Governing the Green

Published in The House Magazine, in March 2006.

‘Governance’ is a rather fashionable word these days but it is less clear what people mean when they use it. The financial pages of the newspapers are laden with references to the importance of corporate governance. Googling ‘governance’ gives you access to 430 million web pages. The EU even has a White Paper on Governance which begins by explaining that ‘the term “governance” is a very versatile one.’!

However, their website does offer you a handy link to a lengthy bibliography published by the University of Helsinki. Unfortunately, it is in Finnish. Reference to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary finally produced a masterpiece of concise clarity. Governance,  it turns out is ‘the action or manner of governing.’

My reason for wishing to untangle this particular lexicographical knot is more than academic. I have recently been appointed to chair an independent Review of Environmental Governance in Northern Ireland (REGNI). One of the first tasks that I and my colleagues on the review panel face is to decide what exactly it is that we have been asked to review.

In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, the environment is managed by a wide, and sometimes confusing, array of public bodies with different and overlapping remits and powers. These have grown up over the years as a combination of events and changing public perceptions have required a response from government. The resultant pattern, as you might expect from such an ad hoc process, is one that no-one would have designed had they started with a blank piece of paper.

Furthermore, in the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland there has been no consistent political oversight of the way in which the arrangements for managing the environment were working. Inevitably, unsolved institutional problems have accumulated like overlooked cobwebs.

This matters increasingly in Northern Ireland as it moves beyond its past to more prosperous future. A high quality environment is an important attractor for inward investment by businesses. The natural and cultural heritage of Northern Ireland is one of its most important assets for developing a vibrant tourism industry.

By co-incidence these new opportunities began to open up at the same time as the government of Northern Ireland was coming under criticism for its slowness in implementing EU environmental legislation. This stimulated a widening public debate in the province and propelled a coalition of non-governmental organisations into an unusually sophisticated and mature initiative. Spotting that the problems in managing the environment in the province were structural rather than simply operational, they commissioned a distinguished environmental lawyer from Limavady, Richard MacRory, to write a report on the governance of the environment in Northern Ireland.

Instead of simply rehearsing the problems, the coalition were thus able to offer a  vision for the way forward.

Next, even more unusually, they went a step further and initiated wide-ranging public consultation on their report’s findings. This put them in a very powerful position to persuade Ministers and officials that it was time for a full blown review of how the environment was governed in Northern Ireland. It is a tribute to this thoughtful approach that the government was quick to follow their advice and appoint the panel I now chair.

So much for the origins of my lexicological conundrum. The challenge we face is to identify ways in which all of the disparate bodies currently doing their best to protect and improve all aspects of the environment in Northern Ireland can work together better. Our task is not so much to find new bricks as to see if we can retrofit the architecture so that the existing bodies are able to deliver better environmental value to the citizens of Northern Ireland.

There are few, if any, places in the world where environmental governance is yet done really well. In setting up a comprehensive review such as this, there is an opportunity to develop ideas and approaches that will be relevant well beyond the borders of Northern Ireland. The prize is to help turn the province from an environmental laggard in the UK into its environmental leader.

Information on the review can be found at

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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