Brendan Mulgrew: Why such a lack of energy on policy development?
NORTHERN Ireland is currently operating in a policy vacuum when it comes to energy, the last Strategic Energy Framework having covered the period 2010-2020.
The much anticipated and awaited new energy strategy was expected to be published before now, and certainly before the Cop26 Glasgow summit. The energy sector and the wider business community was impressed with the pace of policy development led by committed and, pardon the pun, energetic civil servants.
But it seems that, as happens far too often here, when the new policy went to the Executive, the old Sinn Fein/DUP gridlock kicked in, and the publication of the new strategy has been stymied inside the Executive Office. There were detailed plans in place, along with a date, for a public launch in late October, but that date has long since come and gone and we still await the publication of the strategy which now rests with the Executive as a whole.
You might think that a few weeks' delay is not important; you would probably even be right in saying so. But one can’t help the feeling of ‘here we go again’ when it comes to significant policy development and implementation.
The energy strategy will be just that - a strategy - it will set high-level targets and map out an overall direction of travel; but it will not be a policy paper agreed by all ministers, that comes next. How long will that take? When you consider there will be an election in the interim and therefore another spin on the D’Hondt merry go round, well, it doesn’t fill you with confidence.
And yet on foot of Cop26, with Northern Ireland the only region of these shared islands without climate change legislation or as yet agreed targets for carbon emissions, the requirement for a strategic policy framework on energy could not be clearer.
The suspicion among the business community is that the political parties do not want to be associated with energy issues when the most common public one is increasing prices. Some expect the strategy to be unveiled within the next few weeks, or before Christmas, or failing that, after the Assembly election.
While getting new policy over the line and into the public domain is clearly an issue with the energy strategy policy, some progress is being made in other areas with the Executive.
Nichola Mallon fought a good fight to secure agreement on the establishment of an Infrastructure Commission as part of the Covid Recovery Strategy. It is a step which the business community and the environmental sectors are fully behind, indeed the political logic seems fairly unshakeable.
And yet it took months to get to the point where the Executive Office (formerly known as OFMDFM, ie Michelle and Paul) would agree to the establishment of the commission. No party was opposed; it wasn’t costing any money; there was no counter narrative saying there was a better way to tackle infrastructure issues - it just took ages. It seems to be the way we do things here.
Take another example - the High Street Taskforce was established by the Executive in August 2020 to much fanfare. After all, the impact of Covid aligned to the pressures of modern day shopping habits is presenting a massive issue for our town and city centres. Similar taskforces were already in place in Scotland, Wales and England. But it took six months after the press launch for our own taskforce to be established and have its first meeting. Six months!
The High Street Taskforce has only now, in October 2021, launched a call for evidence from high street stakeholders, a full 14 months after the ‘launch’. That is not swift or decisive actions and it was not the business community which was lacking in an appetite to get sleeves rolled up and get on with the job. Is that the time frame of an ambitious and dynamic government?
Perhaps it is too easy to simply criticise the civil servants who are behind the logistical roll out of political priorities, and having worked among those same civil servants, it is not something I would do cheaply or quickly.
In my time as a special advisor (or Spad), and since then, I have met many dedicated, determined and innovative civil servants who were and are ambitious for Northern Ireland.
However, when there is a clear value which can be added by taking on external expertise, from those within industry and beyond who are prepared to give their time, that assistance should be welcomed, facilitated and acted upon.
The way we currently roll out new policies in Northern Ireland is not working. That is something we need to accept and then changed. It may be a by-product of the ugly scaffolding which underpins our version of power sharing, involving as it does five parties, each with its own set of priorities; it may be a civil service still grappling with a shift from direct rule to devolution.
But whatever it is, it has to change and change soon.
Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast