Environment Minister, Mark Durkan, discussed the Environment Committee’s report on wind energy and how he will take on board its recommendations during today’s Question Time. The Committee began an inquiry into wind energy in November 2013 and published its findings in a report in early 2015. The Minister welcomed the report saying that “it makes a valuable contribution to the debate surrounding wind energy development” adding that “I have sought to take account of the report's recommendations in finalising my strategic planning policy statement (SPPS), which I will publish as soon as possible following its consideration by the Executive.” Some of the recommendations will be taken forward through guidance notes that the Department is preparing on the processing of wind energy development. Other recommendations such as noise assessment methodology and the minimum separation distance of turbines from homes require further research and public consultation which will take place as part of the fundamental review of strategic planning policy for renewable energy. The Minister also assured that he will work with the relevant authorities to ensure that recommendations that fall outside the remit of the Department of the Environment (DoE) will be given due consideration.
The Minister then updated the House on the current state of funding for non-governmental organisations in 2015-16. The budget settlement for DoE has had serious implications for grant-aided programmes that support key environmental processes. Mr Durkan has sought to limit the impact of cuts primarily through the use of £1.5m in carrier bag levy receipts. In April 2015 the Minister launched a workshop to determine the best way to invest residual carrier bag levy funds. Following the workshop, attended by 22 environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs), the natural environment fund (NEF) opened for applications. The application period closed in May and by mid-June, 21 ENGOs were notified of their successful application for grant funding. Mr Durkan acknowledged that current funding arrangements are not ideal given their ad hoc nature with no long-term guarantees of sustained funding but maintained “I was not particularly pleased with the hand that was dealt to me in the Budget. However, I think that I have played that hand as well as I could. While the stakes are high for all those groups, I took the gamble and got a big win for them”.
Mr Durkan also addressed Members queries on recycling, local development plans, disposal of tyres and the transfer of functions to local government.