Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for Regional Development, meeting on Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Trevor Clarke (Chairperson)
Mr John Dallat
Ms C Hanna
Mr Chris Lyttle
Mr Declan McAleer
Mr D McNarry
Mr S Moutray
Mr C Ó hOisín


Ms Stephanie Millar, Northern Ireland Environment Agency

Water and Sewerage Services Bill: Northern Ireland Environment Agency

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): We welcome Ms Stephanie Millar, who is a principal scientific officer for the north-east river basin.

Ms Stephanie Millar (Northern Ireland Environment Agency): Good morning.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): Good morning, Stephanie. You are very welcome. Do you have a presentation that you want to make?

Ms Millar: I do not. I intended to introduce myself and the role that the Environment Agency has in storm water, and then open it up to you to ask questions, if that is OK for you?

Ms Millar: I am the north-east district river basin manager for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). In that role, I am the lead for the regulation of NI Water's discharges to the environment. As part of that role, I co-chair the Northern Ireland storm water management group, in which we are partnered with our colleagues in DRD to take forward policy and raise awareness on storm water management issues and improvements in the technical guidance that is out there.

NIEA has no vires in regards to the implementation of storm water management and sustainable drainage systems (SuDS), but we recognise that they bring a whole raft of benefits for the delivery of a number of European directives like the water framework directive, the habitats directive and the bathing water directive etc. The big thing is that SuDS can bring forward the target for achieving good water status under the water framework directive. That is why the Environment Agency has taken such a heavy role in driving forward storm water management in Northern Ireland. The presentation that Peter Close made on storm water management to the construction consortium is in your papers. That sets out clearly the role of the storm water management group to take that forward.

That is essentially it. Do you want to ask any questions? I just wanted to set the context of where the Environment Agency fits into the jigsaw puzzle.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): OK. Thank you, Stephanie. There was previous correspondence on this issue. I think that it came directly not from you but from one of your colleagues.

Ms Millar: Yes.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): We will try this and see how we go. Given that he is not here —

Ms Millar: Unfortunately, Peter has moved on from his post and has been off on sick leave. I have been involved in the programme for the last year, so I am well versed in it.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): I suppose that the first biggie is the capacity issue. In his presentation, there was a suggestion that the infrastructure is at capacity. You could read from what he said that SuDS are the only way forward. Do you agree with his assessment that SuDS are a panacea?

Ms Millar: I agree that SuDS are one of the solutions to take it forward. The infrastructure is under pressure — there is no doubt about that — and our water quality and the environment is under pressure because of the discharges that are leaking from the infrastructure. I would definitely say that SuDS are one of the solutions, but we need to take a lot of steps before we can legislate for them — a lot of changes, a shift in policy from Departments and a meeting of minds are needed to make sure that we can bring it to the forefront so that they are included in all the actions that Departments deliver on the ground.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): I will maybe tease that out. What do you mean? If we are at capacity now, why are strategies not being put in place? We have heard that many areas in Northern Ireland are under flood risk — and more than a risk; they are experiencing actual flooding. Why have those strategies not already been brought forward?

Ms Millar: I suppose that SuDS have come to the fore over the last 10 years. It is about taking the time to make sure that we are applying the appropriate infrastructure that can answer the issues. You have to look at each site in a site-specific context. Not all the answers will fit, and you have to look at each development. I cannot answer for all the Departments, but the role of the storm water management group was to bring the Departments together to start to look at the strategies and policies and implement the storm water management principles within their day-to-day activities.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): Are you aware of whether we have anyone in Northern Ireland who is capable of designing a SuDS system or a contractor with expertise in that area?

Ms Millar: There are a number of consultants who have experience in SuDS, but it is limited. It is about building that expertise in our local industry. There is a lot of expertise across the water in England, where they are actively putting SuDS forward on the ground.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): As the Bill stands at the moment, does the Department see the need for any amendments to it?

Ms Millar: No. I think that it sets the tone correctly at this stage because, as I have said before, we have to take a number of steps before we can get to the point of legislating for soft SuDS and taking that forward. We need to bring to the fore a number of issues and set processes in place. We will be able to deliver that through the storm water management group. We may be able to look at future legislation regarding soft SuDS in a few years' time.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): This is my last question before I open the floor. Why is everyone shying away from soft SuDS as an option?

Ms Millar: It is not that we are shying away from it. Essentially, soft SuDS is a good programme of work. It can deliver a lot of benefits to the environment, local amenity and biodiversity and can deliver on sustainable SuDS, but if they are not managed appropriately they can cause some serious issues, such as health and safety problems. If you have a constructed wetland that is not being managed appropriately, with somebody being paid to manage and for the upkeep of that, you have got a dysfunctional SuDS system and you also have a health and safety risk to your local amenity and community. There is where we need to get those processes in place to ensure that there are liabilities and insurance and folk who will take full responsibility for that. I suppose that, from the Environment Agency's perspective, we have experience in that with regard to regulating private sewage treatment systems for private residential developments where we have developers that go bust, a treatment system that goes bang, and then we have problems. There is where we need to get the systems in place to bring those to the fore and to regulate the systems to ensure that they work and do what they were set out to do.

Mr McNarry: What is the connecting link between you, planners and council decision-takers on planning permissions?

Ms Millar: In the storm water management group, we have representatives from DOE planning policy. They sit on the group. We are now focusing on getting our connections to local government and driving through establishing working arrangements.

Mr McNarry: I am glad to hear that you are focusing. These super-councils have been known about for some time. Can you tell me when the focus will actually materialise and you will have that connecting link?

Ms Millar: We already have the connecting links; we just need to establish how local government will become involved and recognise its role in delivering —

Mr McNarry: Who are you talking to about that?

Ms Millar: The chief executive of the north-west — I am not sure of the name of the council, but it is the north coast council that will be taking that forward on that basis through the storm water management group.

Mr Dallat: Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council.

Mr McNarry: On behalf of all councils?

Ms Millar: He will be the lead representative for all the councils to really test the water to see how we can establish the group's membership.

Mr McNarry: Perhaps you might come back to us and give us an indication of when that will all be set up. It is a very important matter. It could be overlooked.

Ms Millar: Yes, of course.

Mr McNarry: Does your agency have the designer and contractor expertise for SuDS?

Ms Millar: No.

Mr McNarry: Do you know who has?

Ms Millar: We are aware of consultants out there who have the design expertise. We are involved with the construction institute for research and assessment that has the expertise and the best practice.

Mr McNarry: Would you mind supplying the Committee with the names of the consultants whom you are aware of who are experts in this field?

Ms Millar: We do not normally recommend consultants —

Mr McNarry: No, but you said that you were aware of them. I ask only that you share that awareness.

Ms Millar: OK. Yes.

Mr McNarry: Finally, who will be the policemen over SuDS?

Ms Millar: The legislation and the Bill set the tone for Northern Ireland Water and for the DRD infrastructure to set the hard SuDS. With soft SuDS, it is on a site-by-site basis. It is really dependent on that, and that is why we really need to tease out the planning and policy that the Government set, because there is no regulatory regime to police soft SuDS. It is through planning applications and, if they are discharging into a watercourse, through the agency.

Mr McNarry: Are you reasonably comfortable that the policemen — to use that term again — for hard SuDS have the expertise and ability to actually police it?

Ms Millar: Yes, they do.

Mr McNarry: Does that expertise include or cover the developers' position on the matter, where there are significant costs that have to be considered? Are you confident that that overall situation will cover everything that we need to ensure that this will be right? I am a big supporter of SuDS, but I have a concern. Where there are small developers — I have that in my constituency, as I assume many people do — I am concerned that it might have some material effect on their costings and their abilities. Dare I say that it could be a reason to take short cuts? Whatever materialises from your work and your authority, you are confident that SuDS will be the thing of the future but will be policed properly.

Ms Millar: From now, planning restrictions will be placed on developers when they are putting hard SuDS designs into their developments. Those planning consultations will come to the Environment Agency. We will assess them and direct the developers to best practice. How that will be implemented and their compliance with it will be monitored through the regulation of the planning permission. However, in moving forward, we will establish a regulatory regime for SuDS through the storm water management group, where you will have a monitoring and an approval body looking at the SuDS design processes in a site-specific setting. It is through that planning process that we will be able to regulate it.

Mr McNarry: Sorry, you are on soft SuDS; there is not as yet the same confidence that you can deal with hard SuDS.

Ms Millar: No.

Mr McNarry: When do you think you will have that confidence?

Ms Millar: Well, it is hard to say. The storm water management group has been on a long road, and we are coming to a junction now where we are having the review of the Departments, where a lot of the Departments that will be involved in establishing SuDS on the ground are all under one umbrella.

Mr McNarry: If a developer comes up with a reason for soft SuDS, what expertise is brought in and how is that taken on board? If a developer came along and said, "I want this site to include soft SuDS", how would that be routed through your Department and, eventually, to a planning situation?

Ms Millar: If a developer presented proposals for soft SuDS, the Environment Agency would definitely speak to them to advise them on the best practice and the guidance that is out there with regard to the construction of wetlands, reed beds or natural water attenuation storage lagoons. Essentially, when we get those proposals, we can have proactive discussions. However, a majority of those are highlighted at the planning stage when the Environment Agency is consulted. It is through that consultation process that we signpost to the guidance. It could come back to the Environment Agency if a discharge consent was required. If a point source was coming from that soft SuDS, we could regulate it to ensure that it delivers on the ground. There is expertise and understanding for soft SuDS, but it is finding the home for it. That is what the storm water management group —

Mr McNarry: But you just said that you do not have that expertise and that you have to rely on consultants — well, I am putting words into your mouth. Are you going to employ these consultants?

Ms Millar: No. We have the technical expertise to assess whether a system will work, but it is the assessment of the design of it and the site setting of it. Essentially, while the Environment Agency will take a look at it, it is taking a look at the best practice and applying it while we assess the site-specific issues to see whether it will definitely improve the water quality and environment.

Mr McNarry: I will give way to other members, because I am sure that they want to take up where I am on that and take it forward.

Mr Ó hOisín: Thanks, Stephanie. The NIEA produced a strategy back in 2011 for storm water management and a guidance leaflet on top of that in 2012. Is the storm water management group a product of that strategy coming to fruition?

Ms Millar: The strategy was developed by a working party. Out of that strategy came the recommendation that the storm water management group be put in place, having all the departmental representatives there to drive the policy change through.

Mr Ó hOisín: OK. I am interested in the role of Mr Jackson, the CEO of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, together with the other local authorities.

Ms Millar: I understand that he takes the lead on those planning policies with regard to that. My colleague from DRD and I need to sit down and meet the chief executive to understand how we can get the membership rightly balanced on the storm water management group, to take account of local government involvement.

Mr Ó hOisín: And currently this is solely on hard SuDS, rather than soft.

Ms Millar: No; it is SuDS in the round, so it is hard and soft. The storm water management group needs to take it forward and keep working at it to try to deliver on the soft SuDS in the future.

Mr Ó hOisín: NI Water is obviously critical to all this.

Ms Millar: Definitely, and it is present as a working member of the group.

Mr Ó hOisín: Most systems at the minute which feed into NI Water waste treatment plants, particularly in rural areas, are dual systems for storm water and sewage. Obviously, there has to be some formula or balance to get as much of that storm water away from the sewage system in order to save it.

Ms Millar: Yes. I know that NI Water is driving to separate storm water and sewage through policies that it has been implementing and that were born out of the work that it has been doing on the storm water management group.

Mr Ó hOisín: In your area of responsibility, down through the years, there have been quite a number of pollution incidents and what have you that, perhaps, have emanated from the dual system.

Ms Millar: Yes, and we continue to face that problem, given the infrastructure that we have across Northern Ireland. That is why it is crucial that we drive forward the separation of those systems and drive through the storm water management and the hard SuDS. That is where we can see the most benefit at this stage.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): Can I just take you back, Stephanie? I am a wee bit intrigued as to how Mr Jackson was appointed on behalf of other councils. What is his role? Did you say that he was actually leading on this?

Ms Millar: No. To be honest, at the last storm water management group meeting it was suggested that he may be the best chief executive to approach to see about the role of local government on this group. If those contacts need to be established —

Ms Millar: It was based on an understanding of his involvement in the set-up of local government and the share of the planning responsibilities.

Mr McNarry: Have you gone back now to "maybe" from "was"? I got the impression that he was.

Ms Millar: My apologies if I misled you, but we need to establish those working relationships to bring local government to the table, because —

Mr McNarry: It is likely to be him, is that what you are saying?

Ms Millar: It is likely. We need to establish the contact to make sure that we have the appropriate balance of membership on the group.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): I am just curious. I digress slightly, but unfortunately we have three waste groups in Northern Ireland. We should not have three, but anyway, one of those was a senior officer on a council who got himself cosied into a position on one of those waste groups. I am just warning that, already, you can see a bit of a —

Ms Millar: Unless you can —

Mr McNarry: DRD, of course, does everything cosy.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): That is what worries me. I am just curious as to why one chief executive is plucked out of all the new councils.

Ms Millar: To be honest, I do not know. It is probably because of the need for knowledge of how local government is set up, and certain leads have been identified for certain strands of policy.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): Stephanie, you appreciate that it should not be about how local government is set up; it should be about expertise on a particular issue and not just because someone knows something about how local government is set up. That is what worries me. To me, this smells like someone is starting to create an empire.

Mr Dallat: Thank you very much for your presentation, Stephanie. Can we go back a wee bit to Mr Jackson, whom I know personally as a very capable person? Is it not a bit worrying that, only at this stage, you are getting somebody to coordinate the activities of the other 10 super-councils on an issue as serious as SuDS? Whether the SuDS are soft or hard does not matter. Given the awful experiences that people have had to live with over the past few years, are we — pardon the pun — swimming against the tide?

Ms Millar: No. I can safely say that the work that the Environment Agency, DRD and NI Water are doing together as a group outside the storm water management group in tackling the separation of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) is ongoing and continues. The storm water management group is a meeting of minds to try to get a sea change in the policy. Yes, local government has not been brought to the table to date, but we are trying to resolve that by getting an appropriate member to attend. I think that it was by the understanding and knowledge of Mr Jackson that we felt an open door to see who should be in attendance —

Mr Dallat: No, Stephanie, I do not think you have done yourself any harm by mentioning him. That is fine. When south Belfast is flooded or, indeed, Coleraine, where Mr Jackson resides, as it has been, the first people who will be on the TV screaming will be the local councillors, yet they seem to be the last to be involved.

Ms Millar: To be clear in regard to the work that is ongoing, flooding and the impact of sewage entering residential homes is a top priority for NI Water. It is included in the price control investment programme, and NIEA is involved with those prioritisation programmes. That is working alongside and driving forward change to protect homeowners and to protect the environment in that regard. The storm water management group is a meeting of minds to try to drive it forward and to try to eke it out. We have the Living with Water programme in east Belfast. That is a prime example of where the Departments are coming together. It will be through the lessons that are learned in that programme that we will be able to change the policy and drive it through to bring through SuDS and deliver on the ground.

Mr Dallat: In your introduction, you said that you were not entirely happy with the proposals for dealing with SuDS and, I suppose, the systems.

Ms Millar: Do you mean for the soft SuDS?

Mr Dallat: Aye. The whole problem of flooding is a process that has developed over time as developers, wrongly, concreted over huge areas and destroyed the natural drainage. Why are you not confident that reintroducing the best thing we have to natural drainage will not work?

Ms Millar: If they are being introduced artificially, they need to be designed appropriately and managed. That is the concern. I fully support the role that soft SuDS have to play, and I definitely see the benefits of it — in fact, the Environment Agency encourages the delivery of that — but we need to ensure that there is suitable management and regulation of those installations post construction, so that they do not cause an issue in the future.

Mr Dallat: Should it be more than just "encourage"? Surely this is replacing, as well as we can, what previous generations have destroyed.

Ms Millar: Yes, but when you look at reality and the role that the Environment Agency plays, you will see that we can only influence decisions with regard to planning proposals and, where there is a project for retrofitting or regeneration of certain areas, ensure that SuDS are taken into account and factored into the design process.

Mr Dallat: Thank you very much.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): How long have you been with the NIEA, Stephanie?

Ms Millar: Thirteen years.

Mr Dallat: You do not look it.

Ms Millar: Thank you.

Mr McNarry: Lucky for some.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): I want to go back to what Cathal asked about the 2011 strategy in relation to storm water management. We are talking about a guidance leaflet that was done in 2011-12. I do not have a lot of confidence in the NIEA, even in its management of issues regarding pollution incidents. If you are saying that that is the best that your organisation has done since 2011— "we are starting to create cosy relationships with chief executives, and we have not actually worked this out" —

Ms Millar: I think —

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): Let me finish my point, Stephanie — "we have not worked all of this out." We have been familiar with flooding in Northern Ireland for a number of years. None of us around the table is pushing for one solution or the other, but it is interesting that we are still talking about soft SuDS and are concerned about the management of those and how that will work. There does not seem to be a strong meeting of minds in your organisation and whoever is in the storm water management group. We might look forward to looking at that more as a Committee, because I think it will be useful for the Bill. There does not seem to be a meeting of minds.

Ms Millar: I think, to be fair to the Environment Agency, it has a limited role in this. The main deliverers are Rivers Agency, DRD and Planning Service in regard to how we can deliver on SuDS on the ground. The Environment Agency recognised the role that SuDS can bring to the environment and the benefit, and it has been trying to open the doors to get people sitting round the table. It has taken some time for the Departments to recognise that. I recognise that it has taken some time to get us to where we are now, but we actually have folk sitting round the table. We have the Living with Water programme that has been established by DRD, but NIEA has been very involved in that process. I stand to question the recognition that NIEA is not doing its job: we are out investigating pollution incidents, we are responding to those pollution incidents and we are doing the best that we can in the environment that we have.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): Well, as someone who comes from south Antrim, Stephanie, let me tell you — I did not want to go down this road today, but you want to go on the defensive for the NIEA — that your track record — not yours but the organisation's — is abysmal. There have been at least three pollution incidents in the Six Mile Water in the last 12 months, and it usually takes the NIEA about 24 hours to respond. It never follows up, and what we never see is prosecutions and people before the courts. Its track record in terms of pollution is abysmal, and the evidence is there. We had the Minister out a few weeks ago, and I have every respect for the Minister in what he is trying to do. Within two to three weeks of the Minister meeting us, there was another incident in the Three Mile Water, a tributary of the Six Mile Water. The track record is not good. I have no confidence, to be honest, that the NIEA will deliver anything different in relation to this, given that it has taken you four years to get to where you are, and you still have not got it sorted. That is nothing personal to you; that is the organisation. Sorry, David.

Mr McNarry: That is all right. Just on the subject matter, I do not think that anyone would disagree with what you have said, Chairman, regarding experiences; we have all had those experiences. Just for the record, I would like to thank you. You are a very capable person sitting in front of the Committee, and I thank you for what I see as a fresh and transparent presentation. I am glad that it will be in Hansard, Chairman, because it has given us a lot to think about and brought to the table things that, certainly, I was not thinking about. I appreciate the frankness that has been brought to us. We need now to drill down on some of these things and have a voice on them, before they go absolutely the way most things go in this blooming Department. Thank you. It is awfully hard in front of us, I know, but do not worry about us: we are brutes.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): Stephanie, thank you for your presentation, and I concur with David about your openness. Others come here and try to hide things; you have put everything on the table. Whilst I may find fault in that, there is stuff for us to drill down into. It makes our job a lot easier with you being open with us today, but my criticisms still stand of your organisation.

Mr McNarry: You are in trouble when you get out of here, Stephanie.

Ms Millar: I am in trouble; I have to go back. Thanks very much.

The Chairperson (Mr Clarke): No doubt we will meet again, Stephanie.

Ms Millar: I am sure.

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