key role that land use change and pollution, particularly nutrient enrichment, are having. We will of course be able to say more as that work is completed and published. Central to our approach is a commitment to evidence-based actions and decisions, and with that in the forefront of our minds we are also carrying out several research projects including 1) looking at the regulation, management, and monitoring of waste; 2) reviewing the available evidence on the condition of the marine environment and 3) developing an understanding of the issues around monitoring species abundance, and the setting of relevant targets. Here, 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 second of our four functions for me to cover is scrutiny of environmental law.

We are preparing three reports which scrutinise the effective implementation of environmental laws in NI. The first is looking at the design and management of protected sites; the second, the implementation of laws to support water quality, including an evaluation of river basin management plans against their legal requirements; the third, the implementation of laws which protect water quality at bathing sites. So, a busy year ahead for these teams. We anticipate the water quality report being published before summer recess; the protected sites report in September. The bathing waters report in October. 

The third of our four functions is advising government. We have advised DAERA on its draft ammonia and circular economy strategies, and Defra on its UK Fisheries statement. 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. 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 function for me to cover in this whistle-stop tour is our enforcement. We can receive complaints from members of the public about suspected breaches of environmental law by public bodies. It is not our role to provide redress on individual issues, rather this is a way for people to bring strategic issues with environmental laws to our attention. So, the information we receive through complaints informs our work. For example, it can help us identify wider thematic or systemic concerns about how an environmental law is implemented, which we can then address through our other functions.  

Between January 2021 and January 2024, the OEP received eleven hundred enquires, leading to 114 complaints of which we considered 54 in depth. 15 of these came from Northern Ireland, resulting in two investigations and several interventions.

Our investigations are of suspected, serious failures to comply with environmental law. Last May, we launched an investigation into the advice given by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) on ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland, often referred to as the Operational Protocol.  This investigation is ongoing. But in December, following threat of legal action by the OEP, DAERA confirmed that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) would no longer rely upon the Operational Protocol when giving advice to planning authorities. We welcomed that and look forward to its replacement with a compliant approach that delivers the environmental protection intended.

In March, we launched a second investigation into DAERA over possible failures to comply with environmental law in relation to Special Protection Areas (SPAs), for wild birds. The investigation will seek to determine whether DAERA has failed to comply with environmental law relating to SPAs on land. This includes possible failures to implement recommendations given by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and other conservation public authorities on the classification and adaptation of SPAs and in respect of its general duties to protect and maintain wild bird populations.

We will always seek to achieve resolution of an issue through negotiation and engagement. And formal investigation is not our only route. We can instead intervene to seek agreement to measures to address issues raised with us, of which you can find examples on our website. But we can and will take legal action where it is necessary to achieve the right outcome for the environment.

Flipping the telescope

That was a brief summary of our work in NI. But I want quickly to try and bring that to life a bit by flipping the telescope and looking at things from the other direction. What is our role in dealing with a significant environmental issue in NI?

The issues at Lough Neagh have, rightly, been big news. We have ourselves visited Lough Neagh twice and spoken with local stakeholders, to understand the issue and its impacts.

We are often asked, quite understandably, what are we doing to help address the environmental issues affecting this important site. And that question has informed our own thinking as we have developed our programme of work in Northern Ireland.

You will hopefully have understood from what I have said already that we are not a front-line regulator. We do not have boots on the ground. Our role is more strategic. So, we have been looking at the big picture – what are the systemic 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.

While there are a range of pressures impacting on the Lough, we feel we can have most impact in the long term by looking at issues around nutrients. Nutrients from agriculture and wastewater treatment are central to this issue. You can see how this has fed into us prioritising some of the work I have mentioned today - our investigation into the Operational Protocol, our scrutiny of the laws around water quality, and our interest in the Nutrient Action Plan. We are now business planning for the next few years, in which nutrients will remain our key focus in Northern Ireland.


I understand that there will have been concerns about an organisation with English origins taking on such an important role here in Northern Ireland. But I hope that I have been able to provide some reassurance today. We are not an English organisation dabbling in NI. 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. We do this by drawing on the considerable expertise of all our staff in both Northern Ireland and England, and their wide networks, which include many of you here today.

We want to see good environmental 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 which can start to drive much needed progress in protecting and improving the environment here for future generations.

We are determined to succeed here. We are confident we have made a good start and were encouraged by our initial meeting with Minister Muir. But we know, as does he, there is so much more to do.

Thank you.