Tuesday, 31 May 2011

New Environment Minister is where it's Attwood

So Alex Attwood has been appointed Enfiranment Manystur at Starmount, bringing sharply drest Trandy Palitics to the green mofement...  

The SDLP took the environment ministry earlier this month, with former Social Development Minister Alex Attwood taking on the eco ticket on the hill. Many people will view this as a natural transition, a testament to the growing consensus that the natural and social environments are intrinsicly linked, while others will see this is a far safer option than more contentious, money spending ministries, such as the dreaded Health Department (picked by DUP on the ninth elective). From a greenie perspective, I think it's safe to say that the job could have, and has been, in worse hands (cough, Sammy, cough cough) and it bodes well that like most parties the SDLP made a point of expressing just how green their portfolio was in the run up to the election.  But based on past form and current promises, what can we expect from Attwood and the SDLP over the next four years?

In the role of Social Development Minister Mr Attwood was very much on the forefront of the fuel poverty debate in Northern Ireland, an issue with one foot in the social and one in the environment. Critism was levelled against him when he admitted that he wouldn't commit to Warm Zone implementation in NI and did not think it was possible to eradicate fuel poverty here entirely. However at the launch of the fuel poverty coalition in April where Mr Attwood sat with myself and Anna Lo (new Environment Committee Chair) he did focus on the deregulation of oil prices in NI to make energy prices more affordable, great for the consumer, but an attitude that did lead to accusations of short termism and to the detriment of discussing issues relating to over dependence on oil. But that was of course in the vein of his role in social development, we may well see some changes in attitude and more scope in his environment role.

And what of the SDLP policy on environment? 

The SDLP is absolutely committed to this sustainability and job creation plan. Not only will it help manage climate change, the Green New Deal has the ability to help lift vulnerable people out of fuel poverty, and crucially provide significant jobs within the next three years. Manifesto 2011

In this year's manifesto the party voiced commitment to the Green New Deal, to a sum of £75 million, though, correct me if I'm wrong, I can't see any details in the manifesto of where this money is coming from. What they do believe is that the implementation will result in three times the revenue in private industry and would be part of ongoing attempts to tackle fuel poverty. However much of the environment role with regards to fuel poverty is defined by the relationship between the MOE and the Housing Minister, who this time around will be Nelson McCausland. Whether Mr Attwood and Mr McCausland will be able to work together in the way the SDLP had envisioned remains to to be seen, it may be the case that Alex will have to ensure the playing of gospel music, creationist displays and pro Israeli sentiment in all of their coffee mornings to keep the DUP's outspoken minister on side.

The final aspect of SDLP environment approach can perhaps be best summed up by Conal McDevitt in his O'Connal Street blog, that being the hope that the SDLP Minister will be able to introduce Climate and Marine Acts, coupled with the understanding that the environment knows no border. Much can and should be do on an all island basis to deepen cooperation.

So we should, judging by these comments, be expecting more cross boarder co-operation on environmental and bio diversity issues, something hoped for by many campaigners. Though it would of course be the long term hope (and one stressed by audience and participants at the Environmental Link hustings in April) that environmental issues, particularly those relating to bio diversity and climate change take on not just an all Ireland or even UK/ROI, but an all European and world wide scope. For while talking environmental issues on a localised basis might go down well at election time, some of the most pressing environmental issues require global thinking and international cooperation. Is Mr Attwood prepared to branch out and make the Northern Irish voice heard, beyond Stormont? Not easy given the limits of a legislative assembly, but in his role as Social Development minister he at least showed elements of thinking outside the little white box on the hill. Lets just hope he brings that attitude to the green room.

You can follow Alex Attwood on BBC Democracy Live 
Alternatively, you can catch up with all the trandy palitics and all the going on down at club SDLP by following parody Twitter @AlexAttwood (Nat). I recommend that you do.

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