Environment is at the forefront of my thinking, says Mark H. Durkan

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I read with interest the article in last Friday’s ‘Journal’ in which a community activist quite correctly, in my view, outlined the importance of our environment and asserted that candidates’ environmental policies should be taken into consideration when people vote in March.

The SDLP has strong credentials when it comes to the protection and promotion of the tremendous asset that is our environment.

Having had the honour of spending time as environment minister, I got the opportunity to ‘walk the walk’ not just ‘talk the talk’.

During my time as minister I demonstrated a clear desire to move towards a zero-waste society. I published a strategic waste management plan, ‘The Road to Zero Waste’ and supported many initiatives to this end - including quite a few based locally. It was my predecessor and party colleague Alex Attwood who halted the illegal dumping at Mobuoy. I continued where he left off, instigating legal action against those responsible for the biggest illegal dump ever discovered on these islands and commissioning a plan to clean up their mess. Sadly,the executive would not give me the financial support I required at that time for a full public inquiry into this scandal. Some of my decisions as minister were controversial and a few ended up in court - my refusal to allow fracking, my reluctance to accept incineration as a necessity in waste management - but they were all considered and were widely well received. I attended COP21 in Paris and had input into an historic global agreement between over 190 countries that will lead to reduced emissions so people can breathe cleaner air.

We have a moral duty to leave this planet in a better condition than we found it. We owe that to our children and grandchildren and our future generations. That is why education is so important. One of my proudest achievements was to manage to get every school in the North involved in the Eco-Schools programme. We are the only place in the world to have achieved this feat. I still enjoy visiting schools and hearing of the great work being done to teach our children about the importance of their environment and hearing from the children how they are going home and educating their parents on it!

Another resoundingly successful SDLP policy was the introduction of a carrier bag levy. Not only has this led to a massive reduction in the number of bags we see littering our streets and stuck in our hedgerows but it has also generated income that I was able to plough back into environmental projects including ,through the Challenge Fund, community initiatives in Hazelbank, Strathfoyle, Creggan, Rosemount and many other locations in Derry and beyond.

My interest in the environment didn’t stop when I left the ministry and the SDLP became a formal opposition. We have challenged the new minister and will challenge any future minister to ensure that environmental issues are not relegated in terms of importance in the new Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs.